Ballet Teacher/ Piano Teacher/ Ballet Accompanist
I met up with Tatyana on a Friday morning at a local café. She was a fascinating person with so many dimensions to her. That morning, her beautiful and angular face softened and brightened with a genuine smile. She was inviting, jovial and completely relaxed. It was as if I had met someone completely different just a couple of days prior when photographing her at a ballet studio teaching students. During her ballet class, Tatyana was serious and very focused. Tatyana’s forehead was frequently crinkly and her gazes sharp. She reminded me of myself when I was with my daughter practicing the piano. She watched every move of every dancer intently.
Hazel: I want to ask you, what came first, your piano or ballet?
Tatyana: While I got into piano first, I have to say the appreciation for both ballet and music started at around the same time. When I was 6, my sister took me to my first live ballet performance at the Lviv Opera House, Swan Lake. The music and the movement both made a magical impression on me. That was when it all started for me. I couldn’t see one without the other. Every time I hear beautiful music, I always think about dancing it would go with and vice versa. My older sister was taking private piano lessons and I wanted to play the piano myself. So when I turned 7, I auditioned with afterschool special program music school in Lviv, Ukraine.
Hazel: What did they test during audition?
Tatyana: I remember there were two teachers judging me. They mostly tested my hearing, sense of rhythm, understanding of intervals, etc. I did well and got into the program.
Hazel: How long did you stay in the program?
Tatyana: I was in it for 7 years. Then, there were 2 years of pre-conservatory school. Just to clarify, during 10 years of public school education, I had 9 years total of the specialized music after school education.
Hazel: So there must have been 1 year of gap with the music program. When did it occur?
Tatyana: It happened between the 7 year primary/intermediate music program and the 2 year pre-conservatory program. During the gap year, I contemplated a lot about what I wanted to eventually do with my life. I thought about whether to stay in music or not. One thing was clear though. I always wanted to be a teacher. Even in my earliest memory, I played pretend as a teacher.
Hazel: What particular aspects of being a teacher were so appealing to you?
Tatyana: I really love helping people and making a positive impact to help them succeed. I think my parents really influenced my love for teaching and the person I am today. My parents taught my sister and me the appreciation and respect for the arts and strong work ethics. They taught us how to be the best we can be in anything we chose to pursue in life in order to be successful. They would often say we should work hard and be patient then the result will follow. I like to instill the same value and lesson in my children and students.
My dad was a phenomenal boxing coach, teacher and mentor. He was a role model to many, highly respected and loved. He gave very tough love. I think subconsciously I wanted to be like him.
My mother on the other hand was a diplomat and a peacemaker. She taught me how to tactfully communicate with others. She intuitively knew how to approach people and resolve conflict.
I decided I liked music enough to stay in it. So I continued to do the 2 year pre-conservatory program.
Hazel: So what did you do once you were done with your pre-conservatory program?
Tatyana: My dad connected me to the rhythmic gymnasts who trained at the same sports academy as his boxers. I got hired to be an accompanist for a team led by a young rhythmic gymnastics coach.
Hazel: I know the Americans don’t have the appreciation but the Koreans watch rhythmic gymnastics and love it. Such a beautiful sport!
Tatyana: Yes, I agree. I was a good pianist but was not experienced in accompanying at that point. The young coach and I made a phenomenal team! We collaborated together for 3 years and the team won so many accolades.
Hazel: What was the most challenging thing about being an accompanist for rhythmic gymnastics?
Tatyana: Arrangements had to be made for the music to complement the gymnasts’ routines and highlight their embellishments. The coach and I chose a lot of classical music repertoire together. It was a new skill altogether being an accompanist. I had to play with music and had to learn how to improvise. I actually enjoyed doing that. Moreover, as an accompanist, I had to help inspire dancers to bring out artistic expressions in their movements with my music.
Hazel: Then, what happened? Why did you immigrate to the States? When did it happen?
Tatyana: We are of Jewish ancestry. We wanted to escape Soviet Union because of discrimination against the Jewish people got worse and worse there. My dad was training Soviet boxers to go to the Olympics. But because he was Jewish, he was not allowed to go beyond Eastern Europe even for attending the Olympics when the athletes he trained were competing.
