How I teach street jazz

“Scoop, reach, swipe, cut, groove, groove. Then tick, tick, click.” In a fitted T-shirt, stretch jeans and sneakers, Derek Mitchell describes the shape and feeling of movements as he performs them. His street jazz class at Manhattan’s bustling Broadway Dance Center is packed with nearly 80 students, some of whom have come in groups from faraway studios to experience dance in New York City. Most are commercial dance hopefuls, and fashion statements abound—tribal-patterned harem pants, combat boots, cutoffs and plaid shirts tied artfully around the waist. But his class is not for show. He’s serious about training dancers. “I don’t have front-row crazy people,” he says. “And I don’t show off. I create an environment where egomaniacs don’t thrive in my class.”

In this world, Mitchell is a sought-after teacher. Students leave his classes prepared for commercial auditions, but the draw goes beyond that. He mentors dancers on a philosophical level that is often neglected when the goal is to get gigs. He trains successful performers who are also emotionally aware humans. And he strives to model those traits himself.

Today, in typical fashion, he dives right into the choreography. No warm-up. “At auditions, you never get a warm-up,” he says. “I want to train dancers to warm up beforehand and come prepared as though it’s a casting.” The first 20 minutes pass without music, set to his constant soundtrack of sound effects, bawdy humor (not fit for print) and facts-of-life talk about dance as a profession. The packed room heats up quickly with laughter and repetition. “I tell them, yes, this industry is unfortunately very cutthroat, and I need you to toughen up,” he says. “But I also need you to remember it’s not brain surgery. We’re not curing cancer. We’re dancing. This is our artform, and this is how we choose to express ourselves, so we have to enjoy every part of the process.”

A native New Yorker, Mitchell grew up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and was raised at BDC when it was still called Hines-Hatchett Performing Arts Center, under the “aggressively supportive” tutelage of Frank Hatchett and Sheila Barker. Their tough love made him a more receptive artist and serious about his responsibilities as a teacher, he says. Though his parents were always supportive of his drive to choreograph and perform, he was bullied in school and remembers the “tortures of middle school and avoiding the lunch room.” He eventually found kindred spirits at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in the drama department. He credits the rigorous theater program with waking him up as an artist. “I learned that you have to perform; you can’t just execute dance steps.”

In street jazz class, old-school influences bump into new-school inspirations. Mitchell takes theatrical dance and combines it with classic jazz technique and elements of street styles, such as waacking, house dance and vogueing. The influence of Bob Fosse can be glimpsed in Mitchell’s highly detailed and gestural phrases.

Class revolves around one long combination, which can vary widely depending on the day’s musical inspiration. (Today it is Frank Ocean’s mellow R&B jam “Thinking About You.” Another day we observe Mitchell using Robyn and Röyksopp’s eletropoppy “Do It Again.”) As he builds the choreography, each new round of review allows him to get more specific on what the shapes should look like and communicate. He demands dancers pay attention to their anatomy and employ all parts of their spines—cervical, thoracic and lumbar. “A contraction is not a slump,” he chides. And then in a more a serious tone: “Where your focus goes is where your intention goes.”

While dancers work on mastering each step, Mitchell challenges them to find more emotional authenticity in the moves. He asks them, “Are you connecting? Or are you just trying to impress?” He often employs the analogy of the stereotypical “hot jock,” with more brawn than brains. “If there’s a guy in school, and he’s gorgeous, that’s very impressive. But if he speaks and he goes, ‘Yo, sooo what’s up’”—Mitchell slurs his speech—“That’s how a dancer is when they have great technique but they’re not connected to it.” He leads students to find their own stories inside the choreography. “The intention is pure frustration with love,” he says about his routine to Ocean’s yearning lyrics. “We all need love in different ways. Try to embody it so we are not just doing steps.” Realizing that part of the disconnect for students lies in their youthful self-consciousness, Mitchell works to mentor on two fronts: to bring a more personal approach to the work while pushing dancers out of their comfort zones. “Remember this—if you can’t get it, it’s not that you don’t like it. You just can’t get it yet. You just don’t like yourself in it yet.”

In addition to teaching, Mitchell choreographs for his own company, pop artists and TV shows. He is also the self-described “king of flash mobs” and has organized more than 150 happenings. These events challenge his creativity, because the music, style, timeline and venue are all variables that may or may not be within his control. His class can double as an impromptu audition for one of his flash mobs or video projects. He likes to give younger dancers an outlet to practice the professionalism he preaches. “They may learn something in the morning and then have to perform it that afternoon without a tech,” he says.

Emily Greenwell, age 23, is Derek Mitchell’s assistant.

At the end of class, he often films the combination to post on his YouTube channel. It’s a way to publicize his choreography to viewers around the world while offering stage time to students. “It’s something they can actually get nervous about instead of just performing in front of the mirror.” On the day he choreographs to “Do It Again,” Mitchell chooses two small groups—one of men and one of women—to perform for the taping. He selects one dancer who has recently come into her own in the class. He pauses to talk to her and the other students about the importance of finding their voice, whether it’s through movement, or, as this dancer had recently done, taking her aside to talk about how to improve. For this student, their talk and her effort paid off. “Where did you stand today? Front and center,” he says to her. “And how did you do? You killed it.” The dancer beams. Mitchell knows what he is doing. “We all want to be seen, heard and understood,” he says. “That is exactly what dancers are looking for when they come to class.” DT


 Photos by Kyle Froman

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