Dr. Lisa: My next guest is an individual that was introduced to the Maine Magazine group by one of our photographers, Erin Little, who we love, who really gives us beautiful photos for Maine Magazine and Old Port Magazine, and has done some wellness shoots with me, but our guest today is Elizabeth Drucker. She is the owner and director of The Ballet School in Topsham Maine She received her training from Nancy Bielski and at the School of American Ballet in New York City, and went on to dance professionally with the New York City Ballet. She has been teaching ballet in Maine and New York for 23 years, and works with all ages and abilities. When not in the studio, Elizabeth enjoys being outside raising chickens, running with her dogs, riding her bike, or gardening. She lives in Topsham with her husband, Dereck Treadwell. Thanks so much for coming in.
Elizabeth: Thanks for having me.
Dr. Lisa: Erin could not have spoken more highly. Erin Little, our photographer.
Elizabeth: That’s nice.
Dr. Lisa: I believe that you said that her daughter’s also named Elizabeth and does some training with you at your school.
Elizabeth: She does.
Dr. Lisa: Why are you here? You are doing very interesting things in Topsham.
Elizabeth: We have our studio set in a converted barn in the back of our property. I think it’s a surprise sometimes to drive down this rural road and find that there are many, many students who are training there every day and training very seriously back in our little hole in the wood back there.
Dr. Lisa: How did you first become interested in ballet yourself?
Elizabeth: I started when I was nine. I think like many young kids, jus I started with tap dancing. Within about three weeks, I think I was doing tap jazz and ballet. Then, within a year, I’d really just focused in on ballet, fell in love with it. I think I was taking lessons every day at that point. My studio was right on the corner. It was easy to take that often but I really quickly fell in love with the work in the studio.
I kept dancing. I moved to Maine after that but then, went back to New York City to start training with the School of American Ballet when I was about 12 years old and full time when I was 15. I went on to dance with New York City Ballet when I was 17. Then, it didn’t take me long to realize that I really love the work in the studio more than I love to work on the stage. That’s what made me shift from a professional performance career to a teaching career.
I came back to Maine in 1993, started teaching then, and never stopped, but I would say the first few years when I came back to Maine, I was still finding my way. it was a big adjustment stopping training at such a high level to switch to teaching, but when I started with my own school, with the ballet school, it was like I had really found home for myself and finished teaching the first day, and just couldn’t wait to get back in the studio the next day, and do it again. I still have that feeling.
Dr. Lisa: Why ballet? You’re nine and ten years old. Is there something about that particular form of dance? It’s so specific.
Elizabeth: It is very specific, and I think it attracts a specific type of person. It surprises you sometimes to see how much physical strength it demands. I think it does attract a person who tends to be athletic and like to push their bodies in different ways, but I think it also really attracts a person who likes details and is excited by little progressions. For instance, Erin’s daughter, Elizabeth, she’s now at that age where she comes a couple of times a week and her class this year really just came together in terms of loving those little details. We can spend all this time in class focusing on the intense classicism of ballet.
That’s not for everybody but when you get a group that loves that, there’s just no stopping them, I feel. I think there’s also a tremendous love of music if you love ballet because it’s such a pivotal part but I’m surprised also how many students really do find something to love in it because you’re right, it is the very specific kind of training.
Dr. Lisa: It seems as though many parents are interested in having their children do ballet, but then, at some point, it has to really be about the child, him or herself.
Dr. Lisa: What is that? What is that pivot point? What do you see in kids who make the decision to move forward themselves?
Elizabeth: That’s a good question. I think that they start to feel how much success they have in the studio. By success, I mean that for them, finding achievement in those small changes because it’s a small progression. It’s not like you walk in one day, and then the next day, you’re doing triple pirouette, and you’ve got your split, and it’s such a small, slow progression, but they start that aha moment that I think I see in my students is when they’ve been working at something for a period of time.
It might be something small like holding their arm at a certain level, and then, they get it. They get it that day and you see this light go on behind their eyes, the smile. Even the shy students, their smile is repressed a little bit but they can’t keep it contained because they’ve worked on something and they’ve seen the achievement in it. That’s so rewarding. That’s what I try to find from my students, and that’s why I think the ballet is something that everybody can be successful on if you look at the standards of success being broad, being about little details, as well as big details.
