Written by Lindsey Lowe Osborne
There was probably more than one little girl in Miss Harriet’s Ballet School in Baltimore, Maryland, who wanted to grow up and be a prima ballerina. But this we know for sure: At least one of them did.
Teri Weksler wanted to be a dancer—in fact, it’s all she’d ever wanted to be. “Maybe I was 6 or 7, and I immediately was completely drawn to dance. I just fell in love with it, like almost every child does,” she says. Weksler’s parents made sure to immerse their children in the arts, and that exposure paved her path to a life of dancing. “My parents were very interested in culture, as first-generation Jews. They took us to the ballet, the symphony, the theater. We saw everything,” she says. “I would float around the living room, pretending I was a ballerina, thinking I was fabulous. I knew that I loved that, and it was a very good channel for my particular wild energy. As a child, my grandmother—my Bubbie—used to call me ‘vilde chayea,’ which means ‘wild animal.’”
She danced throughout her formative years, and then, in 1970, she moved to New York City to attend the Juilliard School, which is where she discovered modern dance. During her career there—from 1970 to 1974—she encountered a number of now-legendary contributors to the modern dance art form. “The modern dance masters—Martha Graham, Jose Limon—all those people were at Juilliard when I was there, including Anthony Tudor, who was running the ballet program,” she says. “I met a lot of people at Juilliard; Juilliard is obviously a brilliant place to be.”
When she graduated in 1974, she began to dance with repertory companies (a company that performs a lot of pieces in short intervals). She found then that work was easy to come by—she says the 80s in particular were good for dancers. “In the late 70s going through the 80s, there was a lot of work for small, mid-level dance companies,” she explains. “We toured the States, we toured Europe—it was a lot of work, whereas now, those companies barely tour. So it was a good time.” During those years, she danced in the repertory companies of Daniel Lewis and 5 By 2, which included work by Paul Taylor, Doris Humphrey, Anna Sokolow, Jose Limon, and Pilobolus. She also danced with Hannah Kahn, now the director of Hannah Kahn Dance Company in Denver, Colorado. It was in the mid 1970s, with Kahn, that Weksler met Mark Morris, who is now a leading name in the modern dance world. Weksler aligned herself with his vision and his company, the Mark Morris Dance Group. “He was just a young upstart, a great dancer,” she says. “He became one of the foremost choreographers of this generation. I got to be in on that—I was lucky to be a founding member.”
Weksler, who lived in New York City from 1970 to 1989, explains that if you were lucky enough to be a dancer, life was demanding but sweet (if dancing was your passion.) “Living in New York was much less expensive. I lived in the Village, on Bleeker and Broadway—which is prohibitively expensive now—for not a lot of money,” she remembers. “Here’s what you do, if you’re lucky enough to just dance: You wake up, and you go to a dance class in the morning, a great, fun dance class with other aspiring ballet and modern dancers. It’s fun, it’s social. You work very, very hard—you have lots of great competition. Then, you go to rehearsal somewhere. You typically rehearse two hours, three hours; you might have to go to another place to rehearse if you were doing more than one thing. That was your day, and you’d go see something fabulous at night. And then you went on tour.” As fabulous as it was, it was also difficult, both mentally and physically. “That’s why it’s called a discipline,” she says. “The rigor and the complexity of your day is unmatched, because it involves your whole body. It’s a complicated physiological thing. Memorizing sequences of movement is a complicated thing and a difficult thing to do. Dancers are very, very smart. It’s important to them that they understand what they’re doing, and they’re interested in what’s behind what they’re doing, what’s behind the music and the history of it.”
Weksler toured all over Europe; especially notable was the time she spent in Rome and Belgium. “Touring as a dancer is funny,” she says. “Sometimes you’ll end up in Paris, but you’ll have to be lying down with your feet up and not going out and walking the streets.” In Rome, she was hired as a prima ballerina, or the top dancer in a ballet or company; she spent about two months there with the Rome Opera Ballet. “That was brilliant, because prima ballerina salary is very good,” Weksler says. “Rome is, of course, magic.”
She spent three years—1988 to 1991—in Belgium as a member of the Mark Morris Dance Group. Morris was the director of dance at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, the national opera house of Belgium, during that time. “We had beautiful studios, massage therapy twice a week. Everything you wanted was there,” she says. “It was a really good situation. And that’s where Mark’s career really took off. We had live orchestra, beautiful sets, and beautiful costumes. It was fabulous.” After her move to Birmingham—her husband got a job here in 1990—she also danced with Morris’s and ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project, which was called such because of its home base on White Oak Plantation near Jacksonville, Florida. Altogether, she danced with the Mark Morris Dance Group for 10 years; she later did some guest appearances and assisted Morris on some pieces and remains connected, occasionally teaching a class for the company.
Back in Birmingham, Weksler became the artistic director of modern dance company Southern Danceworks, where she choreographed and commissioned many works, including six for the Alabama Ballet, and collaborated with the Alabama Symphony, Space One Eleven, the Carver Theater, and Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame. She held that position for several years and during that time, she also taught at the Alabama Ballet and Birmingham-Southern College.
These days her days took a little differently than they did back in the 80s, but not terribly so. She still gets to wake up and dance. In 2009, she joined the dance faculty at the Alabama School of Fine Arts (ASFA), where she teaches grades seven through 12 in the dance department. There too, the rigors of the dance life—and the highs of it—are present. “These are high school kids, so they begin their days with their academics. Then, at 2 o’clock, they start dancing. They dance until either 5:30 or 7:15 at night, which isn’t that long,” she says. “But it’s every day and Saturdays, often. So that’s a hard day. And you have to take incredibly good care of yourself; for example, you can’t go out on the playground and swing, because something bad could happen. And it has.” Still, they do it for a reason, and that reason is because just like Weksler, they are completely drawn to dance.
Weksler also participates as an instructor in Dance for PD, which is a program that uses dance to empower people with Parkinson’s disease. Dance for PD is a partnership between the Mark Morris Dance Group and Brooklyn Parkinson Group in New York City; it offers classes for people with Parkinson’s at the Mark Morris Dance Center in NYC and in more than 100 communities in 11 countries around the world. Weksler was instrumental in bringing the initiative to Alabama (there’s a class at the Lakeshore Foundation.) “It’s brilliant. It was developed specifically for Parkinson’s patients to help them do all the things they need help with. It’s designed to help PD patients make mind-body connections. It’s not just the exercise, but an artistic approach, engaging and applying the imagination to movement,” she says. “It’s important and meaningful. It’s not a cure, of course, but it’s a direction to go in.” (For more information, visit danceforparkinsons.org.)
I suspect that if Weksler’s Bubbie was still around, she’d still be calling her vilde chayea—her energy is electric and almost palpable. Even though we’re sitting down, I wouldn’t be surprised if she leapt up and began to dance. And she says that’s the most important part of dance—that dancers capture energy and offer it back to their audience. “The thing is, people with all kinds of bodies and all kinds of limitations in dance can still be great dancers,” she says. “The most important thing about a dancer is the charisma that you exude on stage. That’s something that some of the most physically articulate and talented people do not have, and they will not be successful, whereas somebody with less turnout or less of a point can succeed, because they have this way of moving that is compelling to watch. They have this thing that makes you want to look at them on stage.”