How I teach jazz
Tony Stevens with dancer Daryl Getman at Steps on Broadway in New York City
"If you can move from your center, off center and back again,” says Tony Stevens during his master class at Steps on Broadway, “it’s a dance.” Even though this is an advanced class, he still focuses on proper alignment and control. Once a dancer finds the connection to his or her core strength—and this is true for all styles of dance—everything else can fall into place. “Having a grounded center makes you secure. You can try anything, because you know where you’re supposed to be.”
Demonstrating in front of the class—attendees include Broadway veterans, professionals and serious students—Stevens stands in a long and expansive posture, embodying strength, power and a rooted connection to the floor. His jazz style mixes the finesse of Jack Cole, the dynamism of Katherine Dunham and the weighted forcefulness of Martha Graham with his own character. “They were all teachers of mine,” says Stevens.
“My style is a distillation of their techniques, all filtered through me.” In class, Stevens gives students a taste of many theater jazz styles, from Ron Field to Peter Gennaro. “One week we’ll do more Fosse, then the next week we’ll do Jack Cole,” says Stevens. “I try to show my students how different each style is.”
Using what he calls each choreographer’s language, or their specific movement shapes and phrases, Stevens creates mostly original combinations. However, “sometimes I teach parts of exact choreography,” he says. Stevens teaches one lengthy and tricky combination per week, giving students time to understand the sequence, perfect the musicality and add their own nuances and personality.
And at the base of every combination lies the fundamental concept of moving from a place of alignment.Here, Stevens shows proper placement and gives a step-by-step breakdown of a jazz plié combination that incorporates hip isolations, shoulder dislocations and an off-balance lean.
Set Up: Stevens explains proper alignment with dancer, Daryl Getman.
When we stand naturally, our spines have a soft S-shaped curve designed for shock absorption. This curve is often amplified by poor control of the abdominals. Heels can also accentuate it by throwing one’s weight farther forward, exposing the lower back to stress and injury.
Stevens tells students to relax the ribcage downward and connect the upper abdominals to the lower abdominals, at the same time imagining your chest floating over your pelvis. Think “down and in.”
Voilà! Everything is now in line, from the head through the knees and toes. A dancer should feel her abdominals working and her lats engaged—all without “pulling up. ”
Tony Stevens has choreographed numerous productions for film, television and Broadway, and he was part of the original workshop for A Chorus Line. He has worked with many choreographers, including Peter Gennaro and Michael Bennett, and assisted Bob Fosse’s creation of Chicago. He has performed in Broadway productions including Hello Dolly, On the Town and The Boy Friend. Stevens worked with colleague Chita Rivera to re-create Fosse’s choreography for her show, Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life. Stevens teaches classes at Marymount Manhattan College and leads master class series at Steps on Broadway, both in New York City. Most recently, he traveled to Los Angeles to choreograph a revival of Over Here!, a show that originally appeared on Broadway in 1973.
Dancer Daryl Getman is a graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts CAP 21 program and is a student of Tony Stevens. She recently returned from the first national tour of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and is currently a cast member of the new, Broadway-bound 1960s musical Trip of Love, which premiered in Osaka, Japan, in spring 2008.
Photographed by Ramon Estevanell at Steps on Broadway in New York City