This interview has been lightly edited for style and clarity.
How did you get your start at Colburn?
Jenifer [Ringer], James [Fayette], and I all danced together at the New York City Ballet (NYCB). I retired from the NYCB in 1999, and I’ve been here since 2002 when I moved back to LA. They knew I was back here so when they started at Colburn they contacted me and asked if I would be willing to teach.
What has your experience at Colburn been like?
I love it. I teach the pre-professional Dance Academy group, which is a group of 17 people. When the classes are smaller, you really get to focus more on each individual. I’m actually doing a lot of private lessons now with the students, and it’s one of my favorite things to do.
Sometimes when you teach a larger class, you can only try to get them warmed up and on their leg and throw out some corrections here or there. But to really get specific changes in a dancer, you need more time with them individually. I find that incredibly valuable and I’m having a really great time with them. It’s just a really special environment. The dancers work hard, they love it, and they appreciate us.
And Jenifer and James are wonderful. They don’t buy into the dysfunction of the ballet world. They’re more human in being there for the kids and their struggles, and supporting them. We really care about them as people.
What do you think of the ballet world?
My particular story is that I was diagnosed with diabetes my third year in the NYCB. I danced for 16 years, and I went on to become a soloist after my diagnosis. It wasn’t easy for me, and I struggled with my health a lot. Some people will have injuries, which I certainly also did, some people have weight issues. We all struggle in different ways.
Throughout my career, I felt like I had to hide what I was going through. I struggled with trying to prove my responsibility and reliability while trying to understand all the intricacies of my illness. But I loved dancing so deeply that it was worth persevering through the ups and downs.
I didn’t plan on teaching once I left the stage. I had struggled so much with my own perfectionist tendencies and the pressure I put on myself to be the same dancer after my diagnosis as I was before that I needed a break from dance.
The ballet world is a magical experience. It’s creative and it transports you, but it is also very, very intense. We’re dealing with constantly being judged physically, so how that manifests depends on the person and their personality, childhood, and personal dynamics.
But the ballet world—I think it’s changing a little bit right now. Now students have nutritionists, and most schools will have a more of a well-rounded approach because they’ve had so many issues with anorexia and this whole #MeToo movement. I think things are going through a little bit of a change right now, so we’ll see.
How did you start teaching?
I retired in ’99, but I was always teaching while I was dancing. When I would come home to LA, my original ballet teacher would have me teach a class, or I would coach my friends in the company. I always knew that I really liked the teaching.
When I retired from the NYCB, one of my teachers at the ballet, who’s on the board of the Balanchine Trust, came to me and said, ‘You know, I think you’d be really good at staging the ballets, I think you should try it.’ I wanted out of the ballet world, so I thought, ‘I don’t think so.’ But she says, ‘Zippy, just try it.’ And so I did. So whenever a company or school around the world wants to perform a Balanchine ballet, they have to get permission from the Trust. And the Trust will send a person like me out to teach the steps and coach them in the manner that Balanchine originally intended.
My first time staging a Balanchine ballet was for a college. That’s when I had this epiphany where I realized that I could teach from a different place than from where I struggled. I just was so overwhelmed and it brought me back to my youth, when I fell in love with dance.
Wherever I teach, I try to remind students to enjoy being a student. I know they are under a tremendous amount of pressure, but I tell them, ‘When I think back on my career, my most pure of heart performances came as a student. Even though I can’t say that those were my strongest technical performances, they were certainly heartfelt.’
After it becomes a job, you lose some of that innocence. The moments on stage are amazing, but you’re always up against the aches and the pains and being tired, and you’re constantly pushing through.
What is some advice you’d give to students or younger dancers?
The dancers that I am always drawn to dance from their heart and are musical, and part of that is training your body like a musician trains with their instrument. My advice is always to get your body to a level where you have a security in your technique. That’s what you have to work so hard for, but once you find that security, dancing should really come from your heart, because that’s what we want to see.
I always tell my students this: you have to love the process. If you’re in this profession just for the moments of the performance, you’re not going to last very long because most of your life, you’re in the studio. The majority of the hours you spend are taking class or rehearsing all day. The performance is just three hours of the day.
It’s that discovery of feeling a muscle you’ve never felt before, or finally figuring out how to hold your arms or neck. You have to love that process and discovery in order to actually sustain it, otherwise it’s not a sustainable life.
And also what I said about the perfectionism. I saw a lot of dancers being really complacent and self-satisfied, and they just didn’t work that hard. So I think it’s about balancing the need for perfection that will push you and drive you to be better, with the acceptance that you are only where you’re at and you’re doing the best you can.