By Josh Harris
Every semester at Quinnipiac University students in the Honors Program have the opportunity to take mini-seminars that are paired with an experiential element. These courses are called Signature Experiences, and this spring Jazz Choreography Enterprises provided the educational and experiential components for a seminar focused on the history of jazz dance. The students were assigned readings from a book entitled “Jazz Dance: A History of the Roots and Branches,” edited by Lindsay Guarino and Wendy Oliver, and studied video clips of different styles of jazz and its precursors from the 1910s up until present times.
The students were then required to attend a dance class taught by JCE’s artistic directors Marian Hyun and Merete Muenter, which made up part of the experiential element of the seminar.
“When Marian, Merete, and I started talking, I was glad that students could learn about jazz dance by watching videos, reading articles, and attending the concert,” Professor Kathy Cooke, who organized the class, said. “But I was especially excited about the chance that students might have to actually dance—to experience the challenges of feeling in their bodies what it is like to move in the ways that dancers move, and what it is like, physically (and intellectually and emotionally) to dance.”
Seventeen students signed up for the class, and they had a wide range of backgrounds in terms of their experience with dance.
Some, like Nisha Gandhi, had past experience with the art. “I chose to sign up for this class because I have tons of previous experience in dance, jazz being one of them,” she said.
But there were students who had little dance experience as well and wanted to take the class for other reasons. “I was interested in jazz dance as an extension of studying jazz itself,” said Kipp Hopper. “Dancing, however, was beyond my knowledge, and it seemed like an interesting manifestation of the music I had come to love.”
Marian Hyun began the class by leading warm-up exercises, some of which drew on movements from the renowned Luigi technique. Others were based on the techniques of Jack Cole, specifically the work on isolations, which Hyun explained is a key feature of jazz dance.
She finished her section of the lesson by teaching the students a series of movements from the Black Bottom, a dance from the 1920s. The students had seen the dance before in the collection of video clips they were given, and now they are able to learn at least a little bit of it and actually practice it. Hyun also explained some of the historical context of the dance. She described it as a social dance and said that some of the movements involved could be more individualistic, rather than being highly choreographed the way a performance dance might be.
Merete Muenter took over the lesson after a brief break, and she had the students learn a series of traveling movements, allowing them to move across the classroom rather than stand in place. She then progressed to teaching the group a combination set to music from “Jesus Christ Superstar.” The students seemed to get into this part of the class, especially once the music was turned on and they had something to dance to.
Muenter ended the lesson with the whole group doing the combination, and then dancing in a circle with some impromptu movements just for fun. She commented on the positivity of the group, and their abilities to notice their own mistakes. Throughout her section of the class, she also provided some insight into what the audition process for professional dancers is like.
Following lesson, the students had a discussion section where they were able to ask the teachers questions and raise any points of interest.
Both teachers explained a little bit more about the theory behind the exercises performed in the class. For example, they explained that specific warm-ups are designed to help with specific dance moves, and so different styles of dance often have different warm-ups.
There was also a fair amount of discussion about the history of jazz dance, some of the information derived from the videos the students had washed. But Hyun filled in some of the history about the development of the art form as it evolved from African and European dances in America.
The students also spoke about the difference between watching dance and actually dancing. A recurring theme in their comments was the importance of not thinking too much about what you are doing. They had the sense that over-analyzing the movements made them harder to do.
“I expected to totally fail coming into this class, but I expected to have fun doing it! I never considered myself graceful or good with rhythm or dancing,” Danielle Radeke said.
Others shared a similar sentiment and even expressed small fears about being judged. “I expected to have fun but also to be lost and embarrassed,” said Ali Luchini.
But it seemed that once they were engaged in the exercises, that fear began to dissipate as the students got more into the class itself.
“As I watched myself in the mirror, I was surprised that I didn’t look as bad as I thought I would! It was a huge boost of confidence,” said Radeke.
“The instructors were so passionate about dance and were thrilled when we picked up the choreography. They wanted us to have fun while learning,” said Nicole Mowry.
“The class was so full of energy, I think everyone enjoyed themselves beyond their expectations,” Hopper said.
Following the class I asked them if their perceptions of jazz dance had changed and if they would consider studying jazz more.
“My perception of jazz dance has changed, definitely. Having done some of the dance I have a lot of respect for people who can dance it, and now realize how diverse of a genre it is,” said Radeke.
“After taking the class, I have come to realize just how many different sub-genres of jazz there are,” Mowry said, echoing the sentiment about jazz dance’s diversity and expansiveness. “Jazz reaches into so many other areas of dance and has a great influence on them.”
“I think jazz is a really expressive type of dance where personality can really show. I think this is why I liked it so much,” Luchini said. She touched on the history the group had studied, saying, “I also didn’t realize jazz had so much history.”
As far as taking more classes, there was a mixed range of answers, but all of the students I spoke to seemed to have a much greater appreciation for jazz dance.
“I would love to continue taking jazz dance classes — this class made me realize how much I truly miss being a dancer,” Gandhi said.
Radeke was similarly effusive saying, “I would definitely consider taking a class or continuing to learn more about jazz! This class exceeded my expectations, broadened my understanding of the art, and was a lot of fun.”
