"Many others may have jumped higher or turned faster, but these are poor substitutes for passion." Alexandra Danilova
As a ballet dancer, my life teems with strong, inspiring women. Both in day to day practice and in spirit, the power of women to lead, express, and shape reality girded my childhood dreams and fueled my goals for adult life in dance and beyond. Ms. Larkin, Ms. Hope, Ms. Mackie, M.M. Holt, Ms. Chouteau... These women are in my cloud of witnesses as I mother, dance, serve as a chief operating officer or as a Lutheran ordained minister, and write.
With the release of Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In and her call to build up women leaders, I read with interest her recommendations, carrying the memory of all the strong women in my life with me. Her initial TED Talk from 2010 first drew me in with her call to "sit at the table, make your partner a real partner, and not to leave before you leave." As she expands on these initial thoughts in the book, I kept waiting for the word that made all the women dancers in my life so strong: style.
Most dancers know "style" by the word elan. Style or elan embodies the powerful quality or enthusiasm of character that commands attention. Despite our youthful longing to kick our legs over our heads, turn triples, and leap around the room, my teachers stressed that true dance happens in the style of your movement. The clarity of a posse, your choice of port de bras, and ultimately your command of the most straightforward of movements: running, walking, and standing. Moscelyne Larkin, world renowned Ballet Russe ballerina, co-founder of the Tulsa Ballet Theater, and my childhood teacher, intoned countless times that you have become a true dancer when people will pay to watch you run, walk, or stand. If you have witnessed Rudolf Nuryev or Judith Jamison stand on stage, you know why we call them dancers: Style.
To lead, mere leaning in is not enough. How do we "lean in" with style? At first glance, answering this question may involve the word "mentor," a word Sandberg dissects quite well in chapter five. A trusted mentor might coach us in personal style, but I am drawn to reclaim the word "apprentice," which opens a space for us to learn style without relationship. As an apprentice with a dance company I watched and analyzed every dancer in the company, trying on different styles of movement, adopting and adapting as I went. Some of my apprenticeships are with people I have not nor will ever meet. For example, listen as American ballerina, Maria Tallchief, speaks of elan as she describes the integral use of the port de bras, the character of your torso and arms. As we watch her dance the iconic role of the Firebird, she pulls us in and demands our attention; we are stilled and focused by her style. I have studied her arms and hands my whole life, a fruitful apprenticeship, quite distinct from a mentoring relationship.
Or watch as Roman Jasinski and Moscelyne Larkin teach dancers the iconic and nearly lost pas de deux from "Le Beau Danube." The young dancers in the room sport supple muscles, great flexibility, and brute strength, but none can match the style of Jasinski and Larkin. Although Ms. Larkin as my daily ballet teacher might fall more closely into the category of mentor, I was her apprentice. I devoured her movements, her style, her mannerisms, and as I matured I grew to critique them, discarding some and making others my own. Style emerged.
For many Ballet Russe dancers, the style and legacy of Alexandra Danilova lives large. Her spirit of tenacity fueled many, like my teachers, to "lean in" to bring dance to the American frontier. Her inspiring role reminds us that as we "lean in" we do so on the shoulders of those who have apprenticed us to lead.
As Ms. Larkin shares with young dancers learning "Le Beau Danube:"
"Memories get bigger and bigger. You have ghosts to live up to... You've got a lot of ghosts, a lot of memories behind you."
We may feel encouraged by the memories of those who have gone before us, but knowing Ms. Larkin she would be quick to remind that these ghosts care little for your feelings. They have expectations of greatness. They call to us to carry on a legacy of leadership defined by leaning in with style.
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