The unorthodox thinking of ballet teacher Kathryn Irey
Published in San Diego CityBEAT Magazine Issue Number 143 – 5/11/05
by Kris Eitland
With a mischievous grin, Kathryn Irey warns her new students that she’s an unorthodox dance teacher. Pink tights and fancy slippers aren’t required in her ballet classes. Instead, dancers of all ages and abilities wear multi-colored socks and wild combinations of sweats. Some wear spongy toe separators used for pedicures to spread their toes on the floor. You may see a dancer wearing a giant Mexican sombrero to help find the proper head alignment when turning. Depending on her mood, Irey may have the pianist play a classical sonata or a rousing honky-tonk during a warm-up of tendus and plies mixed with hand flings and body swings. For some classes, she just pops in a CD and experiments.
Her experiments are evidently successful. Her name often appears in the “special thank you”sections of dance-concert programs. Gina Angelique, artistic director and choreographer of Eveoke Dance Theater, calls Kathryn Irey “one of her greatest dance mentors,”and Nancy McCaleb of McCaleb Dance says, “Irey is an international phenomenon.” While many of her students agree, some say she’s critical and intimidating” but one thing is certain: Irey is a powerful presence in the San Diego dance community and beyond.
A petite lady with curly silver hair and a big vocabulary, Irey has a curious knowledge of varied subjects, as if she’s memorized an encyclopedia. While she no longer demonstrates difficult dance combinations, she is an explicit and forceful director. She says by moving less, she actually sees more.
“Keen observation makes me a better teacher,” Irey said. “Very few older ballet teachers leap around the room. Perhaps that’s because they’re wise. You can never get a dancer to move like you do by showing them. You have to explain it conceptually. Sometimes I’ll move a dancer’s body slightly, or briefly demonstrate an arm placement, but I find it’s best for a dancer to acquire the movement from within, not from watching someone demonstrate.”
Irey studies and gently corrects her students as they bend, point and flex, like a proud lioness watching her cubs. Instead of delivering analogies about moving like a pretty butterfly, she tells clever stories and refers to anatomy, physics, and ancient philosophers. When students perform solid pirouettes, she encourages them to celebrate the achievement with a resounding “Grraaah!”
Since 1983, she’s owned Stage 7 School of Dance in North Park, and she lives in a cozy apartment nearby with her dog Sunny, a fluffy Sheltie who loves to nibble on treats and shiny jewelry.
Between sips of blood-orange tea one Sunday afternoon, she said one of her greatest pleasures is to see students venture into new dance genres.
“I am so moved by seeing their evolution,” Irey said, as she recalled seeing one of her ballet students, Cihtli “La Gallardi” Ocampo, perform Flamenco at the Turquoise Bistro in Pacific Beach. Ocampo, also a tap dancer, “moved to Spain and connected with one of the most famous Flamenco families, the Agujetas,” Irey said. “She agreed to teach their son tap if they’d share the secrets of Flamenco with her. I was so moved by her performance. Cihtli had two kick-butt singers and musicians, and I thought, ‘Wow, now she’s doing international tours.’”
Another student, Cori Olinghouse, went on to Bennington College to study dance, film, and writing. “She did lots of improvisation and modern technique,” Irey said. “Now she’s dancing with Trisha Brown in New York. It’s so exciting to see that.”
Still another, Rachel Sinclair, is a dance teacher in England. “Students often struggle with hard concepts in my classes, but they take what works for them and who they are and they evolve.”
Irey evolved as a dancer, too, and says her parents were her most influential teachers. “My parents were unorthodox and shook us up. They took the whole family to cultural events and encouraged us to look at things in new ways. They taught me to own and direct my own learning process.”
Irey was born in Germany and lived there with her family until she was 4, while her father, a pathologist, built a laboratory. When her family moved to Washington, D.C., she enrolled in ballet classes.
“My first ballet teacher was not instrumental as an artist,” Irey said, “and in my first pointe class, I was suffering and nobody noticed. I thought, ‘No one is helping me, so I have to do this myself.’ I experimented and released my ankles, and voila. That taught me that even the best teacher can’t explain everything, so it’s important for educators to talk about all of the points of entry in dance ‘like a house with three doors’: the mind, body and spirit.”
Irey says people learn in different ways and by using the three different points of entry, she has a better chance of reaching them. “Some people are very visual and need a map to understand a movement,” Irey said. “Others do well if I describe a state of emotion. And many people link information well with music. I link with music. If I hear a piece of music that I heard when I was 11, I can remember the entire choreography. I think it’s helpful for people to take notice of how they link information. If they do that, won’t they be more effective learners?”
For decades Irey has worked as an arts educator, researcher and collaborator and has developed a literacy-based dance curriculum. She serves on community and dance event boards, but she’s not stuck on ballet. She’s senior editor and executive advisor for the International Argentine Tango Showcase/Competitions held each February and for years has helped plan the North Park Spring Festival, complete with a dance stage to showcase dozens of local artists.
This year the festival is set for Sunday, May 15, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on University Avenue, between 30th and 32nd Streets. The free event will feature more than 150 booths, an Art Village with interactive activities, international foods and five stages of live entertainment. Last year, the dance stage was the greatest attraction. Irey says this year they have even more genres on the bill, including modern, salsa, Polynesian, hip-hop and Flamenco. And some good ol’ ballet, too.
An adjunct professor at San Diego State University, Irey also teaches a class for future teachers that uses dance as a learning tool. She says dance can help people learn and feel confident, but first they must “access their own power and freedom.”
At age 17 Irey left her family in Washington, D.C., to study ballet at the Arts Educational Trust in London. During her two years there, she studied ballet, acting and music and often sneaked away to find other teachers.
“I discovered a wonderful Hungarian woman named Marie Fay,” Irey said, “and she operated on the assumption that you could access your own power. That was very enlightening.”
Irey soon began her dance career with National Ballet of Canada, Toronto, and then joined one of Germany’s leading ballet companies, Deutsche Ballett am Rhein, and toured internationally for five years, performing classics and contemporary works by well-known European choreographers. She returned to the U.S. and for seven years worked for American companies that include Pittsburgh Ballet Theater and American Festival Ballet.
“I danced with Danes, Russians and the English and I saw it all,” she said. “I had lots of teachers and wanted to see how things were done. I kept diaries on all of my teachers.”
The best dancers know how to complete decisions that support their freedom in a microsecond, Irey said. But then with smile and a toss of her head she added that dance is not reserved for performance or professionals.
“Becoming a dancer is not the point,” she said. “I have accountants, librarians, bank executives, attorneys and lots of teachers who take my beginning class; we call it ‘bone-head’ class, ha! They’ve had little or no dance training and they have fun and feel great when they dance. Our bodies don’t lie. Our bodies feel positive because we feel power when we dance. The art of dance has been around since the beginning of time and it was not for stage performance. It was a social ritual.
“Dance can make everyone feel articulate and confident and own power. We as a culture don’t train ourselves to be physically conscious; physical education and dance are a good way to do that. We need to learn to harness our own kinetic wisdom.”