We started the application process to immigrate to Israel in 1978. Once we did that, the Soviet government took away all our privileges including my parents’ jobs, my ability to enroll in schools, etc. We had to live off of our family savings. I was the only one who was able to keep the job until the end. My sister, niece and grandmother were able to immigrate first in 1979 and made their way eventually to Philadelphia. It took longer for my parents and me because the Soviet government was trying to convince my father to stay as he was a valuable asset to the boxing community. Finally, our application was approved in 1982 when I was 21. We made our way to Philadelphia eventually.
Hazel: What was the life like in America at first?
Tatyana: I was focused on finding work. I wanted to be an accompanist for rhythmic gymnastics again but quickly found out that such positions rarely existed in America. So I found a job with Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet, where I work now, two weeks after I arrived in Philadelphia. Growing up in Soviet Union, I had a lot of respect for ballet as everyone did around me. The accompanying experience with rhythmic gymnastics helped me. But still I had so much to learn.
Hazel: In what ways?
Tatyana: The more I did accompanying, the more I’d realize how complex the job really was. It took me a while to come close to reaching my ultimate goal, which was to be so good and be in tune with the needs of the ballet teacher that no instructions would need to be communicated to me once the class got started. I would play and the students would naturally follow my music’s lead and get inspired. I think working hard for almost 40 years accompanying certainly has paid off.
Hazel: That’s wonderful. How did you become a ballet teacher? Did you receive formal training in ballet since arriving to the States?
Tatyana: I started taking ballet classes in 1984 after being in America for a couple of years working as a ballet accompanist. I always wanted to learn to dance and also wanted to do it to do my job better as an accompanist. It was so helpful to learn how to dance. It became increasingly difficult not to correct the students’ forms from the piano. The ballet directors of the school, John and Margarita White, saw a potential in me and asked me to take a 5-day ballet teacher seminar course based on Vaganova’s syllabus, a Russian method. Soon after I completed the course, I was at first given pre-ballet and adult classes to teach. Gradually, I was given classes of all levels. I’ve been teaching ballet for over 30 years now.
Hazel: It’s remarkable how you established your career in ballet teaching with the piano background you have. Are you just naturally gifted in dance? How do you think it happened?
Tatyana: I think it was helpful that the learning processes for both music and ballet are very similar. Both involve logical progressions like as in building with blocks.
Music emphasizes acquiring, from the beginning, both correct posture/form and artistic expression at the same time. Similarly, the artistic expression gets developed simultaneously with technical advancements/body movements in ballet. You have to breathe, sing and feel when playing music the same way you do in ballet.
Hazel: I hadn’t thought of it that way as you put it. But you are absolutely right.
Tatyana: I love it when music and movement come together as one in perfect harmony. The former helps me understand the latter and vice versa. I strive to share that knowledge with my students.
Hazel: What a beautiful way to describe the linkage between music, dance and your career of teaching both! I’m so curious… I know you are also a piano teacher. Did you start teaching piano after teaching ballet?
Tatyana: Actually, no. I started giving private piano lessons before getting into ballet teaching. As a young pianist, I had a lot of passion but no skills in teaching and was too impatient. I had high expectations from my students but lacked the understanding of the social culture in America. I became frustrated with teaching piano and so took 10 years off until I resumed.
Hazel: Did the break help you to become a better piano teacher?
Tatyana: Yes, it did because I learned to be a better piano teacher through teaching ballet to young kids. I learned what it took to keep the kids’ interest and focus. I also had to deal with a lot of different personalities in the ballet classes I taught. I learned what to expect from different age groups. I began to have a better understanding how kids developed. This time around, I’m still a tough love kind of teacher but more effective and able to show my warm, caring side better.
Hazel: Any last thoughts you want to share before we wrap up?
Tatyana: About 11 years ago, Susan Cade (my friend and partner in business), a ballerina turned teacher, and I started an organization called Senior & Chair Ballet. I accompany and Susan teaches. It’s my way of giving to the community by teaching ballet to the seniors. It’s remarkable to see the positive impact we bring to the elderly who participate. I love to help bring joy to those who are in need.
Hazel: That’s awesome, Tatyana! Thank you for this interview.
At another time, I had the privilege of watching Tatyana accompanying an advanced ballet class. She had transformed into yet another person. She was meditative, introspective, completely at peace and fully immersed in the music she was producing with the piano. There was this particular passage during which she conjured up a beautiful and long melodic line. The tune she created lingered in me even as I walked out of the ballet studio and entered the streets.
Thank you, Tatyana, for sharing your beautiful narrative. I enjoyed navigating through the fabric of your life weaved intricately with love of teaching, music and dance.