Textbooks and Pointe Shoes: The Secret Life of Dr. Greenwald

Before Dr. Greenwald was a teacher here at Stuy, she was a ballet student. In this article, she reflects on her experiences with ballet and how it has affected her life.

Reading Time: 9 minutes

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By Lisa Greenwald

“You know, there’s something magical about the beauty of ballet,” describes history teacher Dr. Lisa Greenwald. Before teaching young students about history, she was a student learning ballet. She still dances ballet, but in a modified and less intense format. However, her experiences dancing ballet have affected her life in a large way, and now, she reflects on her life with ballet.

What sparked your interest in ballet?

What sparked my interest in ballet were two things: my mother took me to a creative movement class when I was about four. I got to run around the studio and pretend I was a butterfly or a rainbow. Then, she took me to see The Nutcracker at Lincoln Center, and I said, “I want to be like that.”

Did ballet classes live up to its competitive environment stereotype? Can you trust anyone?

There’s competition everywhere. Indeed it’s a very “only the top dancers get in anywhere [environment],” but you’d be surprised at how much camaraderie there is. In a performance, 99 percent of all ballet dancers are in the background, so the chances that you’re going to be a principal dancer are very few. But even if you’re a principal dancer, you have to dance with other people. The only way you can study in a school for hours a day with the same people is for them to be your family, to work together, and enjoy dancing together. My daughter’s a dancer, and when she’s on stage, she absolutely loves it, because she’s exchanging glances and communicating with everybody else onstage.

How did it feel going from regular ballet shoes to pointe shoes? Was it a turning point in your life?

Lots of girls want to put on pointe shoes, because they look really magical, and you get to stand on your toes. Only, that hurts. And it particularly hurt in those days. Technology has improved things, so nowadays, there’s all sorts of materials that you can put in your shoes, and even the shoes themselves have evolved. In order to really dance well on your toes, you need to do it all the time. I did it sometimes, but it wasn’t every day for two hours to three hours a day, and that's what dancers who are practicing to become professionals do every day. My daughter dances on pointe every day, and her feet are incredibly strong. I always say that her feet should be registered as a lethal weapon. It’s meant to look magical on stage, but you could be in excruciating pain with a smile on your face.

How did it feel to be on stage and to perform in front of a live audience?

Being on stage is a strange thing. If you’re really on stage and you’re surrounded by stage lights, you generally look out and it’s black, and that can be very intimidating, to just see the blackness all around you. I don’t think I ever got used to that sense, because I didn’t perform enough, and I never got used to it. But my daughter, who performs in multiple performances every year, loves that. For her, coming onto the stage in the flood of light, darkness all around, that just lights her up. For me, I felt almost at sea, or too vulnerable. But again, that’s about discipline. If you do it all the time, you get used to it. And I just didn’t do it enough to get used to it.

How did ballet classes change you as a person or impact you as a teacher?

They changed me enormously. I think this goes for anybody who studies any kind of art form seriously: you know that the only way to get good at that [art] is to drill it intensely. You also know that what you put in, you get out. It means that if you want to just enjoy dancing with other people and be pretty good at it, then you have to practice it somewhat, but you don’t have to practice it five hours a day. If you want to be the best ballet dancer, then yes, you have to practice six to seven days a week, all day. It is a very visceral experience. And I think that’s a lesson for life: you get what you put into it.

The other thing that it taught me, which goes against the grain of a lot of high school education, is that direct teaching from teachers is enormously valuable. Your teachers are the experts: they model [ballet] and show it to you. And it made me have an enormous appreciation for my teachers. I enjoyed having teachers and showing them appreciation for what they gave me. You really learn how to show full appreciation and respect for your teachers when you’re studying something outside of the classroom.

It’s also funny because, in the end, I realized that [ballet classes impacted me], but not at the time. When I went to my ballet teacher’s memorial service, I listened to everyone talk about him, saying, “We loved when he did this; we loved when he did that.” I thought, “Oh my goodness, those were things that I tried to bring to my classroom. They totally impacted the way I teach: the way I ask a lot of my students and try to give a lot. I really believe that my students can achieve a lot. I just have to help them get there, but I don't have this idea that some people are just dumb and some are just smart. I really don’t believe that.

Why did you choose to pursue a doctorate instead of pursuing a career in dance?

There are a bunch of reasons for that. In high school, I really enjoyed dancing ballet. I studied with really good ballet teachers and performed on occasion. It was very meaningful to me and to my life. But I did not practice enough to try to become a professional.

Also, I probably wouldn’t have physically been able to do it. Ballet has specific requirements. To be a professional, you need to have a degree of flexibility, and your feet have to be structured in such a way that you can withstand professional dancing.

