Retired ballet dancer Debra Rose at her Gyrotonic studio.
Retired ballet dancer Debra Rose at her Gyrotonic studio.

Q&A: A former ballet dancer who isn’t done moving

After training at George Balanchine’s ballet school in New York, Debra Rose moved to California, where she was a member of legendary dance company Lines Ballet for 20 years and danced for the San Francisco Opera Ballet for 30 years.

Throughout that time, she also was an evangelist for Gyrotonic, a form of fitness developed by a ballet dancer from Romania who defected to the U.S. in the 1970s. Now Rose, 58, owner of S.F. Gyrotonic, is one of the top teacher-trainers of the system in the world, traveling to places such as Singapore, Taipei and Shanghai to spread the gospel of developing a “moving strength.”

J.: You came out to California to dance. How did you end up with Lines, the legendary ballet company of Alonzo King?

Debra Rose: I must have been 21, maybe. I went from the School of American Ballet [in New York City] and I came out here. I danced with Oakland Ballet for a minute, I guested for a minute with San Francisco Ballet, and then Alonzo asked me to sub for somebody who was injured. And that was it, I was a goner. His sensibility, his aesthetic, his focus, the direction he was going was unbelievable to me — and still is. I feel honored to have danced with Lines.

His sense of musicality just blew my mind, and it fed my heart. And in terms of the physicality and the physiology, the science of the body, what the body needs in order to create the movements that he’s looking to create and the way that he’s sculpting those [combinations] — they are physically brilliant in the way that they challenge the body and they’re intellectually brilliant in the way that they challenge the mind. They’re musically brilliant and that feeds the soul. And they’re stunning!

I had grown up in the Balanchine world, with Balanchine, he was alive when I was in the school. I remember him choreographing something with Stravinsky on the piano. That’s how old I am (laughs). And they’re speaking Russian [together]. The fulfillment I felt there, I felt it with Alonzo and even more so.

With Lines, I was giving up, certainly, a bigger paycheck at other places. [At the time] it was like, we might have a gig … somewhere. “Oh, cool, I’m in.” And the same thing with Gyrotonic. Nobody knew what it was. And I was like, this is totally for me.

Debra Rose on the cover of Pointe.
Debra Rose on the cover of Pointe.

How did you get introduced to Gyrotonic?

At the School of American Ballet we would go to get an evaluation every year, and I got the same evaluation every year: that you have potential and you have facility, but we think you’re too weak to sustain a career in dance.

So I went to the YMCA on 63rd Street — I was the only woman in there and I was a teenager — and started lifting weights. I didn’t know what to do! Finally, when I found Gyrotonic, I could feel it, after the very first session. “Oh, this is it.” Because I want a moving kind of strength, not a lifting kind of strength. It’s strong for movement, and that’s really what differentiates this system.

When I moved out to California, that’s when I started looking to see, are these machines anywhere? Is anybody doing this? I was talking to everybody about it. I went over to Saint Francis Memorial Hospital; they had the first dance medicine clinic, they’re really pioneers in dance medicine. I talked to them about Gyrotonic. I was 19 by then. They were like, “Who is this kid?”

So you ended up opening 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 day, [dancers] didn’t go to college, because if you’re not in a company by the time you’re 18, that’s it! So I have no business background or any kind of stuff like that. But I guess I’ve become a businesswoman.

It’s circular movements. It’s like dancing yoga, on equipment. You can do it at a very high level — we’ve got a lot of principal dancers from every company in the area that come — but we also cater to people who can barely walk.

What is it that 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 the thing out of the cabinet up there and run with your grandchild or your great-grandchild, if you should be so lucky. Really what you want is a moving strength. That is what people seek when they’re older and they start to not be able to do the things that they used to do. You want to feel good in your body. You want to feel vibrant!

What’s your Jewish background?

Although my father’s father was a rabbi, I was raised in a relatively secular Jewish household on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. My paternal grandparents were the only two of the family to escape famine and ultimately Treblinka. The more I realized what they endured, the more I understood the preciousness of life and the value of living up to my fullest potential, and the importance of seizing every opportunity to come my way.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.