“Choose your first teacher wisely; she will live in your bones forever.” Martha Myers.
I’ve been thinking about what teaching at the intersection of Rigor, Humanity and Seeing the Highest Self looks like in action, and am reminded of Mario Melodia. I began studying dance with Mario when I was 10 years old. Eventually, I took classes with him five days a week and was his assistant throughout high school. This meant I also kept his books, did his billing and swept the studio floors. We stayed in touch over his lifetime until he passed in 2008. He is the person who has had the most influence on my teaching – the one who lived and breathed and practiced this trinity. (There is an exercise at the end of this piece.)
Mario was a larger than life character who was perfectly full of himself – as he might have said: Who else should I be full of? He was completely present to the moment: he could throw his head back with wild laughter, and he could demand no nonsense perfection. Somehow, he always found just the right balance between the two arcs.
He taught me humility and confidence as I struggled hard in class to perfect the arabesque and triple pirouette. He taught me how to rise to any challenge through the demands of performance. He was bold and held our feet to the fire. Mario always told the brutal truth because he thought it was ethical and kind to tell students when they weren’t rising to their level of excellence. He accepted no excuses. He fostered our self-esteem, not by telling us that everything we did was wonderful, but by setting expectations extremely high, then pushing us to attain them. And we did.
And he held our hands. I learned respect and guided practice from him. When a student couldn’t master a dance step, he would always say, “You’re smart. You’ll get it.” Then he would come up beside the struggling girl, take her hand, and with vigor, patiently teach the step until she got it. It was understood that while he was engaged with one student, the rest of us were expected to perfect our own work. He would say, “Good! I knew you would try your best to get it.” And we did.
He encouraged our individuality and our creative voice and taught us to love dance and dancing. When it was time to perform he would say, “I don't care if you make a mistake: Make it big and with conviction. Do it with passion!” And we did.
We climbed the stairs to his studio to learn to dance. What he really taught was Life Lessons.
Mario Meloda (center) Linda Belans (in pink tights and ridiculous shoes) c. 1960
Try this: Think about a teacher who has had an impact on you, even if your relationship was brief. What is the One Thing (or two or three) she or he taught you or said to you that has influenced your teaching, your life, your direction, your philosophy? Write it down, then spend time telling one person that Story who knows how to Be Curious and ask nonjudgmental questions. See what else emerges.