Judith Sodini Banon has been an independent dance teacher at ASM since 1974. Ballet, modern, jazz, and tap: she embraces all forms of dance, asking students to know themselves through movement.
Dance is a physical act. You use your body to create movement. The dancer continually pushes out beauty and pushes out truth. I believe that some people are born to express themselves through movement. Others use words to express their ideas and feelings. Dancers create art by transmitting the message of a composer or a choreographer using the movements of their bodies, creating something new and unique to them.
Who were the dancers who inspired you early on in your career?
I saw Maya Plisetskaya dance the role of ‘The Dying Swan’ when the Bolshoi Ballet of Moscow was performing in Chicago. She was the prima ballerina with the company. Maya was well proportioned and dynamic. It was an inspiring and unforgettable performance.
Tell us about your formative years as a dancer in the U.S.
I earned a full scholarship to study classical ballet, toe, adagio, and character dance at the Professional Dance School in Chicago in the memorable Fine Arts Building. I studied five to six hours per day, five and a half days a week. For the other half-day, I studied tap and jazz. I danced for the love of dance.
After graduating, I had the opportunity to dance a full season at the Hyatt Music Theater in the San Francisco Bay Area and another full season at the Phoenix Star Theater in Phoenix, Arizona. Every two weeks we performed a new Musical with different choreographers and directors. Just a few were “Oklahoma” with Oscar Hammerstein Jr. as director, “My Fair Lady” starring Ray Milland, “Camelot” starring Howard Keel, and “Annie Get Your Gun” starring Ginger Rogers. They were often the same choreographers who had made the movie version. For the difficult ballet of Uncle Tom´s Cabin in “The King and I” and “Guys and Dolls” starring Dan Dailey, we had the original choreographers. It was a fantastic experience!
After a time, I missed my family, friends, and Chicago, my hometown. When I returned to Chicago, Ruth Page contracted Rudolph Nuréyev to perform with the Chicago Opera Ballet Company and I was fortunate to join the company the following season (Rudy was gone by then). Ruth Page was a force of nature. I learned so much from her.
We performed a different opera every two weeks. I became a member of the corps de ballet in many operas: Tannhauser, Faust, Aida, and Carmina Burana with Alfredo Kraus among many others. After the opera season finished, we continued rehearsing for “The Nutcracker” and then went on tour performing opera ballets with the Ruth Page Ballet Company -- Camille, The Merry Widow, and others.
As preparation for musicals and for the opera season, the dance troupe had a ballet class every morning followed by five hours of rehearsal for the coming night’s production. Then came one and a half hours to prepare and warm-up before curtain call. If an opera didn’t have a ballet as in Madame Butterfly, we put in eight hours of rehearsal time.
While on tour with the Ruth Page Ballet Company, my French roommate Lulu and I became quite good friends. Her parents invited me to spend the summer with them in Paris at their home. This was a nice opportunity to take a short break after six years of continuous dancing. After leaving Paris, I met my father in Tuscany to experience my heritage firsthand for the first time. I felt I belonged there and my dad returned home alone. My next stop was Spain and there I met my husband, Juan. That was it! I’d met the love of my life, but had to think if marrying him was the right thing for me. I returned to the States and after a year decided that it was. My parents insisted Juan come to Chicago. They wanted to see if he was the right man for me. They approved and we got married. I never looked back.
How have you pursued dance in Spain?
I began to look for work in Madrid in 1969. As far as I know, under Franco, there were no ballet companies. I heard that The Torrejón American Air Force Base outside of Madrid was looking for a dance teacher. I got a job there. I instructed about 150 military children and a few enlisted Air Force servicemen. I taught ballet, tap, and jazz at the Torrejón Base Youth Center, which had a complete dance studio. I taught at the American Air Force Base for 25 years until the base closed down. I met Diane Cotton and Toni Perez there -- Diane became the ASM Lower School secretary for many years and eventually, Toni worked in maintenance for 14 years. They were two cherished fellow workers.
I went to ASM in 1974 and interviewed with Headmaster Dr. Max Tudor. The rest is history. I’ve taught at ASM for forty-six years. My goal is to have happy students with good technique. I have this as my legacy.
Do you have any word of advice for aspiring dancers?
As a young girl, I had to fight to be a dancer. Neither the nuns who educated me nor my family thought it was an appropriate career for a young woman, but I don't regret my decision for a minute.
When you take up an instrument to make music, you purchase that instrument already made. In ballet, the instrument is your body and it needs to be sculpted into your own personal instrument. An injury could end a career. Ballet entails eight years of slow, correct technical training.
Dance is not only about performing for the Queen of England or receiving applause and recognition. You are constantly tuning the instrument of your body. If the technique is correct, you will keep a healthy body and be able to continue to dance for many years. All students have the right to take dance classes for fun, to have healthy exercise, and cultural appreciation of a wonderful performing art.
I still dance to this day. My advice is just to love the dance. Never say that you can’t do something. CREATIVITY NEVER STOPS! Do your best and a little bit more!