Hailed by ABC’s Good Morning America as “The Doctor of Jazz,” Frank Hatchett was a jazz performer in theater, movies, television, and concerts before turning to teaching. He is the creator of the “VOP” style of jazz, taken from the sound he uses to demand a high-energy attack. He is a teacher for the annual Jazz Dance World Congress, and was the official education spokesperson for National Dance Week 2005, an honor he has accepted again for 2006. He continues to travel as a guest teacher but considers Broadway Dance Center in New York City his home. Dance Magazine intern Kristen Maxwell caught up with Hatchett in June to discuss his popular style of teaching.
How did your VOP style of jazz get started? It was actually developed out of frustration. I was going to auditions, but back then they were not hiring black dancers. I was determined to dance, so I started teaching at a local school and doing little gigs. I was doing a combination of the [Katherine] Dunham technique along with the current dances, creating my own style. I was inspired by a sound in the street or a lady walking a certain way; it would stimulate my creativity.
Then, in class, I would try to get that energy from my students. I’d say, “Come on, VOP that battement,” or “VOP that turn,” or “Let’s go 1, 2, 3, VOP, ball change, VOP.” Kids would go to an audition and they would hear that they were great technically but that they had no presence, no projection. That is what I would give them through the VOP. So that’s where it came from, from that word. I didn’t know this then, but the kids would leave and say, “I just left Hatchett and he VOPed me to death.” But really it’s just a style of modern jazz combined with some street or ethnic.
What do you pass on from the Dunham technique? It’s the same thing we get from ballet—the lines, the placement, the control. But also movements that take us back to the motherland where my students get that feeling of the natural beat of the earth. I find that a lot of times kids will get out there and do everything beautifully, but the movement is on one planet and the music is on another. By incorporating Dunham they can learn to feel the beat.
What do you want students to take away from your classes? To capture the style, so that when they go to another class they know how to deal with a different style. You’ve got to be able to adjust. Mine is not a cookie cutter class. I’ve been criticized for that because people think I will let you get away with stuff. I will let them try things, and I may see something I might not have seen if I hadn’t. I will see that God-gift that they’re not even sure they have and I will tell them to capitalize on it. I give them an opportunity to relax and let it go. But then if they get too far away, they know I’m going to bring them back.
How has your teaching style changed throughout the years? Now I put more technique in my combinations—more balletic things, modern, Graham, Horton. I still try to keep up with what is going on today. But not everyone in my class is trying to get on Broadway, so I try to keep it so that the recreational dancer will walk away not feeling intimidated. I’ve also gotten a little more relaxed with it. I’ve seen so many of my colleagues work so hard and give themselves high blood pressure, so I will only go to a certain limit.
What is the hardest part of your style to master? Transitions. To do a combination that’s funky, and then pull up into a grand jeté, keeping it clean, but then going back to funky into a pirouette and extending it. If you’re riding the funky thing you are going to focus less on technique, but you can’t. I find that kids have trouble going from that push into something sustained, so I try to work on going from one thing to another and knitting it together.
How do you get your students to energize their dancing? I sit some of the kids by the mirror and have others do the combination. I say, “Now here’s your audience; forget the mirror. Work your audience.” My students have said that it really helps them with an audition or becoming a performer. A lot of classes concentrate on the technique and not the performance part of it. So at the end of my class, it becomes a little performance of the combination of the day. They applaud each other so that they get a feeling for what it’s like to be out there onstage.
Frank Hatchett’s Jazz Dance, co-written with Nancy Myers Gitlin, was published in 2000, and Hatchett’s instructional jazz video was released in 2003 as part of the Live at Broadway Dance Center series.