One thousand abdominal crunches. Every morning.
A ballet class. Every morning.
And a disciplined, high-energy daily diet featuring sardines and other tiny, vitamin-packed fish.
These are a few of the secrets to the astonishing youthful vigor of Dance Master Elbert Watson, who continues to amaze audiences with his original choreography and performances at Norfolk Academy and beyond. Mr. Watson began his dance journey as a principal dancer with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, training under the famed choreographer and director, whose work fused theater with modern dance, ballet, and jazz. In his decades leading NA's dance program, Mr. Watson has continued to dance around the world and on stages regionally, including with the Virginia Symphony Orchestra.
Mr. Watson recently performed two dances, interspersed by conversation, for Norfolk Academy's final Alumni Seminar for this school year. Previous seminars over the course of this year focused on aspects of the fine arts and were conducted virtually because of the pandemic. They have included a tour of a Perrel Art Gallery exhibit with Upper School Art Teacher Betsy DiJulio and a performance of piano music and discussion of sound with Music Teacher Cheney Doane.
The annual series is organized by Teacher-Coach Tom Duquette, who has been a collaborator with Mr. Watson over many decades, particularly for dance performances tied to the school's Seminar Days for students. At this seminar, which alumni watched via Zoom through support from NA-TV, Mr. Watson performed a dance to Dr. King's “I Have a Dream" speech, which King delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 at the March on Washington.
Mr. Watson said he was inspired to create after Duquette asked him if he had ever danced to spoken words, rather than music. “I listened and found a cadence" to King's speech," he said. “I wore my father's suit. I could move in it."
The seminar also featured a pre-recorded performance to “Bridge Over Troubled Water." Mr. Watson, whose playlists for NA Dance Concerts are sought after, explained how he knows when a song is right for a dance. “If I find a song, and I want to move to it, that's the song," he said. “I get an emotional rush and I see colors...I have heard a song in the supermarket, and it makes me want to move."
“That's a sight I want to see!" Mr. Duquette replied.
Mr. Watson also discussed ways that he protects his creativity, particularly after an outpouring of emotion in a performance. “When I finish, I have to go away and be quiet," he said. “I have the quiet places in my life. If I'm too busy, I just can't create." He said that technique is the foundation for dancing, but it is necessary to put your heart into the work to achieve artistry and emotional resonance. Mr. Duquette asked him about preparing for works that plumb difficult topics, such as dances he has done about PTSD in military veterans or about slavery.
“It's scary, because when you put your heart into it, you're totally open," he said. “I am always fearful. You prepare, but you need to brace yourself."
The Alumni Seminar Series will resume in the 2022-23 academic year.