Dr. Lisa: You described a point in your own career where you went from performance to studio, and do teaching. Explain to me the differences between someone who might go in one direction versus another direction.
Elizabeth: I think, one thing that I saw in my fellow performers that I didn’t see in myself is that we’d be backstage getting ready for our performance and they were brimming with excitement. They were like, “I can’t wait to get on stage tonight.” Yeah, I have to go to class tomorrow, the next day, and the rehearsals, but it’s just to get on stage. That was the reward for them and that was really enjoyable for them.
For me, that was the hardest part in the day for me; whereas, that time in the studio where there’s so much discovery, so many opportunities to try something new in the studio, and see how it worked. I think that you can get that way on stage for sure. I think that there are factors that stood in my way a little bit, and some of it was being healthy, being physically and mentally healthy to have the confidence to take those risks on stage that I felt I could in the classroom. I think there are dancers that are so successful performing really find a balance in their life that they can handle the stress of performing but that the love of being on stage really pushes them through or helps them.
I see that in both. In my students, I have some students who they get through their class work during the year so that they can be rewarded at the end of the year with a spring production. Then, there’s others who I think would be happy being in class every day and not ever having to step on stage. I think that’s one of the things that in a smaller school like mine, we’re trying to find that balance for all students because it is different for each of them.
Dr. Lisa: It seems to me, as a parent that we’ve evolved into a very performance-centric world and that it’s not just the spring performance of, say, a ballet. It’s also the daily on the stage of Instagram or social media. There’s always the sense that you have to have your game face on.
Elizabeth: You’re absolutely right.
Dr. Lisa: How do you step back from that and encourage this joy that you’re describing, and just your own small accomplishments?
Elizabeth: I think I’m very lucky and that the older students in this school, it trickles down their beliefs, and their philosophy, and their work ethics trickled down to the younger students, and I think the older students really understand that everything really happens in the classroom. It also happens outside the classroom, the work that they do at home, the time that they put into thinking about class. When you see that modeled for you every day, I think that …
Then, for the parents to also see that these older dancers are doing really well, they can see the product on stage every year, but they also see that these older dancers are gaining recognition elsewhere. They audition for summer programs throughout the country and are accepted. They see that the course of ballet, in particular, more so in ballet than some other forms of dance, really is a classroom-based activity.
I think that helps. I don’t know if that answered your question but I think it’s building that culture within the school that the value happens every single day. Then, we also get to see that and celebrate that in the performance. The performances are a celebration rather than a given that’s just going to happen. It seems to flow really nicely that way. I think we have a great parent base and student base that appreciates that. I don’t have too many questions about that.
Dr. Lisa: Part of my work over the years as a physician has been in teaching medical students, teaching residents. Part of that, I taught swimming lessons and I was a camp counselor. I think there’s something very different in the teaching. I think there’s a very intricate and specific skills involved in teaching that are different than the doing of it because especially in your field, you’re trying to help kids incorporate a new muscle memory and you’re trying to talk to them and show them something that they need to pull into their own bodies and create new neural pathways. All of you got about doing that.
Elizabeth: That’s something that, I think, sometimes keep me up at night thinking of how the best ways to do that because it’s so different for every student. I think this is what you’re describing. For some students, it’s really very, very hard to even find those muscles. Ballet is such a traditional art form. There’s set combinations that we do every day and variations within those exercises that are the building blocks for progression. Relying on those building blocks really does set up each student to make those leaps but I think that some students love ballet, but it’s hard for them physically. I think that just takes times.
There are students that I have now that four years ago, if you said they’d be doing what they’re doing now, I would have said “We’ll see,” and they surprise me constantly. It’s just being patient and sticking with it. I love to work individually. Unfortunately, we don’t have that much time to work with each student individually. We’re working group classes. Finding ways that everybody can profit from a combination like the ones that are really working on just pulling up their quad muscle and the ones that are working on a more refined details like arms, and music, and timing. If you can find combinations that address all of that all at once, you’re going to get gains from all of your students.
Dr. Lisa: It’s interesting to hear you say that because I think when I have taught myself over the years, what I notice is there’s so many different ways to approach learning something. You might have somebody who is more visual or somebody who is more auditory. If you’re in the medical field, somebody who is more kinesthetic. Sometimes, that means they actually have to go out and do stuff which maybe isn’t the best thing if they’re brand new, but it just is what it is. You have all these different learning styles. Sometimes, you’re not even entirely sure which path to take in.
