Jonathan Lee is doing a victory dance—his beginner hip-hop class at STEPS on Broadway recently got upgraded to one of the largest studios. And while he’s ecstatic to be doing so well in this economy, he isn’t gloating. Brooklyn born and raised, Lee has been paying his dues in New York City for some time. After training with hip-hop masters Mr. Wiggles, Robin Dunn and Crazy Legs, he went on to study ballet and modern at Alvin Ailey, Joffrey Ballet School, STEPS and Broadway Dance Center. Lee officially made the switch to teaching five years ago, and now packs his classes full at STEPS, Dance New Amsterdam and The Ailey Extension. At just 22, his career already includes such impressive accomplishments as commercial gigs, theater credits and working with major names like Britney Spears and Madonna. Read on to discover this young talent’s recipe for success.
Dance Teacher: Is there a teacher who influenced your career the most?
Jonathan Lee: Robin Dunn [who taught the first hip-hop class in NYC]—she’s my “mom,” aka mentor. Robin didn’t want me to just be a better dancer. She wanted me to be a better person. She stressed that it’s not just about booking jobs and being in the commercial scene. It’s about inspiring people. And that’s why I teach—I want to inspire young people.
DT: What else led you to teaching?
JL: I was part of a youth organization called City Kids. They always talked about youth leadership; they gave me the tools to be a leader. One of their mottos was “Each one, reach one.” That really molded who I am today. I also started assisting some of my teachers, and that helped develop my skills.
DT: What’s your teaching philosophy?
JL: Some people treat classes as auditions. I teach so that people can learn. I want my students to walk away with something. I get a wide range of students, from professional dancers to people with 9–5 jobs who just want to stay in shape. My class accommodates each individual, so that everyone can have a good experience.
DT: Do you still take dance lessons? Do you think it’s important for dance teachers to take class?
JL: I still do, and I definitely think it’s important for teachers to take class. You have to open up your vocabulary, especially once you figure out who you are as a choreographer, because you’re going to gravitate toward what you like. But you have to think outside the box and find challenges. Each teacher has something different to offer.
DT: A main focus during your class is drilling the steps. How do you think that helps your students?
JL: It’s a beginner class, so I feel that repetition really helps people pick up choreography. Especially if someone has never taken hip hop, the reiteration builds muscle memory. Even if my students don’t get all of the steps, they can get most of them and still enjoy it.
DT: You are known to end every class with a circle talk, as does Robin Dunn. Why do you think that’s important?
JL: I teach drop-in classes, so I want my students to know that I acknowledge them and thank them for being in the room. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be there. I also do the circle to illustrate that there’s no head or end—just one open circle and everyone is on the same plane. DT
Lauren Levinson is an associate editor/fashion at Dance Spirit.
Photo by Arthur Coopchick, courtesy of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater