This fall Jazz Choreography Enterprises paired with Quinnipiac University for a second time to teach a group of Honors Program students about jazz dance. The students were taking a Signature Experience in Jazz Dance, a mini-course including an experiential element. In addition to reading and viewing videos, the students took a jazz class and attended a performance of the New York Jazz Choreography Project. A couple of the students had a background in jazz music or musical theater, but most of them had no real dance experience. The group traveled into New York City to take a class taught by JCE’s artistic directors Marian Hyun and Merete Muenter.
Hyun began the class with warm-ups, teaching the group some basic movements, things like isolations, which are key to jazz dance, and some more flowing, balletic steps as well. She ended her section of the class with some older jazz steps like the jazz square, and sunshine and rain. Prior to the class, the students had watched videos on different movements from across the history of jazz, so they were able to dance as well as see the Charleston, which ended the warm-up.
After a quick break, Muenter took over and started teaching the group movements for a combination. She began with across-the-floor exercises, some basic runs and then step-ball-changes and cross-out steps to get the students used to moving across the floor. Once they were used to the idea of executing some steps in motion, Muenter began teaching them the steps for her combination.
Initially the group seemed to have some trouble with the across-the-floor movements, but they actually took to the combination quite well, even though it added more complex elements like arm movements and more advanced footwork.
“Learning the movements was a blast because most of us messed up,” one of the students said in a self-deprecating way, following the class. But Muenter praised the group for its ability to pick up the steps. She was especially effusive towards students who showed they were able to make corrections and adjustments to the movements on their own.
Hyun and Muenter spoke about the history of jazz dance to provide the students with some context on what they had just learned. Hyun described the early days of the style, how it emerged from African social dancing and eventually merged with European partner dancing. Over time the style also transitioned from a social dance into a presentational technique, moving from being freeform to having distinct steps and styles taught by professionals.
Muenter gave some insight into the life of a dancer, speaking about the audition process as well as how many different things dancers have to study. For example, almost all dancers study ballet for its technical focus, even if they plan to perform a different style.
Having taken the class and learned some of jazz dance’s history, the students were invited to see the New York Jazz Choreography Project and participate in a post-performance talkback with the choreographers on October 23rd. Several of the students shared their thoughts on the performance with me afterwards.
“After watching the amazing performances from the jazz dance concert, they reminded me about the difficulty of defining what jazz dance is. All of the dances I saw had aspects of jazz in them but no two dances looked alike,” said Jessica Demeo.
“Listening to all of the choreographers about where their inspiration came from and the messages behind each piece really opened my mind up to the amount of effort and thought that goes into each routine,” said Erin Grealy. She then proceeded to connect dance with her science studies. “I was able to make the connection from these choreographer’s passion of dance to my passion for health science, and my current class anatomy.”
“I think that jazz dance has a variety of important values to offer to those willing to learn them. Learning about the actual history of jazz can be informative of the culture, society, and other influences of certain time periods,” said Dawn Rochon. She also thinks that dance is a great way to communicate ideas. “People who are unable to express themselves verbally or on paper may find the right moves to convey their message through jazz dance.”
The fact that each of these students was able to take away such different insights from the same class and the same performance is remarkable and illustrates the power of dance to connect with people in different ways. JCE will continue to provide opportunities for audiences and students to connect with jazz dance by experiencing the medium through our performances and classes.