How I teach street jazz

“Scoop, reach, swipe, cut, groove, groove. Then tick, tick, click.” In a fitted T-shirt, stretch jeans and sneakers, Derek Mitchell describes the shape and feeling of movements as he performs them. His street jazz class at Manhattan’s bustling Broadway Dance Center is packed with nearly 80 students, some of whom have come in groups from faraway studios to experience dance in New York City. Most are commercial dance hopefuls, and fashion statements abound—tribal-patterned harem pants, combat boots, cutoffs and plaid shirts tied artfully around the waist. But his class is not for show. He’s serious about training dancers. “I don’t have front-row crazy people,” he says. “And I don’t show off. I create an environment where egomaniacs don’t thrive in my class.”

In this world, Mitchell is a sought-after teacher. Students leave his classes prepared for commercial auditions, but the draw goes beyond that. He mentors dancers on a philosophical level that is often neglected when the goal is to get gigs. He trains successful performers who are also emotionally aware humans. And he strives to model those traits himself.

Today, in typical fashion, he dives right into the choreography. No warm-up. “At auditions, you never get a warm-up,” he says. “I want to train dancers to warm up beforehand and come prepared as though it’s a casting.” The first 20 minutes pass without music, set to his constant soundtrack of sound effects, bawdy humor (not fit for print) and facts-of-life talk about dance as a profession. The packed room heats up quickly with laughter and repetition. “I tell them, yes, this industry is unfortunately very cutthroat, and I need you to toughen up,” he says. “But I also need you to remember it’s not brain surgery. We’re not curing cancer. We’re dancing. This is our artform, and this is how we choose to express ourselves, so we have to enjoy every part of the process.”

A native New Yorker, Mitchell grew up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and was raised at BDC when it was still called Hines-Hatchett Performing Arts Center, under the “aggressively supportive” tutelage of Frank Hatchett and Sheila Barker. Their tough love made him a more receptive artist and serious about his responsibilities as a teacher, he says. Though his parents were always supportive of his drive to choreograph and perform, he was bullied in school and remembers the “tortures of middle school and avoiding the lunch room.” He eventually found kindred spirits at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in the drama department. He credits the rigorous theater program with waking him up as an artist. “I learned that you have to perform; you can’t just execute dance steps.”

In street jazz class, old-school influences bump into new-school inspirations. Mitchell takes theatrical dance and combines it with classic jazz technique and elements of street styles, such as waacking, house dance and vogueing. The influence of Bob Fosse can be glimpsed in Mitchell’s highly detailed and gestural phrases.

Class revolves around one long combination, which can vary widely depending on the day’s musical inspiration. (Today it is Frank Ocean’s mellow R&B jam “Thinking About You.” Another day we observe Mitchell using Robyn and Röyksopp’s eletropoppy “Do It Again.”) As he builds the choreography, each new round of review allows him to get more specific on what the shapes should look like and communicate. He demands dancers pay attention to their anatomy and employ all parts of their spines—cervical, thoracic and lumbar. “A contraction is not a slump,” he chides. And then in a more a serious tone: “Where your focus goes is where your intention goes.”

While dancers work on mastering each step, Mitchell challenges them to find more emotional authenticity in the moves. He asks them, “Are you connecting? Or are you just trying to impress?” He often employs the analogy of the stereotypical “hot jock,” with more brawn than brains. “If there’s a guy in school, and he’s gorgeous, that’s very impressive. But if he speaks and he goes, ‘Yo, sooo what’s up’”—Mitchell slurs his speech—“That’s how a dancer is when they have great technique but they’re not connected to it.” He leads students to find their own stories inside the choreography. “The intention is pure frustration with love,” he says about his routine to Ocean’s yearning lyrics. “We all need love in different ways. Try to embody it so we are not just doing steps.” Realizing that part of the disconnect for students lies in their youthful self-consciousness, Mitchell works to mentor on two fronts: to bring a more personal approach to the work while pushing dancers out of their comfort zones. “Remember this—if you can’t get it, it’s not that you don’t like it. You just can’t get it yet. You just don’t like yourself in it yet.”