Even in high school, I had a sense that over the long term, a more intellectual profession would be more satisfying. And the chances of my becoming a successful professional dancer were slim, so I wanted to go to college. A piece of me regretted not having tried to dance professionally because I loved dancing and because I don't like giving up on activities I've committed myself to, but I think I made the right choice.

Can you tell us more about your ballet experiences?

[My time in Paris] was such an important part of my life. I ended up learning French and living and breathing French. I spoke French all the time and spent my days reading French. I had many French friends who I still hold as my dearest friends. Most importantly, my eldest daughter was born in France, so I became a mother in France.

For immigrants and the first generation, you really live between two cultures. You straddle being an American but having another side: your culture of origin. I’m a third generation immigrant. My father's grandparents came from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and spoke German and Yiddish. My mother's great-grandparents came from the Pale of Settlement of the Russian Empire (the only part of Russia where most Jews were allowed to live)—probably in what is present day Ukraine—but I'm not sure as I don't have the records and haven't had time to do the research yet. My parents were so Americanized that there was little from the Old World that they brought to me. So it was an incredible experience to live in another culture and speak in another language. You’re living in this other world that has different values and expectations. I became a mother in France, and my expectations of parenting were different than that of many New York moms.

In France, I took full advantage of everything a different culture had to offer. I went to museums; I studied with this ballet dancer from the Paris Opera; I went to theater and saw films; I traveled a lot around France and hung out with friends. I lived with my husband, [who] also spoke fluent French. He was a journalist who worked in France, so we really had a very meaningful life in a different country. That’s why I love this population of students at Stuy who speak different languages, have different experiences with different cultures, and move in and out of different languages without thinking about it. It was special for me then, so I appreciate it now.

What are your favorite and least favorite things about ballet?

Well, as a ballet teacher of mine used to say, “ballet is many things; comfortable is not one of them.” As I get older, it hurts, and because I don’t want to stop dancing, I’ve had to modify my dancing, so that I don’t hurt myself. That has been a sort of slow and painful process. About 10 years ago, I discovered I had a hip injury, and I thought I would never dance again. I actually thought I would never walk again properly and that I would never not have pain again, because that’s what a doctor had told me. Until I went to a physical therapist. And so, I remember saying to myself, “Oh my goodness, I can never dance again.” My physical therapist said, “Yes, you can. You just have to modify what you do”.

When she said that I thought, okay, I’m never going to complain again. I’m just going to do what I can do and not hurt myself. I just am happy when I can get through a ballet class without being in pain. Very low expectations, I know! But, there is something about ballet for me that I just come back to. I keep on thinking that I really need to stop this [ballet] soon, but what else can I do? And people will say, why don’t you just do modern dance? Why don’t you just do pilates? I’m just like, “meh.” I don’t want to exercise. You know, there’s something magical about the beauty of ballet and trying to have a beautiful line, to beautiful music, and trying to really express the music in your body in incredibly subtle ways using the motion of your body. I dance every week. It’s fun to take class with my daughter; I keep saying to her, “You can't stop taking ballet because then we won't be able to dance together.” I can’t figure out a substitute for ballet now, but I’m hoping it will come to me, and I’m hoping I won’t be in a situation where my body decides I need to stop.

If you were to go back in time, would you keep the experiences, or which part of the experience would you change?

If I could go back in time, I would probably have not taken my ballet studies as much for granted. I think I probably would have done more but then I would have become a different person. I wouldn't have done the other things that I did. I probably would not have become a professional dancer. I could've become a failed ballet dancer.

How did you react to failure when you were dancing?

It’s a very intense place. There is no room for being a cry baby. You pick yourself up and brush yourself off. I used to have exercise-induced asthma when I was a kid, and so I would sometimes gulp air, and my instructor would make fun of me and say I looked like a fish. What was I going to do? Cry? I mean, it just makes you tough and resilient. It makes you able to absorb criticism constructively and move on and not take it into the core of yourself. You say to yourself, “Oh, he or she is correcting what I’m doing, not who I am. They might not even care about who I am. They are there to make dancers.” I think that’s an excellent lesson that goes back for hundreds of years. You are not inventing things, you are a student, and once you become an expert or master, then you can go on to invent things. But you are studying a discipline, and I think studying a discipline is a very profound experience because it's bigger than you.

If you had to sum up “How To Ballet” in a few words, what would you say?

Discipline. Always working for perfection and understanding that is impossible, but working for it anyway. Just really appreciating the beauty of the movement. It’s not a sport, it’s an art. There are many girls who dance ballet nowadays where you just don’t see the art. You need to have the art, more than you need to have your leg next to your ear, more than the triple pirouette. You need the art, the aesthetics, the beauty of it. It takes a lot of hard work and discipline. Believe me, ballet dancers are not floating through air. It’s tough, tough, tough.