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Audrey De Vos, 1900-1983

By Dina Shmueli

(The dancer Dina Shmueli, one of the most revolutionary dance teachers in Israel, began her teaching career in Flora Kushman’s company, Jerusalem (the Jerusalem Dance Workshop, later known as The Jerusalem Ensemble), at the end of the seventies. During that time Shmueli began teaching at the Bat-Sheva Company House and The Kibutzim College, where she still gives many advanced classes.

In the course of these classes, she presents fascinating comparisons between different approaches, styles and methods of teaching within the field of ballet. Shmueli acquired the basis for her method in London, when she studied with Audry De Vos.

De Vos was already working then in a method that was considered opposing that of the dance establishment, which did not recognize the method or its innovations. For a short period she danced with the Saddlers Waltz Company, but she soon found herself a professional teacher, and thus supported her family. During the Second World War she worked outside of the art world, as an ambulance driver.

Her Israeli students were few: Domi Reiter Sofer, Amira Maroz, Dalia Altman (who works today in the Alexander method), and Dina Shmueli, whose article is brought bellow -- the editor.)

Audrey De Vos (1900-1983), born in England, opened her ballet studio in the 1930’s in Linden Gardens, London, where she taught for next 40 years. In her work, De Vos developed a unique approach to the instruction of ballet, an approach revolutionary for its time. Ballet, in those days, was still very much worshiped, and was to be performed only by dancers possessing the specific body anatomy and ability to execute with perfection and unity what the Great Ballets demanded.

On the opposite side of the dance scene at the time, Modern Dance began to develop, rejecting the use of ballet practices. De Vos saw the individual as a unique creation with its own personal beauty, who should not attempt to resemble someone else. She constructed her teaching method accordingly. No one body-structure is identical to another; therefore, in the practice of ballet, each individual should be supported and strengthened through instructions that are suited to his or her body-structure and cognitive perception. This method expresses a pluralist approach in which there is room for many forms of physical expression within the world of ballet.

The British ballet establishment of the time saw the needs of existing ballet companies, and chose dancers with the “right” body structure to fit the company’s needs. As a result, it was necessary only to teach all future dancers a technique that would educated their bodies to the same lines and physical expression. Those who didn’t fit in physically, had no place in ballet schools and found themselves unable to advance, even if they had great talent.

In contrast to the approach in the establishment, De Vos’ starting point in teaching was that the specific traits and characteristics of a student’s body are the foundation for the personal development of a dancer. Physical limitations are not a compromise he or she makes because of inability to perform the technique perfectly, but a basis for personal development with in the framework of technique. Audrey De Vos’ pluralistic approach was revolutionary and met with much misunderstanding and strong opposition from the British ballet establishment, yet attracted dancers and ballet students from around the world.

She received students from the British Islands, central and northern Europe, the United States, Canada and Israel as well. Her Israeli students that were studying with her for several years, and I can name are Amira Maroz and Domi Reiter Sofer. I studied with De Vos between 1967 and 1970. De Vos abhorred publicity and the press and never gave an interview or contributed to her fame. Only her students, appreciative of what they received from her, told of her when they returned to their own countries.

As a result she was invited to teach courses in the United States, Canada, Denmark, and more. Among her students there are many famous dancers, as well as teachers who teach today, such as Maggie Black in New York who, in her teaching, uses much of De Vos’ approach. This approach is most popular today in the U.S because it is adjusted towards dancers who perform a wide repertoire of both classical and modern pieces, and even for those interested in dance as recreation rather than profession.

De Vos’ was known as a teacher who developed dancers with unique qualities. Some of them were the establishment’s “rejects,” rejected because they did not fit the physical standards. As a result of her ability to see in the individual’s body and spirit a unique potential, she could teach anyone how to handle his or her limitations and be able to achieve a high level of ability. In her perspective, the more freely a person can move, the better he or she can dance. With correct personal instruction, anyone can dance ballet.

