In 1995, Zoe Fyfe turned her barn in Vermont into a dance studio and opened it up to adults and children alike. In 1996, she moved to California, and she has been teaching at Lick-Wilmerding for 12 years. Now Zoe is preparing for her 12th winter dance concert, a collaboration between the dancers’ choreography and her own. The show is guided by the techniques and skills that students have learned from her in the three courses of dance at LWHS—Dance 1, Dance 2, and Dance Ensemble, a class for juniors and seniors to work together.
For as long as Zoe can remember, she has never had to ask why, she has just always known that she would dance. Ever since she was a child, dance was the answer to “what do you want to do when you grow up?”, a question that leads most children to answer, “fireman” or “circus performer.” Dance was a driving force for her, a constant well of inspiration that never seemed to dry out. The fact that she never had to question her deep love of dance is what made it feel the most natural. Looking back, she says that her life may have been moving forwards on one track, but she never ran out of different angles, different chapters and different ways in which to explore dancing, for herself and for her students.
Zoe decided to teach high schoolers because for her, they are at an extremely volatile time in their lives, when everything around them is changing.
“Dance is honestly one of the most powerful means to learn about yourself, pushing yourself artistically, relating to the world, relating to others, finding your place through expression, opening people’s eyes to things they’ve never seen before. Allowing people to feel things, through watching a physical art form.”
This summer Zoe traveled to Italy to learn a new dance technique, called Floor-Barre. The technique was created by Zena Rommett almost 55 years ago and has slowly gained a devoted following of dancers as well as non-dancers. It is based on the concept that when practicing the basic technique of ballet, the pull of gravity can cause a dancer’s alignment to become uncentered. When practicing these techniques on the floor, gravity is no longer an issue, and the focus becomes more about body alignment and muscle position instead of worrying about falling over or having to stay balanced. As Zena stated, it is “taking the effort of standing out of the equation.”
The technique is not limited to ballet dancers. In fact, people of all ages learn it to improve their strength and body alignment. Floor-Barre is especially helpful for injured dancers who need to go back to the basics, re-learning and re-teaching their bodies the foundations of ballet in an environment where injury is almost non existent. Followers of the technique include Patrick Swayze, Lar Lubovitch, Tommy Tune and Judith Jamison, the artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Jamison once said, “I try to start my day off with a chapter of the Bible and Floor-Barre.” Zena died in November of 2010, passing the Zena Rommett Floor-Barre Foundation on to her daughter, Camille Rommett.
In order to spread the technique all over the world and allow others to carry it on, dancers can become certified teachers of Floor-Barre. Much like moving up belts until one is a black belt in karate, one can move up levels in their certification of the technique. Every summer, two Floor-Barre certification classes are taught, one in New York and one in Europe, often in Italy, Zena’s native country. The certification process is a grueling one-week experience where dancers are taught every precise detail of the method. In order to maintain this precision in the technique and to keep it authentic, teachers must recertify every year, checking back in to make sure that they are keeping up to date and haven’t lost or forgotten any aspects of Floor-Barre.
The class last summer was taught in an old monastery in Venice, Italy. Zoe described it as “a colony of artists;” a hive of sorts filled with artists of all different backgrounds and different skills. Jewelers, dancers, and architects all working in the same building, creating together. The class consisted of about 40 people from all over the world. There were dancers from LA, NY, China, and all over Europe. Everyone was at different levels of their certification, from first timers to people who have been learning and teaching Floor-Barre for many years. Zoe said it was like learning a new language, and she came to really respect the technique not just as an exercise but also as a movement with its own historical base.
For Zoe, learning a new skill or technique is like opening up another door to dance. Being together with a group of people who were all passionate about the same thing stripped away the cultural differences that they may have had, leaving their love of movement.
“It becomes about the human body, we are all the same and we are here because we love dance and because we love to learn,” she said.
Zoe wants to incorporate Floor-Barre into the Lick dance community slowly and subtly, building up a foundation that will eventually feel natural. Warming up in parallel position, something she has been stressing from the beginning, is a trademark of Floor-Barre and something that Zena discovered in the early stages of creating the technique.
In classes at Lick, Zoe constantly pushes her dancers to try new things, whether it’s dancing ballet to western country music or performing an entire dance while wearing a white mask. It is clear in every piece, whether unconsciously or not, how much she has given to the dancers and how much she means to them. She strives to give them as much knowledge about dance as she can, bringing in City College hip hop artists to choreograph dances and teaching her dancers Floor-Barre.
For a lot of people, the dance room isn’t just a studio, it’s a second home where judgment and superficial negativity are left outside the door. It’s a home where they can truly be themselves, where they lean to flip upside down and share skills with each other. From teaching a ballet dancer how to “body roll” or asking a hip hop dancer to put their hands above their head and twirl, all of Zoe’s dancers are forced to dance out of their comfort zones. Much like the experience that Zoe had over the summer, being together with people who share the same passion can strip away social differences, age differences and skill differences. Zoe’s students are all falling together, leaping together and learning together. When someone comes along who is special enough to make this space, where freedom is created through dance, students gain a lifelong gift, and Zoe remains and will always remain, the Dance Mama.