Amber Paul is not only one of Broadway Dance Center’s most beloved teachers; she is also celebrated for taking everyone’s class—from ballet and tap to theatre and hip-hop! Amber (or “Paul” as she is lovingly nicknamed by many ISVPs) integrated yoga into the fabric of the dance curriculum and currently teaches yoga and meditation classes here at BDC, catering both to dancers’ bodies and minds—and their important connection through the breath. BDC blogger, Mary Callahan, had the pleasure of chatting with Amber about the importance of yoga for dancers—of all styles, levels, and ages.
What was your dance training like and how did you come to find Broadway Dance Center?
I’m an actress and one of my acting teachers told me to take dance class. I was what they would call a “talking head”—I was really good on camera but my body wasn’t as expressive as it needed to be. That was how the whole professional dance journey started for me. I walked in to Broadway Dance Center off the street looking for basic adult dance classes and was literally welcomed by Richard Ellner who, as you know, was one of the original owners of BDC. Richard was the first person I met here. I had been to other dance studios in New York and they were not as friendly towards someone looking for beginner adult classes. I basically have not left BDC since. Richard became both a friend and a business mentor to me. I was a work-study student and would take up to eighteen classes each week. So, I’m home grown—literally! And although Richard passed on and never got the chance to see me become a teacher here, I know he would be really excited about that.
And when did yoga become a part of your life?
I like to do things backwards—its just part of who I am. I was a meditator first and then turned to yoga so I could learn how to sit better in my meditation. Most people start out in yoga for stress relief and then they turn to meditation. But I learned to meditate as a child…yet, in that meditation practice I wanted to learn how to be still. And, with all my dance training at BDC, I needed to really learn how to breathe. I knew how to be in the moment as an actor but I didn’t know how to be in the moment as a dancer. I felt very intimidated in auditions and even sometimes in dance class. Yoga was a safe space to relax, to breathe, and to improve my concentration.
What is the process like to become a certified yoga instructor?
I got certified to become a yoga instructor through the Yoga Alliance. I completed the 200-hour training at Sonic Yoga, which concluded with a written exam on both human anatomy and the history and philosophy of yoga as well as a practical exam where I taught a class to prove my ability. I then completed another 300-hour training at Three Sisters Yoga where I specialized in yoga and meditation for trauma survivors. Now I help teach that same teacher training at Three Sisters Yoga—to many students from Broadway Dance Center, actually. I am so adamant about teachers being certified. Students can easily get injured if a teacher is unfamiliar with human anatomy and all of the critical modifications for different populations and individuals.
Would you encourage dancers to get certified as yoga instructors?
Definitely. I wish I had become a teacher earlier in my life. As an actor, I used to wait tables between acting gigs. I wish that I had had a more fulfilling work when I wasn’t acting. Yes, teaching yoga can be exhausting physically, but it feeds me emotionally and spiritually (not to mention literally, with a pay check!). For me, acting and yoga are symbiotic. Yoga helps me so much when I audition—I’m calm, I’m breathing, and I know that whatever I have to offer in that moment is the right thing. It’s not that I never critique myself; but instead of judging myself, I recognize where I can improve and then I work to do so. As a yogi, I’m always, always learning. I would love for dancers to experience this same freedom and empowerment in their art form through teaching yoga.
How did yoga become a part of the curriculum at Broadway Dance Center?
I mentioned earlier that Richard Ellner was a sort of business mentor to me. From him I learned how important it is to set up an ethical business practice—to not take away anything from anyone else in order to achieve my goal of weaving yoga into the BDC curriculum. My first time slot was one that no other teachers wanted. They honestly didn’t think that yoga would work here because other people had struggled to get it up and running in the past. So I started out with one student. My job is to serve my class, whether it is one student or sixty. Because I’ve stuck to that mission, my classes remain popular. About two years ago, I began teaching meditation classes at BDC on a volunteer basis. BDC provided me with studio space and students would come take class for free. The dancers really started to attach to these meditation classes. There’s no imposed spirituality, which makes everyone feel welcome—especially our significant number of international students.
How do your yoga classes at Broadway Dance Center differ from other yoga classes?
My classes are designed specifically for the dancer—for students who are dancing fifteen classes a week, rehearsing, auditioning, and performing. I serve the students here. That has and always will be my goal. I ask my students every class, “What do you need? What postures do you want to work on? What areas of the body do you want to focus on?” And basically what I’m asking is, “How can I help you feel better? How do we, together as a group, prepare you for the next rehearsal or dance class or performance? How do you relax after a long day of classes? How do we keep you from getting injured?” And what happens is I keep hearing the same body parts all the time from dancers: the IT band, the psoas, the lower back, the hip flexors, the feet, the neck, and the shoulders. So, I’ve designed a whole series that really focuses on these areas in order to better serve my classes.
