On Wednesday, April 9th, Jazz Choreography Enterprises sponsored a free advanced beginner jazz dance workshop. It was produced in conjunction with the New York Jazz Choreography Project performances held on April 12th and 13th. Sue Samuels, a veteran of the jazz dance scene and Artistic Director of Jazz Roots Dance Company, taught the class.
Samuels’ class showed how jazz dance incorporates many diverse styles and influences. Her warm-up routine used barre exercises, which is more common in ballet. She also pointed out other influences throughout the class, such as movements from jazz choreographers like Jo Jo Smith, Matt Mattox, and Luigi. She even pointed out a step that was inspired by the modern dance legend Martha Graham.
Kim Thacker, who identified herself as mostly a tap dancer, admitted she was initially nervous about taking a jazz dance class, “But Sue was very warm so even though a few of her regular students were there, she made it feel like everyone was welcome.”
Samuels kept the class light and tried to encourage humor among her students. She also emphasized performing as part of dance, saying that it was the dancer’s responsibility to bring the movements to life.
“That step?” she said at one point. “It’s not exciting, but it’s your job to make it something.”
The class was held at DANY Studios in midtown Manhattan, and it was free to attend. Eighteen dancers participated, and they had some great words of praise following the class.
Pamela Wittmann pointed out that Samuels’ dance class didn’t cause over exertion or stress. “[She’s] making sure we pay attention to the limits of our own body, making us aware that we must also respect it, not just push it to its maximum as in other dance disciplines.”
After the class, I was able to send Samuels a few questions about her teaching style and her thoughts on jazz dance.
How would you describe your jazz style? What are the characteristics?
“My jazz dance style is classic and performed from the core using clean, strong lines emanating from the hips and chest.”
Who were your major dance influences?
“My major dance influences are Jo Jo Smith, Luigi, Matt Mattox, Jack Cole, Phil Black and Fosse.”
Aside from dance technique, what would you like your students to learn from you?
“To let their spirits fly when expressing the dance steps. Stretch the step going beyond the ‘comfort’ zone, using emotion to drive your moves.”
Why do you use a barre warm-up when most jazz teachers use floor warm-ups? How do you think it better prepares the students for your class?
“I use a barre warm-up because I continue the tradition which was set by the early Jazz Dance Masters, who all used a Jazz Barre Warm-up. I feel the dancers get a ‘technical’ warm-up using both jazz parallel positions and some classic Ballet positions which prepares them for the vocabulary of steps used in classic Jazz Dance.”
Do you have a different approach when teaching your students a combination as opposed to teaching members of your company one of your routines for a performance?
“Yes, I teach from a technical point of view when teaching my classes. Is your passé in the correct placement? Are you isolating enough for specific moves? With my company, I encourage expression with technique. Also, they must be able to dance in several different styles of jazz such as lyrical, Latin, jazzy and swing.”
What is the one thing you would want a new student to take away from your class?
“I would like a new student to feel as though they learned something. Also, that they felt relaxed in the class to be able to make the mistakes it takes to finally get the step right and finally to have fun!”
As a veteran teacher, how have you seen jazz and dancers’ approach to it evolve over the years?
“Over the years, I have seen the physicality of the steps evolve using a more athletic approach to the steps. The kicks are higher, the turns are more multiple and such. However, I see the loss of the classic jazz contraction, and hip – shoulder ‘twist’ used years ago, combined with the stylization in the move which I feel is lacking in today’s jazz technique.”
JCE is working to give instructors like Samuels the opportunity to teach other classes and is hoping to be able to offer more workshops in the future.
Miriam Bernabei, another student who attended the class, was enthusiastic about Samuels’ class and the opportunity JCE provided for her to take it.
“You create opportunities for jazz teachers of various styles to access a wider audience and you provide new learning experiences for dance students,” she said. “I’ve wanted to try Sue Samuels’ class for a long time but something always got in the way. I’m grateful to you for making it more accessible to me.”