Learning Through Yoga and Dance: An Interview with Teacher Alexandra Langstaff
Alexandra Langstaff has always been a teacher, and she has always been a dancer. In 1989 she decided to combine her two passions into a dance shop dedicated to educating children through creative movements—Hullabaloo. A one-woman operation based out of the Southern Vermont Arts Center, Hullabaloo stresses the importance of channeling physical energy into creative thinking and doing so in a way that is fun and attainable for children. Alexandra received a degree in Early Childhood Education from UVM, and while her practices at Hullabaloo are influenced by what she learned there, she also draws a lot from personal experiences through various books she has collected along the way and working first-hand with children to find the best ways to keep them active. And with the help of an Artist Development Grant from the Council, Alexandra has been able to receive production assistance for dance instruction videos.
Alexandra’s 25 years in the ski industry also shape her work at Hullabaloo, as she trained ski instructors how best to teach children how to ski. She is also a 500RYT, meaning she has successfully completed a 500-hour yoga teacher training. Hullabaloo blends together experiences from these areas of Alexandra’s life. Learning happens everywhere, and Alexandra’s efforts to meld together the most formative aspects of her life ensure her students continue to grow, even when not in the classroom.
Niamh Carty: Was yoga something that you grew up doing and were always interested in, or did that interest start later in your life?
Alexandra Langstaff: I first started yoga in fifth grade, and it was just a group of girls after school with a woman who wore a black leotard and black leggings. She was really a “yoga person,” and we were just a bunch of dopey fifth graders, so it didn’t really click at all for me. And then when I was in college, there was a book by Richard Hittleman. It was a weight loss through yoga book that my roommate picked up. It was a small paperback with all the basic poses, and that brought me a little more into the yoga world. I still was not very seriously into yoga until about 15 years ago, though.
What got you back into that world more seriously?
Well, I’ve always been very active—I’m a skier, I’m a dancer—but I’m extremely lazy when it comes down to exercise. Going into a gym or having a regime, I was never interested in that. So, I originally got into yoga because it reminded me of dance through the shapes that you make, and I thought it was a really easy way to get strong and flexible. So, it was strictly for the exercise part at first.
When I decided to go into taking a yoga teacher training program, I was introduced to the whole concept of the 8 Limbed Path, the Yamas, the Niyamas—the philosophy of yoga. And I realized that it connected very deeply with the way I am and how I think, though I don’t think I realized that connection until later. I just happened to believe in impermanence and how things change. You have no control, and you have to be with what’s happening, and that really spoke to me. And I’m a teacher—I love to teach. I love to convince the people that are doing yoga for exercise, like me in the beginning, that it’s really much different. It’s a practice. It’s a mental, spiritual, physical practice, and it’s different from an exercise class.
Can you explain what a 500RYT Yoga teacher is? Is it required to teach yoga?
Teaching yoga is like any business, so a 500RYT certification is like getting accreditation. You need 500 hours of training time to earn it. For me, I was already teaching yoga when someone mentioned that I should take this teacher training. I didn’t really know about it, but it’s basically like getting a badge. For some people, it’s really, really important. For me, the best part about it is that it just opened my eyes to the whole philosophical and practical side of teaching. I had already been a teacher of many subjects at that point, so the 500RYT training was more about the philosophical stuff. Will I maintain that ranking? I don’t know. Ultimately, is it affecting my pay? No. It’s an investment in myself, but I don’t have a business card, so I didn’t really get anything cool out of it.
How did the idea of Hullabaloo come to be?
I started Hullabaloo in the summer of 1989. Hullabaloo is not ballet, it’s not tap, it’s really about creative movement and using your imagination and being silly and trying different things. The idea came to me because I’d always been a dancer. Not a professional dancer, but a dancer anyway. I was also in the ski industry, and I wondered why some children were more natural skiers than others. And so, I started experimenting in the studio and just developing different activities to explore range of movement. My philosophy is that the more movement opportunities children have, the more adept they become at trying new things and honing skills, and ultimately discovering what they enjoy.
Would you say that there’s a lot of differences between teaching adult classes and classes for children?
Well, honestly, teaching children is much more satisfying for me. Once you know what a kid needs, they are very open to accepting what you offer. Adults can be resistant. I have a lot of empathy and compassion for people in general, but I feel like children need my compassion more than adults do. So, if a kid comes up to me and wants something from me, I will give everything I have.
Where did you learn all your techniques? Would you say it was from school or more of an experience thing, of doing it yourself and seeing what works?
I graduated with a degree in education from UVM, but I could not bring myself to go into a classroom. And then when I graduated, I went into the ski industry, and then I developed Hullabaloo later, on my own. I have a really big library and a lot of resources. So I would say I’m self-taught in a lot of ways, a lot of what I know is from my experiences, and I do a lot of my own research.
For example, I’m starting a new job working with kids who have traumatic backgrounds—seven- to seventeen-year-old children who have a difficult time processing emotions. So, when I started researching for this project, I looked in my library to see what I had dealing with that, in the realm of yoga, specifically. I found several books dealing with sensory integration and special needs, and so I was just reading through those and thinking, “Oh, okay. I know this.” But at the same time, I take courses in teaching yoga to seniors, into developing themes for my classes, whatever interests me. If I can, I will sign up and keep learning stuff.
What is it like operating by yourself at Hullabaloo?
I don’t need a helper because I’m used to working with large groups, and I know how to control a group of kids, in easy and fun ways. But like I said, I like to teach others how to teach. So, I actually hired an eleven-year-old from town this summer to help me out. I had run into her father, who I had known when I was in the ski industry. He mentioned his daughter was interested in babysitting, and I asked if she would like to work with me. I basically just thought, “Why not get people involved?”
On the topic of the ski industry, how have your experiences there fit into what you do today? Are you still active in that way?
I was in the ski industry for probably 25 years. I traveled and worked in Australia, so I’d go from season to season for four years. In the later years, I was on a national team that taught people how to teach children—because teaching children how to ski can be really trying. A lot of instructors feel like, “Oh my gosh, I’ve got to teach a group of beginner kids,” and they get overwhelmed. So, I was the research and development person for developing techniques for teaching kids.
I’m really interested in how you teach children holistically. You have to incorporate their cognitive development, their emotional development, and their physical development. You can’t focus on just one part. So, that’s how I spent most of my time in the ski industry, training others. When I left the ski industry, in about 1999, I did not ski for about 10 years after that. Honestly, it had a lot to do with the fact that I was too lazy to carry my equipment from the car up to the mountain. I was so used to having all my stuff in my office! So, that was really the primary reason that I stopped. When you’re in the ski industry, for a lot of people, that is your entire world. And when I left the ski industry, I realized how much more was still out there.
The four years that I was going to Australia were just before I started Hullabaloo. I had to decide whether I was going to become a permanent resident in Australia and I decided I was not going to do that. So, then it was like, “Okay, what am I going to do in the summers?” And that’s when I started developing Hullabaloo. I’ve always been interested in what makes someone an athlete, and I had noticed a lot of similarities between dance and skiing—through body awareness and stuff like that. They really parallel each other beautifully. So Hullabaloo just kind of naturally followed that.
How did you decide to base your work in Vermont?
Honestly, after Australia, I realized I didn’t need to be in the farthest place in the world from here. So now I live a field away from where I grew up. I grew up on a dairy farm, and we put our property into the Vermont Land Trust. So, my brother and sister and I all kept a section of land for each of us, in the idea that we may want to live here, and we did!
You are also an active writer. Can you talk a little bit about your recently released memoir?
I just had a book launch a couple of weeks ago for my book Virtuous Sinner: Made in Vermont. It’s based on stories of growing up, being a kid, then an adolescent, then middle-aged, and then a somewhat responsible adult. It’s a humorous book at its heart because I think that a lot of times memoirs—and memoir is sort of a funny word because it wasn’t the word that I really chose for it, I think it’s more of a group of essays—a lot of times, people read memoirs looking for something really dark and traumatic. And some experiences in my life have been traumatic, but the way I view the world—through yoga, dance, skiing—is that you have to keep going. You have to find the humor in misery; otherwise, you’re going to be in a mess.
And in a more basic sense, I want this book to get people to remember stuff about their own lives. One of the things I love most is when people come up to me after reading my work and say, “Gosh, we did the same thing.” Or, “I remember when I…” And that’s what I love. I like when I can connect my story, or any story, to someone else. And then we can connect that to the bigger world.
And you’re in the process of writing another book, right?
Yes, I have two in the works. One that I’ve been compiling is another series of essays, and it’s tentatively called Just Keep Talking. My brother used to say that—still does—and this book is based on communication.
I’m also just finishing up a children’s book called Emmeline the Porcupine. I collaborated on this one with a young woman who has just finished her freshman year at Smith College, Gretchen Hammell. And I had her as a Hullabaloo student when she was three! We’ve maintained a relationship throughout the years. She’s been a camp counselor for me and helped out at different things, and she’s an incredible artist. So, I asked her if she would like to do some illustrations for me, and she did the most incredible ink and watercolor drawings. And so now I’m just fixing up my text to match her pictures a little bit more. And I’m in the process of finding out different places that I could have it published. So that’s the one that’s the closest to being published.
Have you maintained relationships with a lot of your past students?
I have, actually. In fact, when I did the book launch, I reached out to Henry Putney, who I had as a two year old in Hullabaloo. He’s just graduated from Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester, and I found out that he was a filmmaker, so I asked him if he wouldn’t mind filming my book launch.
I also hired a homeschool student that I did not have in Hullabaloo, Charlotte Alexander, but she’s a yoga instructor so I knew her through her classes for children. I’ve made a lot of yoga cards and creative dance alphabet cards, so I would give her some input here and there of things to try and stuff. So that’s how we developed and started our relationship.
A major goal of mine is to be able to show others how you work with kids, and what my process is, and how I develop ideas. Because I can’t be the only one that’s doing this stuff. I don’t want to be 500 years old and say, “Oh my God, I’m too old.” So I’m trying to draw people in.
Is this a similar idea to the work you did as a ski instructor for instructors? Do you want to expand that practice of teaching teachers into dance, yoga, and other avenues?
Yeah, definitely. I’ve done workshops on how to incorporate yoga and how to incorporate creative movement with teachers to get them on board. Interesting that you bring this up, actually, because it was recently suggested to me that perhaps I could make a course on Udemy, which is a program where you can put up a course for people to take—and mine would be on how to teach creative movement. I’ve compiled a pretty big list of activities for a range of areas: small groups, big groups, quieting kids down, revving them up, etc. So, I have all the raw material, and it’s definitely something I hope to expand upon.
Do you have any final words you’d like to share about your work?
My goal is to get more people involved in working with children in ways that are not the basic, typical dance stuff. I think kids really need to explore and be consistently around people like me, who laugh a lot. It’s not like I have no cares in the world, but when a kid says to me, “Oh, you’re funny,” it’s so satisfying, because you know you’ve connected. I’m not a goofball and I don’t get embarrassed easily, but I know what makes them laugh. They have to be able to laugh at themselves and not always be striving to be the best at something or a perfectionist. That’s really, really important to me.