It’s a universal truth: Kids are adorable. And kids onstage, in costume, playing make-believe, are even cuter.
Still, it is easy to understand the sentiment behind W.C. Fields’ notable show-business command to “Never work with animals or children.” Fields was jesting, at least in part. Though he tended to play hostile, suspicious characters, away from the stage or screen he was known to be warm toward his own children and fond of kids generally. But his warning recognized that kids, along with being irresistibly cute, can be distractible, noisy, difficult to herd and, by definition, lacking in experience. Those children who are a wonder to behold onstage can be a handful backstage. And given enough time, even the most tolerant director will likely have his patience pushed by even the cuddliest group of youngsters.
But W.C. Fields never met Charlotte Bowlby, whose motto might be a perfect inversion of Fields’ phrase: “Always work with children.” Since 1991, Bowlby has been teaching the youngest students, the 3- to 8-year-olds, at the School of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, and her career teaching ballet to children extends even further back. Her current crop of students numbers around 100; she teaches five days a week.
And crunch time is approaching: Aspen Santa Fe Ballet presents its annual production of the Christmas classic “The Nutcracker” this weekend, meaning Bowlby is in charge of scores of tiny dancers who need to be dressed as bees, party guests and blocks; attended to backstage; ushered onto stage at the right moment; and always guided away from potential meltdowns and mishaps. There are two performances each day and tons of kids, making for long hours and twisted logistics. And Bowlby, even several decades in, never tires of it.
“She has infinite patience,” Melanie Doskocil, the school director at Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, said of her colleague. “She’s an inspiration for me. She loves what she does so much, and it’s influenced me in how much I love my work, how I teach.”
Doskocil, who is in her 10th year with the organization, added that the times she walks around Aspen with Bowlby are generally interrupted.
“The kids see her and leap into her arms, hug her,” Doskocil said. “It’s out of this world. And they can’t wait to get into her class.”
“Every day is so gratifying with them,” Bowlby said. “Kids are so happy, full of life. It’s a joy to be with them. They remind you of what’s important in life. They’re always in the moment, and we forget to do that.”
While she might be able to get by on her attitude and enthusiasm alone, Bowlby also has gained some useful insight into kids and learned some techniques that help her stay even-keeled while teaching. One point she repeats is that kids are not to be treated as if they were adults in miniature.
“They’re little kids. And you expect them to be little kids,” said Bowlby, who has three kids and a 4-year-old granddaughter, who is among her current students. “You have to understand each age level they’re at. You have to expect a 3- or 4-year-old to be a 3- or 4-year-old.”
That understanding can probably be traced back to the fact that, as a 4-year-old herself, Bowlby was a dancer — and a passionate one. She began dancing in Boulder, training in ballet and tap.
“And I loved it. I had a lot of fun. And I never stopped,” she said.
One of the techniques she learned back then was to attach stories to the dance moves being taught. Stories have become a hallmark of Bowlby’s method.
“For all the locomotive skills, I have stories — going to the beach and collecting seashells, being fairies at the lake who love to fly across,” she said. “They love being princesses, unicorns. And fairies — they love fairies.”
Bowlby spent most of her childhood in Glenwood Springs and studied with a teacher, based in Aspen, from the Royal Academy of Ballet. By 17, Bowlby was teaching dance at Colorado Mountain College. She spent three years in a jazz company that grew out of CMC and toured around Colorado in the early ’80s. She also spent time teaching at a studio in Rifle before joining the staff at the Aspen Ballet School, which in the mid-’90s became the Aspen Ballet Company and then Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. For several years in the early ’90s, she taught adult classes and found that her passion for instructing dance wasn’t limited to kids.
“I kind of like teaching everyone,” she said, noting that she does some one-on-one instruction with adults and teaches the occasional class for older kids.
Bowlby believes that the youngest kids get something special from dance.
“They gain a lot of confidence, mentally and physically,” she said. “They learn to move their bodies through space, a wonderful thing to learn. It really seems to spread out into all of their activities. The 3- and 4-year-olds, even after a few months, you see what they learn — how to skip, gallop, control their bodies. The level of confidence they gain is fun to watch.
“I want the kids to love themselves, feel good about themselves. Dance is a great vehicle for kids to feel good, control their bodies.”
“The biggest thing is that she’s so passionate about dance, and that’s infectious,” Doskocil said. “She gives them a love of dance. They’re so in love with it after taking a class with her.”
Each December, Bowlby sees her students receive a special gift in being able to interact closely with the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet company members, along with a handful of guest dancers, in “The Nutcracker.” The kids get to see close-up what it is they are aspiring to be and how a professional dancer conducts herself.
“The dancers they bring in are kind to the kids backstage,” Bowlby said. “The kids look up to them, and they get to see where they can go. They see it firsthand at ‘The Nutcracker.’ That’s a big thing for a little kid.”
“The Nutcracker” is also a treat for Bowlby.
“I get to see the older kids, who I had when they were young and haven’t seen for a while. I get to see the level they’ve gotten to — that’s really cool for me. Every year, it’s magic. I’m standing in the wings, watching the light hit their faces, and every year I feel that way. I get really emotional.”
Even after two-plus decades, Bowlby would still always choose to work with children.
“I always love being around kids,” she said. “It doesn’t go away.”