Bob Boross: How I Teach Matt Mattox Freestyle Jazz

“It’s not vernacular jazz dance,” says Boross. “It has a lot of ballet, modern and the footwork of tap mixed together.”

Bob Boross surveys the group of jazz students before him who are attempting to layer a complicated port de bras on top of a foot warm-up that requires one half of the body to be in parallel and the other in turnout. “You’re all thinking very hard,” he says. “Relax your faces a little bit.”

Boross understands his students’ struggle. This is his second day teaching Matt Mattox technique to dancers taking part in an intensive in New York City (sponsored by Jazz Choreography Enterprises), and most of them have never studied Mattox’s style of jazz. The technique’s strong ballet foundation, tricky isolations and difficult-to-coordinate arm and leg movements make it easy for students to tense up, rather than appear relaxed, as Mattox always famously did. “It’s about mastering your body,” says Boross, who often teaches the elements of a Mattox warm-up exercise in layers—feet first, then port de bras. “Getting that relaxed feeling—even though you’re doing strenuous things—is a very complex assignment.”

His own introduction to Mattox and his style was a baptism by fire, too. A latecomer to dance—Boross didn’t start until he was a teenager—he dropped in on a monthlong Mattox workshop at UCLA for the last 10 days and soon found himself working one-on-one with him. After decades of extensive study with Mattox, who passed away in 2013, Boross is now a freelance choreographer and teacher; he leads master classes throughout the U.S. and abroad. “It’s not vernacular jazz dance,” says Boross. “It has a lot of ballet, modern and the footwork of tap mixed together.” In fact, that’s why Mattox referred to it as “freestyle”(a term he borrowed from Eugene Loring)—because it encompasses several techniques.

As Boross circles the room, clapping to accent the technique’s tricky rhythms or adjust a student’s sacrum in a maddeningly articulate hip circle, he offers helpful imagery for the dancers to chew on. To encourage dynamics, he asks that they imagine their bodies are sports cars. “Think about how you would drive it,” he says. “I want to see you working hard and still enjoying your sports car.”

But Mattox’s codified warm-up exercises aren’t all tricky tendus and isolations. A particularly strenuous one requires the dancers to begin in a first-position grand plié and double-bounce into a grand second plié. (“I need someone with young, strong legs,” Boross jokes, asking a student to demonstrate as he explains.) It’s that diversity of movement which draws him to Mattox’s style. “It’s one technique that will satisfy a dancer’s needs—dancers have to do so many things these days,” says Boross. “It makes dancers responsive and employable and keeps you healthy.” DT

Bob Boross made his Broadway debut in the 1981 revival of Can-Can. He has an MA from the Gallatin School of New York University and has been a professor at Illinois State University, Western Kentucky University, Stephens College, Radford University, the University of California, Irvine, and Shenandoah University. He studied extensively with jazz legend Matt Mattox and wrote his master’s thesis on Mattox’s career. Boross’ writings have been published in the anthology Jazz Dance: A History of the Roots and Branches.

Skye Mattox is the granddaughter of Matt Mattox and has danced in the Broadway revivals of On the Town (2014) and West Side Story (2009).

Photos by Kyle Froman

Don't miss a single issue of Dance Teacher.

Health & Body
Getty Images

Talar compression syndrome means there is some impingement happening in the posterior portion of the ankle joint. Other medical personnel might call your problem os trigonum syndrome or posterior ankle impingement syndrome or posterior tibiotalar compression syndrome. No matter what they name it—it means you are having trouble moving your ankle through pointing and flexing.

Keep reading... Show less
News
Scott Robbins, Courtesy IABD

The International Association of Blacks in Dance is digitizing recordings of significant, at-risk dance works, master classes, panels and more by Black dancers and choreographers from 1988 to 2010. The project is the result of a $50,000 Recordings at Risk grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources.

"This really is a long time coming," says IABD president and CEO Denise Saunders Thompson of what IABD is calling the Preserving the Legacy and History of Black Dance in America program. "And it's really just the beginning stages of pulling together the many, many contributions of Black dance artists who are a part of the IABD network." Thompson says IABD is already working to secure funding to digitize even more work.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
The Dance Concept staff in the midst of their costume pickup event. Photo courtesy of Dance Concept

Year-end recitals are an important milestone for dancers to demonstrate what they've learned throughout the year. Not to mention the revenue boost they bring—often 15 to 20 percent of a studio's yearly budget. But how do you hold a spring recital when you're not able to rehearse in person, much less gather en masse at a theater?

"I struggled with the decision for a month, but it hit me that a virtual recital was the one thing that would give our kids a sense of closure and happiness after a few months on Zoom," says Lisa Kaplan Barbash, owner of TDS Dance Company in Stoughton, MA. She's one of countless studio owners who faced the challenges of social distancing while needing to provide some sort of end-of-year performance experience that had already been paid for through tuition and costume fees.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.