“Liberada” choreographed by Cory “Nova” Villegas. Photo: Jan La Salle
On that note, she emphasizes the need to broaden the identity of jazz—it’s more than just Fosse or just musical theater—and acknowledge its roots in various Black dance forms, such as Salsa, West African dance, and hip-hop. True inclusion and collaboration should be encouraged at all times because acknowledging and providing platforms for diverse styles of jazz dance to be showcased allows jazz to evolve, making it current, relevant and relatable. “That’s how you keep people coming. You keep spicing up the pot.”
Cory has been unapologetically herself when it comes to her work. “When I choreograph, or at least when I am creating a new piece or work, I like to think of the things that remind me of home. So, I start in familiar places. I think often what happens is that I do things that feel natural to my body, but that also allow my body to push its limits through my dancers. Being a Latin dance choreographer, a lot of my research lies in how we can take a social dance form and put it in a formal setting. And often the way I do that is through the marriage of Salsa, traditional Afro-Cuban folklore, and then taking the technical aspect of jazz and creating this really big soup.
“Creating choreography, without an experience, to me, doesn’t really feel like true art. Which is why the company is called Soul Dance Co: The Soul Experience because the hope is that through the work, there’s some kind of experience that is conjured within you.”
She further explains that “Soul Dance Co is the evidence that lives for all the things that have not been shown. Soul Dance is the evidence that what you did at home is valid. It’s us sitting in the audience and knowing the rhythm that’s playing while the dancers are dancing. It is like saying ‘I see you’ to the audience member. ‘I see you and this work is made for you.’ And at the end of it, you’re going to walk out feeling something like happiness, sadness, disbelief, even if you feel like ‘I didn’t get it.’ And in turn, you’re probably going to come back to see it because you feel like ‘I need to know more because I’m not sure I got it.’ And then you come back again and you start to sit with it, and you start to understand we’re all here. It’s strength, it’s power. It’s all those things.”
Beyond her life on stage Cory also teaches dance at The Beacon School, a public high school in NYC. As with her work on stage, she believes that one needs to home in on authenticity when teaching jazz dance. “It’s about finding who you are in the work. Yes, there are principles and ideologies that go with jazz technique, in all forms of jazz technique. However, it’s the authenticity of who you are, and the openness and vulnerability of where you situate yourself that is what makes it one, adaptable; two, relatable; and three, interesting.”
Cory emphasizes that while the structure of a class can be traditional, the execution of the class should never be overly rigid in a way that it precludes students from finding their voice. “I think we need to step into twenty twenty-four and understand that a one-way style of teaching isn’t necessarily the thing that is most adaptable, or isn’t necessarily the healthiest. I can guarantee you that when you allow students to be themselves, you’re going to get the best results from them. When you create an intense, demanding, perfectionist sort of space, you’re going to get anxiety attention the entire time, or you might get someone who’s brilliant, but you miss the joy.”
Cory keeps the legacy of jazz dance alive by teaching it in the classroom. She has discovered that when she can spark interest in her students, they tend to perform better. Therefore, instead of demanding that her students be perfect, she tries to pique their interest and use it to push them to perform better. “I’m getting them in a place of interest without asking them to be perfect. And in turn, I could push all day, and it’ll just be fun, because they’re working for it, versus me pushing them because I’m telling them, ‘oh, my God, that was terrible.’ That’s not conducive [to learning], right? And I believe you can push everybody past their limits. You need to be the kind of educator where it is clear in your room that you’re pushing because you want them to understand that their choices and artistry and physical capability are limitless.” As the interview ended, Cory summed up the correlation between her work and her teaching experience: “As artists, we, by default, become teachers.”
On October 28th and 29th, Cory will share her work at the JCE Jazz Dance Project. Don’t miss the opportunity to be moved by her piece. Reserve your seats now!
This interview was edited for length and clarity.