- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 27, 2006

Two left feet, bent knees, wobbly arms and “inventive choreography” are just a few of the problems Victoria Leigh must deal with each day.

As the director of the summer program at the Washington Ballet, she works to correct arms, legs, thighs, necks, heads, hands and sometimes hearts.

A dancer may have amazing facility, but they need the confidence to dance their best, she said. After working with one such dancer in a summer class, Ms. Leigh is pleased. “I got a smile out of her. It felt pretty good.”

It’s the youngsters and the love of dance that have kept Ms. Leigh teaching for more than 30 years. “You have to try to figure out which approach you are using with each one and you have to be able to change it,” she says of her teaching strategy.

How will she know whether her teaching has changed the young dancer’s attitude? If the parents see the change when they come to the final summer camp performance. But until then, it’s time to teach.

At 9 o’clock in the morning, with class still 30 minutes off, Ms. Leigh stretches on the floor of her office while Nikiya, her Yorkie, runs around the office, pearl collar jingling on her neck.

The dog is named for Princess Nikiya, a temple dancer, in the famous ballet La Bayadere, choreographed by Marius Petipa and premiered in 1877. “I didn’t put the princess in, but she’s a princess,” she says.

It’s off to class after she quickly checks for computer mail and phone messages, and changes into her class clothes.

Dance shoes, black pants, and a lose black cotton tunic is the work uniform. Each dancer wears pink tights and a black leotard. Identical twin dancers smile in the corner as Ms. Leigh confirms that one of them has worn the fake flower in her bun, the flower she uses to tell them apart. She needs to know who is who so she can correct them.

While taking roll, she asks the stretching dancers what they did over the weekend. Swimming, they say smiling. Their odd tan lines give them away from under the straps of their leotards.

“… And four, and five, and six, and seven, and eight,” she counts. Level 6 dance class is under way.

She explains different combinations, or sets of elements, to the dancers, who watch her feet and hands to match the pattern. Each dancer memorizes the moves she gives them in their own way. One male dancer flits his hands. Others tap the patterns with their feet. When she sees several blank stares, she shows them again.

Constantly correcting her students, she guides them through combination after combination.

“Lengthen your head up off your shoulders” she reminds one girl, during a combination with demi-pointe releves, as she walks among the students. “Knees straight, boys,” she reminds the boys against the back bar. “If you ended with either of your hands touching the bar, do it again.”

“Put your brain in gear before you begin,” she says as dance slippers squeak across the floor. When one student calls a step the “lame duck,” she quickly corrects him. It’s a pique en dehors, she says, and it’s only called a lame duck because people do it incorrectly.

“Sometimes there is so much to fix, but there is not time so you let it go,” Ms. Leigh says. “A lot of kids are over 16 and have good training back home. So its not that they are going to get better training here; it’s that they are going to get different training,” she says.

Her first class is done a little after 11, when all the boys and many of the girls have to leave for pas de deux class. The other eight dancers sit down to put on their pointe shoes.

“She gives a lot of corrections, which is very important for us; that’s what helps us get better.” says Florida native Victoria Kennell, 15, who has been dancing for 11 years.

“You learn a lot more in less time,” nine-year dancer Sarah Guyon says of her instructor’s style of teaching. “If they give group corrections, you never know who it applies to.”

“She cares about each person getting better,” says Charlotte Clune, 16, who has been dancing for six years.

The corrections continue in pointe class. When one dancer struggles holding up her head during pique turns, Ms. Leigh prompts her. “Your boyfriend in the balcony. Look at him!”

One girl’s peculiar arm motion draws her attention. “Are we swimming. What is that? Interesting stroke,” she jokes. Apparently the dancers haven’t stopped swimming yet.

During the summer, the schedule changes daily at the Washington Ballet, but Ms. Leigh finds plenty of time to be a moderator and the administrator of Ballet Talk for Dancers at www.dancers.invisionzone.com.

Involved with the site for almost ten years, she spends many mornings and several hours every night answering questions from the site’s 7,300 members, which include concerned dancers, parents and teachers.

Ms. Leigh began dancing at age 4 and never stopped. “[Ballet] was not a choice. It was something I had to do,” she recalls of her assurance at a young age she would be a dancer. “It was not a decision. It was a recognition.”

In the 1960s, Ms. Leigh was a soloist for American Ballet Theatre, the National Ballet of Canada and a principal dancer in Kiel, Germany. After teaching ballet the University of Oklahoma for 10 years, she opened the Leigh-Franklin Academy in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. In 1993, she became an instructor at the Washington Ballet. She has worked on the summer program for almost nine years, helping bring dancers from all over the country.

Today is her last day as director. She is retiring from her position to move to Alpharetta, Ga., to teach part time at the Metropolitan Ballet Theatre for friend Maniya Barredo. “I don’t want to stop. I love teaching, but I need to cut back,” Ms. Leigh says.

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