Broadway Dance Center Celebrates “Papa Frank,” VOP-Style

Broadway Dance Center students VOP in a piece by faculty member Derek Mitchell, a former student of Frank Hatchett.

Frank Hatchett produced stars. This was obvious at yesterday’s tribute to the late Hines-Hatchett studio (later Broadway Dance Center) co-founder and Dance Teacher’s 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award–winner.

In the format of Hatchett’s renowned student talent showcases, devotees and colleagues from more than three decades of his VOP jazz classes presented dances, songs and speeches to a full audience at New York City’s Symphony Space. Well-prepared Broadway performers John Eric Parker and Ron Wyche presented nearly stage-worthy monologues commemorating their time with Hatchett. By the time Brooke Shields made a surprise appearance to thank “Papa Frank” for his guidance, it was clear he’d touched countless performing careers in the dance world and beyond.

Brook Shields said Frank Hatchett gave her the nickname "Tasty B" in his class.

Hatchett’s students are fiercely devoted to preserving his legacy—that is, a tradition of teaching for teaching's sake and learning for learning’s sake, a belief system that feels distinctly old-school amid today’s commercial dance popularity. During a fast-tapping improv session with Omar Edwards, Jason Samuels Smith drew cheers from the crowd when he took the mic to reminisce about a time—Hatchett’s time—when professional-level students didn’t take class just to prepare for an audition or to be seen by a certain choreographer. “You took class to get better,” he said. Derek Mitchell, who teaches at BDC and has choreographed for “So You Think You Can Dance,” created a group piece in Hatchett’s style and thanked his teacher via video greeting for being a true educator, not just “an egomaniac” at the front of the class.

Omar Edwards and Jason Samuels Smith jamming at Broadway Dance Center's celebration of Frank Hatchett

Additional video tributes came from Hines-Hatchett co-founder Maurice Hines, Savion Glover, Kinky Boots star Billy Porter, Faruma Williams of the Williams Brothers tap-dancing duo and other performing artists, all of whom thanked Hatchett for shaping their careers.

Speakers, including actress Tamara Tunie and Broadway performer Vivian Reed remembered Hatchett’s no-nonsense attitude. His 3:30 advanced class, all agreed, was his best and most challenging. He never tolerated timidity or low self-esteem. If a dancer belonged in the front row, students recalled, that’s where Hatchett put him, and he had no problem taking a dancer by the hand to move her from the front row to the back, either. He had dozens of catchphrases, and the audience murmured in recognition every time a speaker mentioned one: “You need the cookies and the milk, the cookies and the milk,” “Enough about me, let’s talk about me,” “You got this, and I got you,” and, most iconically, “You gotta VOP it,” which was usually spoken with a hip pop and a skyward finger-snap to show the sassy, swaggering attitude Hatchett required.

To close the ceremony, popular BDC jazz teacher and Hatchett protégée Sheila Barker took the stage doing what she does best: getting everybody to move. She led the audience in a final dance.

Broadway Dance Center students performing "Happy," choreographed by Frank Hatchett protégée Sheila Barker

Photos by Sandy Shelton, courtesy of BDC

News
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.

Teaching Tips
@jayplayimagery, courtesy Blackstone

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Betty Jones in The Moor's Pavane, shot for Dance Magazine's "Dancers You Should Know" series in 1955. Zachary Freyman, Courtesy Jacob's Pillow

An anchor of the Humphrey-Limón legacy for more than 70 years, Betty Jones died at her home in Honolulu on November 17, 2020. She remained active well into her 90s, most recently leading a New York workshop with her husband and partner, Fritz Ludin, in October 2019.

Betty May Jones was born on June 11, 1926 in Meadville, Pennsylvania, and moved with her family to the Albany, New York, area, where she began taking dance classes. Just after she turned 15 in 1941, she began serious ballet study at Jacob's Pillow, which was under the direction of Anton Dolin and Alicia Markova for the season. Over the next three summers as a scholarship student, Jones expanded her range and became an integral part of Jacob's Pillow. Among her duties was working in the kitchen, where her speedy efficiency earned her the nickname of "Lightning."

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