The stylistic demands of ballet should be fulfilled only at the level of the dancer’s ability. Ballet is not a shrine on which to bring sacrifices, or tremble away from it, but a tool that should be used to help fulfill the personal potential of the dancing person, in the technical and artistic sense. Performing the same ballet movements by different body structures will bring different results in appearance, lines and artistic expression.

From a perception that allows for difference between dancing people and dancer-artists who bring themselves and their art to the stage, De Vos reached the awareness that a change in the general teaching approach must come about. She believed in developing the personal talent within each dancer on both the physical and mental aspect. Her interest was not in bringing her students to adjust to her idea, but rather to adjust her ideas to the benefit and advancement of the dancer and to solving her or his own difficulties. Although she believed in the importance of technical ability, she did not see it as the only thing of importance. She saw the body as an orchestra with different tonal systems that should be used always expressively.

Although in all the years I studied with De Vos I used to write down the interesting notes she gave the students, and especially me, I was too young to thoroughly understand all of her ideas and corrections. But my personal impression, which I shared with other students, was immense. De Vos was different from all the teachers who taught in London at the time and from most teachers in other places too. I can bring a few examples, hoping they would help to reveal something of her uniqueness:

1 – The class was two hours long and the bar exercises where performed twice. Once to examine what was learned and how it was put into practice, and after corrections were given, a second time in order to try to improve and apply the corrections.

2 – In the ‘Grand Plie’, each position had a different exercise. That is, each position of the legs received a different emphasize according to the needs of the movement that will come out of this position, and the advantages which the exercise will provide to this position.

3 – Systematically, De Vos would give personal corrections and comments that were not meant for everyone, but rather referred to each student’s immediate problem, according to the performance at the present time and the personal physical needs. Since each of us came from a different background, a different teaching method, different culture and different professional level (there were students like me, there were professional dancers that came to practice during the company’s vacation, and soloists using time off between roles to get some support and adjustments), general corrections were almost never heard. The general comments where of ideas and principles, rather than instructions on how to do something, so that each one could apply the general ideas according to the specific instructions given to him or her.

4 – During exercises in the middle, the division was to two groups, the “tall” and the “short.” Each category was given general comments that were for everyone in the group. For example: the group of tall people should think about expanding the body, using the spatial sense width. The group of short people was to emphasis the length of their bodies and tries to break through it upward and downward. Since my body structure was average, I was not especially tall or short, heavy or light, I could practice with either group.

I used this to my advantage, able to experience and explore each comment or insight. Today, as a teacher with a lot of experience in teaching children and adults in different levels of ability and development, I understand my experiences from the past much better. Those with long bodies (at any age) face the difficulty of having a high center of weight on a narrow supporting surface. This makes balancing harder. Using the available weight to the maximum, or even using imagination to expend it (as taught by the Alexander method), allows for greater stability and resolves the problem. Shorter dancers tend to feel close to the ground and many times do not use their full potential in forming long and full body-lines.

5 – In her instructions, De Vos never asked to perform an improvement of some kind, but mainly to think about the action in some way and allow the new thought to lead the movement, letting the change take place. Today I know that the Alexander practice uses such terms, neutralizing the person’s natural inclination to “do”, using needless extraneous effort, which in fact stops and blocks the desired response. She always repeated: “The way you think of an exercise will directly influence its performance and result.” At one time she told me: “You must always think in and up!” De Vos made sure her students continue using constructive thinking outside the studio as well.

6 – De Vos’ ballet classes were based on a specific problem that arose at the time, and not on a regular set of prepared classes like in other methods. Those who benefited the most out of this were those who were as open to using their minds, thinking, and developing flexibility of mind, as much as they were willing to use their bodies in dancing.

7 – The basic principle in De Vos’ work was starting each movement from the central point of focus in the body, while giving special attention to the strength and freedom of the spine, and while balancing the weight equally through the pelvis and body during shifts of weight from side to side.

