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Shining Star of Texas

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Lauren Anderson lights up classrooms at Houston Ballet and beyond

By Nancy Wozny

For Lauren Anderson, the transition from star of the stage to star of the studio was a well-planned journey. The Houston Ballet principal dancer took her final bow, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, during a performance of The Nutcracker in December 2006, amidst a tremendous fanfare. The following December, at the company’s annual jubilee, she was honored for her 23-year career with a showing of highlights from her performances.

Lauren Anderson takes a hands-on approach to teaching students from Sparks Elementary School through Chance to Dance last spring. (Photo by Bruce Bennett)

Anderson thought long and hard about retiring, but having a second love in the dance world—teaching—made the decision easier than it might have been. “I realized that the studio was where I want to be now,” she says. But unlike many performers who contemplate teaching as a post-dancing career, she entered the field as an experienced instructor.

At 41, the newly retired ballerina already had 20 years of teaching under her belt. She taught her first class, at the Houston Ballet Summer Academy, shortly after becoming a soloist at age 21. Ben Stevenson, then the company’s artistic director, believes there’s a connection between dancing and teaching; he suggested that it was time for her to give teaching a try.

“I told Ben that I didn’t know how to teach; then he quickly reminded me of how many classes I have taken,” Anderson says, adding that Stevenson told her that she knew more than she thought she did. “Ben told me to teach what I know; of course, I had the benefit of having amazing teachers myself,” she recalls. “Ben develops teachers and choreographers. Who would be better than your dancers to teach your style of dance? I loved it right away, especially teaching combinations.” She has taught in the HB Summer Academy on and off ever since and believes it makes sense for new teachers to start with students who already have a solid foundation. For her, that was the perfect entry into teaching.

The segue into a new career was also eased because the former dancer did not have to leave the place that had been her dance home for more than two decades. “Stanton [Welch] seemed to notice that I have a particular knack for getting through to kids,” says Anderson, who has a child of her own. (She and her husband, jazz saxophonist Kyle Turner, have a young son, Lawrence Bell Fitzgerald Turner.) In early 2007 Welch, who succeeded Stevenson as artistic director of Houston Ballet, created the position of outreach associate for Anderson. The job entails many different kinds of teaching, from working with pre-professionals at performing-arts middle and high schools to interacting with students who have never seen a ballet.

Well aware of Anderson’s ability to communicate, Welch had the satisfaction of seeing his hunch about her knack for teaching confirmed when he saw her connect with children in an outreach program during a company tour to St. Louis. “Lauren can talk to anybody about ballet,” says Welch. “She makes it accessible, and she’s a natural communicator.”

Anderson has spent her entire career at Houston Ballet. She started training with Gilbert Rome at Houston Ballet Academy when she was 7, and she rose through the school and then through the ranks of the company (she joined in 1983, at age 18) at lightning speed. But it wasn’t easy—she was not blessed with a typical dancer’s body. She had to work extra hard, using Pilates to reshape her body, lengthening her muscles and improving her line. “I learned to work out of my thighs instead of into the thighs,” she says.

Even Stevenson, the man who would become her mentor, had told her to consider a career in musical theater. “Why? It’s ballet I love,” asked Anderson at the time. “I knew immediately even then that there was something different about ballet. It was intoxicating,” she says.

When she was promoted to principal dancer in 1990, Anderson established herself in dance history as one of the first African American ballerinas in a major ballet company. She says she is humbled by the pioneers who came before her and made her career possible, and she acknowledges the late Katherine Dunham, a modern-dance choreographer, and Virginia Johnson, who danced with Dance Theatre of Harlem, as key people who paved the way for her.

The dynamic ballerina was also known for the chemistry she created with her partners, who included Sean Kelly, Carlos Acosta, and Dominic Walsh. She performed with Acosta at galas all over the world, and their onstage magnetism was applauded throughout the international ballet world.

Audiences and critics alike considered Anderson a consummate performer, and that might be why she fits so well in the ballet classroom. She considers teaching to be a performing job—in her mind the two are strongly linked; it’s just the audience that has changed. Now, instead of fans looking up to her, she has a swarm of schoolchildren, young dancers, and academy hopefuls.

When Anderson came aboard the outreach program she worked closely with Katherine Lummis, the education outreach coordinator, in revising existing programs and developing new ones based on feedback from teachers and students. “We realized we did not have enough activity for high schools; Lauren has been instrumental in getting the master class program in high schools, and it’s been tremendously successful,” says Lummis. “She’s been very involved in reshaping all of our programs, and I am grateful for her perspective and input. I don’t have a dance background, so I rely on her for what’s actually taught. She is also an incredible ‘people person’ and can tell immediately what’s working or not.”

