The 1980s left jazz dancers hungry for a new leader. Enter Frank Hatchett, whose dynamic approach brought street cred to classic jazz.
During a candid moment at last year’s Dance Teacher Summit, a class of teachers watched as Frank Hatchett corrected his own demonstrators. “One more time with that cross-step-step,” he said to one dancer. She gave it a try. “No,” he said firmly, gesturing to the next in line. The second dancer made an attempt. “No,” he repeated, nodding to the third. “Kind of,” was his reply, eliciting chuckles from the room. When the last took her turn, not even halfway through the movement Hatchett shouted, “You go, girl!” Everyone burst into laughter and applause. All four had executed the technique of the steps correctly, but the final dancer’s energy was electric—unabashedly committed, with a touch of sass.
No one teaches jazz quite like Hatchett. His mixed-influence technique, branded as VOP, is successful in part because much of it was built off his character—vibrant, earnest and genuine. That, combined with his dedication to performance quality, allows Hatchett to pull the best from his students, reminding us that a dancer’s beauty isn’t formed through stretches and drills. It’s mentors like him who bring out the biggest and brightest in others. This year, Hatchett will receive the Dance Teacher Lifetime Achievement Award.
Hatchett’s VOP jazz developed during a difficult time in his performance career. After success in Atlantic City, with tours to Las Vegas and Miami, he had moved to New York City, where he hit a wall. “It was frustrating,” he says. “Because of typecasting, there wasn’t much out there for African-Americans. At an audition, I remember actually hearing a ‘thank you for coming’ in the very middle of a grand jeté. They hadn’t even given me a look.”
Adversity became the catalyst for him to find his own niche. With a do-it-yourself approach, he gathered dancers to put on cabaret shows. He eventually built a following and began teaching at several Manhattan studios, including JoJo’s Dance Factory on Broadway and 55th Street. When the space was up for rent in 1982, Hatchett paired up with Broadway dancer/choreographer Maurice Hines to form a new studio, Hines and Hatchett. It quickly became the go-to place to study commercial styles.
Today, that school is Broadway Dance Center (located a short walk south from Hines and Hatchett’s original studio), where Hatchett remained until his retirement two years ago. The school still has the top-tier reputation it held during Hatchett’s reign, and its faculty list boasts many of his former students, including master teacher Sheila Barker. “Frank was the person to go to if you wanted to really learn about the industry,” says Barker, on why dancers and celebrities, like Britney Spears, Vanessa Williams and Brooke Shields, flocked to his classes. “He just had that magical ‘it’ factor. You came out of class high on spirit.”
Hatchett entered the jazz scene at a much-needed moment. In the 1980s, theatrical choreographers like Jack Cole, Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett had passed or their careers were coming to a close. In the meantime, hip hop was becoming a more respected form of dance. Jazz needed a figure to step in and merge the two worlds to capitalize on their marketability. Hatchett did that by layering the modern and African dance training he learned from Katherine Dunham protégé Syvilla Fort over the Broadway, vaudeville style, and adding a street feel, giving it an energized, in-your-face quality.
A Hatchett class is classic jazz—body isolations, stretches, across-the-floor drills and a combination to tie all the work together—but ballet lines, modern dance contractions and African dance rhythms often sneak in. “I’ve heard complaints. People say, ‘I want to take jazz—but in Frank’s class, one minute we’re doing ballet, the next we’re moving like modern and then all of a sudden we’re doing jungle bunny stuff,’” says Hatchett, who has taught at the Jazz Dance World Congress, Dance Masters of America and Dance Educators of America, among others. “But as an educator, I want to see a progression in your dancing—eight counts of feeling, a sustained pirouette into a leap and then something funky.”
Hatchett prides himself on staying true to his philosophies. “Don’t come to me for watered-down lyrical,” he says, a nod to what he fears the dance world is becoming. “I watch all the dance TV shows and to be honest, I’m not very happy with what I see. Dancers don’t actually dance anymore. It’s all about the tricks. Where are all the transitions?” Though now retired (occasionally teaching at Dance Olympus and the Dance Teacher Summit), Hatchett watches these shows because his passion to stay connected to dance is strong. And he’s as curious as ever, looking to learn more, even though he has long been dubbed a master of jazz. Though he respects some of the work, it also reaffirms his instincts—that he’s offering much of what current commercial training is missing.
“There were times in the past when I haven’t been sure if I’ve been teaching the right thing,” he says. “My class might seem simple, but it’s the bread and butter that you want to take home with you. And I wouldn’t change a thing about that.” DT
Frank Hatchett: How I Teach VOP Jazz
VOP isn’t an acronym, but a sound Hatchett uses to pull energy from his students’ bodies. “VOP was something that came out of me, like ‘five, six, seven, eight, VOP!” says Hatchett. “It’s something that’s left in the room after the applause dies down, when the audience is still patting their feet or shaking their heads.” When creating this classic eight-count VOP combination, his goal was to take the style of hip-hop dance and make his own statement with jazz technique. Here, Leanne Bowman, a Hatchett disciple and Broadway Dance Center teacher, demonstrates how the phrase helps students learn to punctuate choreography with contractions and energy:
Photo by Matthew Murphy