If you’ve ever taught a jazz class, chances are you’ve demonstrated elements of Luigi’s jazz—the iconic épaulement with an outstretched, reaching arm, or the low, crossed fourth position with the upper torso bent forward. Dancers of many disciplines flock to study Luigi’s style (including celebrities like Ann Reinking, Susan Stroman, Liza Minnelli and John Travolta). It’s grounded like modern, elegant like ballet and rhythmic like tap. And most of all, the style’s crisp movement qualities give practitioners the control and power necessary to master any piece of choreography with grace.
Though Luigi’s teaching career started accidentally on Hollywood film sets giving warm-up exercises (for himself to stay limber; other performers soon followed his lead), he developed his style and in 1956 settled in New York City. Today, his legacy is primarily upheld by Francis Roach, who first saw Luigi teach a master class in Erie, Pennsylvania, at 13. “It was a huge revelation for me,” says Roach, who had grown up studying with teachers trained in Luigi’s style. “I was the only boy at my studio, and when I saw there was a male master mover, it inspired me to keep doing what I was doing.” But it wasn’t only finding a male role model that inspired Roach: In Luigi’s early 20s (before his Hollywood career), a horrific car accident left one side of his body paralyzed. Unstoppable, he taught himself how to walk and dance again, and created exercises and stretches to help lengthen and control his body—which later became the framework for his classes.
Class begins with a seven-minute pre-warm-up, and then moves through Luigi’s 15 other fundamental exercises before ending with a longer combination. Roach stresses proper alignment and holistic, organic movement throughout the series. “Luigi’s technique is really a moving meditation. You’re moving, but not straining,” says Roach. To do this, it’s imperative for a dancer to feel energy coming up out of the ground. She must pull out of her thighs, allowing her rib cage to float away from her hips and let her spine lengthen. “If you’re placed, centered and lifting up, there’s an aliveness to the movement—a flow,” says Roach. “Luigi’s method is powerful, elegant and natural.”
Here, Roach and students Erika and Jessica Black demonstrate the second port de bras exercise in Luigi’s class, which stretches the back, challenges students’ balance and emphasizes correct alignment while slowly warming up the body.
A northeast Ohio native, Francis Roach has been on the faculty of Luigi’s Jazz Centre for over 20 years. His numerous performing credits include regional Actor’s Equity productions of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Carousel, The Music Man, Sugar and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. On the screen and stage Roach has worked with Miguel Godreau, Gene Kelly, Shirley MacLaine, Ben Vereen, Donna McKechnie and Liza Minnelli, and in New York, Roach danced with Sheila Sobel’s MWC modern dance company. He is currently the resident choreographer for Donald Westwood’s opera management company and New York Artists Unlimited, an outreach musical theater performance group. A guest teacher at the Joffrey Ballet School, Marymount Manhattan College and the University of South Florida, Roach also received the 2004 Dance Masters of America’s President’s Award.
Originally from North Dakota, twins Erika and Jessica Black are students of the Ailey/Fordham BFA program and have studied at Luigi’s Jazz Centre for eight years. Erika is currently an apprentice for Jennifer Muller/The Works, and Jessica performs with Transcendence Dance Group, a NYC-based contemporary ballet company.
Photo by Matthew Murphy