After studying at George Balanchine’s Ballet School in New York, Debra Rose moved to California, where she was a member of the legendary Lines Ballet dance company for 20 years and danced for the San Francisco Opera Ballet for 30 years.
During this time she was also an evangelist for Gyrotonic, a form of fitness developed by a ballet dancer from Romania who immigrated to the United States in the 1970s. Now Rose, 58, owner of SF Gyrotonic, one of the world’s top teacher educators for the system, travels to Singapore, Taipei and Shanghai to spread the gospel of developing a “moving force”.
J .: You came to California to dance. How did you come to join Lines, Alonzo King’s legendary ballet company?
Debra Rose: I must have been 21 maybe. I graduated from the School of American Ballet [in New York City] and I got out of here. I danced with the Oakland Ballet for a minute, I did a guest performance with the San Francisco Ballet for a minute, and then Alonzo asked me to come up for someone who was injured. And that was it, I was a goner. His sensitivity, his aesthetics, his focus, the direction he was going were incredible to me – and still are. I am honored to have danced with Lines.
His sense of musicality just blew my mind and nourished my heart. And in terms of physicality and physiology, the science of the body, what the body needs to create the movements it wants to create and how it shapes them [combinations] – They are physically brilliant in the way they challenge the body and they are intellectually brilliant in the way they challenge the mind. They are musically brilliant and that nourishes the soul. And they are breathtaking!
I grew up in the Balanchine world, he lived with Balanchine when I was in school. I remember choreographing something with Stravinsky on the piano. That’s how old I am (laughs). And they speak Russian [together]. The fulfillment I felt there was with Alonzo and more.
With Lines, I certainly gave up a major paycheck elsewhere. [At the time] It was like we might have a gig … somewhere. “Oh, cool, I’m in.” And the same goes for Gyrotonic. Nobody knew what it was. And I thought this was totally for me.
Debra Rose on the cover of Pointe.
How did you come to Gyrotonic?
The School of American Ballet has given us a rating every year, and I’ve got the same rating every year: you have potential and you have options, but we think you are too weak to sustain a career in dance.
So I went to the YMCA on 63rd Street – I was the only woman there and I was a teenager – and started lifting weights. I did not know, what I should do! When I finally found Gyrotonic, I could feel it after the first session. “Oh, that’s it.” Because I want a moving force, not a lifting force. It’s strong for movement and that’s really what sets this system apart.
When I moved to California, I started looking to see if these machines were anywhere. Does anyone do that? I’ve talked to everyone about it. I went to the Saint Francis Memorial Hospital. They had the first dance medicine clinic, they are really pioneers in dance medicine. I spoke to them about Gyrotonic. I was 19 years old at the time. They said, “Who is this kid?”
So you opened your own studio in San Francisco 32 years ago – the second Gyrotonic studio in the world. How does Gyrotonic work? What is it good for?
How did I get here? It’s really crazy. In my days [dancers] I didn’t go to college because if you’re not in a company at 18, this is it! So I don’t have a business background or anything like that. But I must have become a businesswoman.
They are circular movements. It’s like dancing yoga, on gear. They can do it at a very high level – we have a lot of lead dancers from every company in the region coming – but we also target people who can barely walk.
What do you really want to be able to do? You want to be able to be independent. You want to be able to go to the grocery store and carry the groceries home. And clean your floor and get that thing out of the closet and run with your grandchildren or great-grandchildren if you are so lucky. What you really want is a moving strength. This is what people look for when they are older and unable to do the things they used to do. You want to feel good in your body. You want to feel alive!
What is your jewish background?
Although my father’s father was a rabbi, I grew up in a relatively secular Jewish household on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. My paternal grandparents were the only ones in the family who escaped the famine and ultimately Treblinka. The more I realized what they were enduring, the better I understood the preciousness of life and the value of reaching my full potential and the importance of using every opportunity to find my way.