Frank Augustyn is one of the best-known names in Canadian ballet. A principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada since the early 1970s, Augustyn has won accolades and international awards with his frequent dance partner Karen Kain. He is an Order of Canada recipient, holds honorary degrees from three Canadian universities, and is currently the Director of the Dance Department at Adelphi University in New York. He visited Hart House in late November as a guest instructor for Portia Wade’s afternoon class. The dancers arrived early, eager to meet the man whom Portia claims, “changed my life.”
There seems to be an abundance of PhD students in the class. Molly is in Biomedical Engineering and takes ballet so she can “stand up straight and breathe” instead of staying hunched over her desk all day. A hockey-playing tomboy while growing up, Molly says, “ballet is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
Her friend Mara agrees. Also a PhD student, but in Music, Mara has studied all forms of dance from hip-hop to salsa. Her thesis is on “Ballet Repertoire for Clarinet.” Molly describes Portia’s class as “strict ballet. You don’t find this at gym facilities. Hart House is gym-plus.”
Augustyn begins the class with a brief demonstration for the class to follow. He observes and offers specific corrections. He notices when one student’s right foot is weaker than her left, and provides every student with some individual attention as the class progresses.
He uses concrete examples to illustrate points using whatever is available as a teaching aid; even the photographer shooting the class is included in the illustration of a proper frappé. “You go up faster than you go down,” he says lifting and lowering a chair. “Your foot must go out faster so you have that extra nanosecond to bring it back in. If the photographer took a photo at that point, it would not be blurry.”
Augustyn brings the class away from the barres and has them perform a sequence in staggered groups. “When you move, use all of the music,” he says. “Never wait for the music to catch up.” He demonstrates, first pausing where there are empty spaces in the music, then with constant flow. A motion may seem to hang suspended, but there is never a full stop. “I arrive to leave,” says Augustyn. “We must help the audience see the music.”
It’s moments like these, and there are many more during the class, that will stay with these dancers as they progress in their training. Augustyn is as brilliant a teacher as he is a dancer. “When I was 13,” he recounts, “I was studying under Betty Oliphant the Director of the National Ballet. It was right in the middle of a class. She stopped, looked at me and said, ‘Frank, you are going to be a very good teacher.’ And, I thought, ‘who cares? I want to dance!’ It wasn’t until years later when I retired from dancing and was teaching one of my first classes that her words came back to me. I guess she saw some trait or something in my personality.”
In his role at Adelphi, Augustyn has done much to enhance the quality of teaching in his department, but feels there is always more to do. “What I want students to learn is the process of how to work, how to train, how to perform to the best of their abilities both artistically and intellectually. It’s the training of training,” he says. “What it’s like to persist, to feel pain and forge ahead. Not all of them will go on to careers in dance, though many of them do. They should come away inquisitive with the hunger to learn.”
“If you want to dance, you should,” he says. “Try it. Stay with it. But you will know if dance is inherent in you. After 30 days, you will know if you are a dancer.”
Augustyn knew at a very early age when he first saw ballet that is was “what I wanted to do.” He says, “My success has been based on love—my passion for the dance. It remains with me today. It’s still my goal and my vision. I’m still very much in love with the art form and I want to continue to contribute to the evolution of dance.”
Hart House ballet classes are offered each term. For more information and to register.