Risa Steinberg has been teaching for many decades. But she still finds it terrifying: “It’s an enormous responsibility, and I take it really seriously,” she says. “I don’t mind being terrified.”
To say that Steinberg takes teaching seriously almost feels like an understatement. For instance, prior to a recent class for the Limón Company, where Steinberg danced for 11 years and where she teaches frequently, she spent a long time planning, preparing and adjusting. “The class has to make sense to me,” she says. “I have to see it as a whole.”
The exacting standards Steinberg sets for herself, and for her students, has made her one of New York City’s most beloved educators, and an in-demand master teacher all over the world. A longtime Juilliard faculty member and Limón répétiteur, Steinberg’s career has followed a unique path: Rather than beginning as a performer and later transitioning to teaching, she has always done both on parallel paths, each feeding the other.
“The greatest teacher I’ve ever had—and I’ve had brilliant teachers—is teaching,” she says. “So if I needed to learn how to do something, I would just try to teach it. That’s been a real part of my growing as a performer and as a teacher.”
Steinberg has been learning from her own teaching since her days as a student at Juilliard, when she was asked to teach a class for her peers who needed assistance in their Graham technique. While dancing with the Limón Company and with choreographers like Anna Sokolow, Bill Cratty and Annabelle Gamson, Steinberg continued developing her pedagogy, becoming known for her challenging, illuminating Limón classes. In her work as a lauded solo artist, Steinberg has interpreted works spanning the history of modern dance, from Isadora Duncan to Mark Morris, and, most recently, she spent five years in the cast of the popular immersive production Sleep No More.
Decidedly not a choreographer herself—she tried it once, in 1972, and it was “horrible”—Steinberg’s careful eye and curious mind have also established her as a go-to mentor for some of contemporary dance’s most exciting dancemakers, like Kyle Abraham and Kate Weare. It is the same skill set that has made her indispensable to these artists that makes her such a perceptive educator.
“You have to be willing to see what’s out there and not what you want to see,” she says. “I have to see (and not judge) and accept, and then figure out what I want to do with that information.” Here, Steinberg, one of Dance Teacher’s 2022 Awardees of Distinction, speaks about the teachers who shaped her, why Limón technique stays relevant, and how she prepares students to dance for as long as she’s been able to.
Why do you think you connected so much with teaching?
One of my favorite things to do is unravel balls of yarn. I love unraveling knots—it’s just something I’m intrigued by. And I really enjoy knowing someone and unraveling them and being a part of that unraveling. And I think teaching is very much like that. I love looking at someone and figuring out how it’s going to make sense to that body.
How has your teaching style evolved over the years?
I’ve been teaching many decades now. And I keep thinking, “OK, change it up, do something different, be somebody else.” But I always seem to come back to the same tools that I just really believe in. I can adjust my language. But if the students are doing what I am looking for them to do—using their backs, finding weight, rooting into the floor, standing on two legs—I can find different ways of saying it, but those are the fundamental elements that are integral to be able to have freedom, confidence, strength, availability, musicality, rhythm.
What I find I have to be careful of is to not go in teaching what I taught, but to go in teaching whoever’s in front of me. Even if the language isn’t new, I’m as new as I can possibly be in the information. I often say to students that they’re too young to have habits. Even if they’re good habits, I want them not to be doing it habitually. I want them to do it because they’re present in the moment. And if that’s my standard for them, then my standard for me has to be the same. And that’s hard. Teaching is hard. Dancing is hard. I believe that as hard as dancing is, there are tools that just make things easier. Not easy, but easier.
What do you think Limón technique offers dancers today?
It’s a remarkably healthy way of learning how to go into the floor and come out safely with momentum, especially today when so many techniques in the contemporary world are floor-driven. There was a chunk of time when I questioned it. I thought, “Is this really relevant anymore?” And then all of a sudden, I realized, if they know how to do a plié by opening their joints, they know how to come out of the floor.
How did you get into mentoring choreographers? What does that work look like?
I love asking people questions. If I’m with a choreographer I’ll say to them, “What is it you want me to see? What is it that you’re trying to say?” Because I think one of the things that happens with choreographers is they see it in their brain. But it doesn’t necessarily get out onstage. One of the things I love to do is rehearse dancers. I love clearing things up, and figuring out where body parts go, where focus goes. It’s not cleaning. To me, it’s making things clear. There’s a real difference between “clean” and “clear.” People noticed that about me, and so they would bring me in to rehearse their companies, and then the conversation would evolve with the choreographer about “Maybe it’s not what the dancer’s doing. Maybe it’s the way it’s set up.” I love helping them figure out how to get what they want.
Who are the teachers who have shaped you as a teacher?
There are so many people, from my very first teachers, like Gertrude Shurr and David Wood. Gertrude was one of the original Graham dancers who helped Martha make the technique, and David Wood was one of her lead dancers, and he was my teacher at the High School of Performing Arts. They taught me the reward of hard work. Annabelle [Gamson] and Anna [Sokolow] were brilliant women, and both very scary. Anna would say, “I don’t believe you.” And when someone’s yelling at you saying that they don’t believe you, you want to be believed. You try to figure that out. Helen McGehee was my goddess when I was at Juilliard. I remember one time she said to me, “I want more, Risa.” And I said, “I can’t.” And she said, “Well, then I’m done with you.” And I realized that it wasn’t that I couldn’t. I couldn’t yet. That was a long time ago, but it feels like yesterday. It was one of my big life lessons—you don’t have to get it today, but you have to know you can. You can at least try.
Looking at your career thus far, what do you feel most proud of?
If I had anything to do with people feeling that they have longevity as a dancer. I’ll say often to students, “I’m not worried about you now, you’re 20. I want you to dance until you decide not to, not because your body gives out. You want to dance when you’re 30, 40, 50, 60, 70? I want you to be able to do that. You’re not going to be able to do it if you don’t track your knees, and you’re not working with your joints, and you’re gripping everything, and you’re not breathing.”
It’s a gift that somebody will walk into a studio and believe that I have something to share with them. I think that’s something to be proud of. I’m a very tough teacher. I demand a lot. If I think a person can achieve it, I’m going to ask for it. I’ll ask for what I think they can achieve in that moment, and then a little bit more.
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