Liz Frankel has been teaching ballet at Tisch School of the Arts since 1994.
What made you go to KSG in the first place? How long did you stay?
In 1984 when I was briefly apprenticing with Atlanta Ballet, I tore my ACL doing a saut de basque [a jumping turn]. Goodbye, ballet; hello, modern! The injured knee continued to worsen over the years, and in March 1998, having just turned 36, I had reconstruction surgery. When it came time for me to return to teaching at Tisch in September, I still couldn’t tendu. I couldn’t send the neurological signals to initiate the motion to stretch behind my leg. I’d heard both phenomenal stories and scary tales about Kathy, but I knew I wanted to study with her. Thus began one of the most rewarding tutorships of my life. I studied with her privately in her 5M studio until she could no longer teach there. I took her floor barre class until the time shifted to an earlier hour, one too early for me with my long commute and children at home, an occupation she always understood and honored.
Did KSG ever make up an exercise for you? If so, what was it? Do you still do it?
Kathy did not create an exercise for me, but she repurposed a couple. I was (and am) a “knee person,” like herself. As she said, “Once a knee person, always a knee person.” Two of the most grueling exercises, which addressed knees, were ‘Chee-Chee’ and ‘Malik’s Exercise.’ The joke about the former’s name was that a person traveling in the deep, dark jungle encountered a group of cannibals. The traveler was offered the choice between being cannibalized or “chee-chee,” which was equally painful. To perform Chee-Chee, I’d sit with my back against the wall, my hip and knee joints at 90-degree angles, as if seated in a chair without a chair. I’d then squeeze the Circle of Steel (or whatever that instrument of torture is called) between my thighs until my femurs were parallel to each other and HOLD the position, while Kathy gently pulsed one leg in tiny motions towards my centerline to the count of 100, and then the other leg.
Malik’s exercise was invented when, one day after school and bored in his mother’s studio, he sat on the foot pedal of the chair and bounced up and down. One performs the exercise by sitting with the sit bones on the very front edge of the foot pedal with one’s legs again in parallel as if sitting on a chair. Kathy had a very heavy wrought iron rod about a yard long. One steadies oneself with the rod, held like a cane, straight out to the side of the body and the other arm in the same position without a support. When balanced, one lifts the cane-side leg, WITHOUT SHIFTING, straight in front and parallel to the floor. In this position, one minimally works the foot pedal (on which one is sitting) up and down.
Is there something in your movement practice or teaching practice that came from or evolved from a movement or an image from Kathy Grant?
I think of Kathy every day, when in one form of motion or another--most frequently, when mounting and descending stairs. Through her tutelage, I discovered muscles I didn’t know I had and I understood dancing in an intensely, fundamentally different way. I try to communicate this deep sense of motion to my students. One image I frequently return to is “zipping up those tight jeans” as a way for the dancers to visualize how to recruit their lower abdominals into good pelvic alignment.
Do you recall a correction she gave to you? Or some comments she had about you and your body?
Often, when I was on the Cadillac trying to do, for example, a teaser, she’d bark at me that I was, “weak, weak, WEAK!!!” Which was correct. Then she’d stab me in the solar plexus and then bingo! A perfect teaser!
The last time I saw her when she was still very much herself but on bed rest at her apartment, I arrived wearing a long-sleeved T-shirt tucked into blue jeans. As I sat slumped on her bed, she poked my mid-flesh, teasing me about my middle-aged roll. There was no hiding anything from her ever. I was amused.
Do you have a personal memory or story you would like to share?
I was awed by her mat class, which was super difficult to partake in first thing in the morning. There were fun, instructive things thrown into it, too, such as ‘Jane Fonda, ‘kick, kick, stretch…fankick to the other side (dancing on a dime)’ and always right before Thanksgiving break, cartwheels on the diagonal to each side.
I once found a cartoon in The New Yorker magazine that I couldn’t wait to deliver to her. It pictured a seated dog and his master. The dog had a thought bubble, which read, “Why always ‘good dog’ and never ‘great dog?’” She taped it to her 5M studio wall above her phone stand. I was very proud.
After she had her stroke in Colorado, she was flown to a nearby hospital. She later told us that, while she was supine on the floor of the helicopter, she was positioned in such a way that she enjoyed the view of the pilot’s attractive derrière during her ride to the hospital. She had an extraordinary outlook!
One of her strokes left it difficult, maybe impossible, for her to swallow. She re-taught herself by “making it a dance.” Also, when the hospital staff insisted she had to stay in bed, she insisted on getting up, walking to her bathroom and washing her underthings in the sink as a method of occupational therapy.
What do you think is an important thing for people to remember about Kathy?
Kathy was a juggernaut, a seeker of truth, the most generous soul, unafraid, a trailblazer. She rescued the careers of countless dancers and helped others fix themselves. She taught self-reliance. She did not suffer fools gladly. She demanded unwavering attention and respect, and she deserved them. We have a duty to pass on her lessons and state her name, attaching it to those lessons.
How do you think Kathy would feel about the current atmosphere of the Pilates world?
I don’t know. I think she saw what direction it was headed, though I never heard her speak on the matter.