Finding the Artist Within
September 1, 2008

“Teenagers have something to say,” insists New York City dance teacher Alice Teirstein, “and they can say it through dance.”
As the creator of the dance program at the progressive Ethical Culture Fieldston School in the Bronx and founding artistic director of the Young Dancemakers Company for inner-city youths, Teirstein has been helping teens from all walks of life express themselves for more than 30 years. She embraces the constant change and self-discovery that are central to this age group. “I want them to discover their own inner voice,” she explains, “to find personal expression through dance, to feel proud of their bodies at a time when their bodies are changing, and to be proud of their uniqueness at a time when they are more comfortable conforming to peer pressure.”


Teirstein’s own dance education began in her hometown of Baltimore when she was 8. By the time she was a teenager, she was teaching neighborhood children in her basement. Though she’d initially dreamed of becoming a ballerina, her studies in other dance forms at Adelphi College and Jacob’s Pillow in the 1940s prompted her to imagine a more expansive career.

While at Adelphi, Teirstein taught in the children’s program under the direction of children’s theater pioneer Grace Stanistreet, whom she considers one of her most important influences as an educator. She was hired to teach at Adelphi after graduation, and continued her own training by studying with Hanya Holm and Charles Weidman. Over the next two decades, she directed several dance companies, choreographed numerous works and taught at a variety of studios and schools in the NYC region, from East Harlem to Westchester.

Discovery and growth are central to Teirstein’s life and teaching. A firm believer in the importance of lifelong learning, especially for a teacher, she went back to school at age 40 to earn a master’s degree at Teachers College of Columbia University. Now in her 70s, she continues to take dance class on a regular basis. She also performs, most recently in collaboration with Stuart Hodes and Gus Solomons jr, and is currently creating a new work with William Catanzaro, a percussionist,composer and YDC’s music director.

“Whatever I am doing—performing onstage, taking class or attending dance concerts—I am translating information for my students and actively creating,” she says. “I sometimes feel like a vessel, taking in and pouring out.”

Fusing Mind, Body and Soul

Shortly after receiving her MA, Teirstein was hired by the high school division of The Ethical Culture Fieldston School for a part-time position beginning in 1976. Dance had just been moved out of physical education into the arts division, and with the support of Fieldston’s arts-oriented community, she steadily built up the program into a full dance curriculum. In addition, she created the Fieldston Dance Company, which performs and tours original choreography and repertory works by guest choreographers.

By her own description, Teirstein doesn’t teach choreography per se, but “splashes” her students with images and nurtures what comes out. She encourages them to distill the influences all around them and create from a personal viewpoint. “I demand originality. I will
not accept imitation,” she insists. “The mystery of art is starting with nothing and making something happen.”

Rather than an end in itself, technique is considered a tool to support the creative process. In fact, Teirstein often begins a class by having her students make a dance phrase on the spot, before they get down to technique. She believes that all students can benefit from “engagement in an artform that fuses mind, body and soul.”

Since her program is within a college preparatory school, her aim at Fieldston is to build arts lovers and advocates, not necessarily professional dancers. Even so, several students have gone on to dance teaching and performing careers, including Jessica Gaynor and Stefanie Nelson, both of whom direct their own companies.

A Company Is Born

In 1995, Teirstein’s friend, Arthur Richenthal, attended one of the Fieldston dance concerts. He was so impressed that afterward he asked, “What are you planning next, and how can I help?” Teirstein told him she would like to run a new program, something like what she was doing at Fieldston, but for inner-city youths. He immediately wrote her a check. This was the beginning of Young Dancemakers Company, a free five-week intensive summer
program for NYC public high school students to create and perform their own choreography. The program is now funded by additional foundations, and Gaynor, Teirstein’s former student, is assistant director.

To participate, students must first get a recommendation from their high school teachers and then submit to an audition process that includes performing a dance study of their own creation and an interview. Each year, Teirstein selects 16 members, some with years of dance training and some who are new to the artform. She looks for teens who would like to explore their expressive capabilities, show potential for artistic growth and indicate a certain seriousness of purpose and motivation.

She explains that students often begin to discover their creative potential during the audition itself. “It can be a powerful experience for teenagers when someone is interested in what they have to say through movement,” she notes. “And perhaps it’s also revealing to teens when they discover that they have something to say that’s worth listening to.”

Working in the studio, Teirstein and the dancers explore space, time and energy—“the toolbox exercises.” After four or five days, she asks them to
submit written proposals for the choreography they would like to create. They then devise improvisations for the group based on their ideas, and Teirstein videotapes the results. This enables the dancers to get “sparked” with movement ideas and to choose casts for their pieces, which Teirstein limits to a maximum of 12.

As the students work on their own choreography, they also learn technique and repertory from a guest artist. In 2007, Troy Powell from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater staged excerpts from Ailey’s Escapades; in 2008, Mary Lisa Burns of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company staged excerpts from Cunningham’s Field Dances.

Also during these first weeks, as part of the program’s Dance NY project, funded by the Kornfield Foundation, the dancers attend numerous concerts and company rehearsals, which afford them glimpses of what they will soon be doing. Four weeks into the program, they must be ready to perform both their own works and the repertory piece, with six or seven performances at various locations around the city and sometimes a tour to such places as Jacob’s Pillow or The Yard at Martha’s Vineyard.

Evelyn Chen, a member of YDC in the summer of 2007, gushed about her experiences. “All the performing was exhilarating,” she recalls. “People take class all the time, but when you are a teenager and are performing, it puts you on a whole different level. It made me feel like I was a cool dancer, and made me want to dance more. It’s that adrenaline rush!”

Teirstein’s favorite moments are “being there when her students discover themselves in the artform,” as Chen did. She believes it is vital to resist giving ready-made answers to teen dancers. There are no formulas; each student is different. Convinced there is an artist within everyone, she will continue to help teens unlock their creative potential, using dance as her key. DT

Elizabeth McPherson, PhD, is a freelance writer and an associate professor in dance education at Montclair State University in Montclair, NJ.

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