But even those who weren’t necessarily inclined to continue taking dance classes showed a raised appreciation of the art form.
“If I saw an article about it, I would definitely read it whereas before I would not have,” Luchini said.
The Quinnipiac students were also invited to attend the April 10th showing of the New York Jazz Choreography Project, so that they could see works created by current choreographers and practitioners of jazz dance.
After the performance Professor Cooke said, “Our dance session was only the first part of this experience, but it was—from my perspective—wildly successful. The students loved it, which is great. But even better, they embraced the experience and learned things they didn’t expect—that maybe they can learn ways of dancing, more about the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, and how wonderful two amazing dance teachers can be.”
Following the performance there was a talkback in which the students were allowed to ask questions of several choreographers whose pieces were in the show.
The first question of the talkback was directed to Sue Samuels when a student wondered about the creation process behind her piece, “Blackbird.” She explained that the whole piece was inspired by Dionne Ferris’s rendition of the Beatles’ song combined with the idea that the lead dancer should never touch the ground.
A student then wanted to know more about the creative process for the choreographers who performed in their own pieces.
Jeff Davis said that modern technology helps a lot with the process. Being able to record the work and go over it was invaluable because you want to “make sure you don’t leave out the audience,” as he put it.
Svetlana Khoruzhina and Jaime Shannon echoed the sentiment about the recording devices, but offered some other insight into the process as well. Khoruzhina spoke about the ability to put movements on yourself and explore a piece that way instead of purely as a spectator.
“It’s about exploring that partnership [with Tony Fraser],” Shannon said, commenting on how the duo formulated ideas while they worked.
Rachel Leigh Dolan spoke to the other side of the coin, admitting that she was actually a bit jealous of choreographers who could dance in their own pieces. “I don’t ever dance in my own pieces,” she said. “I need to see something come to life.”
Some of the other choreographers spoke about their creative process or their specific styles as well.
Kyle Weiler said he had been working on a lot of serious pieces before creating “You’ve Got Me” which was performed at the show. Adding some humor to his work let him do something different, and getting his dancers, who were mostly trained in ballet and modern, to go outside the box and try some jazz provided a sense of play for them as well.
Cat Manturuk spoke about the inherent fusion in dance. “I like combining modern, hip-hop, and jazz because I trained in all three forms,” she said, adding, “We inspire each other by learning from each other.”
Barbara Angeline spoke for a bit about Josephine Baker. Baker had inspired her piece “eat Crow,” which had a 1920s flare to it. The students had also studied Baker’s work in the seminar and were familiar with some of the movements.
“We are careful to be inspired by rather than appropriate from our inspirations,” Angeline said, both of her work and that of Crystal Chapman, who created a Fosse-inspired piece. But the Baker influence was clearly visible and picked up on by the students.
“I know exactly what that is!” Gandhi said, describing her reaction to seeing “eat Crow” performed.
Professor Cooke asked the choreographers about performing the same pieces with different dancers and how it changes things.
“I think dancers are awesome people because they’re like ‘yeah, okay,’” Weiler said of dancers’ willingness to take on new roles quickly. He told the group that one of the dancers from that day’s performance was actually a sub for another dancer who had performed the day before and was injured. He taught the sub the piece 30 minutes before the show started.
Shannon said that she finds working with new dancers to be exhilarating and that it can bring new energy to a piece. She emphasized that a choreographer has to play to the strength of her dancers, so the dynamics of a piece can change based on who is performing it.
Hopper asked the final question of the talkback. As a jazz musician he was curious where jazz dance would go in the future.
“Jazz will continue to show itself in other styles that we have yet to know,” Manturuk said, citing her own hybrid style and the way that jazz movements show up in hip-hop and other popular contemporary styles.
“I think dance is very cyclical,” Dolan added. “As we see jazz fuse into hip-hop, we see hip-hop fuse into jazz.”
“That depends on where you want to take it,” Tony Fraser said. He spoke about how he and Shannon performed a rare version of swing dance mostly because he wanted to see it performed live and brought back to life. But he also added that different and developing musical styles could inform the future of dance as well, and in his mind that’s where it all starts. “It’s your interpretation of music, that’s what dance is.”
When asked for feedback about the performance, or what their expectations of the concert were, the students had some interesting responses.
“I don’t usually watch recitals because I’m in them, so I thought it was interesting to see how a movement piece comes together,” Gandhi said.
“It was nice to see so many different styles,” another student said, expressing her enthusiasm of the variety and versatility seen in jazz.
Professor Cooke also offered some closing thoughts on the performance and the experience as a whole:
“I thought the performance was absolutely wonderful…The student I was sitting next to kept sharing her amazement at the emotion, physicality, and history that emerged throughout the concert. And specific dances touched each of us in different ways.
The talkback was a special treat. I was surprised at – and grateful for – the number of choreographers who were willing and able to stay, share details of the art (and business) of choreography and dance. Our question and answer session added another layer to our understanding of the process of dance, not just the product.
This experience has been more than I could have expected. Merete and Marian – JCE – crafted exactly the blend of experience and thought, a combination of education and enjoyment, that I had hoped for, and more. I hope that we can continue this partnership, and even perhaps share our experience with an even broader audience. “