Elizabeth: No, you’re totally right. One thing that I think we spend a lot of class time doing is teaching students how to figure out how they learn. We’ll teach a combination. Then, I’ll say, “Okay, give it a try.” Then, I’ll ask them, “How did that go that first time? Did anybody get it right that first time?” Very rarely does someone say, “Oh, yes, I got it perfectly right that first time.” We talked about that you have to find the skills to figure out how to do these combinations.
For some people, it’s stopping, and thinking, and drawing a mental picture out, but for many people, it’s actually just doing that one transition from one step to another eight times in a row. If they get that eight times in a row, and then it gets engrained in them. That’s one of the parts I love about it is helping students figure out how do they learn. How do they learn in this environment? Then, remembering to do that when I am not reminding them to do that. Again, that building that culture and trickling down, watching older students do that, younger students do that, but I love that aspect of it, but it’s challenging.
Dr. Lisa: It is. Then, I think, sometimes, as a teacher, actually even as a doctor, I think about it because part of that is also teaching, there is a sense that you want people to succeed. Sometimes, it doesn’t happen quickly. There is that state of tension and that state of like “Is there something I could be doing differently?” Sometimes, it’s not about what you’re offering as a teacher. It’s more about what their receptivity is or when things start to line up.
Dr. Lisa: I am interested in also the notion of body awareness because I think, again, another thing that has happened in our culture, my observation is that people are increasingly … It’s a dichotomy. Some people are so much more aware of their bodies that the physicality becomes their entire self. Then, other people are so disconnected from their bodies that they have no sense of awareness. As a doctor, I see both and I think there can be significant issues with those extremes. How does that impact your field?
Elizabeth: I think you’re right and especially, in this generation when there’s so many superficial ways of looking at our body, pictures, selfies, especially with our young, our preteens and our teens, that finding a way to appreciate how their bodies perform, looking at their bodies not just by their appearances but thinking of their bodies as enabling them to reach goals is really helpful.
We break things down a little bit in the studio. All the dancers come in, students come in, and they’re all wearing leotards and tights. You’re getting rid of the “How do I look today in terms of my clothes? What am I wearing?” We’re all sitting in this vulnerable position in class and getting comfortable with that. Getting, especially young women, comfortable with who they are in their bodies. Then, learning to take care of their bodies. Learning to appreciate what their preparations, how that makes them feel.
We talked a lot about long term gains. If a student has an audition on Saturday and they come in on Monday with a cold, maybe it’s more valuable to go home and, get their homework done, and go to bed early so that they’re feeling better at the end of the week. That sense of responsibility towards their bodies is what’s going to help in the long term. Fueling, and hydration, and all those things contribute to their performance physically but also mentally, their confidence level.
To me, that, and I think for my students that they would say the same thing that it gets them away from that culture of always having to look a certain way because it’s much more about feeling a certain way and having physical goals for themselves that they’re trying to meet. I think, you think of ballet sometimes as people obsessed with their bodies, and I don’t think they are. I think they are passionate about finding their skills in their bodies, finding their potential in their bodies, and that can actually be a really healthy outlet.
Dr. Lisa: I, really, am enjoying this conversation.
Elizabeth: Thank you.
Dr. Lisa: I know we could have lots of other things, directions we could go in. For people who would like to learn more about the work that you are doing in Topsham at the ballet school where you are the owner and director, where would you send them?
Elizabeth: Probably to our website which is just theballetschool.com and we have classes all year round, and classes for all ages. We have a wonderful adult group that probably 20 to 25 adult students who come in regularly and children who started at about five years old, started taking classes, and we go throughout the year.
Dr. Lisa: I encourage people to learn more about the work that you’re doing at The Ballet School in Topsham. We’ve been speaking with Elizabeth Drucker who, I think, I’m really enjoying the point of view you have on ballet and kids in their bodies. I appreciate your coming in today and I appreciate your working as a teacher …
Elizabeth: Thank you so much.
Dr. Lisa: … and having found that calling for yourself.
Elizabeth: Thank you. I appreciate you having me here. It’s been great to talk to you.