In addition to teaching, Mitchell choreographs for his own company, pop artists and TV shows. He is also the self-described “king of flash mobs” and has organized more than 150 happenings. These events challenge his creativity, because the music, style, timeline and venue are all variables that may or may not be within his control. His class can double as an impromptu audition for one of his flash mobs or video projects. He likes to give younger dancers an outlet to practice the professionalism he preaches. “They may learn something in the morning and then have to perform it that afternoon without a tech,” he says.

Emily Greenwell, age 23, is Derek Mitchell’s assistant.

At the end of class, he often films the combination to post on his YouTube channel. It’s a way to publicize his choreography to viewers around the world while offering stage time to students. “It’s something they can actually get nervous about instead of just performing in front of the mirror.” On the day he choreographs to “Do It Again,” Mitchell chooses two small groups—one of men and one of women—to perform for the taping. He selects one dancer who has recently come into her own in the class. He pauses to talk to her and the other students about the importance of finding their voice, whether it’s through movement, or, as this dancer had recently done, taking her aside to talk about how to improve. For this student, their talk and her effort paid off. “Where did you stand today? Front and center,” he says to her. “And how did you do? You killed it.” The dancer beams. Mitchell knows what he is doing. “We all want to be seen, heard and understood,” he says. “That is exactly what dancers are looking for when they come to class.” DT

 

 Photos by Kyle Froman

The Conversation
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy of Hightower

The beloved "So You Think You Can Dance" alum and former Emmy-nominated "Dancing with the Stars" pro Chelsie Hightower discovered her passion for ballroom at a young age. She showed a natural ability for the Latin style, but she mastered the necessary versatility by studying jazz, ballet and other forms of dance. "Every style of dance builds on each other," she says, "and the more music you're exposed to, the more your rhythm and coordination is built."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Harlequin Floors
Burklyn Ballet, Courtesy Harlequin

Whether you're putting on a pair of pointe shoes, buckling your ballroom stilettos or lacing up your favorite high tops, the floor you're on can make or break your dancing. But with issues like sticking or slipping and a variety of frictions suitable to different dance steps and styles, it can be confusing to know which floor will work best for you.

No matter what your needs are, Harlequin Floors has your back, or rather, your feet. With 11 different marley vinyl floors available in a range of colors, Harlequin has options for every setting and dance style. We rounded up six of their most popular and versatile floors:

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Thinkstock

Q: I have a very flexible spine and torso. My teachers tell me to use this flexibility during cambrés and port de bras, but when I do, I feel pain—mostly in my lower back. What should I change so I don't end up with back problems?

A: It can be challenging to support flexibility in general. When you're bending backward, the strength of your abdominals should determine how much you can bend while keeping stable. That's easy to do if you are bending back only a little, but when asked to go farther, dancers often let go of their abdominal support, shift their pelvis forward and sink into their lower backs. Compression occurs at this point, and causes pain.

There are many good abdominal exercises that can help this, particularly activating the abs when doing backward movement. Stand in first position and imagine lacing your abdominals together and keep an invisible string drawing your belly button on a diagonal back and up toward your spine. Begin slowly bending backward and maintain a neutral pelvis. You won't need to bend back very far to feel those abdominal muscles working. Notice if you release the abdominal engagement how your weight drops into your lower back. Try the same slow movement doing a cambré back with your arms. Don't worry if you can't use your full flexibility. That will come in time—habits don't change overnight.

Sponsored by Insure Fitness
AdobeStock, Courtesy Insure Fitness Group

As a teacher at a studio, you've more than likely developed long-lasting relationships with some of your students and parents. The idea that you could be sued by one of them might seem impossible to imagine, but Insure Fitness Group's Gianna Michalsen warns against relaxing into that mindset. "People say, 'Why do I need insurance? I've been working with these people for 10 years—we're friends,'" she says. "But no one ever takes into account how bad an injury can be. Despite how good your relationship is, people will sue you because of the toll an injury takes on their life."

