I arrive at the Ballet Austin, and slip into the studio about halfway through Toni Bravo’s modern class. When I enter I simply sit and observe, immediately I’m compelled to start writing. The dancers, absorbed in the movements are on the floor, rolling, fluid, spiralizing motion, melting, lifting, they rise. Initiating movements with arms, then head, knee, hip, chest, as if different parts of their bodies are attached to strings and pulled through space. Like they have no choice. The three dancers, three different ages, three ethnicity’s, three bodies, are following graciously, listening, focused on Toni’s constant instruction as she leads them with her gliding movements.
Toni is slight, gentle, striking, and grand all at once, demonstrating her movements, she is dressed in all black save for bright neon orange socks pulled over just the balls of her feet. Like beacons. Slide here, step there, flex, cross, catch.
We begin the interview in the dressing room, she is getting ready to attend a performance of The Rite of Spring, we decided to get a bite to eat at the cafe across the street before the performance. Over the next two hours we talked, listening back on the interview tape I realize that the restaurant was quite loud, but I honestly can’t recall anything else that was going on around me, she was that compelling.
Toni Bravo had an unconventional beginning to her dance training. She had a later start than most trained ballerinas, at 16 she began to train with a ballet school in Mexico City and “worked like an idiot” for two years until she was asked to join the company. She was a passionate and motivated young woman, balancing work and college, she was a chemistry major. During her time in the company, they would fly her back to Mexico City when they were on tour so she could take her college exams. ” I wasn’t going to choose” she says “it established that dynamic and I am still that way, I teach 42 classes a week now”. That passion and commitment has stayed with her “all of the things that I do, they are all my different passions, If I didn’t do one of them, the rest seem incomplete.” A women after my own heart. After leaving the company, wanting to deepen her training as a dancer she enrolled in the Royal Academy of Dance in Europe and after a few years of studying, traveling, and dancing, ended up in Austin in 1980. Always hungry for knowledge Toni got her Masters in Theater History with a Minor in Pedagogy from UT in ’87, and began teaching dance at Ballet Austin in ’90. Since then she has taught, performed, choreographed, and created a program to teach academics through dance at the Austin public schools.
I Recently described Toni to a friend as a ” force of dance here in Austin”, and she is, I have also decided that she is one my new hero’s.
My favorite part of our discussion was when she was describing to me her personal concept of teaching. She was so clear, so absolute about her thoughts, there was no question of her integrity, she really loves what she does, it was extremely moving. She explained how there are different facets to her concept of teaching. One is her love for science and constant research of how people learn and how their bodies connect to learning in a physical way. She studied physical therapy and nursing just to have a complete understanding of kinesthesiology and anatomy, to truly understand how people relate to their skeleton, how they access support from their muscles, how they get inter-contentedness. She studied Neuro-muscular pathing and the way people learn movement. “In my way of teaching I try to build those connections, I’m always finding new ways of presenting these tools to my students, I try to incorporate all the new research that I learn into my classes. It’s so important because if you don’t have that information, it’s hard to truly understand the movement completely” She also implements Multiple Modality Learning, whether it be spacial, visual, physical, etc. the more ways in which you learn something, the better you will understand it. ” I try to use as many types of intelligence as possible to incorporate into my teaching.” On top of that she explains that the study Of Laban, which is a method and language for describing, visualizing, interpreting, and documenting all varieties of movement, has helped with her communication of the movement to her students. “The Laban gives you an opportunity to be very clear about what a movement is, every aspect of it has a vocabulary. It gives such richness, It’s like tasting each and every ingredient”.
On the topic of performing and her choreography Toni is self described as oblique, perhaps poetic, but not to the point of being self indulgent. She explains that she doesn’t like to beat the audience over the head with a message, but she will let them in on the secret. She explains that if you have real clarity, (of movement, of your surroundings, of staging), and if you believe honestly what you are saying, the audience will know there is something they must watch. They may not know what you know, as the performer, but they will stay with you because they will be intrigued. ” If you have a clear sense of what you have to say, they will listen. So what I do is I get them ready, at the beginning of a piece i’ll use such detail, there will be such clear intent, that they realize that there is something going on, and they get interested and want to see more. I like doing things that are unusual, sometimes the look of vulnerability in a dancer is so beautiful”
Toni’s company Diverse Space, is a company made up of dancers of different ages, bodies, and dance training. Toni has brought them together because of their relationship to the movement, but also because they have a way to relate to what is happening in the world, and a way of talking about it. “Diverse Space is my politics, my way of seeing society, my way of relating to other humans, it’s my voice. You can connect people to a poetic side of a political message.” On her dancers ” Some of them have little traditional training. I love that awkwardness, when someone does something because they understand it, not because they want to impress you with their extension, their gorgeous foot, their perfect turns.” After creating the company Toni realized that to be truly diverse she had to a second group of younger dancers, and has since created two, now there is Diverse Space, Diverse Youth, and Diverse Kids.
We begin to simply talk about dance, at this point I’m so enthralled in all that she has accomplished, her views of dance and teaching are so inspirational, but it’s here where i’m completely sold. This next part of the conversation is so special, I’m simply going to transcribe her words, slightly summarized without any interjection.
“People should see more work, I think that dancers should be encouraged to try everything, every type of movement, every variety, take everybody’s class. And I think dancers should train more, with everything that is available, not just their own thing. We need to get rid of the ideals of what makes a “good dancer”. Not every dancer has to look like a So You Think You Can Dance kid, I’ve seen people on the street perform, who are not trained dancers, and they have moved the hell out of me. I mean how many of us are are really build to be the best? Being a dancer and performing doesn’t have to imply that you are the best at it. It’s not about being the best, you are the best at what you do because you have a relationship with what YOU do. You train, it becomes your life, what you are, and who you are, but that doesn’t mean you can be compared to anyone else. It’s not about how much funding you have or how recognized you are that makes up your worth as an artist. It’s when the artist is willing to give as much as they have received that they give up this business of being better than others. Dance is about relating to other individuals not competing with other individuals. It’s not about being better, it’s about giving, it’s about recognizing that you have received a lot in order to get where you are and being about to send it back out into the cosmos, and to give as much as you have been lucky enough to receive.”
I have to say, this meeting left a strong imprint on me, for days my thoughts raced. I feel a strong connection with what she said and what I want to do. I feel like it solidified my desire to go out and bring movement to people, to try everything, to work on breaking down the barriers and make dance more accessible for people. I feel so lucky that she granted me the interview and the meeting. And I’m in love with the fact that in all areas of life, we can find teachers. Whether the lesson is life-long or over the course of a 90 minuet interview, when you are passionate about something, and you put yourself out there, you will always find people who can help guide you down your path. I’m so lucky to be here, receiving these gifts from the teachings in my life right now, and as Toni says I can’t wait to give back as much as I have received to help others find their way.