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Nancy Richer: From Ballet to Pilates

Thu, 03/21/2024 - 02:27
Nancy Richer’s young students are unimpressed by her ballet history, but are impressed when she tells them she danced to “Picasso Baby” in a Jay-Z music video.
Ivan Gilkes

Nancy Richer said the other day at her Water Mill Ballet and Pilates studio, Richer Movement, that she had begun dancing at the age of 3. 

“ ‘The Red Shoes’ was on TV, and my mom said to watch the dancer. ‘But I am the dancer,’ I said. Yes, I was 3. And then, whenever music would come on, any music on NPR, I was responsive — I couldn’t eat breakfast until I heard music.” 

Forthwith, her parents enrolled their daughter in a dance program in which informal ballet lessons were given, not only acceding to her wishes, but also hoping that their hyperactive child would learn some discipline. 

“‘ respectful of your classmates. . . .’ I loved it!” 

At 11, Richer, who was to go on to a professional career that took her all over the world, “moved to a serious school, Ballet Academy East, on the Upper East Side, to train with one of the best teachers in the world, Darla Hoover. She’d be flown over to Russia to teach at the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet. She was that good.” 

Then came a merit scholarship that enabled her to study during her college years at the San Francisco Ballet School, “the oldest ballet company in America,” after which she danced leading roles with the Los Angeles Ballet, at the Kennedy Center, “with George Balanchine’s muse, Suzanne Farrell, who passed down Balanchine’s ballets and taught them,” with Twyla Tharp in New York, and with the Royal Danish Ballet, “the world’s third-oldest company,” her dream job. 

She said she knew Balanchine, who established ballet in America, was buried in Sag Harbor’s Oakland Cemetery. “I go by every now and then,” she said, “to say hi to him.” 

Sitting barefoot astride a physio ball, Richer said she continued to perform until a few years ago, when, at the age of 34, she moved out here during the Covid pandemic to live with friends. Some professional dancing careers — hers lasted 15 years — weren’t as long, she agreed, “but I’m stubborn, disciplined, and happy for the opportunities — that’s why,” she said, with a smile. 

Tharp, she said, “has worked as a choreographer with Broadway companies, with ballet companies, with modern dance companies. . . . With her, one day it would be sneakers, and, on another, she’d say, ‘Put your pointe shoes on.’ You never knew, which was good.” 

When Richer came out to Water Mill, she “realized that there wasn’t a Pilates teacher like me out here, and that the community could really benefit from a Kane School-certified one who knows about anatomy, and injuries, and back pain. . . . Effective and efficient core engagement, healing back pain, and stress management I would say are my specialties.” 

Tapped at 23 as being well-suited to teach ballet, as well, Richer continues to teach a few times a week at Sara Strickland’s Hamptons Ballet Theatre School on Butter Lane in Bridgehampton. “Having had some of the best teachers, I knew I had to pass it on.” 

When her interviewer said he knew of young teens who had been told their bodies no longer fit the ballet mold, Richer said, “I have zero tolerance for that — it stays with you your whole life.” She had been told the same thing, she added, “very early on, but, as I told you, I’m stubborn. Ballet should be a joy-filled way to connect with your body — you shouldn’t take that away from a child. . . . There are still teachers like that, but, from my perspective, ballet should be a way to feel empowered and good about your body.” 

Ballet and Pilates go hand in hand, she said. “They’re very complementary. What I love about Pilates is how adaptable it is to each individual. I don’t teach groups — I’m not trying to fit people into a mold. I go one-on-one, and, in that respect, I guess I’m more of a contemporary teacher rather than a classical one who says, ‘This is how it’s done; here are the exercises.’ You want to teach the exercises that serve the bodies of your students in the best way.” 

“What I love about ballet,” she continued, “is that it makes total sense in a world that’s filled with chaos. When you find the order in it, it feels like a completely spiritual experience. I hope everybody finds something in their lives that makes them feel that way. . . . Then there’s the beauty of large groups of people working together for something bigger than themselves — the dancers, the orchestra, the audience. . . . It’s beautiful to see people partaking in excellence, whether you’re a performer, or in the orchestra, or in the audience. A director of mine in Los Angeles who had danced for Balanchine said, ‘When you’ve danced in a Balanchine ballet, you can lay your head down on the pillow at night and know you did something that day.’ “ 

“It’s a great feeling knowing you did everything you could do, that you translated greatness and excellence into your life.” 

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