Houston Ballet’s master class program brings ballet to elementary school children and students in performing arts programs. Anderson is a popular teacher, making four trips to a school over the course of one month to teach class and keep the learning experience going. She begins by showing a DVD, called Here I Am, of her dancing career, which includes scenes from The Firebird, Cleopatra, and The Sleeping Beauty. The children, many of whom have never seen a ballet or taken a ballet class, immediately get the idea that a famous ballerina who has danced all over the world is standing right in front of them. “She tells fabulous stories, and by the end of the class they really look up to her,” says Lummis. “She’s very funny too.”

‘The [students] gravitate to me. They are even hungrier when I am done with them. I want them to feel like everything is possible, because it is.’ —Lauren Anderson

Anderson also teaches in Chance to Dance, a program that brings inner-city first- and second-graders to Houston Ballet studios for a week of free classes. Transportation and dancewear are provided for those in need. “I want them to experience the wonder of an accomplishment in theater and dance,” says Anderson.

Interested in creating a new audience for dance, Anderson feels that her classes and video presentation provide these children with an important first step. “Sometimes the kids don’t know anything about ballet,” she says. “Their parents may be thinking more about the electric bill than going to the theater.” This teacher’s ability to light a spark in these children, who may be getting their first or only taste of ballet, is undeniable. “The music often triggers something; ballet taps into all their senses,” says the former dancer. She welcomes their curiosity, which often is about basic things like how pointe shoes “work.”

The scope of Anderson’s teaching includes a good deal of public speaking—which she considers to be a form of teaching. She prepares classes that will be attending the student matinee programs and emcees intermission talks. In the Studio Series program (formerly called Studio A), students attend an interactive studio performance by Houston Ballet II. The program’s goal is to get students jazzed about the art form of dance; 3,000 schoolchildren have participated since the program’s inception roughly 20 years ago. Anderson opens and closes the show with her spirited comments. As a frequent guest speaker during her performing years at the pre-show dance talks, she got a head start on becoming comfortable in front of a crowd.

In working with pre-professional students, Anderson gets to stretch a different part of her dance wings. She enjoys this threshold age, when the 14- to 18-year-olds are getting a good glimpse of life in the professional world. “To teach, I have to get through the hard candy shell that kids have,” she says. “No fuss, no mess, no worry. Just ‘Ballet class is about you, not me or what I did.’ That’s what I tell them.

“At this age, they are deciding they really want to dance, and they don’t know everything yet,” she continues. “They gravitate to me. They are even hungrier when I am done with them. I want them to feel like everything is possible, because it is. And they can do it on the music and beautifully. When they get a bit older they seem to think they know everything.”

Anderson has noticed that the technical level of serious young dancers is on the upswing; children are getting better training at a younger age. “Competition is getting stiffer,” she says. “I tell them there isn’t time to mess around. If you don’t love it, go to college.” She is full of career advice for young dancers and she likes to deliver it during class. “Class is the perfect place to get that information out. My whole class is career advice. I tell my students that there will always be someone blonder, blacker, taller, shorter, with better feet, better legs, who is better looking and younger, who will come along and take away the spot they want. So don’t save it, give it—now.”

Anderson delights in the sheer diversity of what’s on her teaching plate these days. When her schedule permits, she guest teaches at such schools as The Link in Detroit, Texas Ballet Theater in Fort Worth, and Houston-area studios, including City Dance and In-Step Dance & Performing Arts Center.

In-Step, a well-known competition studio, offers Anderson a different kind of challenge, which she enjoys: working with students who have a strong lyrical and jazz base but less exposure to ballet. “I am giving them a good ballet base,” she says. “They are like sponges.” She also serves on the board of the school’s pre-professional company.

Dana Loving-Sparks, In-Step’s owner and director, feels fortunate to have Anderson on her guest teaching team. “She is amazing because she connects with anyone and everyone, no matter what,” she says. “She lights up every room she enters with her personality and attitude. She is straightforward with our dancers—she will tell them exactly how it is. That is why the kids love and respect her.”

Anderson has spent 36 years—and counting—at Houston Ballet. “Really, I just moved across the hall—I still have only had one job,” she says. She finds that her teaching schedule makes being a mom easier than when she was performing; nowadays she can get her son ready for school in the morning and spend more time with him after school. But she is a firm believer that dancers should start teaching while they’re still performing. “When you teach, you reinforce what you still need to know,” she says. “By the time you retire, you finally get it.”

Once a performer, always a performer, though, and this retired ballerina admits that she adores being in front of an audience. “I use my stage experience in the classroom. I can’t help but use the bravado from my stage life in the studio,” she says. “What made me who I am on the stage is what makes me who I am in the studio. I knew how to get my point across onstage and it’s not that different in the studio. That’s just my personality.”

But does she miss performing? “What do you mean? I perform every day in class,” she laughs.  “I do miss the live orchestra though.”

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