Grum Artist Links Dance and Athleticism


Dancer and filmmaker Ben Needham-Wood was on the Williston Northampton School campus January 7 to 11 as part of the Grum Project. The series, funded by a generous alumna, brings artists across disciplines to work with the entire Williston Northampton School community.

Needham-Wood worked with dancers preparing a number for the spring concert; screened his film, BaseBallet; and addressed ninth graders during a class assembly.

Matt Sawyer, ninth grade dean and head varsity baseball coach, introduced Needham-Wood, and spoke about a theme the ninth graders are studying, the growth mindset. This theory posits that students do better when they believe that their minds can grow with practice and hard work. Needham-Wood embraced this idea and explained how it informed his story.

During the assembly, held in the Stu-Bop, Needham-Wood, wearing a Williston shirt and jeans, moved  gracefully and began by telling students he was born pigeon-toed and knock-kneed. When he was a child, he continued, a doctor told his mother that he would never walk normally. However, she rejected that prognosis, and tried her own therapy, turning out his feet 100 times a day. It worked, and Needham-Wood learned an important lesson: by working hard, persisting, and believing in himself, he could overcome barriers.

When he was 3 years old, he had a babysitter who taught dance. Visiting her studio and watching performances, Needham-Wood, inspired, saw where he wanted his future to be: the stage.

“I just wanted to move,” he said.

In middle and high school, he played soccer and baseball, and ballet complemented his training. The confluence of dance and sports became an idea he would explore later.

As he made his way in dance, a high school teacher told him he would never have a career in classical ballet because she thought he wasn’t flexible enough and did not have the right natural facility that would fit the look of a classical ballet company. “Try contemporary dance,” the she told him.

“But a voice in my head said, ‘I’m just not there yet,’” he said. “’I’m going to prove you wrong. I’m going to push myself.’ It was a rebellious thought.”

He did prove that teacher wrong. After working hard and going on roughly 100 auditions throughout high school and his time at the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati, where he earned a BFA (Magna Cum Laude) in ballet, he secured a spot in San Francisco’s Smuin Ballet company. The irony was not lost on him.

“I was born with inwardly rotated knees and I’m in a classical ballet company, wearing white tights and getting paid for it,” he said, smiling.

Act two of his career began when he was having dinner with a fellow dancer, Weston Krukow, and Weston’s father, Mike Krukow, a former starting pitcher for the San Francisco Giants and current announcer for the team. The three were marveling at the similarities between dance and sport: The way a dancer will get into position to take a leap, for example, is similar to the way a pitcher winds up to deliver a throw.

Mike Krukow challenged the two to make a film about this overlap, and he’d do what he could to help. The result was an 8-minute film, BaseBallet, which explored the athleticism of dance and the artistry of sport. It aired on NBC Sports Bay Area and won a regional Emmy.

After the success of BaseBallet, the network asked for a 30-minute film, which the team undertook, aware of the pitfalls that the project could bring. “We were ballet dancers, not marketers,” Needham-Wood said. Nevertheless, they made it happen, using kickstarter to raise more than $26,000. The resulting film, BaseBallet 2: Into the Game, won four regional Emmys.

Needham-Wood made the inevitable analogy: “The first was a home run, the second was a grand slam!”

Back at Williston, Needham-Wood had nothing but praise for the dancers he worked with during his weeklong visit. “The Williston students were incredibly open and engaging with every class,” he said. “It’s amazing when you find a group of high school students who bring great energy to the room while still composing themselves with maturity and professionalism. The students at Williston did exactly that. In every class they displayed an acute curiosity that communicated an honest desire for growth, and they encouraged one another to push beyond their present abilities into something more. I was so proud to share my experiences with such a kind and inspired group of young artists, and I have no doubt that their gifts will carry them far, whether it be in the dance studio or elsewhere.”

See photos of Ben Needham-Wood in the dance studio here.