Written by Soumia Hammi
"I believe I'm still studying," Martha Albrecht said to me one rainy afternoon in November. "Because when you're a teacher, you are always studying because you are always learning from your students."
Martha Albrecht, or Ms. Martha as she is called by her students, is a dance teacher and a certified poetry therapist who has been teaching for 48 years. Since she can no longer teach in person because of the pandemic, she has been holding ballet classes for all ages from Zoom and has also started two poetry therapy groups: one for teenagers and one for adults.
CHILDHOOD AND THE START OF TEACHING
Ms. Martha began studying ballet in New York when she was eight years old. "Ballet became an amazing tool for me to express myself and forget about the problems of my family and the trauma from my young childhood. Many dancers get into dance, music, and the arts because of early trauma or a dysfunctional childhood. So, it's very prevalent within the dance world to hear this story. Mine's not unique," she said with a laugh. "But I have to say that the dance was the balm that healed me to a certain extent. Many young dancers’ lives are truncated because of the intense study of the ballet. This devoted art matures dancers in so many ways much quicker than their non-dancer friends. It also stifles them to not have a so-called normal childhood.”
“In the early fifties, I studied with many of the Russian teachers that came to New York from Russia via France. Edward Villella once told me how privileged we were to be able to study with the greatest Russian dancers and teachers, and how they created some of the greatest dancers in the world.”
Unfortunately, due to an illness that kept her in bed for two years, her ballet career was cut short in her mid-twenties, and she began teaching. “I've been teaching since I'm twenty-five, and I'm seventy-three. I teach mostly ballet. I taught belly dancing too, but ballet is my first passion. Even when I was a dancer, I always knew that I would go into teaching because as I look back now, I feel that I like teaching more than I did performing."
She moved from New York to Florida and started working as a teacher in the schools of Dade County. She became dissatisfied because she wasn't teaching the way she had always wanted to. "As a young person, when I used to observe or be in ballet class, I would say, "I have to teach differently. I was going to teach to every student’s personality and to get to know those students-their culture. I think that different cultures, where my students come from, are very important as to how they learn dance."
She wasn't able to do that in the schools where she taught. "Even though I tried to teach more personally, it was very difficult in a class of twenty students. So, I gave up teaching in the schools, and I started to teach in my townhouse. I converted the first floor of my townhouse into a studio-a real studio with harlequin floors, barres, and mirrors on the walls. I only taught privately at that time because I then wanted to fulfill my need to really get into my student's head, to get into their family, and where their parent's head was. I always taught everyone my whole life as if they were going to become a dancer. Whether that's idealistic-yes that is idealistic because some people do not have the talent, they do not have the body shape to become dancers, but that's how I had to teach. And that's how I still do it."
THE WORLD OF BALLET
Although Ms. Martha has loved dance since she was a little girl, she knows that ballet also has its problems and toxicity, especially when it comes to issues of self-esteem and body image. "I always say to my new students, 'the mirror is your best friend. It tells you everything good and bad about yourself.'" According to her, a lot of dancers look in the mirror and see only the bad. She tries to coach dancers to accept their own body image and strengths. Recently, the ballet world has become more aware of these issues and has placed less importance on having a specific body shape. Still, as Ms. Martha says, "ballet is very particular on the look-the line."
One of her dreams was to get rid of that particularness. "That's something I aspired to, to have a ballet company where dancers who don’t have the perfect body shape can perform. That would be hard to get people to come and watch and support, though. They want to see ballerinas in a certain ethereal way. However, those kinds of dance companies do exist; you just have to find them."
"It was the poetry therapy that really healed me and helped me grow emotionally. An expression that really resonates with me is from the poem The Layers by Stanely Kunitz ‘live in the layers, not in the litter.’ It encapsulates my whole journey with poetry therapy.”
