To bring ballet down to Earth, Meredith Harper Houston lets the beat drop
By Christina Campodonico
Ballet is an elite art form, often accompanied by classical music.
But for Playa Vista dance instructor and resident Meredith Harper Houston, classical ballet doesn’t always need an orchestra. In Harper Houston’s “Banging Ballet Body” adult ballet class, for example, hip-hop, pop and rock coexist alongside traditional ballet steps.
“Sometimes we do balancés to Michael Jackson. Sometimes we do tendu exercise at center to Led Zeppelin. We’ll do pliés to Rufus Wainwright. We’ll do adagio to Justin Timberlake or to Radiohead,” Harper Houston says of her ballet classes, which she teaches not only to Playa Vista residents, but also to adolescents in juvenile hall and foster care, athletes in training, children, and even tech-industry professionals at Google’s Venice campus.
“I like to mix it up and show the dancer that ballet’s not just about snooty pooty,” she says.
In the private class I watch her teach at The Resort, Usher and Rihanna pop onto the playlist, as does Tchaikovsky’s iconic theme from “Swan Lake.” Like the soundtrack, Harper Houston is a hybrid: one part sage ballet mistress — “The whole point of tendu is to work the shape of the foot,” she tells one student — another part encouraging coach and cheerleader — “Give me Lincoln Center! Misty Copeland!”
Harper Houston’s unconventional teaching style may seem heretical to ballet purists, but she sees her approach as a way to acquaint beginning ballerinas with ballet technique in a way that doesn’t feel overwhelming, intimidating or sound like a completely foreign language. (French is ballet’s lingua franca after all; classical music another animal to decode.)
So Harper Houston, through her mash-up of ballet exercises and pop songs, has figured out a way to make ballet not only digestible to a beginner mindset, but also accessible.
“You throw on a Katy Perry song and do grand battements, they get it,” says Harper Houston, 41. “You can see how the technique fits into contemporary music.”
The proof is in the pudding, so-to-speak, in how her students have taken to Harper Houston’s unique style of ballet instruction.
“I love how she mixes in classical and contemporary music,” says 35-year-old Playa Vista resident Angela Lin, who trained in classical ballet growing up and now works at YouTube.
“It’s kind of a good urban mix,” adds 25-year-old ballet newcomer Devi Ohira, who has a background in hip-hop and street dance. “It actually makes me look forward to ballet, versus something stuffy and un-relatable.”
But Harper Houston’s ballet classes aren’t the only things that upend expectations about ballet. She was just as surprised when she started teaching ballet classes last year at Google’s L.A. headquarters in Venice.
“In my mind, I was thinking, ‘OK, teach class at Google. I’m going to have just mainly engineers … maybe they don’t have a creative background,’” says Harper Houston.
Then she saw them dance.
“There are girls within Google who come in and I’m even like, ‘Why did you not pursue dance?’ They’re phenomenal. I have girls who are on pointe, who come to class in pointe shoes and who do the class on pointe. It’s nothing that I expected.”
Then again, Harper Houston has never let expectations define her. A car accident in her early 20s broke both of her legs. Doctors told her she wouldn’t be able to walk again, let alone dance. But she was determined.
“I spent almost a year in a wheelchair, then to a walker, then to crutches, then to a cane, then to walking. So I literally had to learn how to walk — like heel first, then toe, heel first, then toe,” says Harper Houston.
Dance classes in New York came later, followed by a move to L.A., marriage, a baby and burlesque dance residencies at Harvelle’s Santa Monica, the Viper Room in West Hollywood and The Sands in Vegas.
Harper Houston doesn’t often share her story with her students, she says, but in Silicon Beach she has found a home to build her particular brand of ballet with her Merryland Dance Studio, based out of Playa Vista’s Resort.
“As George Balanchine said, dance is seeing the music. You’re showing the audience what the music is doing, what the guitar is doing, what the piano is doing. You’re showing every note, every key. That’s what dance is,” says Harper Houston. “So I try to show people where it fits. How does ballet technique fit into modern, contemporary music?”
For Meredith Harper Houston, the answer is often between the beats of a pop melody or a wicked rap.
Meredith Harper Houston teaches dance classes at The Resort, 12852 W. Runway Road, Playa Vista. Visit merrylanddancestudio.com for a complete schedule.