“The Joy Is in the Work”: Ann Reinking’s Unsung Legacy as a Teacher
December 24, 2020

What’s left behind when a dance teacher dies?

Martha Graham famously said, “A dancer dies twice—once when they stop dancing, and this first death is more painful.” Graham left unsaid the fact that though the dancer dies, the dance teacher survives.

Ann Reinking’s performance career has rightfully been lauded and appraised since her sudden passing on December 12 at age 71. Largely left unsung has been another crucial aspect of her life’s work: her devotion to teaching.

Her legacy as a dance educator has received comparatively little recognition, perhaps because she trained many of us who became chorus dancers but not stars. Along with thousands of other non–bold-faced names, Reinking was my teacher.

If you were lucky enough to study with Reinking, what she taught went beyond technique: She showed you how to live more fully. “You’re special, but so is everybody else” was one truth Reinking was fond of saying, and also one that she took to heart. She was humble, often noting that “part of being a dancer is also being just a little bit insecure.”

Reinking had many maxims she repeated to students. Another was: “Be careful what you practice because that’s what you’ll get good at.” And practice, Reinking knew, makes dancers.

For the price of a dance class, you could learn from a legend. The truth is that a star like Reinking didn’t have to teach at all. The fact that she did tells you about her values and the responsibility she felt to pass on what she knew. It’s less true that “those who can’t do, teach” than it is that those who can teach, do.

In her classes at Steps on Broadway and at the summer program she founded in 1991, the Broadway Theatre Project (BTP), Reinking brought a level of care, a commitment to high standards and generous helpings of Broadway star power to the arduous process of becoming a dancer. Her oft-repeated mantra was “The joy is in the work.”

If her dancing raised the bar for dance in musicals, then in the studio Reinking’s attentiveness to the whole dancer did the same for her students. Her palpable pleasure in the work showed students why dance mattered and why they did, too. In a Facebook post, dancer, teacher and choreographer Felicity Stiverson remembered skipping her college class to attend Reinking’s class at Steps. Reinking asked for her headshot one day after class and soon cast her in a pre–City Center Encores! workshop for Chicago. “Her belief in me made my little 18-year-old dancer heart really believe in itself,” said Stiverson on Facebook.

While tributes from famous fans poured in after Reinking’s passing, so did many from the dancers who studied with Annie (as she invited you to call her). What comes through in these is her generosity and willingness to share her triumphs and her trials. I vividly recall these moments—especially when she spoke about how difficult it was for her to find work as a dancer. She told of leaving auditions in tears and sometimes spending upwards of a year unemployed even during the dance boom of the 1970s.

On social media, dancer, teacher and choreographer Carol Schuberg remembered taking Reinking’s classes at Steps in the 1990s, when sometimes only 10 or 15 students would show up. Reinking was still unstinting in her desire to nurture dancers and told those who showed up: “‘Always come back to rehearsal the next day with the choreography better, work on it once you get home after rehearsal, and bring it back better.'”

BTP apprentices (as students were called) learned from Reinking for three intensive weeks in the summer. Choreographer Chase Brock attended BTP as a teen and recalled in a Facebook post, “She was fiercely determined, she did not mince words with us, and she would not let us off the hook. In so many ways we were treated not as students but as professionals, and every one of us improved exponentially from working with her.”

Reinking was passionate in her joy and in her anger. I still fondly recall a withering, old-school dressing down that she delivered to us BTP apprentices. She cared so much about every detail that when students didn’t rise to the level she wanted you to reach, it almost seemed to be a kind of betrayal of the enormous trust she placed in you. She didn’t suffer fools gladly. But above all, she had fun.

In a Facebook post, dancer and teacher Peter King-Yuen recalls an audition for Reinking where she noticed on his resumé that his special skills included “Ann Reinking as Roxie Hart.” She promptly made him do his impersonation for her. He said, “I did the whole monologue. I did it and she couldn’t stop laughing. That raspy laugh that you’ll never forget.”

Reinking even used auditions as teaching opportunities. I attended an audition for a replacement spot in the national tour of Fosse where she called over a small group of us who hadn’t made the cut. She told us, “Any of you could do this show, but today we’re looking for someone who fits the costume of the person leaving the show. Keep coming back and maybe it will be your turn.”

Reinking often told us, “Your dreams will all come true, just not in the way you planned.” For many of us, our dream was being able to learn from Annie. It’s not Reinking’s famously long legs or her sinuous port de bras that will stay with me, but just how much of her soul she shared every time she stepped into the studio. Ann Reinking the dancer has gone too soon, but her teachings live on.

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