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The Rare Legacy of Teaching Vulnerability

 In Vulnerability

Submitted by Karen Shanley, CCD Faculty Member:

MARGARET CRASKE, BALLET MASTER TEACHER

This is a story within a story. I am 80 years old, the age of the teacher I am writing about; the teacher who was once a “student ready for a teacher to appear.” Then in my 30’s I was the “student ready for that teacher to appear.” 

More than 5 decades ago, I encountered this unique person whose being, whose spirit has remained deeply within me.  She was a renowned ballet teacher, but it was her life experience, presence, wisdom, insight that seeped into all levels of my life.  

Though I have previously written about others who influenced my dancing and teaching, I didn’t write about the ONE person who at the age of 80, sat in a chair in a small ballet studio in NYC and “taught me lessons” about life. Now I am 80 years, the age she was. I realize her profound influence on my personal, spiritual life. This person was Margaret Craske. 

If you Google Wikipedia, it would say: Margaret Craske: British, born: 1892 – died: 1990 in Myrtle Beach, NC. Dancer, disciple of Enrico Cecchetti (famous dancer). When Cecchetti retired to Italy in 1923, Craske took over teaching at his studio in London. She taught and developed the Cecchetti method in England and the United States. From 1931 until her death she was a follower of Meher Baba. 

When she met Meher Baba, she was the “student ready” for new lessons in life. She and a friend left their ballet world, as WWII was ramping up, and moved to India from 1939 – 1946. As a community of followers, they administered to the sick and poor of India, followed the teachings of Meher Baba. She gave up her ballet dancing for seven years. Living conditions were rigorous, poor, and life changing.

At the end of the War, Ms. Craske was invited to come to the United States to teach ballet with the American Ballet Theatre. From 1950 she taught at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School, and from 1969 until 1983 at the Manhattan School of Dance. She retired to Myrtle Beach, a Meher Baba site, where she died in 1990. 

In 1972, my husband, two young children and I moved to NYC. My husband was a resident in an intense cardiovascular surgery program at NYU Medical Center.  Though I was thrilled to be in NYC, with the many educational and cultural opportunities, I had deep fear and trepidations about taking ballet class with younger, talented dancers.   

My mentor Betty Jones (former Limon Company soloist) suggested ballet class with Margaret Craske at the Manhattan School of Dance. Betty and her partner Fritz Ludin always took class from Ms. Craske when they were in town, not touring. 

A word about NY dance studios: they are a unique experience for their size, location, lack of amenities, high rent, less than optimal conditions. Successful studios are busy, with crammed dressing rooms, dancers rushing in and out, rosin dust, and in general, barely cared for. The Manhattan School of Dance studio was small, supported by Bobbie Osorio, a Ms. Craske devotee. The studio was clean with a positive work ethic and atmosphere. It was located on the 4th floor in a building on 5th avenue, just south of 14th street, within walking distance from my apartment in Washington Square Village.  

Ms. Craske taught 3 ballet classes a week for professional dancers that started at 10:00 on the dot. If you were late, she had words to you about taking an earlier subway or taxi. You were late, so no class for you. As previously mentioned, she was 80 years old, a practical person who had seen horrible conditions in India and had no time for indulgent behavior. She sat in a chair at the front of the studio with an accompanist near her and a dancer (Diana Byer) who demonstrated center floor exercises when needed. 

My first experience at the studio, there were maybe 15 – 18 other dancers. They were all ages, backgrounds, most dancing professionally. Frequent dancers in the classes were Sally Wilson (ballerina, ABT), Carolyn Brown (former partner of Merce Cunningham), male dancers from Metropolitan Opera Ballet and other freelancers from various companies. 

This was a devoted group to Ms. Craske; they trusted her “eye” for corrections, her musicality. They respected her teaching and legacy in the ballet world. Ms. Craske insisted on proper placement, alignment, no exaggerated positions, no mannerisms, no ego and “show off” stuff. Dancers came to Ms. Craske for classes that fed their dancing and their “soul.” 

It is well known that some dancers went through a period post WWII and into the 70’s of seeking spiritual guidance as well as dance training. When Ms. Craske arrived in NYC, dancers discovered she was considered an “apostle” of Meher Baba and had spent seven years with him as a follower. They wanted to learn firsthand about his teachings. 

In those early years, Ms. Craske held small group sessions and shared Baba’s teachings. By the time I took class with her, she was no longer interested in teaching his philosophy. Some still came hoping for her knowledge and spiritual guidance. In 1972, she was overcoming some health issues and a previous broken hip due to a taxi cab hitting her. At 80 years, she would say: “I just want to read my Agatha Christie mystery stories.”

What were the profound lessons I learned from this woman, this teacher? The most important lesson I learned was to “surrender,” to give up my ego. My head created all kinds of fear: fear of failure, fear of criticism, fear of not being good enough. For almost six months when I went to class, I experienced knots in my stomach, tension and fear. I almost gave up due to my destructive thoughts. 

Ms. Craske was not unkind in her words; they were straight forward. Either your foot was pointed or it wasn’t, either your knee was straight or it wasn’t.  I felt she had “eagle eyes” and could see into my soul, know what I was thinking and feeling. One day as I was leaving class, she tapped her forehead with her fingers and said: “You are very strong.” Shortly after that, I felt a shift internally. I surrendered to the situation and realized I had been my own worst enemy. 

That was a major life lesson. There were dancers who left her teaching because they said she was unkind, mean. What I learned was she said honest; she held no grudges, had no agenda. When she left the studio, she left all that happened in that moment there. She was there to teach; you were there to learn. End of story. Her own Baba experiences teachings were “be who you are to the fullest”, no hate, only care. 

To this day, I can hear her voice calling me out on the floor. One time I was standing at the back of the studio watching beautiful Carolyn Brown (Cunningham soloist) dancing a combination. I was mesmerized with her technique, her ease, thinking how amazing. Ms. Craske saw into my “desire” to be like Carolyn. The next thing I knew, I was called out to the floor to demonstrate the combination. Truth! Lesson learned. Be your own best self, don’t wish you could be Carolyn Brown.

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