2013 Lifetime Achievement Award: Frank Hatchett

The 1980s left jazz dancers hungry for a new leader. Enter Frank Hatchett, whose dynamic approach brought street cred to classic jazz. Photo by Matthew Murphy

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."

Courtesy Russell

Gregg Russell, an Emmy-nominated choreographer known for his passionate and energetic teaching, passed away unexpectedly on Sunday, November 22, at the age of 48.

While perhaps most revered as a master tap instructor and performer, Russell also frequently taught hip-hop and musical theater classes, showcasing a versatility that secured him a successful career onstage and in film and television, both nationally and abroad.

His resumé reads like an encyclopedia of popular culture. Russell worked with celebrities such as Bette Midler and Gene Kelly; coached pop icon Michael Jackson and Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane; danced in the classic films Clueless and Newsies; performed on "Dancing with the Stars" and the Latin Grammy Awards; choreographed for Sprite and Carvel Ice Cream; appeared with music icons Reba McEntire and Jason Mraz; and graced stages from coast to coast, including Los Angeles' House of Blues and New York City's Madison Square Garden.

But it was as an educator that Russell arguably found his calling. His infectious humor, welcoming aura and inspirational pedagogy made him a favorite at studios, conventions and festivals across the U.S. and in such countries as Australia, France, Honduras and Guatemala. Even students with a predilection for classical styles who weren't always enthused about studying a percussive form would leave Russell's classes grinning from ear to ear.

"Gregg understood from a young age how to teach tap and hip hop with innovation, energy and confidence," says longtime dance educator and producer Rhee Gold, who frequently hired Russell for conferences and workshops. "He gave so much in every class. There was nothing I ever did that I didn't think Gregg would be perfect for."

Growing up in Wooster, Ohio, Russell was an avid tap dancer and long-distance runner who eventually told his mother, a dance teacher, that he wanted to exclusively pursue dance. She introduced him to master teachers Judy Ann Bassing, Debbi Dee and Henry LeTang, whom he credited as his three greatest influences.

"I was instantly smitten, though competitive with him," says longtime friend and fellow choreographer Shea Sullivan, a protégé of LeTang. "Over the years we developed a mutual respect and admiration for each other. He touched so many lives. This is a great loss."

After graduating from Wooster High School, Russell was a scholarship student at Edge Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles, where he lived for many years. He founded a company, Tap Sounds Underground, taught at California Dance Theatre and even returned to Edge as an instructor, all while maintaining a busy travel schedule.

A beloved member of the tap community, Russell not only spoke highly of his contemporaries, but earned his place among them as a celebrated performing artist and teacher. With friend Ryan Lohoff, with whom he appeared on CBS's "Live to Dance," he co-directed Tap Into The Network, a touring tap intensive founded in 2008.

"His humor, giant smile and energy in his eyes are the things I will remember most," says Lohoff. "He inspired audiences and multiple generations of dancers. I am grateful for our time together."

Russell was on the faculty of numerous dance conventions, such as Co. Dance and, more recently, Artists Simply Human. He was known as a "teacher's teacher," having discovered at the young age of 18 that he enjoyed passing on his knowledge to other dance educators. He wrote tap teaching tips for Dance Studio Life magazine and led classes for fellow instructors whenever he was on tour.

In 2018, he opened a dance studio, 3D Dance, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he had been living most recently.

Russell leaves behind a wife, Tessa, and a 5-year-old daughter, Lucy.

"His success was his family and his daughter," says Gold. "They changed his entire being. He was a happy man."

GoFundMe campaigns to support Russell's family can be found here and here.

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