Rhythm of Life: A Dancer’s Story

by Zach Benoit

Larry Stanfel stood on the balls of his feet with his arms stretched overhead, his gaze locked forward and his neck and back straight, seemingly pointing toward the ground under his feet at the Montana Dance Center in Billings.

With the tinkling of classical piano music in the background, he held the position, tiptoed to the right and bent at the knees while Julia Marble, his classical ballet instructor, doled out instructions and encouragement.

“Plié,” Marble said. “Yes, there you go. Can you feel that?”

Larry Stanfel talks with instructor Julia Marble during a lesson at the Montana Dance Center.

Larry Stanfel talks with instructor Julia Marble during a lesson at the Montana Dance Center.

Yes, he could. No big deal for most of Marble’s students. But during the 2014 practice session where that conversation took place, Stanfel happened to be a spry 74 years old. Now he’s 76 – and still hard at it with Marble, his ballet instructor now more than 14 years.

Stanfel’s love of ballet started about a decade and a half ago as nothing more than research for a novel but soon bloomed into a beloved hobby. He now drives an hour and a half or more to Billings each week for private lessons, practices daily at home and says it’s helped to keep him healthy and limber.“I’m still undiscovered,” he joked during an interview. “I’m waiting for that phone call from the (American Ballet Theatre).”

Shortly after retiring as a professor at the University of Alabama, Stanfel, then 62, began writing a work of fiction, titled “Ghost Town: A Novel,” that featured a phantom dancer as part of its premise. He figured the best way to accurately write about ballet was to understand it, so he started researching it and then taking classes. A trip to New York with his wife, Jane, to see a performance by the American Ballet Theatre all but sealed the deal for ballet as more than just research for Stanfel.

“I thought it was the most glorious thing I’d ever seen,” he said.

He started taking lessons in Washington, D.C., in February of 2002. Later that year, he and his wife moved from the Washington, D.C., area to a remote area northeast of Roundup and began taking ballet classes from Marble, who was then at the Billings YWCA. That means that more than 14 years, they’ve been driving to Billings each week, sometimes a two-hour trek if the roads are bad, for the classes.
“He used to be all baseball, football, basketball,” Jane Stanfel said. “This keeps you limber. There are definitely health benefits. He can bend and do things that men his age usually can’t do.”

According to the American Association of Retired Persons, dancing offers numerous health boosts, from
a low-impact way to strengthen bones and muscles to toning and improving flexibility, from reducing stress levels to building confidence and boosting mental focus and sharpness.

Marble, a professionally trained ballet dancer, has taught ballet for more than 37 years and is director of the Montana Dance Center, now at 701 Daniel St. in Billings. The center has classes for beginners and advanced dancers alike and for all age groups in a wide range of styles.

“It’s the best in the state of Montana, if you ask me,” Stanfel said after noting Marble’s sharp eye for form.

“From across the room, she can tell if your weight isn’t distributed properly.”

Marble said that, in addition to the physical benefits, such as better stability and an increased range of motion, she’s seen ballet act as an etiquette class for youngsters, provide an emotional outlet for people and help with their general sharpness. “Ballet is pretty demanding,” she said. “It’s incredible for memory discipline. All of the parts of the brain, with dance, go into ballet.”

She added that with a dedicated pupil such as Stanfel, she can see the difference it makes.“I have taught him at some very low points in his life. At one point I taught him when he had an oxygen tank on his back. I think the extra physical and mental aspect of it keeps him wanting to do things,” Marble said. “He’s a very avid student.”

Stanfel, on his part, takes the strain as part of the way dance is meant to be

Larry Stanfel dances during his lesson with Julia Marble of the Montana Dance Center.

Larry Stanfel dances during his lesson with Julia Marble of the Montana Dance Center.

“Ballet is approaching 500 years of age. In that time people have had good opportunities to decide what are all the positions in which one’s body is comfortable. Ballet, then, was defined to be everything else. Jennifer Penney, a principal danseuse with England’s Royal Ballet once wrote me, ‘If it doesn’t hurt, you’re not doing it correctly,’” Stanfel said.

Stanfel keeps active in other ways as well, including through bicycling and lifting weights. He said that ballet, though, goes beyond simply an activity to keep himself busy.

“I don’t do this just to amuse myself,” he said. “I want to get better. There’s just a desire to improve because there’s still so much I can learn.”

Both Marble and Jane Stanfel, who’s also taken the classes, said he’s made huge strides as a dancer
since he first started.

Jane Stanfel said she’s noticed how much more flexible her husband is and the boost in his technique
on the dance floor, while Marble noted that he’s been a quick learner, especially with his wife around.

“You want to work within what’s natural and easy for your body, and I always try to do that,” Marble
said. “They’re so fun when they’re together. He’s been pushed along faster and really made some progress here. I’ve actually learned so much from them, not only in how to teach, but in their spirit of adventure.”

As for Stanfel, he said he doesn’t see himself slowing with ballet, both for the health benefits and for the challenge and mental focus it provides.

But, beneath that, he also just plain enjoys it.

“I certainly enjoy and I think it’s good for me,” he said. “It’s a pleasant way to exercise. I get to listen to some lovely music and get a workout at the same time.”

Zach Benoit writes for the Billings Gazette at: zbenoit@billingsgazette.com

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