As they executed a sauté, pirouette, or piqué across the smooth Marley floor, an expert pianist filled the room with a reverberating melody, driving the dancers onward during this particularly challenging combination. Above the clamor floated the boisterous and jubilant voice of Anthony Ferro, 64, singing alongside the piano’s melody. Occasionally, he interrupted his tune to shout commands like, “Sustain! Resist! Go, Go!” As the last group neared the combination’s conclusion, Ferro’s exclamations became even more animated, bolstering the energy in the room like the piano’s crescendo. Finally, the dancers came to rest in their final pose, as Ferro recited one of his many well-known mantras— “Calmness breeds strength.” Although students at MMC have come to expect this level of excitement in their daily ballet ritual, it is nowhere near ordinary.
Ballet has long been known as a dance form with challenging technical standards. In this often competitive, perfection-seeking arena, it is rare for dancers to feel comfortable exploring their full movement potential, let alone to have fun in the process. After over 20 years teaching at MMC, however, Anthony Ferro has distilled the joyful side of ballet down to a science. Sharing this joy with every dance pupil under his tutelage has been his life’s work, and as the academic year comes to a close, so to does Ferro’s impactful tenure at the college.
Growing up in the small town of Berwick, Pennsylvania, Anthony Ferro always had an affinity for dance. He briefly studied ballet at the YMCA, but after backlash from his sports-oriented town, he refrained from any formal dance training until college. Entering Penn State University as a math major (“Choreography is just geometry, so it all came full circle!”), Ferro’s path took an unexpected turn when he tagged along with some dance friends to a class offering the Doris Humphrey technique, a well known method of movement in the modern dance world. By the end of the night, his math career had fallen far into the background. Soon enough, Ferro found himself studying at The Juilliard School, then privately under one of the school’s ballet masters, Alfredo Corvino. Corvino provided the springboard to launch his professional career, as Ferro reflected, “I was very lucky and continued to get rewarding experiences in the dance world.”
Over the next decade, Ferro had the opportunity to work with dance luminaries such as Dennis Wayne and Louis Falco as well as the Metropolitan Opera, Atlanta Ballet, and even his own dance company in Midland, Texas. In choosing his most rewarding experience, however, Ferro points to his years dancing under Twyla Tharp, an innovative choreographer who blended ballet with more contemporary dance styles in productions such as the Tony-award-winning musical Movin’ Out. Ferro explained, “Not only the comradery with the other dancers, but the richness of Tharp’s choreographic skill and strategies fostered my ability to go into the studio and have the courage to choreograph.”
Tharp’s influence shows—Ferro has created somewhere around eighty pieces over the course of his career. Thanks to his position in Tharp’s company, he also had the opportunity to travel to Gothenberg, Sweden, where he instructed dancers of all ages and refined his teaching craft at the Balett Akademien. After his time abroad, he returned to New York City. In 1997, he became a Professor of Ballet at Marymount Manhattan College’s dance department under the direction of fellow former Tharp Dancer, Katie Langan.
Transitioning between dancer, teacher, and choreographer came seamlessly for Ferro. “There was never a psychological thing where the performer was put to bed and I was the teacher and choreographer,” he said. “I just always thought of myself as a dancer. And I say that to students: ‘We’re all dancers, I’ve just been around a little longer’.”
Ferro views teaching as “an ever-evolving thing.” His instructive style draws on modern dance concepts, like propulsion and momentum, in order to help students “not get stuck,” and find more freedom in balletic movement. Overall, “anatomical awareness” is his top priority. Ferro explained, “Young students, especially freshmen, are in a class with other people they’ve never seen before, so they’re in prove mode. They don’t feel, they’re just doing. But it’s not about if you did it right, it’s ‘Did you feel it? How did you do it?’ The end goal of this approach, of course, is to reduce injury and strain, ensuring that dancers have a shot at a long-lasting performance career. Our mission is not only to excel the body, but also preserve the body,” he said.
Ferro mainly teaches Freshman and Sophomore students at Marymount in Level Two ballet classes, and has learned from this cohort in particular the importance of “always being nurturing and uplifting.” He said, “I have no doubt when I walk into a class that I’m going to be the most giving thing to these young people, because I want them to then give to others.”
And when it comes to artistic inspiration, anything is fair game. Ferro said, “When I look at art in relationship to dance, its inspirational. I deconstruct it and construct it and that’s what dancers should do.” He resolutely lives by the old standard of “art is life,” and constantly encourages his students to relate elements of visual art and dance, such as “composition, space and negative space.” Yet, despite his extensive education (he holds a BA in Dance as well as an MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts), training and pedagogical experience, Ferro’s fun and quirky side still inevitably prevails, and he never seems to take himself too seriously. “Look, it’s the deer ballet!” He chuckled to me as he pulled up a Facebook video of the animals in front of his yard in Pennsylvania, set to classical ballet music.
While most artists tend to slow down as they get older, Ferro has expanded his interests even further in recent years, as he started seriously pursuing painting in 2012 and plans to dedicate even more time to his practice after he retires. His days sometimes start as early as five in the morning in order to reach his goal of completing at least one painting every day, which he always shares with his fellow professors to gather feedback. Indeed, building into and feeding off of community has been a hallmark of Ferro’s success, as he said, “As dancers, we have to be collaborators, or else it doesn’t work. You can’t be onstage with people and not know where they are and not care about them. And I think that’s a good metaphor for life.”
The large crowd that attended Ferro’s surprise retirement reception demonstrated the product of over two decades of generosity and collaborative spirit. Held during the last week of classes at the College, students gathered to send off their professor with parting gifts and to share their favorite memories and Ferro-isms, which range from “Feel to be real” to “Be bold before you get old.” Perpetually in teacher-performer mode, Ferro leaped at the opportunity to sing for those present (yet another artistic endeavor he had been pursuing lately) and also offered up some final bits of advice:
“Creativity and ingenuity and imagination give you courage. Don’t ever lose the courage to just go. Don’t ever say in your mind ‘I’m going to try this’, say ‘I’m going to do it.’ Because if your psyche says you’re going to do it, then you’ve basically done it already. Change the word ‘try’ to ‘do,’ and life is much easier. Besides using your inner thighs and not your shins to pull up from your plié, that’s what I would like to leave you with.”
Katie Langan, director of the Dance Department, also attended the reception, admitting, “Losing the dynamism that Mr. Ferro brings to this program, for me, is going to be a huge sea shift. In my heart it’s a big loss.” Langan also announced that Ferro had earned the status of Professor Emeritus, a selectively bestowed honor at the school.
While Ferro is certainly saddened and sentimental about his time at Marymount Manhattan coming to an end, he is excited to have more time to be able to pursue his other passions. “I have no regrets because my body’s still functioning, I made so many good friends, and I always made a living from dance,” he reflected. “I maybe ate peanut butter sandwiches for months, but I always made my living from dance.” Ferro will undoubtedly continue to dance, sing, paint, and share his enthusiasm for all kinds of art well into the future. He said, “I never lack imagination. Always have imagination, always imagine. Because it’s so much fun. And it keeps your spirit alive.”
Written by Amanda Sherwin ’19