At Juilliard, twice a year I sat down in front of a panel of my teachers to receive feedback on how I was performing (tissues were provided). My freshman year, I was young and stressed and had a knee injury. I so badly wanted my teachers to know how hard I had worked.
When it came time for Risa Steinberg, my Elements of Performing professor, to share her thoughts on my dancing, I could tell she could see right through me. She said, “I would like you to explore the darker side of your emotions.” I was so annoyed.
She was right. I didn’t know how to be angry, and I was mortified that she could see how uncomfortable I was with it in class. My ballet background taught me to be pleasing to audiences, to only show a presentational version of myself. Her words that day lit a fire in me, and for years I worked to apply her correction. That class, and her lessons on digging deeper, have ultimately been therapeutic for me. Now, as a professional with L.A. Dance Project, I’m prepared for the darker works.
Risa wanted us to understand how to communicate with the audience, no matter what we were performing. She would have us do things like break the fourth wall with our eyes and allow the audience to see us. She would give us cards with a different age and adjective written on each of them (for example: “14 and angry”) and have us dance a phrase as if we were that age and descriptor. She would show us examples of dancers who connect with audiences and discuss what we had seen, and why we liked to watch them. It wasn’t that she was teaching us to put a performance on like a mask—instead, she taught us that we all have emotions, we just need to feel them.
Risa and I became closer my third year in school when she taught my Limón Technique class. I had had knee surgery after my freshman year, and because she had dealt with her own injuries, she was really helpful. She told me to listen to my body and stop forcing myself to dance through the pain. “You only get one pair of knees,” she said. She told me to release my joints to plié and to track my knees, which was helpful for me to stop enduring excruciating pain when I landed from jumps.
Risa always says, “Dance is so hard, all I can do is give you the tools to make it a little bit easier”—and that’s exactly what she does. Her class has an open dialogue; she wants to know how things feel for us. She loves to use metaphors and analogies, and she shows everything with her own body. She is such a clear dancer with so much control, which was really helpful for understanding what she was looking for. She cares about the small details.
One of the most important lessons Risa taught me is to give 100 percent of what I feel I can dance on any given day. Every day is different—you can’t reasonably give 100 percent all the time. So, if I was only 60 percent there one day because of fatigue, or personal challenges, or an injury, she wanted me to give 100 percent of my 60 percent. I used that lesson in the fall of 2019 when I was in Paris with LADP, doing a quintuple bill (of the five pieces in the show, I was in every one of them). If I had gone full throttle I would never have made it. I remembered Risa’s words and decided to be smart and only give 100 percent of where I was at that day. I remembered her telling me to have clarity, to drop my weight, to listen to the music and to be calm.