Walter Nicks: the teacher's teacher.
During his childhood in Cleveland, he became what he called a "Fred and Ginger groupie." Nicks not only watched all the Rogers and Astaire films; he also brought the dances home in his head and feet and taught them to his sisters. Little did he know that he was learning lessons for his own future; it never occurred to him at that time that dance could be a profession. As he describes it, he "backed into dance."
In 1944, after Nicks had spent a year and a half as a premed student at Howard University, his sister Sophie--and a bit of "karma"--recruited him into Cleveland's Karamu Dance Company. "We need a male dancer," Sophie told him, "and you're it." At Karamu he came under the tutelage of Eleanor Frampton, teacher and founding company director and a former Denishawn member. Frampton recognized his talent and urged him to go to New York City for further study. A performance by Katherine Dunham and her company "lit the fire," he says. "I knew I had to dance!"
The Dunham School provided a performing arts education far beyond its time. He began his studies with Dunham and Syvilla Fort, then studied ballet with Todd Bolender, who was then with Balanchine's American Ballet; modern dance with Jose Limon and Myra Kinch; Dunham technique with Talley Beatty, Lavinia Williams, and Tommy Gomez; jazz with Marie Bryant (Jack Cole's longtime assistant); dance history; music for dancers; and electives--tap, East Indian, and Spanish dance.
Lectures on folk cultures and art appreciation were also provided, and his study of languages brought him fluency in Portuguese, Swedish, French, and Spanish. Nicks added anatomy and kinesiology to his curriculum by reading Gray's Anatomy, at the New York Public Library.
Nicks proved so gifted that he was offered a fellowship to the school's master-teacher certification program in Dunham technique. Dunham conducted classes herself in a manner he remembers as "rigorous!" Trainees had to master her vocabulary and be able to explain their reasons and goals for choosing a particular exercise or movement as they planned their classes. They also had to understand the needs of their students and adapt material to their age and skill levels.
For Nicks, teaching had always gone hand in hand with choreography, and he felt it was a wellspring for his creative work. He choreographed a pas de deux that was incorporated into the repertory of the Dunham company; worked with and danced in the Hanya Holm Broadway production of My Darlin' Aida; assisted Balanchine--before he was replaced by Herbert Ross--on House of Flowers; and assisted Jack Cole on Jamaica. During this same time, Nicks managed to teach in Mexico (1952), to organize a company that toured the Southern Hemisphere, and to join the faculty of the Dance Theatre of Harlem school at its inception (he remained at DTH until 1973).
Colleagues speak glowingly of his work in theater and television, on Broadway, and as a teacher. Donald McKayle notes that Nicks "has a wealth of information and wisdom to impart--from performing to his knowledge of the voodoo and dances of South and Central America."
Over the years, theater and dance luminaries who have studied with him include Chita Rivera, Marlon Brando, Bernard Johnson, Joan Myers Brown, Pearl Reynolds, Debbie Allen, and Tanaquil LeClercq (who took time out from New York City Ballet to take his classes).
Teaching in Europe in 1959 at the International Summer Academy of Dance in Germany, Nicks honed his pedagogy to develop the essential expression of the individual dancer by focusing on well-trained minds, as well as bodies Susanne Linke and Pina Bausch were in his classes. That experience started everything for him as a teacher. Germany offered him a theater, budget, and a modern dance company. "Europe had a different attitude toward the arts," he remembers. "Ordinary people had a strong interest and knowledge of the arts. Their governments gave them money, and cities competed to have the best cultural offerings. This climate brought a multiracial body of dance professionals to the continent in response."
In 1960 Nicks was invited to Stockholm to teach a summer course at the Ballet Academy; that led to a professorship in 1966 to Dans Hogskolan, a university devoted to dance. He still maintains his connection with it. "Sweden proved to me that I wasn't a fluke," he says, "but that my background was solid and my success deserved, and that I had something to offer." Nicks urges his students to reveal their own feelings in relation to music, space, and other performers onstage. "You don't need to be a virtuoso to control your body," he explains, "but rather, you should know your body."
While teaching in Poitiers, France, where he cofounded and directed the Center for the Formation of Professional Dance (1982-1992), Nicks became convinced that the truly professional teachers must have not only performing experience but also exposure to dance composition. He adds, "And teaching works similarly for performers by helping them connect in new ways to choreography and to better understand an audience."
According to Carmen de Lavallade, "Nicks is passionate about his work and the people he works with. He's a very generous person, and he . . . has become more passionate and has continued to grow with the times."
Martha Myers has been dean of the summer American Dance Festival in Durham, North Carolina, since 1969. She has taught composition at Connecticut College and currently conducts choreolab ADF workshops. A new scholarship to ADF was cremated in her honor in 1996.
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|Title Annotation:||A tribute to teachers who have produced outstanding results: Great Starts, American Teacher Series; 10 years a teacher in the NEA's Artist-in-Schools Program|
|Date:||Nov 1, 1997|
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