A Chat With Elizabeth Gilbreath Van Alstyne

Q: Could you tell us a bit about your training and career and how they’ve influenced you as a teacher?
A: Growing up, my family was extremely supportive of my sister and I when we got serious with ballet.  My mother would drive us over an hour each way to our lessons, either in New Orleans, or Baton Rouge, and sacrificed a lot of her own time and life for us. We both knew, from a very early age, that we wanted to pursue ballet as a career, so it made sense for us. We traveled all over the country for summer workshops, and eventually I left home sophomore year of high school to study at The Harid Conservatory in Florida. After high school, I attended Indiana university and  got a bachelors of science in ballet performance. While dancing with the Nashville ballet, I decided to get my Pilates certification. It was something that I honestly only gave a little thought to, but seemed like a good “fall back” job. While in the middle of my certification, I moved to Texas to dance with Ballet Austin. The more I started to understand about my body mechanics, the better my dancing became, and the more I realized just how much good conditioning training is/would have been for my younger self. I left dancing full time to start teaching Pilates. That’s how strongly I felt about the method. Now as a ballet and Pilates teacher I see how much both of my movement backgrounds have influenced me. Being a serious ballet student, I learned discipline and respect for my teachers which has carried over to my adult life, and Pilates taught me how to systematically approach dancing. As a teacher, I find it extremely important to build on concepts and focus on structural alignment while taking class. Sometimes I think, “if only I knew how to engage these muscles when I was younger…”, but of course, you live and you learn.
Q: What’s your favorite thing about teaching?
A: My favorite thing about teaching is that “ah ha ” moment a student has when they suddenly feel the connection we have been talking about since day one. Pilates and ballet are both very ritualistic. They have to be that way to get better. It doesn’t matter how much natural talent someone has–connecting  the body takes time and extreme focus. Usually if it feels too easy, it’s not right but the payoff is so rewarding when figured out.
Q: What interests do you have outside of dance?
A: I have two young kids that keep me extremely busy! We try to get outside as much as possible, and I have a dream of starting a vegetable garden! Not sure when that’s going to happen though.
While I was pregnant I became super interested in all things birth related, including birth support. I even played with the idea of becoming a doula, or possibly a midwife. While that might be in my future, these days I find it to be a nice balance to support mothers through Pilates and movement.
Q: What’s been your favorite moment as an artist?
A: While growing up I experienced many different styles of ballet. The one that stuck with me the most was the Balanchine technique. There is just something otherworldly about dancing his choreography.  In college I was fortunate enough to be mentored by the world famous ballerina, violette verdy.  She was a magical woman who would tell the most amazing stories from her time with Mr. B. It seemed like such a special time to be a ballerina. I used to say that I would be happiest dancing in the corp de ballet, never experiencing a principle role, if I could dance all Balanchine. So I’d say my favorite time as an artist was any time I got to dance one of his masterpieces.
Q: Any quick words of advice to your students?
A: Growing up I was so focused on ballet that I didn’t have time to experience other types of dance or movement techniques. Because of that and my naturally shy personality, I found it really hard to put myself out there when it came time for classes or working with choreographers that were more contemporary. I would say to get comfortable with all movement types, even if it feels silly. Learn how to open yourself up to really feeling your movement instead of just memorizing steps. Learning breathing techniques and mindfulness can help you with pre audition jitters and nerves. Pilates and gyrokinesis are great ways to feel more in touch with your movement.  In the end, dancing should be something that you love to do every day. Know what your goals are, whether it be becoming a professional dancer, or keeping up with it semi seriously so you have a passion and hobby for the rest of your life!