In a packed studio at BroadwayDance Center, Rhapsody James (known simply as Rhapsody) pulses to the beat of a hip-hop groove. She demonstrates a swaying rock step that blends into a fluid slide and ends in a funny baby-doll pose. The intricate move is typical of what more and more dancers are coming to recognize as Rhapsody’s unique style: a blend of hip hop, jazz and modern that even Rhapsody says she can’t define. “I live in a movie in my head,” she says. “I see pictures. It’s what the music is telling me.”
Rhapsody’s street-jazz class is one of BDC’s most popular—and longstanding. Celebrating 10 years at BDC, the 34-year-old curvy dynamo is known for teaching not only the steps but the style, mechanics and confidence required for success in commercial settings. And just as notable is the fact that Rhapsody is a role model of self-acceptance and unwavering perseverance. Students flock to learn from this charismatic teacher with the ever-changing hairstyle who made a career for herself without following anyone’s rules but her own.
As a youngster in the South Bronx, Rhapsody (named by her dad after Barry White’s version of “Rhapsody in Blue”) got off on the wrong foot with formal dance training. At age 10 she took ballet and tap classes at the YMCA but was unable to concentrate on the codified techniques. She loved to move, but she didn’t respond well to the serious atmosphere and criticism from her teachers. At 14, her mother signed her up against her will for a dance audition at LaGuardia Performing Arts High School. “I purposely messed up,” Rhapsody says. “But there were moments when I was trying. I felt scrutinized and judged, so I didn’t do well. The criticism that comes with being a dancer really hit me hard.”
She opted instead for the High School of Art and Design, and it wasn’t until college that she gave traditional dance education another shot. She enrolled at State University of New York, Purchase, to study social sciences in the arts, but on the recommendation of a friend, she auditioned for the school’s dance conservatory during her freshman year. “I made it through the improvisation section and felt encouraged,” she says. “But then they judged our posture. They told me my butt was too big. That was it for me.”
Today, Rhapsody takes extra care to shield her students from that kind of humiliation. “I have fought to be appreciated for my craft. Being judged for my weight was hurtful,” Rhapsody says. “As teachers, we need to be encouraging, not distant. If a student is too overweight to do the choreography, help them with what they can do and support them to do more. Being overweight doesn’t make you less talented.”
While at Purchase, Rhapsody avoided the studio but continued to dance at clubs and campus functions, where she was spotted by an acting student who asked her to choreograph a show for him. It was a turning point. “I was terrified,” she says. “But it was a gift. I realized, ‘My dancer side is shattered, but as a choreographer, I feel fulfilled.’ People weren’t looking at me, but at what I created.”
Choreography for the music industry became her new goal, informed by artists like Janet Jackson and dance that was angular and powerful. That’s when she developed her unique signature: a grounded groove accented with pops, locks, sexy hip swivels and witty gestures, all dictated by the music choice. “My preparation is always listening to the music endlessly,” she says. “That’s where my movement originates.”
She interned at music labels to learn the music industry—and to get a foot in the door—but soon realized it was two different worlds between the studio and the office. One encounter, however, proved pivotal: While working in the video production department at Uptown Records, Rhapsody was able to shadow Laurieann Gibson. “Watching Laurieann in rehearsal, I noticed the dancers were asking particular questions, like ‘Is that right on the beat? What is the accent?’ Laurieann was able to describe what she wanted. I knew that in order to be a great choreographer, I needed to be a good teacher—to be able to communicate like that.”
After graduation, Rhapsody moved to New York City, and while working as a receptionist at a record label, she began to hone her teaching skills as a fitness instructor. She also took class from BDC teachers Frank Hatchett, Darrin Henson and Dorit Koppel. “I learned how to teach by watching them,” Rhapsody says. “I paid close attention to how they communicate their style and their energy in the classroom.”
In 1999 she joined the work-study program at BDC so that she could take even more classes. “I took Sheila Barker, Sue Samuels, Karen Addison and Jose De La Cruz and they all taught me style—and to be your own person as a teacher,” says Rhapsody. “You have to know your own style before you teach it to someone else. For example, I may do a kick ball change that a million teachers do, but I do it with a shoulder hit and a body roll. You need to take time to understand how you as an artist modify steps and style.”
Hoping to eventually teach her own street-jazz class, she offered her services as a substitute instructor. Her break came one evening when Rockafella and Kwikstep were stuck in Washington, DC. Rhapsody taught a routine to 85 students. “The response was overwhelming,” says Diane King, BDC studio director. “People were blown away by the unique choreography, saying how good they looked—and felt. It’s not just her moves but her personality that makes her class so rewarding. And it’s been that way since her first class.”
Within four months, Rhapsody was given her own classes. Now she teaches four sessions every week. Regardless of the choreography gigs she has outside of the studio, she approaches each session as if it were her first chance, believing that students deserve a teacher’s undivided, energized attention. “She is the hardest worker and a great example for her students,” King says. “She makes sure everyone in class gets the difficult material, and instead of watering it down, she’s able to bring everyone up to her level. And, she’s so kind-hearted. The students feel that.”
“I was a contemporary dancer when I came to BDC, but after training with Rhapsody I booked tours with Beyoncé, Janet Jackson and Rihanna,” says Dana Foglia. “Every time I come back to her class, it’s always fresh, a challenge. She expects a lot of passion because she has so much.”
Rhapsody has now choreographed for Step Up 2: The Streets, Beyoncé’s “Get Me Bodied” video, the New Jersey Nets and the New York Knicks dancers and she has created for new artists like Cassie. In 2000, she founded her own troupe, Rhapsody: The Company, to perform at corporate parties, theaters and summer festivals. “I found myself wanting to create bigger and better shows without the limitations I was hitting in the music industry,” she says. “The company is my home where I can be myself creatively without boundaries. It’s my voice.” Thirty-seven dancers have passed through her company, including Foglia, Luam Keflezgy and Joanna Numata—all three now have their own classes at BDC.
The company also performs at “Sirens After Dark,” a bimonthly cabaret in New York City hosted by Rhapsody. The event is well-known in the hip-hop community for its welcoming atmosphere and networking opportunities. “It’s pure exposure,” Rhapsody says. “When I was coming up I had so much to express but there was never a venue or opportunity. I want to give that to artists now.” DT
Lauren Kay is a dancer and writer in NYC.
Photo by Rachel Papo
Watch footage of Rhapsody teaching an wnergy-packed street-jazz class at Broadway Dance Center in NYC here.