Right from the start, dance professor Saleemah E. Knight gets her students—a mix of dance majors and nonmajors at University of Southern California Glorya Kaufman School of Dance—working up a sweat. "I really think about the whole body moving," she says. "I think the warm-up should be a dance." Her 30-minute warm-up is jam-packed with full-bodied exercises that take dancers from standing to the floor and back up again, exploring positions of the pelvis, finding parallel and the articulation of the spine. To work their brains, Knight uses Matt Mattox jazz technique exercises. "They help with finding shapes and changing the way that you're using your brain to map information. A lot of the Matt Mattox work is very juxtapositional," she says.
From Knight's early days studying ballet and Gus Giordano technique to the Horton, Graham, Dunham, Luigi and Fosse techniques she encountered as a professional dancer, everything finds a way into her class curriculum. "My style requires a dancer to have a strong sense of shape, design and architecture in the body, yet also a sense of groove," she says. "We don't ignore rhythm, musicality and groundedness—getting down in your legs like you would in a hip-hop class."
Improvisation is a key component of Knight's class. She'll have her students listen to the polyrhythms in the live accompaniment as a launching point for their explorations. "Jazz really is steeped in improvisation," she says. "I tell my dancers that improvisation is making real-time negotiations with the music. It's an intellectual skill."
LEOTARD SHE LOVES: Motionwear Mesh Keyhole-Back Tank Leotard
FAVORITE FOOTWEAR: Capezio-E Series Jazz Slip-on shoe. "I also still love a good lace-up jazz boot. I know it's old school, but the ankle support and wrap around the foot is solid for execution."
TO STAY IN SHAPE: "Dance, of course, but I also enjoy yoga during my off season. Like dance, it's a holistic practice that engages the mind, body and spirit."
RECOMMENDED VIEWING: The BBC documentary The King Who Invented Ballet, the PBS documentary Blacks and Vaudeville and the National Visionary Leadership Project's interviews with Dance Theatre of Harlem founder Arthur Mitchell
FAVORITE QUICK SNACK: Luna Bars or almonds and berries mixed with yogurt