Fast Track to the Stage

Lily Cabatu Weiss knows how to read a room. When she enters the studio with characteristic optimism and energy, her first task is to assess what kind of day it is for her young dancers. She has her antennae tuned to what channels are open for learning, and that will help determine what kind of class she teaches. “We are a living artform,” she says. “I need to sense what my students need from day to day and week to week and across the semester. They will tell me with their body language, and I must adjust accordingly.” As dance program coordinator for Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, Weiss, 55, understands that teaching is much more than sharing her expertise—it’s about identifying potential.

And potential is something this Dallas performing arts high school is particularly known for. Weiss and her dance faculty have a reputation for sending their students on to such prestigious institutions as The Juilliard School, Ohio State University and California Institute of the Arts. Graduates can be found in the companies of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, San Francisco Ballet, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane and Lar Lubovitch. In January 2008, Christopher Vo (class of 2004) was one of Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch.” Fourteen former students have earned distinction as Presidential Scholars in the Arts.

But Weiss and her faculty don’t stand on past laurels. “We have a responsibility to take students somewhere by the time they graduate, and we have to be kept to task,” says Weiss. “If they come to us with strong technique, we need to make sure they improve.” With 140 majors, standing still is not in the plan.

At the Head of the Class
Weiss started teaching at Houston’s High School for Performing & Visual Arts shortly after finishing her MA at Texas Women’s University. “I wasn’t much older than the students,” remembers Weiss. “Now that was interesting.” Three years later, she landed a job at Booker, and in 2001, she took over as dance coordinator.

It was her leadership abilities in grad school that initially caught the eye of Booker dance department founder Rosann McLaughlin Cox. “Sometimes you meet people that are great educators, others are great artists,” says Cox. “Lily is a great artist/educator. It’s a combination that you rarely find, and impli-cit in everything she does.” From the vantage point of 33 years as a colleague, Cox observes that “Lily has overseen the evolution of our curriculum.” She says, “She’s a constant learner and always refining what she is doing.”

And Weiss has been well-acknowledged for her efforts. Her lengthy list of honors includes a 1996 Texas State Dance Educator Award; Exemplary Arts Education award from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund; and Distinguished Teacher Award from National Foun-dation for Advancement in the Arts. She has been recognized seven times by the Commission on Presidential Scholars.

For several decades Weiss maintained a performance career as well, dancing in works by Heywood “Woody” McGriff, John Mead, Douglas Nielsen, Yacov Sharir, Michael Kelly Bruce and David Hochoy, and guesting with Dallas Black Dance Theatre and John Mead & Dancers. At 5'1", she excelled at speed, turns and jumps. “Quick is my normal,” she says. “And I love traveling and don’t care whether it’s up or through space.”

Fortunately she married a man supportive of her career. “My husband and children [a son and daughter, now grown] have attended every main-stage performance for the school and my own,” she boasts. But Weiss also made time to attend soccer games and watch her daughter cheer through middle school and high school. “I am as passionate about family as I am about art,” she says.

Weiss retired from performing in 2000, but she continues to choreograph for Dallas Black Dance Theatre and her students. Her work is highly physical and she says that continuing to make dances renews her commitment to the artform.

Working It
Students are admitted to the dance program by audition. Last year, 120 students auditioned for 38 available slots. Three dance courses per semester is the requirement (although most take four), in addition to the standard high school academic subjects. Class offerings are broad, covering folklorico, flamenco and African dance, in addition to modern, jazz and ballet. Over the years students have performed works by Donald McKayle, Paul Taylor and Dwight Rhoden. Students must also collaborate with artists from another discipline before they graduate in a program called “Creations.”

The schedule is rigorous. Nevertheless, some students also study at local studios, though Weiss keeps a watchful eye for overtraining. “They see dancing at their studios as more of a hobby, while here, they are graded and much more is expected from them,” she says. “We can’t control what they are doing in their home studio, such as dancing on hard surfaces, which can result in injury.”

Students perform in one of four ensembles—Repertory Dance Company I and II, LunaSol Ballet Folklorico and African Dance Ensemble—rehearsing a minimum of four hours a week and much more when a guest artist is in town. Choreographer Jessica Lang, who visited in January to set work for a March performance, has visited Booker frequently. “Every time I come back it’s better. These kids give me what I need and I feel fed as an artist,” says Lang. “I am amazed by how much the students know and what they have seen. It’s rare to find that in a high school environment.”

Personal Attention Is Key
Including Weiss, Booker faculty consists of six full-time and nine part-time teachers. They work on a block schedule: over a two-day period, full-time staff each teach nine classes. Weiss carries one class less to allow time for administrative duties. Faculty meetings are loud and lively affairs, often filled with laughter. “There’s always a healthy dialogue, with lots of opinions in the mix,” Weiss says. “We can’t sit back and rest. We are constantly reevaluating what we are doing. And we have no trouble throwing out what we believe.”

“Lily creates a climate where we feel like artists in the professional world,” says faculty member Garfield Lemonius, 36, who danced with Dallas Black Dance Theatre before finishing his MFA at SMU. “There’s no vacuum here. It feels more like teaching at a university. We are encouraged to grow as dancers and choreographers and she models what is expected from us.”

Twice yearly adjudication for every student is as informative to Weiss and her faculty as it is to the students. “Of course we know the student needs to meet us halfway, but we are always asking ourselves how we are serving this particular student,” says Weiss. They evaluate levels continuously—the rate at which a dancer blooms varies tremendously. “Plateaus are part of a dancer’s life and we have to allow for them. You never know when that lightbulb will go off,” Weiss admits. “Sometimes they return to us in the fall after attending summer programs, having made serious improvement, and we need to adjust.”

Academic progress is tracked just as closely. If a dance major needs help, the school has an intervention program. “We make every effort to assist students in being successful both artistically and academically,” says Weiss.

A wave of energy follows Weiss into the classroom. Movement comes first, so when she uses precious studio time to talk, students know they’d do well to listen. With a crisp and direct manner of speaking she is demanding, but with a purpose. “I am all about alignment and artistry,” she says. “I still grapple with how best to teach the art part, as teens are so focused on their technique. I remind them that there will always be someone who can jump, turn and have higher extensions than you and how are you going to stand out.”  

And her students do indeed distinguish themselves. Weiss revels in their many accomplishments, whether they’re achieved in a professional dance company or in some other sector of the arts. They come to an arts high school to cross a threshold, she says, and her job is to see they have the necessary tools to take the next step—if they so decide. “You are still a professional even if you are not dancing on the big stage,” she insists. “We do ourselves a disservice by narrowing the definition of an artist. We are not raising imitators, but creative minds who are making individual statements and solving problems through movement.” DT

Nancy Wozny writes from Houston, TX.

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