John Carroll: How My Meanest Teacher Made Me a Success

By John Carroll

Originally published on Advocate.com May 02 2012 3:32 PM ET

When I was in my sophomore year at Juilliard, I received a message that the artistic director of the dance department wanted to have a meeting with me. Let me preface that by stating that a message like that from the godfather of dance was never a good sign.

This is the school that is notorious for kicking kids out of the program. We had already lost four students by the end of our freshman year and we started with only 21. Sometimes it seemed that if you tendu’d at the wrong time, “poof,” you’re out. 

I didn’t know what to expect so I got all dolled up. I dressed impeccably, did my hair, and even curled my lashes (my secret weapon). I decided no matter how this story played out, if my head was going to be on the chopping block, that head was going to be gorgeous.

I walked into the artistic director’s office and, to my shock and awe, the entire ballet faculty was sitting there in a circle…waiting for me. There were even ballet teachers in the meeting with whom I had never taken a class. Along the circle of people, there was one empty chair and, in the middle of it all, a coffee table with a box of tissues on it, closest to the unoccupied chair —my chair.

I nervously took my seat. I could hear my heart pounding in my ears and my palms started to sweat. It was around this time that I wished I had also worn a pair of Depends because the gurgling sound from my lower intestines could only be described as, primordial. In a last ditch effort of optimism, I thought, Maybe I have it all wrong. Maybe they want to praise me for my impeccable technique and offer me a lead in the spring concert.

Or maybe not.

The artistic director began to speak. He said that he had gathered the ballet faculty together to talk about my progress in that discipline and then asked if there was anyone who wanted to get the discussion started.

No sooner had the artistic director finished the "d" in "started," than one of my then current ballet teachers said, “I’ll start.” He leaned forward so that he was pretty close to my face and continued, “I don’t think you’ve learned anything since you’ve been at this school.”

John Carroll3X400Advocate.comHuh? Now, you have to remember, I had been at the school for a year and a half at this point and he thinks I haven’t learned a thing? Girl, it was not looking too good for John. It was turning out to be a “you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here” kind of moment. How was I going to explain this to my family? How was I going to ever face the other students again? How was I going to get all those fucking Madonna pictures off my dorm room wall?

I remember feeling my stomach drop and getting that metallic taste in my mouth. You know, the one you get right before you blow chunks. I couldn’t get kicked out. Going to Juilliard had been my dream ever since I started to dance.

Maybe they didn’t see it, but I was working my ass off. Ballet had always been difficult for me. It's often said that “ballet is the root of all dance." Well, I say “ballet is the root of all evil!” Coming from a kid with meningitis who had to learn to walk all over again, my balance was always a little off. Pirouettes were never my strong point and moving slow and controlled was an iffy situation at best, but God damn it, I am a great dancer!

I saw that box of tissues and remember thinking to myself, “Do not cry, do not let them see you cry.” Besides the fact that it would have given that fucktard of a "teacher" the satisfaction of breaking me, it would have more importantly uncurled my lashes and left tear stains in the translucent powder I was secretly wearing. I was in survival mode, people. You go with what you know.

Thank God above, once that teacher said his peace, more than one faculty member jumped in to defend me.

Suddenly I had all these teachers on my side, proving that jackass wrong. One teacher said that I could likely benefit from meditation. Upon hearing this, another teacher chimed in quite aggravated, “You told him he could benefit from medication?” “No!" the first teacher replied, "Med-i-ta-tion!”

Once the entire ballet faculty finished vomiting up all of their opinions of my dancing, they made a strategy for my success. The "strategy" basically consisted of "don't suck anymore" mixed in with "the fear of God." Before I was let go from my artistic interrogation, one of the faculty members commented on how handsome I looked. And though time has passed and my memory isn't quite what it used to be, I'm pretty sure many of the other teachers whole-heartedly agreed. Blind 'em with beauty, kids!

After the meeting, I went to the nearest bathroom, locked myself in a stall, and balled my eyes out. It appeared that my head was off the chopping block…at least for now. Dance was my life and that school meant the world to me. The thought of possibly being cast out of the kingdom was devastating.

The rest of my Juilliard experience was more of the same; fear-based dance, tears, and diarrhea.

Side note: After graduation, I was blessed beyond belief to work with not only Ann Reinking, but Gwen Verdon in my first job right out of the gate. During a break from that show, I went to go see a dance company that some of my friends from Juilliard were performing in. Well wouldn't you know, by the fickle finger of fate, the same teacher who tried to defecate on my dreams was performing as a guest artist with the company. Oh, and by the way, his dancing stunk! His movement quality was tense, bland, and non-musical. In a word: hideous. I learned then and there that everyone has an opinion and, for the most part, who the fuck cares?

 

JOHN CARROLL is a Broadway performer who will appear in the Los Angeles production of Follies beginning May 3 at the Ahmanson Theatre. For more information visit TheJohnCarroll.com.