Dance Teachers Trending

No Matter What, Chicago Dancers Can Count on Saturday Morning Jazz Class With Joel Hall

"Things rooted in the black community tend to be confiscated or diminished," says the founder of Joel Hall Dancers & Center. "I'm not going to let that happen as long as I'm around." Photo by Dean Paul, courtesy of Joel Hall Dance Center

When Joel Hall enters a studio, students fall silent and rise in respect. He can command a room from its corner with merely a facial expression, but more often, he takes charge by getting into the thick of the dance, letting the beat of the house music move him and pulling meaning and emotion from each dancer. A well-timed "yes!" can thrust a penché to 180 degrees. A snapped finger and a "work!" can bring out the inner diva in even the shyest student. And an ecstatic "oh!" can move hips like mountains.

"I instill in my dancers the discipline of proper training, but I also let them know they have a voice—a voice that shows where they came from—and I want to hear it," Hall says. "My class is tough, and I get fabulous people out of it."

Towering over his students, with unparalleled stature and grace, Hall may appear intimidating. But those lucky enough to have been part of his story know that he is much more than a fierce commander of the studio—he is made up almost entirely of heart.


Chicago Roots

Born in Chicago in 1949, Hall began training under Ed Parish in 1968. In 1974, he co-founded the Chicago City Theatre Company, which would later become the Joel Hall Dancers & Center. His mission was one of inclusivity, vowing to never turn down instruction to anyone based on age, sexual orientation, gender, race, economic background, body type or ability. That mission remains today.

At 68, Hall now teaches one day a week and focuses the rest of his time on running the school and its three companies—The Joel Hall Dancers, JHDII and the JHDYC.

He's fearlessly led the school and affiliated company on a sometimes rocky ride, through high points like being onstage at The Joyce Theater in New York City in the 1980s, and a low when fire destroyed his studio in 1993.

"Joel's style becomes a native tongue," says Jacqueline Sinclair, assistant artistic director. "No matter where a dancer goes after this, they will always have a Joel Hall accent." Photo by Jennifer Girard, courtesy of Joel Hall Dance Center

Though Hall's reputation extends far beyond Chicago (his company has toured internationally and he's taught throughout the U.S.), it's locally that he's most revered. The Chicago City Council recognized November 21, 2015, as "Joel Hall Day" in honor of his organization's 40th anniversary. And in 2016, the corner of Clark Street and Thorndale Avenue was permanently designated "Honorary Joel Hall Way."

Known for giving back generously to his community, most recently he worked with the Center on Halsted and After School Matters to create a program for LGBT homeless youth.

Studio Family

In 2009, when the recession hit, Hall moved his studio for the third time. Since then, funding has continued to be sparse and visibility low. Hall, irrepressibly upbeat, calls it a regrouping phase. A few years ago, he tried a new business model where he placed administrative operations in the hands of his dancers.

"It's important that dancers learn the business of dance," he says. "I want to train to lead instead of training to just follow a step. They're invested in this company, and they see that, while we may not be getting the grants we used to, we're still making great art."

"He's gone through a lot of adversity, but he has a fire within him, and he has always prevailed," says Nan Giordano of Giordano Dance Chicago.

Hall formed his company in 1974. Photo by Robert W. Czeschin, courtesy of Joel Hall Dance Center

Many dancers have been with the company or school for decades. Others have gone on to performance or teaching careers, yet still return for the occasional class. Regardless of where dancers land, they are drawn back to Hall like parishioners returning to their parish. And Hall says his greatest point of pride is seeing the way his dancers grow and change with time.

"Here, we all speak jazz," says Jacqueline Sinclair, JHD assistant artistic director, who has been with the company for almost 30 years. "For the dancers here, Joel's style becomes a native tongue. No matter where they go after this, they will always have a Joel Hall accent."

A Way of Life

It's Saturday morning and the Joel Hall family is out in full force at Hall's community jazz class—a tradition that goes back decades.

"It includes people from all walks of life," says Jarrett Rashad, a professional dancer and choreographer who started training with Hall at 11. "Jazz dancers and Joffrey dancers, lawyers, doctors and strippers. Everyone feels Joel's energy pulsing along with the house music—and he's doing the steps full-out to the point that his glasses fling off his face."

Hall calls this "urban jazz," which highlights both the technique and the social aspect of the jazz vernacular. "Jazz is our history," he says. "Things rooted in the black community tend to be confiscated or diminished. However, I'm not going to let that happen as long as I'm around. Jazz classes today don't even teach a warm-up; they just start dancing. But my students aren't just learning choreography; they're really studying dance."

Hall is now beginning to codify his technique—complete with a teacher certification program. Step one is "Waiting to Exhale," a five-day summer intensive focused on Hall's legendary technique class, with a final day dedicated to pedagogy, class structure and his choreographic method.

