I came across a video that was touted as amazing, featuring a 75-year-old man who still teaches ballet.
My first thought was, “That’s not the least bit amazing.” Quite a few of the ballet teachers of my youth reached that sort of advanced age without retiring—an age which, by the way, no longer sounds all that advanced.
My second thought was, “I bet it’s Finis Jhung.”
And sure enough, it was (here’s the video, which can’t be embedded).
Finis Jhung was one of many teachers with whom I studied back in the day. The place: New York. The time: the early 70s, which would have made him a relatively young man somewhere in his mid-thirties. He was phenomenal even then, having committed the single most astonishing physical feat I’ve ever seen a dance teacher perform.
A small, slight man, he was unimpressive-looking for the most part, although pleasant enough. His studio had a peculiarity that I assume he had constructed to his specifications: a loft-like platform way above the large airy high-ceilinged room where we ballet students labored.
From his superior perch he could see us all; there was no hiding from his sharp eyes. He never demonstrated the steps, but sat in a chair the entire time and explained the movements he wanted.
Jhung was unfailingly soft-spoken and yet demanding. Towards the end of one particular class, we just could not understand a combination of jumps he was trying to set on us. As he repeated himself and we floundered, he showed a rare spark of exasperation. Throwing his hands up, he asked, “Do I have to come down there and show it to you?
The idea that he might actually come down from his perch was as strange as the notion that he might actually be feeling a bit of anger. But sure enough, he descended (a ladder? a small staircase? I can’t remember) and came down to the floor, level with us.
I need to make it clear that he’d been sitting up there for about an hour and a half, perhaps more; this was towards the end of a very long class. In order to dance, a person needs to be warmed up with a series of graduated moves designed to get the muscles loose and the juices properly flowing. Otherwise it is highly likely a muscle will be pulled. And it is almost a given that the dancing will be highly substandard even if the dancer manages to get by without injury.
In short, it shouldn’t be done, and most people couldn’t do it. But Jhung immediately began the combination, which featured huge and difficult jumps (the ones most likely to lead to injury under these circumstances). He performed them with such finesse, flair, and elevation that it was like watching a bravura stage performance.
It seemed Jhung was made of different material than the rest of us—stretchier, more resilient, more graceful, springy, and powerful. So it surprises me not at all that he’s still moving fluidly at seventy-five, although not anything like he did at thirty-five.
Alas, I can find no videos of Finis Jhung performing or teaching in his prime. Perhaps there are none; dancing is an ephemeral art, and used to be more so before the days of the ubiquitous video camera. There are plenty of recent videos of him teaching, though. Here’s a typical one, made just a couple of years ago: