On Tuesday, October 14th, Jazz Choreography Enterprises, Inc. hosted a jazz dance workshop taught by Crystal Chapman, a choreographer who has had several of her pieces presented at Jazz Project performances. Chapman has an extensive background in musical theater, having worked as a choreographer and dancer in many New York and regional productions.
She began the class with warm-up exercises based on those of her mentor Tony Stevens. Chapman would describe the exercises as weird from time to time, and so I was curious why she used them. She explained, “When I say ‘weird’ it’s usually something that a regular jazz warm-up would have, but maybe slightly changed. I think Tony tried to get us to use more than muscle memory as we danced. He encouraged us to think and to have a joy and respect.”
Chapman also kept the class light with injections of humor. She also took the time to answer individual questions from students and help them work through parts of a given combination that they were having trouble with.
This put the students in the class at ease. Barbara Wasson, one of the students in attendance said, “I loved Crystal’s workshop. She put us at ease with her personable teaching style and created clever and challenging choreography. We all got to shine! By the end of the workshop, we felt like friends!”
One of the major points Chapman emphasized was also acting while dancing and really playing the part as opposed to purely mastering the technical or mechanical aspects of the steps. I asked her if there were any specific methods she used to help teach acting in dance, and she gave me a very in depth response:
Yes. There are a couple of tried-and-true’s for me. For dancers who have not had much experience in musical theatre I’ll try to get them to think of a personal situation that has affected them in some way. Maybe something they did that they can never tell anyone about (“I’ve got a secret and I can’t tell”), or to come up with something that they are the VERY best at—better than anyone else—and keep that in mind as they dance. I never let them say their thoughts out loud. These two methods work very well with children, teens, and beginner students. For more advanced students and my company, we work hard on storytelling. Every dance has a story. Our job as actors is to flesh that out and find the reasons why we do certain movements. In musicals this is somewhat easier because dance is supposed to further the story. If it is a stand-alone piece I’ll often let the lyrics and music drive the story. I guess I’m saying that it’s not enough to smile and dance pretty. There has to be a reason why. Otherwise, it gets boring really fast.
Following the class I was able to ask Chapman some other questions about her background in dance and some of her teaching techniques as well.
Who were your major influences as a dancer, a choreographer, and a teacher?
As a dancer, definitely Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, and all those MGM musicals. Also, American Ballet Theatre. Oh! And of course, Bob Fosse. As a choreographer it would also be Gene, Fred, Bob, and some of my teachers who were Broadway dancers and choreographers: Chris Chadman, Chet Walker, Tony Stevens… I had wonderful teachers my whole life. Perhaps Judy Ann Bassing (for tap) and again, Chris, Chet, and Tony have shaped my teaching style.
What drew you to jazz over other dance styles?
I always wanted to be a ballerina as a kid and was sure that’s what I was destined to do, except I didn’t grow the right body. Fortunately, my studio also offered tap and jazz. I was great at tap, but the jazz program there wasn’t very good. When I got to New York I had to start from scratch with that. I remember, all I wanted to be was “cool,” like “Steam Heat” cool. I think having to work that hard at a more advanced age made me appreciate how varied and wonderful jazz dance is.
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. In class there is usually more time spent on breaking down the combination. My company dancers are all professionals and are very good at picking up not only the steps, but the style. In other words, they can also reproduce the small details sooner than most students. That’s something that comes with experience, but something that all students should try to do. Chris Chadman used to say, “You look, but you don’t see.” He was telling students that it’s not good enough to make the general picture. You must SEE and reproduce the details. As an example, Bob Fosse’s work is very specific and detail oriented.
As a veteran teacher, how have you seen jazz and dancers’ approach to it evolve over the years?
Unfortunately, I feel that our society in general has become absorbed with instant gratification. The love of the WORK has disappeared for most students. I do like that there are so many styles now and dancers can find a place called home, so to speak.
Another workshop student, Jenice Matias, said of Chapman’s class, “Her class was well structured allowing her dancers to regulate their skills within her dance routine. I enjoyed the challenge and the expertise of her dance experience. I truly recommend her class.”
JCE would like to present more workshops like these in the future. We think that a major part of keeping jazz dance alive is through ensuring there is quality instruction available to jazz dance students. By offering classes that are accessible to students at the beginning levels and up, we hope to give as many people as possible the opportunity to make jazz dance happen.