Teacher-Coach to Dancer: Upper School Art Teacher Steps Outside His Comfort Zone

Teacher, coach, artist...dancer. On any given school day, you can typically find Upper School studio art and art history teacher Greg Barton educating students in the classroom, molding young minds in the art studio, or out on the football and lacrosse fields. Over the past two months, Mr. Barton has added another location to his typical rotation: the dance studio.  

At first glance, the former collegiate football player does not appear to be your typical dancer. And, admittedly, he is not. Dancing was not even on his radar prior to the start of the school year. Yet, when Norfolk Academy dance master Elbert Watson approached him, requesting that he take part in a planned performance, Mr. Barton figured it would be foolish to turn him down.

“Elbert has been an incredible mentor and friend,” said Mr. Barton. “If he would ever ask me to do something, I know he would have taken time to have thought it through. People come from all over to work with him, and it is an honor to be a part of this dance.”

In honor of Veterans Day, Mr. Watson has imagined a series of performances in what has shaped into Angels Watching Over Me: A Tribute to Veterans Through Dance. It pays homage to different veteran groups and their supporters, highlighting those who were wronged or may not have received the respect and recognition which they so rightfully earned. Mr. Barton’s dance exemplifies just that.

“The dance is based on Elbert’s vision for how to honor the often-forgotten Native American group (Navajo code talkers) that has such a strong veteran presence but is typically ignored,” he said. “My character is based off a Navajo chief. It starts off with the chief and his wife in this peaceful, idyllic area where everything is great, but separation transpires and it ultimately ends with my character siding with the same people who tore his life apart.”

His routine did not come together overnight - nor has it come easy for the teacher-coach. While his innate inclination to study the arts might seem like a natural transition, the performing arts are an entirely different beast. In addition to putting in roughly five hours rehearsing in the studio each week, he has spent time practicing the choreography and conducting research on movement outside of his time on campus.

“There has been so much work that has gone into this performance," he said. "Elbert provided me with reading material and numerous videos to watch; I am a researcher and a lover of learning at heart, so I wanted to get into the character as best I could."

In order to fully personify the character he is portraying, Mr. Barton realized he would not only need to learn the choreography, but it would also be necessary for him to become an actor, saying, “I never really noticed (until I was in it) how much of the believability factor comes from the emotional connection and the emotional portrayal from the characters, so the acting part is truly just as important as the dancing. For me, the dancing is almost easier because I am used to the physical repetition and muscle memory from football, but I am not as much used to channeling another character into that movement. Acting is what makes the piece.”

Fortunately, he has the advantage of working with a trained dancer (Sherah Powers of The Elbert Watson Dance Company) for the production. She is able to assist him with the lifts and the partner choreography. However, Mr. Barton still found himself struggling to learn how to work with another dancer.

“Dancing with a partner is significantly harder than I thought it would be, and I quickly came to realize that the two need to be so in sync,” he said. “The push and pull needs to be balanced throughout the dance, and the transitions need to be natural. The most difficult thing has been putting myself in typically vulnerable full athletic positions that my muscles have not been trained in. I needed to do a lot of body mirroring between Elbert and Sherah to learn the routine. And afterwards, I would be sore.

So, what exactly can audience members expect to see when they show up for the performance? Mr. Barton is hopeful it will inspire people, specifically students.

“Our kids are going to see a faculty member and coach who is taking risks and stepping out of his comfort zone for no reason other than to try something new,” he said. “Am I scared? Absolutely. But my hope is that it encourages them to not confine themselves to such linear boxes, and to realize that there is so much more overlap in all of our activities. We are so diverse in our interests, activities, and mindsets, but there is nothing wrong with taking a risk. If the hard work is put in, it still might not be perfect in the end, but you are going to learn something and get something out of it.” He paused before adding that “they will also see a long-haired man, completely out of breath.”

Mr. Barton successfully debuted in his first pas de deux on Sunday, November 11, at 4 p.m. in the Samuel C. Johnson Theater. The event was free and open to the public.