On Fads and Fundamentals

January 21, 2007

Jazz dance teachers share their perspectives.



“My class does not emphasize the new trends,” says Nan Giordano. “It’s not that we don’t like trends or don’t like music that is trendy. But we are technically based and very clean. Our style is pure passion.”


In August, Giordano hosted the Jazz Dance World Congress, brainchild of jazz dance icon Gus Giordano (see “Dance Matters,” December). With some 850 students, the Congress is a place to check out trends, amp up enthusiasm for the form, and learn from the biggest names in the industry—not only the steps, but also the philosophies behind them. It’s the place to learn that while the trends come and go, the basic fundamentals are at the core.


Each year the Congress features classes led by some of the best jazz-dance teachers in the world. In addition to Giordano, the 2005 list included Masashi Mishiro, Frank Hatchett, Joe Tremaine, Randy Duncan, and Bob Rizzo. Even Gus Giordano himself, now 83, presided over a master class.


Artistic director of her father’s Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago troupe, Giordano says that students respond well to a tightly constructed class. She teaches the signature style with its wide stance and open jazz hand. “To me, tricks are not dancing,” she says. “It has to do with much more, with very strict discipline. Balletic movement is at the heart of it all.”


“There is a comfort zone in discipline,” she continues. “The students like boundaries, they like structure.”


While Giordano avoids the latest fads, other teachers embrace them. “I use all types of dance from ballet to street dance,” says Hatchett. But he insists that he’s not letting his students simply go for broke. “If I have them do a developpé and then go into a body riff, I tell them they still have to hold onto their center and maintain control,” he says. “You can’t just go wild. For every movement, there are the times you have to recover for the next movement.”


“Hip hop is going on at all the auditions,” says Tremaine, a celebrated jazz teacher from Los Angeles. “The movement is wonderfully funky, great stuff.” Tremaine, like many of the teachers, prowls dance clubs looking for the latest trends. “The kids go wild for it,” he says.


“You really need good ballet technique or you’re not going to get it,” he warns. “The transition to jazz is very difficult for a lot of dancers. They [often] don’t know how to release.” Tremaine helps them master isolations such as moving the torso to all four corners.


Mishiro’s class was one of the trickiest and most demanding. Sixty-plus eager students started out in the center, learning combinations that meshed fierce, flying leaps with sudden slams to the floor, landing in complex, almost gymnastic poses. When the entire cmbination was put together—as demonstrated by one of the members of Masashi’s troupe, Masashi Action Machine—a large number of exhausted students fell away from the crowd.


“This is definitely the most challenging class,” says Mandy Siefers of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, taking a break from the Mishiro class. She and other dance teachers Megan Herlong and Jenny Durham traveled to the Congress to bring back new ideas for their own classes and choreography. They weren’t let down.


“This has been extremely motivating,” Durham says. All three mentioned teacher Nan Giordano for her sincerity and thoroughness.

Whether their students were tapping, krumping, pirouetting with flawless technique, or rolling through complex floor work, the teachers at the Congress consistently brought them back to the essentials: musicality, a low center of gravity, disciplined footwork.


Dancer and choreographer Billy Siegenfeld, who received a 2005 JDWC Award, says that jazz dance must be felt in the bones and become part of a dancer’s bodily rhythm. He strips down to the fundamentals so that his students unlearn everything and become rhythmic instruments. Tap dance is an integral part of his style, and he begins his instruction with vocalization.


“Ballet is very codified and jazz is not like that. Jazz dancers must make a commitment to this sort of dance,” he says. “This is dancing from the inside out.”


Lynn Voedisch is a Chicago-area journalist who has specialized in arts reporting for two decades. She was formerly the dance writer at the
Chicago Sun-Times.


Hip Hop Steps Up

My teacher was Gus Giordano,” says Patti Rutland of Dothan, Alabama, whose zany and energetic piece, A.M., won the top prize in Leo’s Jazz Dance Choreography Competitive Event. “What I feed into my kids is so much of him in style and encouragement.”

Rutland, who had competed at four previous Leo’s events, didn’t intend to enter this year. “I don’t run a studio anymore. I don’t have a company,” she says. She’d retired from OZ Performing Arts Center, the studio she owned for 20 years, to focus on teaching for conventions and freelance choreography, taking time out to start a family at age 40. With a push from hip hop dancer Vincent Johnson, she handpicked a group of former students, including three who currently study with her at OZ. The group was able to meet for only five rehearsals because of performing schedules, and at the last minute a key member had to be replaced. Nevertheless, Rutland says, “Everything just jelled.” Of all the work she’s created, A.M., with its blend of hip hop and classical jazz dance, is her favorite.


Precision Swing

Synchronized swimming was the guiding image for Christopher Jacobsen’s bronze prize-winning LipittyZipittySwing! That and movie star and dancer Gene Kelly. “It was a combination of music from the ’40s and ’50s like Singing in the Rain, as well as movement I’ve been playing with,” says Jacobsen. “Everything is done in formation.”

Jacobsen, 26, formed The Dance Company of San Francisco in 1999 with six classmates from the San Francisco School of the Performing Arts. “We wanted to combine the focus of ballet and modern that we had from high school, and competition jazz from the studio.”

It was the first time at JDWC for Jacobsen’s nine dancers, ages 14–21, all of whom performed with great verve and humor. “We had a blast,” he says. “We went with no expectations to see what it was about.” —Karen Hildebrand