Finding the Right Turn

Workshop Tour by NOTED American Ballet Dancer is coming to Bangkok

It's not often that a professional ballet dancer from San Francisco elegantly pirouettes his way through Bangkok to demonstrate and share his expertise. Ikolo Griffin was spotted as a star and immediately recruited by the San Francisco Ballet company at the age of eight and never looked back. In the last 30 years, his passion for ballet has seen him twirl on reputable stages, from the San Francisco Opera house, Paris Opera House and the Lincoln Center, New York to Dance Theater of Harlem and The Joffrey Ballet in Chicago. But Griffin has a different kind of spin to him. He decided to give back to the dance community by simplifying the very thing every ballet dancer dreads: the pirouette. Since then, his "Just Turns" workshop has been changing the lives of many dancers across the US. Now he's taking over the world -- one turn at a time -- as he arranges his workshops in other countries. GURU speaks to Griffin about his upcoming visit to Bangkok in an exclusive interview!

When were you first introduced to ballet?

I got my first taste of ballet through an outreach programme that came to my elementary school when I was eight years old in San Francisco. I had no idea at that time that it would become my life's passion. I received a scholarship to the San Francisco Ballet school and never looked back. Even though there were times when I wanted to quit after being teased because I did ballet, my mother's gentle encouragement kept me going.

What happened next?

Ten years later in 1993, I became the first student from the school's outreach programme to join the world-class San Francisco Ballet Company. Dancing with the company was a dream come true and an incredible experience. From working with famous artists to travelling all over the world, it was an honour to be able to represent San Francisco.

In 2001, I moved to New York and was asked to join the Dance Theater of Harlem as their leading dancer. It was an opportunity of a lifetime and that is where I truly became an artist. Living and dancing in NYC is a dream of every dancer and I enjoyed every minute of it! I've also danced with the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago, which was a wonderful learning experience. The Joffrey ballet along with the San Francisco ballet are two of the oldest, most respected ballet companies in the US.

And then where did ballet take you?

After dancing professionally for more than 20 years, I started teaching ballet and passing all the things I've learned in my career to the next generation. Because there is only one way to do ballet -- the right way. I insist and demand the dancer dance correctly with passion and imagination. Hopefully, they can get the same enjoyment out of dancing that I have.

What were some of your favourite performances throughout your career?

I've been very blessed to dance on many stages all over the world. From my very first show at the San Francisco Opera house when I was eight to the six standing ovations at the Paris opera house in France, one that sticks out the most is a show in NYC at the Lincoln Center. I had a leading role in a world premiere ballet and I had never been so nervous before in my life right before my first entrance. Once the show started, everything fell perfectly into place and the show was a huge success.

What sets you apart from other ballet dancers?

It's hard to say, most dancers bring something special to the stage. It's the only way to become a professional dancer. My main goal in performing is to share with the audience my love of dance. And to dance each performance like its opening night, even though it might be the 30th time I've done the show. Also, I work hard to bring out the story of the dance I'm doing, from a story ballet like Swan Lake to simple movements on stage. Every movement can tell a story and I love bringing the audience along that journey.

When and why did you start 'Just Turns'?

'Just Turns' is a pirouette or turns class that gives dancers the opportunity to find their unique turning style. I started it eight years ago. I remember when I was a student how much it helped me become a better turner and dancer by just working on turns outside of my regular classes. With that in mind, I created a class to allow dancers to do just that! Pirouettes and turns are some of the hardest moves a dancer can do and often dancers get frustrated and give up when they can't get them right. Just Turns gets right to the heart of many dancers' struggles and questions and helps them find the 'Ah-ha' moment that changes their lives.

What's so special about 'Just Turns'?

One of the things that makes it special is in the name, 'Just Turns' because dancers come in already focused on turning and that sets them up for success! Also, the workshop takes a very complicated movement and simplifies it, which is not easy to do.

The moment before you do a turn is just a second or two. In that moment, some dancers think, 'Oh no!' And the turn goes badly, unfortunately. There are many things a dancer can think about, what Just Turns does is keeping it simple by having just five rules and tools dancer can use to do a turn consistently and with great quality.

Where has 'Just Turns' taken you, so far?

So far, I've travelled all over the US, from San Francisco to New York. And this year, I've taught in Japan, Cuba and Samoa. My dream for 'Just Turns' is to be the centre for everything about turning and pirouettes. Any and all types you can find at Just turns. From cool and amazing videos to tutorials about turning.

How was your recent Japan tour?

The 'Just Turns' Japan workshops were wonderful! I taught in Kagoshima at the Classic Ballet Frais school. The students there really loved the workshop and because I can speak and teach in Japanese, there was no language barrier. Not only did the students learn a lot, but so did some of the teachers that came to watch. They told me after that they will continue to teach the 'Just Turns' pirouette warm-up combination that I taught the dancers, which truly humbled me.

Will this be your first time in Bangkok? What are you looking forward to the most?

It is but (hopefully not the last) time in Bangkok! Thai ballet dancers are very good and I hope to be able to help them turn even better. I'm also excited to see all the wonderful temples and try all of the delicious food Thailand has to offer. It has always been one of the top places I've wanted to visit and I can't wait to get here. I plan on taking some Thai cooking classes so I can bring back the tastes of Thailand to my home!

Where can we find your 'Just Turns' classes during your time here?

I will be teaching classes (Nov 7-11) at Bangkok City Ballet and at the Dance Centre, among others. To book group or private classes, email me at info@justturns.com. I look forward to seeing as many of you as possible! 

Visit justturns.net.