De Vos kept investigating and putting to the test different theories that she thought were worthy to use in her method, and was always looking for new ways of achieving her goals. De Vos was a pioneer of integrative thought, and of recruiting modern dance for the benefit of the artistic and physical development of the dancer. For the purpose of achieving fluency in motion together with control, strength together with flexibility and softness, De Vos gave modern dance classes in her own free style, which was responsive to what the students needed at that time.

Having extensive knowledge in anatomy, she was able to help those who had specific problems, such as scoliosis, or different body proportions, than what was accepted as the norm. Her practice encouraged development to excellent levels of dance and control of the body by student considered not fit for dancing by other teachers. Audrey De Vos believed that a teacher must continue to develop, change and adapt to new things in order to help the student and dancer to cope as early as possible with practice and assignments, stress and pressures of our contemporary world of dance.

After a few years of performing as a professional dancer at different established companies in Israel, I went about establishing myself as a teacher continuing De Vos’ method in teaching children and teens, and in training teacher at The Kibutzim Teacher’s College, and today at Orot Teacher’s College as well. The principle challenge with which I am confronted is educating teachers who understand the method. Students coming to learn the profession of dance education, arrive with rooted habits and preconceptions.

Common habits are: pushing the stomach in, holding the breath, raising the chest towards the ceiling, locking the knees, turning-out of the feet more than the ability of the hip joints, therefore dropping the foot’s arch forward. One of the misconceptions I try to extinguish is that “ballet is a kind of torture with no room for free movement and enjoyment”, or that “someone who doesn’t suffer pain and stress is not working hard enough and does not deserve recognition or appreciation”. Trying to change their perception on ballet is hard on my students and me.

They are compelled to abandon a form of practice they knew and survived in through great sacrifice. They must try something unfamiliar that contrasts everything they have previously learned about this field. In order to be able to do this, they must trust me completely, and agree to destroy the old structure before constructing a new one.

My difficulty comes in trying to persuade the students to attempt to do things differently. To most of them, it is “easier” to continue down the same familiar path despite the pain and injuries. Performing very familiar movements or exercises, but from a totally different perspective, is the hardest thing for them. As future teachers I expect my students to be curious about the methodology of ballet, and to aspire not to repeat mistakes that caused them physical and psychological damage, and blocked their development and growth.

Observing the process my students go through, each year I make new discoveries in ways of treating different limitations of anatomic structure, and in different personal forms of thought. The results are very pleasing. Students who come to the college with pain in their knees and ankles have stopped suffering pain and even report that the problem had disappeared. Students sometimes arrive with a negative approach to classical ballet, due to teaching that was not specific and did not take into account their own body structure, which resulted in a feeling of failure.

From the moment they receive legitimacy to perform the movement in a manner best suited to each, a challenge is formed to execute the exercises in an effective and qualitative manner without the need to be compared to an outside model or form. From this point the road is open to a psychological change in the student towards recognition of the importance of ballet in her physical advancement - and her/his motivation will improve.

In my years as a ballet teacher I taught many boys and girls in every age and level of development, with a great variety in physical and psychological structure. I found that the pluralistic approach, using as a starting point the ability of each student, is the only way to bring the students to a complete and intelligent performance of dance. De Vos is with me in spirit at all times, guiding me to continue and search for new tools that would assist me in finding the best solution for each of the students in my care, giving me their trust. Not to be stuck out of convenience in one way.

Not to compare between students. Work with each student according to his or her own starting point and ability. During the years I learned to understand ideas in different fields and methods of movement, such as the Feldenkrais method and Alexander technique, to use them in order to improve my students’ performance and abilities.

In addition I examined ways of thought, such as guided imagination and understanding the psychology and anatomy of man and child, and recruited those theories to advancing my teaching goals. In teaching children, these subjects are most important to me, for the sake of the children’s pluralist education, physical and psychological growth. Starting from this correct basis, especially talented children will be able to continue to dance and develop, with no injuries and with an understanding of the correct way to dance ballet. Children that will not become dancers will achieve correct posture, improved coordination, and language of movement, while knowing their own bodies’ limitations and talents.

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* Published in IsraelDance Emagazine 2001

Audry De Vos at  her studio backyard

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