Why do some dancers call your class the “yoga hospital?”
Dancers sometimes come to my class when they are injured or burnt out—for restorative yoga. In fact, some students I only see in my yoga class (or, yes, as many call it, “yoga hospital”) when they’re feeling sick or broken. It can be very emotional for these students who are so used to pushing themselves in dance classes to learn to relax and experience the present moment without judgment. For those dancers, my “yoga hospital” provides a safe and nurturing space to relax, rejuvenate, and heal.
As dancers, we’re always striving for perfection. Does this exist in yoga?
Not exactly…Yoga is actually quite the opposite. You might have an asana (pose) that takes you twenty years to master. You may say, “Well, I don’t have twenty years.” But you do! Yoga is about the journey; it’s about taking an asana, finding your own version, and committing to that. Don’t beat yourself up or push for “perfection” because if you’re fully committing to your version of an asana, you’re already perfect. That blows dancers’ minds! It’s a different kind of “striving.” The secret is that if you fully commit to your version that day, you will eventually reach the full expression of that asana. But if you fight and judge yourself, it will never come. I also deliberately have my students face away from the mirror. Yoga is about listening to your body and noticing yourself in the space physically.
The stillness of yoga can be very uncomfortable for dancers. How can students learn to be still and present in the moment?
Dancers are constantly in motion. But if you think about it, even in any count of eight there’s a moment of stillness. That’s what makes choreography exciting—that pause, that breath before we move again. I teach Ujjayi breath in my vinyasa classes here at BDC—flow yoga where every movement is connected to breath. And if you listen to your breath, there’s a pause between the inhale and the exhale and also a pause between the exhale and the inhale. So really, there are four parts to each breath. That’s the first meditation practice I teach—to focus on this breath cycle. If the exhale is the past and the inhale is the future…what is the space in between? The present. And as dancers, we want to live in that present moment. First, you find presence in the breath, then in the practice, and then in your classes and choreography.
How has yoga affected you and your students as dancers?
My dancing has improved dramatically since I started practicing yoga and meditation. I think about my breath in every plié! I can also see that yoga has a great influence on my students here at BDC. The biggest change comes from the students I see at least a few times each week. There will finally come a moment when they finally drop into a pose and be still—but alive. It’s magical. I also take a lot of class at the studio (I really take everybody’s class!) and it’s exciting to see my students apply the presence and awareness they’ve learned in yoga to their other dance classes. They’re breathing through the movement, they’re confident, their focus is up and out, and they have less fear. And once you have that, I believe you’re unstoppable.
Take the pirouette. Some people can whip out six turns naturally. Other people walk in and try hard to push out two or three turns. The yogic way of looking at a pirouette is to start at the simplest form of the movement: a plié into a passé rélevé. You take it back to just the balance—and fully commit to it. Then the next week you attempt a single turn, using the same technique, and you find that your shoulders are tense or your spotting is off. Going back to the basics helps you realize the little things preventing you from fulfilling the full expression of the movement. Dancers often get injured because they don’t want to back up and start at the beginning. It’s an entirely different way of thinking—but one that can really transform your dancing.
How is your class a resource for international dance students here at BDC?
Yoga class can be such a safe space for students. I think especially about our ISVPs who are far away from home, don’t have any family around them, and are speaking a second (or maybe even a third) language. And, along with BDC’s educational department that serves as an incredible support system for these students, my yoga and meditation classes are a place where students can just be. Sometimes, in my meditation classes, I suggest that students meditate in their native language. For example, I’ll have students repeat a word such as “love” or “compassion.” And translating that into your own language can make you feel that much more at peace.
What are the other benefits of yoga?
The true secret is that practicing yoga allows you to dance much, much longer. You learn how to breathe through movement, how to recognize areas of the body that dancing demands extra from, how to stretch properly, and how to prevent injury. And a study has shown that meditation also reduces aging.
What goals do you have as a teacher here at BDC?
In each of my classes I hope to 1) provide a safe space, 2) help dancers’ bodies, and 3) encourage a mindset that says we’re a community and we can be supportive of each other.
I’ve actually realized my largest goal: that yoga and meditation are part of the fabric here at Broadway Dance Center. We have started to bring in other certified yoga instructors (such as Traci Copeland who teaches a wonderful power yoga class). I would love for there to one day be a yoga teacher certification program through BDC or through a partnership with another yoga teacher training program.
What kinds of yoga classes would you recommend to dancers who can’t visit Broadway Dance Center?
Look for vinyasa yoga from a teacher certified through the Yoga Alliance. This will be a flow-style class where the movement and breath are connected. Don’t be embarrassed to start with a basic or beginner class. Yoga is not at all about the ego—it is about the process, the journey, and the practice.
Photos courtesy of Betty Bastidas for Omala Yoga, Sekou Luke, Andy Eisner and Austin Hogan.