There are many dance teachers who have made me who I am today, but the main influence in my dance training is Risa Kaplowitz. She became my teacher in 2006, three years into my time dancing at Princeton Dance & Theater Studio with Susan Jaffe. For the next seven years, Risa took over my training and shared her love for ballet with me.
Risa is a very warm person. She will tell you if you did something incorrectly, but she will never come down on you. She simply guides you through the process of improving. For example, growing up I had trouble finding the separation between my torso and my legs. If my legs moved, my torso moved, and vice versa. Risa said to me, “Jillian, we are going to figure this out together,” and then explained that I needed to think of my torso as the church and my legs as the state. They are separate, but they need to work together. Slowly, visualizing that image began to help me improve. I didn’t consistently get it right, but whenever I did fix the correction, Risa would point it out and tell me to remember that feeling. She wouldn’t let me move forward incorrectly.
Beyond corrections, Risa also encouraged me to explore both my strengths and weaknesses. She put me in works that I would have thought were beyond what I was capable of, like dancing the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy, for example. She always had faith in me, and that was a tremendous boost to my confidence, especially as a 16-year-old.
After finishing my time training with Risa, I moved to New York City, where I experienced some bad luck early on. I broke my foot shortly after getting there, and once I recovered, I found it difficult to secure a dance job. Being 6′ 2″, I was often told that I was a good dancer but that I was too tall. Feeling very dejected, I took some time away from dance and began working in customer service for a coffee company. Risa found out and asked me to come back to Princeton Dance & Theater Studio to dance in a ballet she was creating at the school. I told her I couldn’t make it happen because I was working a desk job and didn’t have the time to take class to prepare. She wouldn’t take no for an answer. She said, “Jillian, you want to be a dancer, and you are not happy where you are. Let this be a reminder of what you can do if you keep on pushing.” That nudge was just what I needed to put in my two weeks’ notice and start dancing again. The preparation for the performance got me back in shape, and eventually led to me auditioning for Complexions Contemporary Ballet.
I’ve brought so many of the lessons Risa has taught me into my professional career. During all the rough periods that come with dancing in endless shows, I hear Risa’s voice in my head, reminding me why I love this and that I want to be a dancer. It gives me the push I need to keep going. Whenever I’m thrown into a piece at the last minute and feel tempted to worry about my capacity, I remember that Risa had complete faith in me, and so there’s a reason that I’m here, and I can do it.
Saying thank you doesn’t even begin to cover my gratitude for what Risa has done, not only for me but for many generations of dancers. Even those who haven’t chosen to dance professionally can feel the impact Risa has had on their lives. She knows it of course, but it’s nice to hear from time to time. Risa, you are so well loved and appreciated.