Still In It Together: An Interview with Nancy Davis and Jim Lane

BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT; PHOTOGRAPHS BY GREGORY BARTNING

Nancy and Jim are partners in every sense of the word – dancing partners, business partners and life partners. Though their physical abilities in dance couldn’t be more different, their joint love of ballet is as strong as the tip of a pointe shoe; it not only supports weight, but facilitates movement, growth and passion by its very design.

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When did you start dancing and what have been some highlights along the journey?

Nancy: I started ballet at age four. At 14, I went to the School of American Ballet for a summer program and was asked to stay year-round. After three years, I came home to regroup and start auditioning for companies. I landed a job at the National Ballet in Washington, DC, and danced there for four years.

As National Ballet folded, the Los Angeles Ballet was starting. John Clifford, who had been a principal with New York City Ballet, founded the company. For 10 years, I danced with Los Angeles Ballet as a principal dancer. During this time, I met Jim. We became partners.

Jim and I finally retired from the stage and had a baby, but I missed ballet. After Los Angeles Ballet folded, John Clifford started a touring company. Our daughter was a year old, so I was able to perform a bit, but it became too hard physically to stop and start. Jim had a job opportunity in Portland, so we moved. I taught at Oregon Ballet Theater and started to build a following. Over the years, Jim and I had talked about having a school. In 2000, the time was right. We bought what had been an auto repair garage with a barn in the back, gutted it, and opened our ballet school in June 2001.

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Jim: I started dancing when I was 13. I had been involved in children’s theater. In Riverside, California, where I grew up, a guest teacher came from San Francisco Ballet and went around recruiting kids. Somehow I got signed up. I had the right body for it, long legs and good feet. I ended up at the School of American Ballet, though a little later than Nancy.

When John Clifford started Los Angeles Ballet, he recruited me. I joined the second year of the company. I was immediately paired with Nancy. We were a pretty good match.

I was plagued with bad knees and tendinitis almost my whole career. I retired early, got into computers, and ended up getting a job at a telecommunications company. I eventually ended up in international business development. The training I got from those jobs was perfect when we put together the business plan for The Portland Ballet.

What does your current dance practice look like?

Nancy: I don’t get an even workout teaching, so I cross-train. I take a two-mile walk three times a week, and practice Gyrotonic once a week. In the summers, I swim and kayak.

I love taking class, but it’s humbling to look in the mirror and remember what I used to see. Ballet is not kind to the aging dancer. But as I took class yesterday, I was struck by the fact that while the body does give out, the artistry continues and even gets better over time. When I’m in class, I focus on that and really do derive satisfaction from it.

Jim: I coach dancers. They need to know the steps, but I can come in and tweak details. I usually work with dancers at the end of the rehearsal process.

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What is your motivation to dance and how has it changed?

Nancy: Ballet has always been a safe place to express myself. Amidst daily stress, when I step into the studio, it’s a form of meditation. It brings out the best in me.

What does success mean to you?

Nancy: I danced such great ballets. I know many ballet dancers carry baggage, wishing their careers could have been more, but I don’t feel that way. Technically and artistically, I reached a high level. I feel good about what I accomplished.

Jim: I really enjoyed dancing, but I don’t think I applied myself as well as I could have until we started the school. It gives me so much satisfaction. This school feels like we’re making a difference. We’ve established a culture where the kids understand the discipline but don’t feel like they’re being beaten down.

What do you perceive is your legacy?

Nancy: Jim and I danced during a golden age of ballet. Nureyev, Baryshnikov, Fonteyn, Makarova… these great stars dominated the scene. It was a wonderful energy, and I want to share that with my students. I feel a huge responsibility. I hope our academy continues beyond us. I feel a passion about passing on my exposure to such wonderful dancers and choreographers.

Is there a set of circumstances that would cause you to stop dancing?

Nancy: I’m going to do it as long as I can. Teaching is hard, but if I keep cross-training, I think I can go until 70. Ballet is such a big a part of who I am, I can’t even begin to imagine my life without it. On some level, I will be dancing until my last day on this earth.

Jim: What’s so interesting about the school aspect is, you teach kids for years and then you see them go on to do something that’s very close to being professional. It’s almost more exciting than seeing a veteran professional. You critique it from a different angle. You’re rooting them on.

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What advice would you give to a younger generation of dancers?

Nancy: With all the competition for professional jobs, don’t give up easily. If you really want to dance, you can find a way. You need a strong head for it, though. You can have all the facility in the world, but you need a mix of facility, talent and a strong head on your shoulders. And if you have to give it up, the lessons you learn from ballet – focus, concentration, respect for others, teamwork, musicality and performance – give you tools to excel at anything.

Jim: Like Winston Churchill said, never, ever, ever, ever give up.

Any other thoughts?

Jim: We’re doing what we do for the right reasons. Neither one of us ever got into this for the money.

Nancy: We just love the ballet art form. For us to still get to work together is huge. My life is full. It doesn’t get any better than that.

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Nancy Davis began studying ballet at age four. She received a Ford Foundation scholarship to study at the School of American Ballet. At 18, she joined the National Ballet of Washington, D.C., and in 1974, joined the Los Angeles Ballet, performing principal roles with the company for 10 years.

Jim Lane began dance at age 13. He trained at the School of American Ballet on a Ford Foundation Scholarship. In 1975, he joined Los Angeles Ballet. He retired from the stage following several knee injuries, and found work in the telecommunications industry. An automobile accident in 1993 left Jim partially paralyzed.

In 2001, Jim and Nancy opened The Portland Ballet.

This interview is from the book “Beauty is Experience: Dancing 50 and Beyond.” Click here to learn more about the book, or click here to order your own limited edition copy!

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