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Karen Gibbons-Brown in On Technique
New book on dance names Fort Wayne Ballet’s artistic director among world’s top dance teachers
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
New York, London, Monte Carlo… Fort Wayne?
One of those things is not like the other, maybe. But a common denominator can be found a book called On Technique by dancer Dan Speer and published by the University Press of Florida.
The book comes out this month and features profiles and/or interviews with 18 of the top instructors in the world of dance, and on that list is Karen Gibbons-Brown, Artistic Director of the Fort Wayne Ballet.
And no one seems more surprised than Gibbons-Brown herself. “I am a bit overwhelmed that I’m included,” she says. “When I got the news and looked at the ‘who’s who’ in the book… well, it’s a significant involvement.”
Indeed, the list includes luminaries — some retired, some still working — such as Peter Boal, a former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet and now the director of the Pacific Northwest Ballet; Bene Arnold former San Francisco Ballet and Ballet West Balletmistress and Professor of Ballet at the University of Utah; and Roni Mahler, who worked with the American Ballet Theatre and the National Ballet of Washington D.C., after beginning her career as a teenager with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.
Of course, like many of the instructors and dancers in On Technique, Gibbons-Brown had an accomplished career in dance long before she joined the Fort Wayne Ballet in 1998, with an impressive professional resume to her credit. She’s also been teaching dance for almost as long as she’s been dancing. So really, there’s no reason that she shouldn’t be included among the best dance pedagogists in On Technique (she’s one of the youngest on the list); it’s just that she finds it a little unexpected.
“I was talking to Dan (Speer, the book’s author) about my old teachers, and how my philosophies were shaped and why I felt compelled to teach the way I taught,” she says. “I didn’t know I was going to be the subject…”
Gibbons-Brown’s teaching philosophy was formed by the early experiences she had as a student. She says that like a lot of young girls her age in South Carolina, she was enrolled in dance classes as a way to teach grace and poise (“Charm school in the south, so to speak,” she laughs). At 12, Gibbons-Brown told her mother that she wanted to continue dancing. “My mother said ‘You’ve gotten what I wanted to you to get. You can quit if you want.’ And I said ‘Oh, no, I must be a dancer’.”
Unfortunately, the dance school in the area didn’t see it the same way. One of the co-founders of the school, Ann Brodi told Gibbons-Brown and her mother that Karen “had been trained incorrectly for so long, I don’t really think we can do anything with her. It’s a waste of your time and your money — and our time, quite frankly.” But Brodie added that if Karen really wanted to do it, they would take her. The catch? She would be taken “off pointe” and put in with the beginners. “At that school, those were the six-year-olds,” Gibbons-Brown says. “That was pretty humiliating for someone who’s 12. But I decided I wanted to do it, much to my mother’s dismay. So I danced a lot, worked hard, and four years later was invited to go to the American Ballet Theater.”
And it was during those intense four years that Gibbons-Brown first became an instructor, teaching tap when she was 15. “The other woman who ran the school was Naomi Calvert, who was a Rockette in her past life,” Gibbons-Brown says. “She taught tap, and encouraged me to continue down that path, but I was really intent on ballet.”
Since then, Gibbons-Brown has taught, for the most part, all the way through her dancing career, and it was being exposed to all different forms of dance — including ballet — that shaped the way she approaches teaching. “Those experiences and what I had to go through have pretty much shaped why I feel compelled to have the dance academic along with the dance, and why you must learn what this means, and why you must learn it a certain way,” she says. “Not that there aren’t other good ways to do it, but I once had a teacher who said ‘if you only teach one syllabus, you’re teaching to the syllabus and not to the dancer in front of you’, and I thought ‘that makes so much sense,’ because if somebody had looked at me at 12 and said ‘this is what we teach and you can’t come,’ I would have never been able to explore this passion that I have.”
“My job as a teacher is to look at the dancer’s body and evaluate the specific needs of that body so they can have success, whatever that means for them,” she continues. “I truly believe there is a place in this field for anybody who really wants it. It becomes very selective, but there are so many opportunities for young people that don’t include the tutu and the tiara and the pointe shoes.”
On Technique by Dan Speer comes out this month from University Press of Florida.