A dozen girls in their teens were at the barre focusing intently on Sue Samuels as she led them through a series of pliés, relevés, swings, bounces, contractions, and balances.
“Let go of the barre,” she said. “Good luck!”
When some of the girls had trouble maintaining their balance, Sue put her hand on her abdomen and said, “You have to be strong in your blah blah blah.” The girls smiled and nodded. It turned out that “blah blah blah” could mean anything from abdomen to the steps that took too long to say.
In collaboration with GWM, Jazz Choreography Enterprises is offering six jazz class in 2017. Sue taught three classes to the senior girls, ages 13-18, in February and May. Her son, renowned tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith, has been teaching and choreographing for GWM for five years, so Sue was happy to teach there when asked by JCE.
After the barre, the girls did floor exercises and stretches. “It’s OK if you can’t do a full split or open your legs in second very far,” said Sue. But when she felt a girl could straighten her leg, she gently touched the girl’s knee saying, “I want to see more energy in that leg” to get the desired result. Floor exercises were followed by isolations, movements isolating various body parts, such as head, ribcage, hips.
Then came movements across the floor, starting with walks while rolling the shoulders. During the first class, many of the girls were self-conscious, looking at the floor and walking too quickly, despite Sue’s instruction, “Don’t go faster than the music!” By the last class, the girls were more confident as they walked, rolling their shoulders, many of them with attitude to spare.
Now it was time for the combination. Sue’s years of teaching experience were evident as she used various methods to enable the girls to learn the steps and connect them to the music. She started by teaching short movement phrases that would be included in the combination, describing the steps as she executed them: “Wiggle to the left, wiggle to the right.” “Say it with me,” she told the girls. “The mind-body connection is important!”
When a girl landed a jump on a straight leg, Sue explained the correct technique. “With jumping you need to plié,” she said. “This is why you did those exercises at the barre, so you could land your jump in plié. Otherwise, you’ll go to the knee hospital!”
Once the steps were in place, Sue focused on connecting them to the music. “Now we have to count,” she said. “What’s the number when we cross back?”
“Five!” the girls answered.
When the girls had trouble with a syncopated phrase, Sue had them clap the rhythm several times, then repeat the footwork. All the while the girls watched intently and executed the steps with energy.
With each repetition of the combination, the girls performed with more accuracy, confidence, and enthusiasm. After the combination had been performed for the last time, the girls gathered around Sue, who offered praise and hugs to everyone. “I enjoyed how engaged and energetic the students were,” she said afterwards. “They were eager to learn.” The admiration was mutual. Two of the girls spoke to me after the last class.
“I’ve taken classes here with Jason Samuels Smith,” said Aziza, a 13-year-old who has taken classes in cheerleading, tap, ballet, hip-hop, African dance, jazz, and Graham technique. “So I wanted to take classes with his mom!”
Shaianne, a 15-year-old student at the Fordham School for the Arts, studies tap, hip-hop, and jazz. When asked if Sue’s classes were different from other jazz classes she had taken, Shaianne said she had never done a jazz warm-up. Because the regular jazz classes are only an hour long (Sue’s class was 1 ½ hours long), the warm-ups are shorter and consist mostly of stretching.
Aziza said she had studied only contemporary jazz until she took Sue’s classes in classic jazz style. “I liked the old school jazz,” she said. “It was refreshing.”
Later I asked Sue what she hoped the girls would take away from her classes. “I hope the students will take away an appreciation of how different dance styles feel and how the dancer trains for dance. I also hope they will take away the JOY OF DANCE!”
Judging by the enthusiasm of the students, I felt she had been successful. And this feeling was confirmed by a thank you card sent to JCE. “Thank you for organizing such an amazing class.” “Thank you for giving us this wonderful activity. Hopefully we can get another.” There were other lovely comments, and finally, “I love dance. Thank you.”