Being Garth Fagan

What happens when an admittedly bad dancer takes classes at the celebrated dance school?

When I won the Garth Fagan package at a fundraiser auction, little did I know it would catapult me to dancing alongside actual Fagan dancers. But tucked among the tickets to a gala and performances was a certificate for a semester of dance classes.

At first I figured I’d give the certificate to my 8-year-old daughter — the same age I was when I learned I couldn’t dance. Basically I have no rhythm, no agility and lots of shame. Secretly, though, I had a desire to try again. Whenever I watched performances by the Garth Fagan troupe, I would think, “They look like real people. I can do that.”

I called Rochester’s Garth Fagan Dance School and learned that adult classes met on Tuesdays and Thursdays nights at 5:10. How could I possibly get to class during rush hour and dinner hour? In waltzed my wonderful husband, who says, “Do you really want to do this? Then do it. We’ll work out the details later.” So I decided to take the leap.

As I entered the classroom and saw the toned, beautiful bodies, I thought, “Where’s the adult class? The one for the old housewives like me?” And then I realized with mounting horror that this was the class. I would be dancing with 15-year-olds from the kids’ company and Fagan dancers from the actual company. I looked around for some other older people. There were none. Finally, a few people arrived who kind of looked like me: a woman with cool-looking glasses, a mom whose kids were watching the class and an older distinguished-looking gentleman in black tights (yes, that’s what I said: a distinguished gentleman in black tights).

Nicolette Depass, one of the dancers from the company, was the teacher. She says, “Let’s get started.” Great, I thought: She’ll explain what will happen next. But there was no talking. The music started and the class members put themselves in a low lunge. Everyone seemed to know what to do.

They were following an incredibly limber young woman in the front of the room. I did the same, figuring there would be a few minutes of stretching and then we’d be done. But the warm-up was really the heart of the class, and it was no ordinary warm-up. You had to count the beats, which weren’t always the same. Sometimes you did movements on a 16 count, then the next stretch was on a 22 count. You had to be limber and perform it to the rhythm of the music, which was constantly changing.

The warm-up started seated, which I thought meant it would be easy. Wrong. For example, something called spirals required you to whip your body around, swiveling on your derriere and hoping you don’t hit the person next to you. And you did this 10 times on each side. The warm-up took about 45 minutes. Then Depass announced, “Time to go across the floor.”
We were to take the steps we had practiced and do them while moving across the room. For a dance dyslexic like me, it would be the ultimate humiliation. I whispered to her, “I’m just going to watch.” She whispered back, “No, you are just going to go across the floor.” She says it with such conviction, I was ready to follow her anywhere.

I made my way across the floor, then back, across and back, trying to keep to the moves. I knew I looked ridiculous. The only saving grace: There were no mirrors in the room. When the class was over, I went home and cried. I was ready to quit. I didn’t need this punishment — it wasn’t as if I were going to become a dancer.

But I remembered my whole family was helping to make this happen. If I quit, what would that tell my kids about commitment and dedication (not to mention spending good money on auction items)? So back I went.

In the next few classes, Depass broke down the warm-up more, and it started to make sense. We were warming up our bodies using the Fagan Technique — his specially devised blend of movements and stretches — which we would ultimately use in our dances.

Going across the floor started to make sense, too. We would build dances based on these movements. I even started to learn Fagan vocabulary: spirals, triplets, ibongas, ya ta tas.
After a few classes I started to feel less ridiculous. I couldn’t keep up completely, but the pained expression finally left my face.

When I sat down to talk to Depass about the school, she says the technique “requires a naturalness … and a pureness and ease.” That’s why the dancers look like real people moving. Part of her job was to teach polyrhythmic structure: coordinating body parts that are doing different things. Your feet may be on one rhythm while your hands are moving to another. In essence, it’s a mind-body technique. But why make the classes open to the public? She explained that the company considers itself part of a community, both on stage and in the audience.

“Garth has always welcomed the community to learn the technique,” she says. “And if you can move and have an open mind, you can be a part of the class. It makes you feel a part of the art. … It is not exclusive.”

Natalie Rogers-Cropper, who became the director of education in 2002, says Fagan’s philosophy is about “people-building. Our goal is to develop the whole person through dance.” She says if you can conquer the technique, you can conquer anything.

The members of the company and my fellow classmates, it turned out, weren’t intimidating but incredibly helpful. One student, Rachel Litwak, told me her first class was equally frustrating, but for her the exercises felt great on her body. As an ESOL teacher at Monroe High School who had studied West African dance, she welcomed the opportunity to be a student. “It is humbling and it makes me a better teacher.”
That distinguished gentleman, Jan Bares, a retired scientist with a doctorate in physics, came to class by way of his expertise in tango. His ballroom friends had studied Fagan Technique to improve their dancing, and he told me he liked the way it developed flexibility and mobility. “Mainly I do it because it’s fun,” he says.

Over the course of 12 weeks, I started to realize that as hard as it was to get to class at 5:10, I had to concentrate completely to get the steps right. How often in life do we get the chance to be so fully present?

Now even the lack of mirrors made sense. Rogers-Cropper explained that the technique requires total concentration; mirrors would be distracting. She says that perfecting the technique takes years and while the classes are public, they are intended for people who are passionate about doing something difficult.
And it was difficult. The class challenged my head and body in ways I never would have imagined. Depass required her students to come in focused and stay focused for the hour and a half that she had them in the room. She wouldn’t listen if you said “I can’t,” and her approach was: “Don’t talk, do.” Depass taught me to throw myself into the technique and trust that it would come.

And that, of course, is a lesson that can be applied elsewhere, too. Taking on this challenge might not have transformed me into a dancer, but it did give me more self-confidence. Who knows, maybe belly-dancing next?

Pam Sherman is an attorney, writer, actress, and professor, who has been profiled in People Magazine and who has appeared in numerous stage performances, television shows, and films. Sherman conducts training programs and coaches lawyers and business leaders all over the world to use acting and storytelling skills for leadership and communications. She also provides keynotes about how to discover your personal EDGE™ in the best possible way: explore, dream, grow, and excite. Her book The Suburban Outlaw: Tales from the EDGE is a compilation of columns published by Gannett. You may find Sherman at

This article originally appeared in Rochester Magazine and is reprinted with permission.


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