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In and out of the studio with dancer Helen Hansen French
October 13, 2017 by SK WEST
Helen Hansen French earned her BFA from The Juilliard School in 2001 and has toured nationally and internationally with numerous dance companies to places like New York, Washington DC, Louisiana, Israel, Italy and more. As a choreographer/movement maker, French focuses on collaborations and exploring the relationship between dance and other art forms.
She says she is deeply committed to arts education and developing the next generation of artists as well as contributing to the community in which she lives.
A founding member of the St. Petersburg Dance Alliance, she’s a co-producer of Beacon, a Best of the Bay-winning performance series based in her hometown of St. Petersburg. In addition to teaching dance to all ages, French is a certified Alexander Technique teacher. She has served on the dance faculties at George Mason University, The Juilliard School, Flint Hill School (VA), the Neighborhood Playhouse (NYC), John Hopkins Middle School and St. Petersburg College.
The accomplished dancer took time to talk with Creative Pinellas about the meaning of community and her history with dance in a conversation that was accentuated by graceful (and likely absent-minded) gestures and vibrant laughs (my apologies to the reader now who cannot experience the same presence of joy as I did while interviewing her).
How did you get into dance?
“I remember seeing something on TV at my parent’s house, a black-and-white image of a woman in a white tutu, probably a commercial or something — it was such a fleeting memory — but I’ve always loved music and I’ve always been drawn to move whenever I hear music, so maybe that played into my desire to want to dance. Nobody ever really told me to take a dance class, and my mom certainly didn’t drum up that idea in her own head — the joke in the family is that they all thought I would be interested in dance for a while and then move onto something else eventually, but then I never stopped and then I went to Juilliard, and now I’m here. My mother put me in classes and I remember one time I wanted to quit, shortly after I had begun — I think everyone wants to quit something at some point when it becomes hard — but my mom told me I had to finish out the year, and by the time I got to the end of year, I had gotten through whatever the hurdle was so I was fine. I love my mom’s rule, that you can’t just stop in the middle of something, that you have to finish, and it taught me a lot, even to this day.”
You just casually mentioned Juilliard. Would you talk more about your other training?
When I was growing up, we would go away for summer programs and I started going away when I was about 13 years old. I loved being away, I knew that there was so much more out there than what I could see at home, and I knew that there was this understanding of if you wanted to make it in dance, you were not staying in your hometown, you had to go to New York.
I went through the performing arts program at Gibbs High Schooland I remember seeing a lot of my classmates and people I looked up to were going to Juilliard and I started thinking that maybe I could get in too. There was always this debate for me, college or [dance] company? I don’t think I ever felt comfortable with not getting a college degree, I just think I always wanted that knowledge and that experience, and going to a conservatory like Juilliard would have been perfect.
The director of the dance school at Juilliard, then it was Benjamin Harkarvy, came to Gibbs and certain advanced-level students were able to take a class about auditioning with him. I was in the ninth grade and I took the class with him and my mind was blown. His way of talking about dance, his everything – I had never met someone who talked about dance in a way that made it palpable in the way that he did. When he was in the room, he had a way of pulling out things you didn’t even know were there. I remember the first thing he ever said to me was a correction about how to cambré [ballet move], he wanted me to elongate through my fingers and take the space with me instead of just thinking of moving directly to the side. A lot of time has passed since I was that 13-year-old in 9th grade but I still remember that moment so vividly, and I carry it with me to this day. So I went and loved everything about it; even in the hard times, I felt really fortunate to have been there, to study with the people I got to study with, met the classmates I met, had the experiences I got to have, it really did define me as a young artist and now I can look back at my career and reflect on why I made the decisions I did and it’s because of my education, because of the exposure I had.
How did you get the news that you were accepted?
We didn’t have cell phones back then, so I had to call and ask them to send my application and then send that back in, go to the audition, before they called me to tell me I had gotten in. My phone started ringing in my dorm, I had just gotten off the bus for Harid, where I spent my junior year of high school, and was about to leave to get ready for the Spring Performance. I remember thinking it was so weird that my phone was ringing, I thought maybe my parents were calling to tell me they were running late or something. So I ran back in and answered it and it was the admissions officer from Juilliard telling me I had been accepted, and it was a moment I’ll never forget.
What was your biggest takeaway from Juilliard?
In hindsight, at my age now, I would say that it’s not any one correction I was given or any one piece of wisdom that any one teacher said, it’s more about this overall pervading thought that you have to show up. You have to walk in the studio everyday, you have to do your craft. And not “show up” like just going through the motions, you have to force yourself no matter what to show up in the room. And that’s probably true for life in general, but even when I had strep throat or a 103-degree fever, I realized at a certain point that there were no excuses.
If you want to be part of something, if you want to be part of a community, you have to be there. It was about the consistency. Every day you come into the room, practice your craft, show up, and make it happen. The work ethic that I learned when I was there is the thing that stuck with me the most. So little of what I do is about the performance, it’s all about the studio space, the community I build with fellow dancers, the performance is a vehicle that we use to share our craft.
