An Interview with Susan Jaffe and Risa Kaplowitz
Two ballerinas unite to recreate their own ballet school beginnings

by Catherine Pawlick

July, 2003 -- Sometimes big projects start from simple ideas between good friends. That was the case for the new Princeton Dance and Theater Studio, brainchild of Risa Gary Kaplowitz, (former principal dancer with Dayton Ballet, Manhattan Ballet and company member of Houston Ballet) and close friend Susan Jaffe (former principal dancer with American Ballet Theater).

The studio, set to open on September 8, is a welcome new addition to the New Jersey area, and a novel project. Both Jaffe and Kaplowitz spoke with Critical Dance by phone from the East Coast about the details of the plan.

Jaffe loved the idea right from the start. "At about the time I retired Risa said, 'you know, Susan, my dream is to have a school like the one we had when we grew up.' We just had the most amazing place, our teachers were very hands-on, it was a very warm atmosphere. It was like a family. So I said, 'Sure, maybe we should open a school one day.'"

And a little over a year later, the plans are nearly complete. Just one hour from Manhattan by train or by car, the New Jersey school will offer high-caliber training in ballet, modern, jazz, tap, musical theater and acting. Jaffe and Kaplowitz will co-direct the school, where both will also be teaching classes.

"It is great because we were very good friends when we were younger, we went our separate ways through our careers and we still have same philosophy about teaching. It's really the perfect partnership," Kaplowitz says.

After a solid performing career, Kaplowitz made the difficult transition away from the stage, started a family and went into business for 8 years, cutting all contact from the ballet world. "It's sort of like a death," she explains, "you grieve and you move on and then you're reborn in a stronger way. I can't imagine a dancer who wouldn't go through that." But the course her life has taken is precisely what has gotten her to where she is now.

"I had to leave ballet entirely in order to focus on the rest of my life. I couldn't even take class, so I joined a gym instead and dove into a sales career that was extremely successful. Ultimately it was the best thing it could have done, because this (new studio) is the perfect marriage between my artistic career and my business career."

Jaffe retired from ABT last year, teaches for them across the country, and currently holds a position as Advisor to the Chairman and President of the Board of Governing Trustees.

In addition to a lifelong friendship, Jaffe and Kaplowitz share a teaching philosophy based on the common training they both received at Maryland Youth Ballet (MYB) in Bethesda, Md. that still binds the two dancers.

"The atmosphere at MYB was warm, loving, supportive, challenging and inspirational-- really and truly. You had these amazing dancers who almost seemed born to dance, but you never felt like a second class citizen." Kaplowitz explains.

"I'm a petite woman and New York was never in the cards for me. But [the staff at MYB] was so supportive that I knew I was going to make it somewhere else, there was no question. It could have been intimidating but it wasn't at all. I think that was because Tensia Fonseca [Artistic Director, MYB] was so supportive to all of us that it wasn't about what you achieved in dance, it was about who you became as a person."

Clearly that supportiveness has nurtured some of America's greatest ballerinas, from Jaffe and Kaplowitz to Julie Kent and Cheryl Yeager (all of whom attended MYB). The list of successful professional dancers who graduated from MYB is long. And the Jaffe-Kaplowitz team is determined to recreate the same atmosphere in their own school.

Neither of them is a stranger to teaching ballet. Jaffe started teaching four years ago, with workshops in Japan and across the USA in places such as Jacob's Pillow, Grand Rapids and Southern California. Kaplowitz has taught locally at Princeton Ballet and in New York. Their joint decision to offer a mix of technique in the new school stems from their own career experiences.

"Mrs. Fonseca was very Cecchetti-based but we've both also been trained in the Vaganova method. Michelle Lees [Associate Director, MYB] brought more of the RAD style to MYB, and in Houston we had a lot of Royal Ballet influence," says Kaplowitz. "I was also personally influenced by Maggie Black. Because ultimately it all comes down to a very solid base of placement and core strength, no matter what school you're from or what type of technique you're using. That's really what my emphasis has always been when I teach."

Jaffe has worked with Russians throughout her professional career and says that has had a big influence on her coaching. She mentions Baryshnikov and Irina Kolpakova among others. "Each ballet has different needs so learning different styles helped us attain a wider technique."

Kaplowitz agrees. "It really is about taking a little from all of these schools and doing what really worked well for us."

When asked what age groups they prefer to teach, Jaffe explains that there is a great difference in how you approach different age groups.

"I've done coaching and putting ballets together, but taking a student from beginning to end is very difficult if you don't know what you're doing."

After she began teaching though, she really enjoyed it. "Twice in my life I threw out everything I knew and started from scratch, relearning technique. So I've learned many different ways of approaching technique and feel that I have a really good handle on how to train a dancer."

Kaplowitz receives the greatest pleasure in the progress she sees in nine and ten-year olds. "The level right before the girls are going en pointe, when everything is starting to click, the placement, the physicality of a nine or ten-year old -- it's a great realization. I see tremendous improvement in that age group."

And the duo is careful not to overlook the non-ballet aspects of a performing career.

"I do feel one of the biggest weaknesses in dance is that the acting is not as well-rounded as it could be," Jaffe comments. To that end the Princeton Dance and Theatre School will offer acting and mime classes to cultivate well-rounded performers.

Release Time
"One of things we're hoping to attain rights to do is something Risa and I did as teenagers [at MYB] called Release Time." Jaffe explains. Release Time is a program for the highest level, pre-professional students that allows them to spend the morning at school with four academic subjects, and then leave to attend afternoon ballet class from 2 - 4 p.m.

Jaffe believes that once a student reaches high school, the need to focus and train is strong. "It's hard at the end of a very long day to suddenly go to ballet class from 7 - 9 p.m. [With Release Time] the students can get a strong technique class in afternoon and do some homework and then, if they want, can come back. Because serious students should be working at least a couple of hours a day."

"Initially I wanted to start with four studios," Jaffe explains with a laugh, "and Risa said 'why don't we just start small.'"
The school will open with two studios and expansion will be based on the demand for classes, which will at first be capped at 20 students. "If we end up with wait lists, we will consider adding more space to accommodate more students," Ms. Jaffe explained.

In addition to 79 classes being offered each week, pre-eminent dance and theater professionals will periodically teach master classes. Princeton Dance and Theater Studio is also creating a Board of Trustees because their youth company, Princeton Dance Theatre, will be a non-profit. The school is aiming to hold their first performance next February and another next spring.

"I just feel very excited about being able to pass on everything that I've learned to another generation." Jaffe commented. "It's a great honor to be able to do that -- to hopefully enhance the youth of America with everything that I've learned from all of those wonderful people in my past."

For more information about the Princeton Dance Theater Studio, visit their website at www.princetondance.com.

Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt.

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