Why do I dance? Part of me thinks that I just fell in love with it at a young age, part of me feels that I fall in love with it every time I dance. Dancing for me is my escape, my way out of my busy scheduled life. Every day when I get home from school, or work, I am never dreading my trip up to the studio; I am overly excited about it. Whether I am sad, angry, happy, stressed, or have a lot on my mind, I always find that turning on music and letting myself get lost in the moment always helps me ease my thoughts.
Although dance has always been my passion and my release, it has not always been easy for me. Ever since I was in sixth grade, I have been participating in my studio’s summer intensive. Our studio’s intensive is a three-week long program, which has you dancing an average of about eight hours a day. It is an understatement to say that it is a physically grueling program that is putting your body under enormous pressure.
In our intensive, we do more than just ballet; we study Pilates, Modern, Classical Russian Ballet, Variations, and Character Folk Dance. Part of what makes all of these classes so unique is the guest teachers that our studio brings in. It’s hard to explain all of the teacher’s mannerisms that motivate you and at the same time terrify you to work harder. Although all of my teachers for the intensive are intimidating in their own element, nothing compares to my Character Dance teacher, Necka.
Necka, an immigrant from Ukraine, speaks Russian and Ukraine with very little English. He is a shorter man, though it does not take away from his personality, with a large stomach that mimics the figure of the beloved Mario character. Necka is now 84 years old, is still dancing, teaches at our studio, and is in our ballet productions. Although I am just shy of five inches taller than Necka, he still manages to get me to look up to him.
I remember the first time I ever saw him I was shocked. I imagined him to be a gigantic six foot four man who could snap me like a twig, when really I was the giant compared to him. Everyone at my studio knows who Necka is, even my six-year-old sister. When he walks in a room not only can you smell his “old man cologne” you can feel a leadership presence. Although throughout the years Necka and I have come to understand each other, I will never forget how traumatizing my first class with him was.
I was thirteen when I took my first class with Necka. I was so nervous but I felt as though something big was about to happen. I remember standing in the girl’s dressing room with my friends, who were much older than I, telling me all the things I needed to know. “Don’t drink any water during class, don’t look at the clock to check the time, never speak unless spoken to, don’t mess up any of the counts, always be smiling, and never ever sneeze.” They all continued to rattle off the do’s and don’ts of the class, trying to help but only succeeding in making me more and more nervous. Suddenly, I heard the stairs above me start to rumble, the previous class was finished and it meant that we now had to go up.
As the class was coming down, I made eye contact with one of the other girls. She gave me the “watch out he’s angry” face and I knew I was doomed. I took one last breath of fresh air before I proceeded to climb the stairs, feeling like I was about to throw up all thirteen steps. As I passed through the doorway at the top of the stairs, I was immediately hit by a wall of cologne. The stench was so strong that my eyes began to water. It smelled like old grandpa, axe body spray and b.o. all mixed together in one. I looked around at the other dancers to see if they smelled it too but they all seemed to be expecting it.
While I was busy looking around at the other girls, they all were getting into three militant straight lines facing a short old man standing on a wooden stool in the front of the room. I quickly scurried to an open spot in the back line. I did not dare look up to meet his eyes, so I stared at the back of the girl’s head in front of me. We seemed to stand there in the rows forever, as he looked at the group of teenage girls before him. Suddenly, he clapped twice breaking the silence, startling us all.
“Welcome, my big beautiful girls,” he said in an accent so thick we could barely understand him. “Today we will learn the steps, you will not earn music. Listen to my voice and you will hear me sing to you.” He shouted at us, seemingly unable to speak softer than a yell. He clapped loudly again and we all scurried to the back of the room.
He stood at the front dressed up in his black shirt and sweatpants, held up with suspenders and embroidered with the Ukrainian flag. He looked at us, turned around and started to dance. Normally in a class when the teacher demonstrates we all mark the moves as they show it. But Necka was different, as soon as he started to dance we all started to mark it. He immediately turned around with anger in his eyes and shouted, “Stop! Watch me! Don’t dance!”
It was like we all had turned into toy soldiers. Frozen, we began to watch Necka dance again. It was like magic, with him being just shy of 250 lbs you would think that he would be stomping around on the floor. He was as quiet as a mouse as he effortlessly executed the exercise. We all stared back at him in awe. He turned around to face us and without hesitation stated “Now your turn, go.” We all looked at each other for we had no clue how to do what he just did. Then all at once we all tried to perform the steps the best we could.
“Stop, stop, stop! You look like hippos!” We all halted immediately. Then much to my dismay he strolled right over to me. I was so nervous I was physically shaking in my shoes. “You, my big darling girl, are absolutely stunning, why must you always look at the floor? Show your face to the people,” he said so close to me I could see his individual wrinkles. I looked at him in the eye for a moment and then quickly back to the floor. He laughed as he turned around to the rest of the class. I don’t remember the rest of what he was saying, all I could hear was my heart beating ten times faster than it should be.
We proceeded to go on with the rest of class, him teaching us steps, us messing them up, and him yelling at us. I personally was only yelled at nine other times after the first incident, meaning he was watching me, which I decided to take as a good sign. There was one-step in particular that I, for the life of me, could not figure out. Necka would come over to me, grab my arms and show me physically how to do the step. Eventually, I managed to get it and he nodded at me, clearly pleased with himself. The next thing I knew Necka was back at the front of the room telling us it was time to go home, or that he had accidently gone twenty-five minutes over time. It was time to go and I had survived my very first “Necka Class”. I felt so incredibly exhausted yet energized all at the same time.
Although my first class did not indicate that I was overly exceptional at character, I later seemed to excel at it. I would come to find that Necka would give me a solo in multiple of our dances and I would come to be one of his favorites. He would always let me know in his own Necka way, whether it was a backwards compliment such as “You have a beautiful figure for a woman,” (meaning I was muscular.) I learned over time to translate the things he said to understand what he really meant. Necka has taught me so much over the years, far beyond what dancing could ever teach me. He has taught me to be confident in myself as a dancer and to always take corrections. Although, I was scared that day I am glad that I have been able to learn from Necka.