How would you describe community?
In big places like New York or D.C., I can go to a dance class and I’ll be seeing my peers and my colleagues and see kids younger than me, see people in their ’60s taking dance for the first time; those places have a very obvious sense of this is where dance happens, there are spaces for dance theaters everywhere. Even when I went to D.C., it’s a smaller dance scene (population-wise) but there are still a lot of dance resources.
When I was in Louisiana, my community became defined by children because that’s who I was working with, but I seemed to be the only one who defined themselves as an artist. Many of my friends there and people I met had artistic forms of expression, but they would never have defined themselves as an artist, whereas I live and breathe and eat and sleep dance, it’s such a defining part of who I am. I had a friend there who did photography and, in a way, she became my kind of community because we both were sort of on the fringe.
How do people react when you tell them you’re a dancer?
When people meet you and they don’t know that you do dance, I’ve found that their understanding of what dance is is so interesting! They’ll ask me if I dance on a table (no, I don’t) or assume I’m a ballerina, so I’ve developed elevator speeches to fit who I was talking to and to make it relate. And when I was teaching children, I wanted to really emphasize that I wasn’t the only form of a professional dancer, that you could be on Broadway or in a classical training company or in a modern dance company or choreograph, but I was the only one that they saw in this town in Louisiana, so that was kind of a lot of pressure. There was a lot of pressure to try and represent the entire field of dance, which is obviously impossible, so I felt like my community there was much smaller and more defined by what I was able to do or who I was able to reach out to.
What’s your community like in St. Petersburg?
I’m a native to St. Pete, so my community here is more personal and includes my family history, like my grandfather being the Green Devil of St. Pete High School. My sense of community here is much deeper than what I can do for dance, it’s much more about where do we infiltrate spaces, how can I be a part of this bigger picture. In Louisiana I felt this need to prove myself and prove the worth of my career whereas here in St. Pete I don’t feel that pressure, now I’m more focused on carving out more spaces for where dance can happen. It feels really rich and ripe for dance and other art forms here.
Switching gears a little bit, how does the design of a dance studio facilitate movement?
I know dance can happen in any space, but when I’m thinking of a studio, it’s about the openness that you find. A huge open space to me is like a blank canvas for which I can then be in the space and move and shape the space with my movements, it’s not dictating anything to me. I like big, open, airy studios with high ceilings and natural light, if possible, for a dance studio, something that isn’t going to define your movement but rather let your movement be seen. Mirrors are essential for a dance studio, especially when working on a technique, and they not only change your sense of space but they give you a lot of feedback about what you’re doing in a space and where you fit in the space because visually you can see yourself reflected. It gives you a different way of looking at the space.
What’s the first thing you notice about a space?
The first thing I notice is the light, or lack thereof. And then the size of it, and how the size of it relates to the feel of the space.
How do you help your students feel comfortable in an introductory dance class?
I think my responsibility as a teacher, no matter what, is that I offer my students a safe place to feel comfortable and explore. I can’t change or force someone to feel comfortable, but I can offer them a space where they can be comfortable, to be your authentic self. I think my goal is to be approachable and to set clear expectations and boundaries so that students know what they’re working with. Dance can make people feel vulnerable, there’s a vulnerability in using your body to express yourself that can be really scary and it’s about the movement that comes out of the body. I think people feel nervous about dance because they feel vulnerable but that’s one of the things people love most about dance. It’s that vulnerability that connects us as humans too, there’s a kind of vulnerability in all kinds of art that allows you to let someone into your process or your performance, and that starts in the classroom.
Can you explain a bit more what the Alexander Technique is that you teach?
The Alexander technique is not a dance technique, it’s for anyone who has a body. What I do as a teacher of this method is help you look at yourself and your habits of moving and your habits of thinking, so it deals with the mind-body connection. The idea is that you aren’t going to separate or dissociate and think one way while your body does another thing, there’s some type of connection, so it’s about how habit of thought and habit of movement are related. I help students figure out what that looks like for them, and how to choose to do something different and it’s really about me being a facilitator of discovery. It relates to everything, from how you drive in your car to taking a ballet class, it’s the same body doing those actions
What’s the most important thing we can start doing to improve this connection?
I think if we were to take a minute or an actual breath before responding or reacting to something or a situation, I think we would find ourselves not only using our physical body differently because we’ve given ourselves time to pause but we would find ourselves having less anxiety because we would be in state of bodily awareness in living with pauses. Just take a breath and pause, and then decide to move forward or stay where you are or respond to whatever request. In that second you take to pause, you’re actually giving yourself a chance to see a situation more clearly as opposed to that knee-jerk reaction. Physically, that looks different for each person, but that sense of pause or ease could manifest in each person if we encourage that.
Finally, what does the word “creative” mean to you?
I think that creating means to take something from nothing, an idea or a simple thing and then expand on it. I don’t know if it’s something you can teach, but I think it’s the ability to look at something going on and allow yourself to see things in a different way so you can change it or make it into something personal or something people can connect to and turn it into art.