Stephanie Powell: A Master Dancer and Artist
Inside the Core Performance Center dance studio on Santa Monica College's (SMC) main campus on September 26, Professor Stephanie Powell stood tall, dignified and true among a sea of ballet dancers. “I started dancing because my cousin Karen Johnson was my babysitter. She brought me to her dance class at the age of two," said Powell.
A live classical pianist sat in front of a grand piano at the corner of the room. The sun spilled into the studio, placing a shine on the black open top and strings. Powell instructed pianist Alla Plotkin to play a piece with brightness and the dancers began to sway lightly up on their feet.
Her poised voice was strong, exuding elegance and passion. Powell continued to say, "back then we didn’t have a dance studio. My ballet teacher pulled her cars out her garage and we took classes there. She took me at three. Most kids start at four but she took me three. I started in a garage, then she got a studio, and I’ve been with her ever since."
She glided through the throng as each dancer stretched and petite along thick black barres. Some dancers were young women wearing pink and black leggings, others were young men wearing all black. Powell tentatively examined each person and lended them a hand when they appeared to stumble into trouble with technique. She taught them to “know the floor", “define gravity” and “love."
Powell is a Professor and Director of Dance at Long Beach City College. She was invited to teach a master class of ballet at SMC for a day. “It’s all classical ballet but I teach it with soul. Here’s the deal, classical ballet in America is alive but there has been a big transition, a big shift into this contemporary ballet thing," said Powell.
She has worked with the Oakland Ballet Company, San Francisco Opera, and Dance Theater of Harlem in New York. Powell was a dancer in the Los Angeles Pantages Theater production of the Lion King and has also danced commercially for Janet Jackson and Beyonce.
When asked what the key to being a good student of ballet was, Powell said, "students have to get that form under their belt before they start oozing out and being a noodle and adding all this funky stuff, otherwise they fall over. They have to have the core, the discipline, and the placement."
Throughout the course, she often told stories of her personal experience, including past insecurities, triumphs, and perseverance. She opened her heart and spilled out her life with raw integrity, “the beautiful thing about ballet is when you're on and it’s suspended and its just there - it’s magical. Sometimes a dancer’s stillness, that control, and that placement of their body is beautiful because when they do start to move it’s like a surprise.” said Powell.
When the class was finished, she talked with students and they openly discussed what they had learned technically, philosophically and spiritually. When she asked what they learned, the class responded with, “feel the floor”, “define gravity” and always “love, love, love.”
“I work like an athlete but my heart is in this like I’m creating a painting or creating tapestry. The rigor is athletic. It’s sport like but when that performance comes on and those lights come out and the orchestra is playing – I don’t feel like an athlete. I feel like an artist. That’s me.”