Diana Byer was put in dance classes when she was 3 years old after her pediatrician recommended that she exercise more. “I was chubby and he was worried I would grow up to be obese,” she says. It was a prescription that led her to her life’s calling.
From ages 8 to 17, Byer trained just twice a week in New Jersey with Francis Kiernen, and when she was 15 years old, she took classes on Saturdays as a charter member of the Princeton Regional Ballet (now American Repertory Ballet)—an impressively light schedule for someone who would eventually land a coveted spot at The Juilliard School. But Byer was special. “I went on to the extension division at Juilliard, which enabled me to study with Antony Tudor and Alfredo Corvino as my schedule allowed,” she says. In fact, it wasn’t long into her college career before professional opportunities like New York City Ballet’s touring company (under the direction of Eugene Tanner) came calling. “I also got other work right away, so I was able to have the best of both worlds—extraordinary training at Juilliard plus performance contracts.” Byer left school and embraced the momentum.
Years later, after returning from a stint with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, she and friends decided they wanted to create their own company—thus, New York Theater Ballet was born. “I said I would do the paperwork for the first three months while we got started,” Byer says. Forty-four years later and she is only just now stepping down from her position as artistic director. (She’ll still be continuing as artistic director of the NYTB School.) “It was nothing I ever planned, but I am proud of what I’ve done,” she says.
During her tenure, Byer created The LIFT Community Service program, which provides dance classes, performance opportunities and scholarships for the homeless and at-risk children of New York City. “We strive to make sure they have everything they need to succeed,” Byer says. “And they truly do break the cycle. In fact, one of my boys is currently dancing with New York City Ballet.” As an educator, Byer has sought to keep the legacy of her mentor, Margaret Crask, alive by teaching the Cecchetti syllabus. “It is gentle on the body, with no distortion,” she says. “We concentrate on dance as an artform rather than an athletic feat.”
Here, she shares her favorite teaching attire, how she prepares for class after 50 years in the game, and the food that keeps her going on 14-hour workdays.
Her go-to teaching attire: “I wear street clothes and Bloch teaching shoes. I don’t demonstrate because I am old and I don’t want the children to copy me. That is why I have an assistant who is a very good technician.”
Her class prep-work: “I have been teaching for 50 years. I think about the class before I step in the room, but I also use my eyes to see what the children need that day.”
Her secret to maintaining energy: “I am 75, and my days are usually about 13 to 14 hours long. I nibble all day on protein (red meat, fish and chicken), fruits and veggies. I eat healthy—no fast food or anything like that.”
Her favorite breakfast: “I like to have a large, high-protein breakfast including chicken, fish, vegetables, eggs, soba noodles and salad. Sometimes, I’ll also make myself eggs with melted yogurt cheese, green tea, and blueberries on the side.”
Her life beyond dance: “I really don’t have any nondance hobbies. This is my life. That said, I like to read and go to the theater, and I have friends who are not dancers that I have lively conversations with.”
Recommended reading: “I love Robert Gottlieb’s books—I think he is a fantastic writer. I also love Lauren Redniss and often give her books as gifts.”
Items she never leaves home without: “My laptop and an extra pair of glasses”
Her guilty pleasure: “Cake and ice cream! I love it when someone has a birthday and there is cake.”