A life of dance

JDU's newest dance master brings almost 50 years of experience to Juneau

Posted: Thursday, December 12, 2002

Eckhard Heidrich started dancing to stay out of trouble.

"My father wanted to keep me off the streets," he said with a smile last week in the studio at Juneau Dance Unlimited, where he now serves as dance master and ballet instructor.

He's well suited to the position. Heidrich, 60, spent much of his life as a professional dancer, performing with ballet companies throughout Europe and North America. He began dancing at age 11 and these days his agility and nimble step are evidence that a life of dance has been good to him.

Heidrich was born in Berlin in the midst of World War II. He grew up in a city bombed into ruins, divided by Soviet occupation and devastated economically. Students such as young Heidrich went to school in shifts because of the shortage of teachers and supplies.

"It was a hard time," he said. "Many times I ask myself how my parents did it - to have three kids and always have food on the table."

Before the war, Heidrich's father served as financial manager for the Deutsche Oper Ballett and his mother was a seamstress with the company, which produced operas and ballets. After the war he cleaned streets until he was able to resecure his position. A devoted fan of opera and the arts, the elder Heidrich urged his son to begin dancing.

Today athletes take ballet to improve agility and coordination. But in the early 1950s, Heidrich said male athletes did not realize the benefits of ballet and many parents did not encourage boys to dance. Attitudes have improved but men are still an overwhelming minority in ballet.

"When I was 14 there was probably six or seven guys in class, out of 500 students - and that was pretty good," he said. "Now you can have a whole men's class, 30 or 35 guys."

Heidrich has taught basic beginning ballet to Texas football players, high school gymnasts and European ice skating champions. Just as ballet provides the basics for all dance forms it helps athletes, who have no interest in pursuing dance, build strength and agility.

"You should have seen how they increased their coordination," he said. "For skaters and gymnasts their elegance and presentation improved tremendously."

The athleticism and challenge appealed to Heidrich, and he spent his teen years in dance classes, five hours a day, five days a week. At 17 he was invited to join the school's professional company. Within a year he was featured as a soloist. Over the next 16 years he danced all over Europe with leading companies, returning to Berlin every year to visit his family.

Heidrich said he was able to dance many well-known pas de deux (ballet scenes for partners) because his technique was very clean.

"I executed the step how it should be," he said, jumping up and demonstrating a series of moves.

He fell in love with another dancer, an American on tour in Europe, and they married. In 1969 they accepted positions with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in Canada.

His wife was originally from Kansas City and in 1974 they moved from performing to teaching and Heidrich joined the faculty of the University of Missouri at Kansas City. He became an American citizen that same year.

"That was a very good day for me," he said. "I studied for six months, history, government, everything, to be a good citizen."

In the early 1980s Heidrich, now single, moved to Austin, Texas. He taught there and used the Texas capital as a base for teaching throughout the region. He also enjoyed the culture and music of the area and became a fan of Willie Nelson and Stevie Ray Vaughn.

A short guest teaching stint in Juneau last winter brought him to Alaska. In May he accepted a one-year contract with Juneau Dance Unlimited and moved north with his partner of 17 years, Cheryll Cook. He said he loves the mountains surrounding town and walks up Basin Road almost every day.

Jennifer Ryznar, a ballet student in the JDU adult class, said she thinks it's amazing to have a dance instructor here with his experience.

"I like his professionalism and the caliber of his skills," she said. "He has high expectations, which pushes us to do things we didn't even know we could do."

"His accent is part of his charm," she said. "He's very clear with instructions."

Working with a class of teenage girls last week, Heidrich bounced between the CD player and the dance floor, jumping in to demonstrate steps and offer technical corrections. As the dancers dipped and stepped in the warm-up routine at the bar, he shook his head. He's done his share of those moves.

"I probably did a million pliés in all my years."

Riley Woodford can be reached at rileyw@juneauempire.com.

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