Ms. Martha was first introduced to poetry therapy by a friend, who encouraged her to put her thoughts and feelings into poems. That friend was head of IA Poetry Therapy, and once she read Ms. Martha's poetry, she invited her to come to New York and go through the training to become a professional poetry therapist. Ms. Martha was certified in 2012. "And my method is, like most poetry therapists, is to know what's going on in the group, pick a poem that would help some people in the group, present the poem, and present a prompt with the poem, and have my students write a response. And then, discussions." Prompts can include writing a poem based on a theme Ms. Martha has chosen for the evening, writing verses based on lines from the featured poem, or even drawing pictures illustrating your response to the piece. But the main focus is on everyone's thoughts and feelings about the poem or theme.
When I asked her what she wanted from her poetry students and her ballet students, she told me that she wanted them to be truthful to themselves. "Because from dance and poetry, I want truth and honesty. I feel if you don't dance your own truth to the music, it wouldn't be beautiful. The same is true with poetry, you know, the truth is really getting into your gut and producing something that comes from your gut. That's the crux of what makes a good poetic dancer. There are so many dancers that can get their leg up high or do ten turns, but there are not that many dancers that dance from their heart and soul, that produce something beautiful. Whether it's beautiful in a sad way or in a joyous way. You see, poetry and dance are so connected because dance is the poetry of the foot.”
ARTS EDUCATION AND GIVING BACK TO THE COMMUNITY
Ms. Martha believes that for arts education to become more prominent in schools, the curriculum needs to change. When she was teaching in the schools around Dade County, she tried to add dance to the curriculum, but she was not successful. She believes that there should be more arts education outreach programs in schools and neighborhoods.
Ms. Martha also understands that many children are unable to experience the arts because of the cost of lessons. So, when she stopped teaching at the schools, she decided to form a theater group and not charge for the classes. "I didn't have much as a child, and we couldn't afford ballet classes. I did have a benefactor who paid for my classes. However, I was controlled by this person to do whatever he wanted me to do. I didn't want people, or people with low income, to feel this way. I wanted to give back to the community that helped me so much in my career. So, I started to have a little theatre group, and then it grew to thirty people, and I did everything pro-bono at first. I didn't charge for their classes; I paid for all the costumes. I even cooked. Every Saturday, I would cook for about twenty kids to thirty kids. We would rehearse from 10 to 5 every Saturday. We would do ballet variations, scenes from Broadway shows, jazz, belly dancing, and vocals. And then we would all sit down and have a hot lunch prepared by me. In March we would put on a Variety Show with 40 different acts. It really was an amazing experience.”
ART AND KIDS
At the end of the day, Ms. Martha says, art education helps kids learn valuable life skills while also learning a craft. "When kids are a part of the arts, it helps them learn how to work within a team. It helps them to become more confident in themselves in different areas, whether it's dance, drama, school, and everyday life. It gives them a sense of accomplishment and self-worth at a young age. It takes them away from the drudgeries of everyday life; it's very exciting. There's nothing more exciting than going from one pirouette to 2 or 3, from seeing your extension grow 5 inches to leaping higher and higher in the air. One of the most exciting developments is going from a ballet shoe to a pointe shoe. The scent of sweat, the drama of the last minute before the curtain goes up, and the applause of an audience cannot be duplicated. Somebody that looks at one of your dances and says, 'Wow. That's amazing.' It gives you a sense of responsibility, being to a place on time, doing the work, and feeling the growth process. You are expanding your knowledge and challenging your limits. You become more graceful. You learn how to live with teenagers, kids with different points of view. And you're learning a craft. Which in itself should give you more confidence."
At the end of the interview, I asked what inspired her. She answered immediately. "Very easy. My students. I am so connected to them. They have no idea, but I think about them constantly. How I could improve them, what they need to really get it. They inspire me to keep going. They inspire me to go on teaching, and I will teach-my husband says I'm going to die in this studio here. But that's okay. Because every day, I look forward to when I teach. And every class inspires me. Even the little kids inspire me with just a smile, a laugh. A 'you did this better. You went from one turn to two turns.' That inspires me. 'You lifted your leg five inches higher. You were more graceful. You seemed to really like yourself more.' That inspires me. Probably the most of any. When you can like yourself. Then I know that I've been a good teacher."