You'll benefit most from an insurance policy that caters to the specifics of teaching dance at one or several studios. Here's what to look for:

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Via Instagram

Happy Father's Day to all of the dance dads in the world! Whether you're professional dancers, dance teachers, dance directors or simply just dance supporters, you are a key ingredient to what makes the dance world such a happy, thriving place, and we love you!

To celebrate, here are our four favorite Instagram dance dads. Prepare to say "Awwwwwwwweeeeeee!!!!!!"

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Bill Johnson, Courtesy Just for Kix

Running a dance studio is a feat in itself. But adding a competition team into the mix brings a whole new set of challenges. Not only are you focusing on giving your dancers the best training possible, but you're navigating the fast-paced competition and convention circuit. Winning is one goal, but you also want to create an environment that's fun, educational and inspiring for young artists. We asked Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a studio owner with over 40 years of experience, for her advice on building a healthy dance team culture:

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

If you're a studio owner, the thought of raising your rates most likely makes you cringe. Despite ever-increasing overhead expenses you can't avoid—rent, salaries, insurance—you're probably wary of alienating your customers, losing students or inviting confrontation if you increase the price of your tuition or registration and recital fees. DT spoke with three veteran studio owners who suggest it's time to get past that. Here's how to give your business the revenue boost it needs and the value justification it (and you) deserve.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by World Class Vacations
David Galindo Photography

New York City is a dream destination for many dancers. However aspiring Broadway stars don't have to wait until they're pros to experience all the city has to offer. With Dance the World Broadway, students can get a taste of the Big Apple—plus hone their dance skills and make lasting memories.

Here's why Dance the World Broadway is the best way for students to experience NYC:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Margie Gillis (left); photo by Kyle Froman

Margie Gillis dances the human experience. Undulating naked in a field of billowing grass in Lessons from Nature 4, or whirling in a sweep of lilac fabric in her signature work Slipstream, her movement is free of flashy technique and tricks, but driven and defined by emotion. "There's a central philosophy in my work about what the experience of being human is," says Gillis, whose movement style is an alchemy of Isadora Duncan's uninhibited self-expression and Paul Taylor's musicality, blended with elements of dance theater into something utterly unique and immediately accessible. "I want an authenticity," she says. "I want to touch my audiences profoundly and deeply."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Teaching arabesque can be a challenge for educators and students alike. Differences in body types, flexibility and strength can leave dancers feeling dejected about the possibility of improving this essential position.

To help each of us in our quest for establishing beautiful arabesques in our students without bringing them to tears, we caught up with University of Utah ballet teacher Jennie Creer-King. After her professional career dancing with Ballet West and Oregon Ballet Theater and her years of teaching at the studio and college levels, she's become a bit of an arabesque expert.

Here she shares five important tips for increasing the height of your students' arabesques.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo by Jennifer Kleinman, courtesy of Danell Hathaway

It's high school dance concert season, which means a lot of you K–12 teachers are likely feeling a bit overwhelmed. The long nights of editing music, rounding up costumes and printing programs are upon you, and we salute you. You do great work, and if you just hang on a little while longer, you'll be able to bathe in the applause that comes after the final Saturday night curtain.

To give you a bit of inspiration for your upcoming performances, we talked with Olympus High School dance teacher Danell Hathaway, who just wrapped her school's latest dance company concert. The Salt Lake City–based K–12 teacher shares her six pieces of advice for knocking your show out of the park.

Keep reading... Show less
Getty Images

Q: I'm looking to create some summer rituals and traditions at my studio. What are some of the things you do?

A: Creating fun and engaging moments for your students, staff and families can have a positive impact on your studio culture. Whether it's a big event or a small gesture, we've found that traditions build connection, boost morale and create strong bonds. I reached out to a variety of studio owners to gather some ideas for you to try this summer. Here's what they had to say.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox