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Vol. 7, No. 4
August/September 2004


Thoroughly Modern Masters 

by Liza Simon
photos by Carl Hefner

Fritz Ludin leads a
1998 rehearsal of
Fish In the Garden.

In an airy studio in Honolulu’s Moiliili neighborhood, a dance class is underway. Barefoot bodies whirl, driven by the intensity of instruction—an intensity that, like the sunshine outside, comes straight and direct from the strongest of sources. The woman leading the class singles out a student for lackluster arm movement. "Haven’t you ever shoveled snow?" she queries, eliciting an intended ripple of laughter in this balmy locale. Then she switches from an exhortation to put more life into the dance to the joys of putting more dance into life. "How you dance has to do with how much love and discipline you have for what you are doing," she declares. As the music plays, a tall man in the back line thrusts himself into space and catches himself with elegance, demonstrating not only the day’s movement but also the woman’s wisdom. Students give him a wide berth, then fall in behind him to mirror his rangy interpretation, making it clear that he carries the same clout as the woman.

The funky surroundings of the studio—the adjoining parking lot of a health food store and a senior center—belie the world-renowned identities of these two teachers: Betty Jones and Fritz Ludin are, in fact, avatars of the premier modern dance generation. They belonged to the company of José Limón, one of dance’s giants, and have themselves earned a place in dance history. They were, for example, the first choreographers to bring an American modern dance piece to a Russian ballet troupe; the event took place in St. Petersburg in 1990. Members of the Russian cast came from as far away as Odessa and the Ural Mountains—some of the more remote destinations where Betty and Fritz’s influence has filtered through. Other students have come from New York, Paris, Tokyo and ... Moiliili?

Peter-Rockford Espiritu
(and company),
Undercurrents, 1989.

In fact, the modest Moiliili studio, more than any gilded stages in world capitals, has been the site of Betty and Fritz’s work for the last decade: The two have dedicated their lives to mentoring a whole new generation of modern dancers. For the legions of Hawaii dancers who have come under their tutelage, the two have been Svengalis on all levels, training not only bodies but minds. So prodigious have their efforts been that many assume that the moniker they have operated under for years—Dances We Dance—is the name of a sprawling academy, a busy non-profit, maybe even a corporation. But, no, it all comes down to Fritz and Betty. "Dance is our passion," explains Betty. "It has given us such joy. We want others to find their way to it, but that does not mean we want to impose it on anyone else."

"But the passion must evolve from keeping at something every day," Fritz interjects.

"You need the discipline of a technique certainly, and then you use it for your own direction," elaborates Betty.