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03.07 HOLY CROSS’S KAELA LEE
and the Holy Cross Dance Ensemble
By Sasha Fastovskiy
Five, six, seven, eight. Kaela Lee and I meet in the dance studio at Holy Cross. The choreographer and general director of the Holy Cross dance ensembles is herself so small, she can easily fit into one of those beloved childhood jewelry boxes with the twirling ballerina. But Lee’s small frame houses a giant love of dance. For the past two years, not only has she brought her vision to various HC shows and her experience to teaching dance classes ranging from ballet to theatre movement to modern ~ her specialty, she has brought a whole different attitude towards dance.
Twice a week, Kaela meets with her students and works with them to undo most of their previous training. She explains, “Classical training doesn’t allow for a lot of creativity. They’re taught to look like pictures and must ‘grind out’ the moves. It’s a very limited way of dancing.”
Growing up, Lee never imagined that she’d become a teacher and choreographer, but early on her passion for dance became undeniable. “I’m not trained to teach; I’m learning to teach as I go along,” she says. And that might explain why her classroom technique might seem relatively unconventional, but also why her students keep coming back for more. She isn’t a stickler for the black-leotard, pink-tights dress code, and for accompaniment, she plays the music she enjoys, not necessarily the traditional classical pieces.
Lee is different from her students regarding her dance background as well. She notes that while most of her protégés come from competitive backgrounds, her upbringing was more in the modern dance world. The difference is a big one; she says that girls who grow up in the classical dance world may be in danger of having mastered all the technicalities of dance, but of not “…know[ing] how to breathe.” Lee’s instructional and motivational methods involve listening to the body more than listening to the music: “Dance must be self-explaining. They have to find out what the body can do on their own. It’s all about releasing muscle and weight and being connected to the body.”
The petite dancer’s extensive knowledge comes from her twenty-plus years as a performer. Even as she speaks of performing, the intonation of her voice takes several great leaps. “I just love performing so much. If you can hit it, you’re your own little distilled piece. It’s one piece coming together in one moment. It’s the time to think abut the movement and the steps and whittle away everything else. The more I perform, the more I think about every second. When you’re narrowly focusing on one thing, you somehow take in everything else.”
As for her students, Lee hopes that they learn to trust themselves. “They have to commit to the movement and learn to learn something new about the body. There must always be the possibility of change.” At a recent winter HC concert in which Lee’s students performed an original piece to an audience of friends, fellow students, and faculty members, the sense of movement, musicality, freedom and joy that she nurtures in them came through and lit up the stage. “It’s about letting go of old habits, opening a little window, and knowing there’s a whole world out there to relax in movement. It’s the moment to think about ‘Dance is bigger than I thought.’” Talk about a grand finale.