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This is December 24th in my Dance Inpirations advent calendar

Woytek Lowski Gillian Cornish John O'Brien Malcolm Williamson Jackie Barratt Pussy (Diana Payne Myers) Christopher Hampson David Wall  
Susie Cooper Daniel Jones Ivan Nagy Wayne Sleep Betty Anderton Harald Krytinar Victor Alvarez Pat Neary
Klaus Beelitz Belinda Quirey Irena Pasaric Mark Morris Thomas Edur Ann Hogben Graham Bond Tania Fairbairn
Picture of Hungarian dancer doing the czardas
Not Tania, but a Hungarian csárdás dancer in Budapest, c. 1991

As it comes to the end of this advent calendar, I’m left with a very difficult decision: I still have all kinds of people I’d love to pay homage to, but advent is advent, and I’ve got to stop because tomorrow’s christmas. So I applied a criterion – it had to be someone, or an event involving someone, which I find myself constantly referring to in conversation with friends and colleagues.

And that made it easy. Tania Fairbairn is one of the quietest, calmest, most serene teachers I’ve ever met. In fact, the only other person I know who can command such utter calm and zen-like concentration in a studio is Glen Tetley. When you see this kind of calmness at work, you wonder if there can’t be some kind of evening class in how to do it, because it is so much less tiring than shouting and keeping order (well, I presume it is – I’ve never achieved it myself).

At the time I met her, she was teaching Character & National at Central School of Ballet, and the occasion was probably a 2nd year character class, or a rehearsal for an end of term performance. Whatever it was, it was character dance, a cavernous studio with a cast of thousands of energetic adolescent dancers, and Tania. As always, she never onced used a ‘teacher’s voice’, never shouted, never talked down to students. She could talk to 30 people in the same quiet, calm, pleasant tone of voice that she would talk to one person, and something in the calmness she exuded made everyone else quiet & receptive too.

So I was a little surprised when I heard her voice rise ever so slightly and call the class to attention – I’d never seen this happen in one of her classes before, and nor had they, so the entire class stopped dead in silence. What she said, in a quiet, friendly and totally unconfrontational way, went something like this “I don’t like having to raise my voice in a class, because if I raise my voice and start calling you to order, it creates an atmosphere which goes against the spirit of the dance I’m trying to teach you, and if that happens, then the point of teaching it is lost. So could you try and keep the noise down so that we can maintain the right atmosphere for the work?”.

And for the rest of that class, that’s exactly what they did.

It’s so obvious, really, that an atmosphere of fear, recrimination, balletic despotism and shouting is totally inappropriate if you want to teach dances which are supposed to belong, if only notionally or historically, to communities; which are all about conviviality and being sociable; which take place at celebrations with too much food and wine like weddings and holidays. Through understanding the spirit of those dances, Tania recreates for dancers the sociability, ritual, joy and fun that lies at the heart of them, and it’s bliss to watch and to play for. She also generates respect for these dances and the peoples they represent, which, as a former rant shows, is an issue close to my heart.

But in fact, fear, recrimination, despotism & shouting is the wrong way to approach any kind of dance or music, (even if there is still a residue of teachers – and frighteningly, parents – who believe that ballet isn’t ballet unless it hurts and screws you up). If there’s anything that connects all the people in this calendar, and all those who would have been in it if advent only lasted longer, it’s the absence of those things in their work and in their dealings with people. If you’ve read other entries, you’ve probably noticed that certain words keep cropping up – warmth, generosity, wit, sense of humour, conviviality. These are the things which are conducive to music making & dancing, and which I admire most in others. Happy Christmas.

One thought on “Tania Fairbairn”
  1. Just came across this by chance and had to comment…My daughter Olivia absolutely loves being taught by Tania Fairbairn. she is taking class with her next week at RBS and is looking forward to it! she says Tania hasa lovely gently way of teaching. bravo Tania!!

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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist