Alice Teirstein, Who Introduced Youths to Dance, Dies at 93
Alice Teirstein, a fixture of the New York dance scene for half a century as a dancer, choreographer and teacher, and the creator of Young Dancemakers Company, a free summer program that gives budding teenage dancers and choreographers a chance to develop their skills and test them in performances, died on Nov. 25 at her home in Manhattan. She was 93.
Her daughter, Eva Teirstein Young, confirmed the death.
Ms. Teirstein began to draw attention as a dancer and choreographer in the late 1940s while still a college student. After her marriage in 1951 to Dr. Alvin Teirstein, she dialed back her dance activities while raising four children. But in the early 1970s, while living in the New York suburb New Rochelle, she became more visible again, performing and staging her own dances in Westchester County and eventually in the city.
She also choreographed stage plays and musicals, including versions of “Electra” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by the Pearl Theater Company in the late 1980s. She was still performing in her 70s, including with the group Dancers Over 40.
When she and Stuart Hodes danced their piece “I Thought You Were Dead” in a 1996 revue by that group, Jennifer Dunning, writing in The New York Times, called it “a hilarious, touching and perceptive duet for two aging lovers who are ready for anything at this point in their lives.”
But above all, Ms. Teirstein was known as a teacher. She created the well-regarded dance program at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, a private school in the Bronx where she taught for 34 years beginning in 1976. Her experiences there led her to contemplate what could be done to bring dance education to New York young people who didn’t have access to a school like Fieldston.
“I decided in 1996 that I would like to create a company for students who would not otherwise have this opportunity,” she told The Riverdale Press in 2015. The result was Young Dancemakers Company, which remains tuition-free, recruits students from all five boroughs and brings its annual performances to all five as well.
Students, who work with professional composers, are encouraged to create dances that reflect their experiences and concerns. The result has been works about bullying, self-discovery, the immigrant experience, events in the news and more.
Jessica Danser, who is on the faculty of the Ailey School and Talent Unlimited High School in Manhattan, and who founded her own dance company in 2005, was 15 when she participated in Dancemakers in 1999 and encountered Ms. Teirstein.
“It would not be an exaggeration to call her the most influential person in my career,” she said by email.
“As a choreographer, Alice’s challenge to create work which was both personally and globally meaningful never left me,” Ms. Danser added. “As an educator, Alice’s vision that every young dancer has a unique voice led me to create a student-centered creative curriculum which is central in my work at Talent Unlimited High School. As a community organizer, Alice’s commitment to bringing high-quality dance education to urban students of color, disrupting inequity in arts education, and centering the voices of teenagers and their communities was nonpareil.”
Jessica Gaynor, who is now Young Dancemakers’ artistic director, began learning from Ms. Teirstein when she was a 13-year-old student at Fieldston and continued to do so as her assistant and, eventually, as co-director of the company.
“One of Alice’s greatest gifts as an educator was the value she placed on individuality,” Ms. Gaynor said by email. “Through improvisational exercises, Alice encouraged her students to tell their own story and respond in the moment. ‘You are an original’ was a phrase heard often during summer sessions with Young Dancemakers Company.”
Another person who learned from her example was her son Andy Teirstein, who is now a professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
“I always remember her sitting at the kitchen table, taking notes in preparation for her teaching,” he said by email. “And I’ve been finding these notes now. She wrote: ‘The immediacy of the childish impulse, the splattered canvas, is lost as we get older. The artist attempts to recapture that.’”
“Her perennial assignment to young people was to answer the question ‘What is on your mind?’ and put that into dance,” he added. “She had them make a list of the significant issues, ‘in your family, in your school, in your inner world. Now: Make a dance.’”
Alice Henrietta Sobel was born on Feb. 9, 1929, in Manhattan. Her father, Jack, was a soft-drink salesman who later started a beverage distributorship in Baltimore; her mother, Anne (Diamond) Sobel, was a writer.
“I fell in love with dance as a very young child, dancing in the living room to radio music,” Ms. Teirstein told the arts and entertainment website Hollywood Soapbox in 2019. “It grew to a passion.”
While a student at Adelphi College (now Adelphi University) in New York, she drew mentions in newspapers in Baltimore for choreographing several musicals staged by the Hilltop Theater there.
She graduated from Adelphi in 1950. After resuming her career, she earned a master’s degree in dance education at Columbia University in 1974.
Among her early-1970s work was “Biblical Suite,” based on the five scrolls of the Old Testament. In the mid-1970s she often presented a work she called “Nexus,” which featured six professional dancers but also drew audience members to the stage. A work that she staged in New York City parks in the 1980s incorporated unsuspecting passers-by into the piece.
“My belief is that dance is a vehicle of expression for anyone who can move,” she told The Daily Argus of White Plains, N.Y., in 1976. “Everyone is unique with his own thing to say, and it can be said in dance.”
Ms. Teirstein’s husband died in 2011. In addition to her daughter and her son Andy, she is survived by two other sons, Mark and Paul; a sister, Judith Peck; six grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
“My mom was a superb role model,” Andy Teirstein said. “She imbued me with respect for students, and with her secret recipe, which was to demand that they engage their imaginations, that they speak up and take chances, and the most important ingredient: encouragement. A few crumbs goes a long way.”