A leader, simply put, is someone whom others follow. He or she needn’t have graduated from a fancy business school or even a university. But he or she does need charisma and discipline, knowledge and self-confidence, and be in possession of some skills such as organization and empathy and insight.
A leader can be at the head of a gang or a classroom or a corporate enterprise or, as I realized recently, in front of a ballet class. In this case, a boyish 60-something former dancer named Frederic Lazzarelli.
There we were — a motley crew of some 30 women and men of different ages and varying levels of ability, from all walks of life (one young man is a dentist, another an oil trader; two of the women are pediatricians, another is a finance professor) and regions of the world (Europe, Asia, North and South America), moving in some sort of unison to music, trying our best to follow the combinations being worked out improv-style by Lazzarelli switching comically but with agility between languages as he shouted out corrections over the live piano accompaniment.
In short, he had managed to corral a group of otherwise unconnected people into a joint effort drawing out the best they had to give, attempting new levels of execution and having a good time to boot. If a leader is someone people follow willingly and with abandon, then Lazzarelli is certainly a leader — and, given the diversity in his classes, a global one, at least in the world of dance.
From Performer To Teacher
Most ballet teachers were themselves, professional dancers, some of them quite accomplished. Indeed, it is virtually the only way dance has been handed down through the centuries since Louis XIV opened the world’s first professional dance school in the middle of the 17th century. But the transition from star performer to teacher (or, in business parlance, from super-salesman to manager) is not an easy one for anyone. It involves much more than an ability to dance or perform–indeed the ability to dance becomes almost secondary, superseded by the ability to teach and to manage a large group of people, keeping them focused, moving and happy. And coming back! This is both production and customer relations rolled into one.
The French-born Lazzarelli (Italian father, French mother) began studying dance at age 11. He comes from what he calls “an athletic family” (another brother danced with the Los Angeles Ballet) and has been teaching for some three decades. He’s danced with such prestigious companies as Opéra de Karlsruhe with Germinal Casado, the National Ballet of Portugal, and the National Ballet of Mexico, and mounted productions, including with Mime Marceau, the professional school of French mime Marcel Marceau. Since leaving the stage, he’s also worked as a choreographer for various companies around Europe and with the prestigious Saisons de la Danse in Paris. In 1986, he returned to the fold of the teacher who formed and helped launch his professional career teacher, Yves Casati (of the Paris Opera Ballet; Casati himself only “retired” two years ago at the age of 80!).
You can find Lazzarelli virtually every day of the week at the barre of Le Centre de Danse du Marais or Elephant Paname near the Opera. “It’s not much different from when I was dancing,” he told me once. “I’m constantly in class.” And he has never, ever, missed one. Never, ever not shown up. No sick days, even when a dance-related back injury recently rendered him unable to stand up straight for ten days.
Mind Over Matter
“If I’m feeling ill, I change my mind; if you’re tired, it’s you who decides to continue or not,” he exclaims, sounding more like Deepak Chopra than a French dance teacher. “I turn the negative thoughts into positive ones. You have to overcome the negative physically and mentally,” he explains. “Dance did this for me during a tough childhood. It saved me.”