Lifelong lessons from an out-of-date dance teacher

I’ve been thinking these days about a dance professor who taught at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, in the mid-1970s.

When I first met her in 1973, Olga Bibza was 61 years old, which seemed old to me at the time. Miss Bibza taught ballet and social dance classes in the physical education building on campus. By then, she was pretty much past her prime, having taught at Miami since 1955, and before that at four other universities.

 I knew her as “the other dance teacher,” not our primary professor of dance. We all thought it was kind of cute that she wore a dance skirt to class – an outdated fashion at that time, not considered cool.

But what I remember best among the lessons she taught us was, how to conduct myself in a world that was increasingly becoming unmannerly.

In her social dance class, she taught the men to gracefully extend their hands to their partners, gently inviting them to dance and slowly making their way to the dance floor, instead of just grabbing a girl and fighting their way into the crowd. Think of your partner’s needs first, and be aware of the people around you at all times.

In her ballet class, she also taught us NEVER to grab onto or cling to the barre. “Oh, ladies,” she would coo. “Just let your fingers rest on it ever so lightly. It’s only there for support if you need it.”  

To this day, I rarely even touch the barre. I have learned to keep myself upright.

I also remember that when we jumped, we were to land lightly – not, as she warned us, “like an elephant.”

But she also taught us ladies to be politely bold. In ballet class, if you were standing around doing nothing, you must still position yourself in a stylized fourth position, leaning into your dominant leg and foot with your body slightly forward. This told the dance instructor that you were ready to go, ready to dance.

When my son played Little League baseball, we taught him roughly the same thing:  If the rest of your team was in the field, try to stand near the coach with your mitt in your hand and look like you mean business – like you want to go in at any time.  This way, the coach couldn’t forget about you.

In my professional life, this lesson translated into following up a job interview with phone calls and additional visits if possible, letting the employer know “Hey, I’m still here, and I’m ready to work.”  I might even find out where the editor goes for a beer after work, and show up there myself. Journalism jobs were hard to come by. You had to work hard to get them.

As for her personal life, Miss Bibza was a mystery. We vaguely knew she was European. That’s all I knew until, all these years later, I decided to find out.

It turns out, she was born in 1912, in Duquesne, Pennsylvania. She was musically gifted, and she went to the State Conservatory of Music in Prague, Czechoslovakia, where she graduated in 1934.

One of her early dance influences was Mary Wigman, a German dancer who pioneered expressive dance in central Europe. As such, she became part of a movement that liberated dance from the tradition of predetermined steps. 

Improvisation and honoring your internal sense of movement were hallmarks of the Wigman way. Dance was a medium where you could discover new ways to express yourself.

Miss Bibza also spent a year, 1936 to 1937, studying at the Elizabeth Duncan School of Dance. Elizabeth was the sister to the more famous Duncan, Isadora. Elizabeth literally taught Isadora how to dance, and was the original teacher to the Isadorables. Elizabeth also advocated bringing European World War I orphans to America for education.

A written memorial to Miss Bibza, who died in 1998, says that she was ahead of her time in that she led senior citizens in exercises they could do while sitting in a chair.  She wrote a book about chair exercises that is still used by the Oxford Senior Citizens Center (where, incidentally, my own mother took dance lessons until the age of 94).

Times have changed. I’m not sure Miss Bibza would be allowed to address today’s women as “oh, ladies,” and she might be advised that women don’t need men to show them where the people are dancing.

One of the costs of societal progress is that it’s become a more grab-and-go world. We have become even less mannerly.  Some people act like real jerks. Downright rude. Women and men focus so much on getting ahead that we are not mindful of the needs of others. We trample our way, landing like elephants wherever we leap.

Miss Bibza was old-fashioned, even 50 years ago. But, as much as anyone else, she was the person who taught me to strike a balance between manners, boldness and creative expression. She taught me to find my way in the world with grace and dignity.

And thanks to her, I know that, even in changing times, we are at our best when we gracefully extend a hand and gently invite others to the dance floor.