"I call it 'America the Beautiful,'" says Hall about a photo of his dancers that hangs in his office. "The way it seems to shift and change, and how different they each are." Photo courtesy of Joel Hall Dance Center

But of course, Hall is teaching much more than technique. He often interrupts classes to deliver monologues, more like sermons, that leave dancers feeling inspired and ready for more. Through his lessons on history and culture, students realize they are learning a way of life.

"A lot of teachers put up walls to avoid getting too close to students, but I knew that he cared about me personally," says former student Morgan "Mo" Williams, a dance educator at Studio One Dance Company in Wisconsin. "He wasn't just about creating fierce dancers, but about helping us know ourselves. When I got in trouble at school, he would sit me down and say, 'Here's what you're going to do next.' He gives back to his students, and there's no one like him."

On a wall of Hall's office hangs an homage to his dancers—a large photo taken earlier this year. The dancers are draped over one another, their limbs intertwined, their heads supported by one another's bodies. "I call it 'America the Beautiful,'" he says, gazing at it longingly. "Because isn't it beautiful? The way it seems to shift and change, and how different they each are. That's what we as people are supposed to look like. They are the real world to me. And they are lovely."

Dance Teacher Tips
Photo by Jayme Thornton for Dance Magazine

When choosing music for tap, Jason Samuels Smith encourages teachers to start with classic jazz music. Improvisation, call and response, and syncopated rhythms embedded in the genre and its history, in general, help students to understand the structure of tap, which is different than other styles of dance. "Tap dancers have the responsibility to be more than just a visual artist," he says. "They're an instrument and a sound."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Turn It Up Dance Challenge
Courtesy Turn It Up

With back-to-back classes, early-morning stage calls and remembering to pack countless costume accessories, competition and convention weekends can feel like a whirlwind for even the most seasoned of studios. Take the advice of Turn It Up Dance Challenge master teachers Alex Wong and Maud Arnold and president Melissa Burns on how to make the experience feel meaningful and successful for your dancers:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Summit
Photo by Sarah Ash, courtesy of Larkin Dance

Ask Michele Larkin-Wagner and Molly Larkin-Symanietz what sets them and Maplewood, Minnesota–based Larkin Dance Studio apart, and they immediately give the credit to their mom. Shirley Larkin founded the school in 1950 and continued to oversee the growing business until she passed away in 2011. "She put Minnesota on the map for dance training and made other local studios step up to the plate to become as strong as we are," Michele says. "A lot of people's lives are better because of Shirley Larkin."

For Michele and Molly, following in their mom's footsteps was a no-brainer. "I knew I was going to be a choreographer and take over the studio," Michele says. To Molly, seven years Michele's junior and the baby out of six siblings, the studio was always a second home. The two sisters trained across genres but had distinct specialties: Michele found her niche in jazz, musical theater and lyrical, while Molly excelled in tap. In the summers, they'd travel for workshops in Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles. While Michele was in class with jazz legends like Gus Giordano, JoJo Smith, Luigi and Frank Hatchett, Molly was taking tap classes with the likes of Brenda Bufalino and Phil Black.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by The Studio Director

As a studio owner, you're probably pretty used to juggling. Running a business is demanding, with new questions and challenges pulling your attention in a million different directions each day.

But there's a solution that could be saving you time and money (and sanity!). Studio management systems are easy-to-use software programs designed for the particular needs of studio owners, offering tools like billing, enrollment, inventory and emails, all in one place. The right studio management system can help you handle the day-to-day tasks that bog you down as a business owner, leaving you more time for the most important work—like connecting with students and planning creative curriculums for them. Plus, these systems can keep you from spending extra money on hiring multiple specialists or using multiple platforms to meet your administrative needs.

So how do you make sure you're choosing a studio management system that offers the same quality that your studio does? We talked to The Studio Director—whose studio management system provides a whole host of streamlined features—about the must-haves for any system, and the bonuses that make an excellent product stand out:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Summit
Photo courtesy of Gandarillas

In Macarena Gandarillas' jazz class at California State University, Fullerton, a sign in the studio reads, "Never underestimate the power of determination." This simple mantra embodies what has made this self-described "danceaholic" such an impactful teacher.

When Gandarillas came to Los Angeles at age 6 with her family from Santiago, Chile, the language barrier was beyond overwhelming—until her mom enrolled her in ballet classes. Gandarillas found an instant love. "There were no Spanish-speaking kids at my school," she says. "But with dance I could communicate with my body. I'd finally found my voice."

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
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Q: Is teaching for an after-school program a good way to find a job in K–12?

Keep reading... Show less
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
Dance Teacher Summit
Photo courtesy of Inspire School of Arts and Sciences

It was the morning of November 8, 2018, and Jarrah Myles' first-period choreography students were in last-minute rehearsals for their fall dance concert that evening. "All of a sudden my students' phones started ringing like crazy," says Myles, a teacher at Inspire School of Arts and Sciences, a Chico, California, high school whose dance and theater programs Myles helped establish in 2010. "And once they answered, I saw these tragic faces staring back at me."

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network

abezikus/Getty Images

"Dancers can do everything these days," I announced to whoever was in earshot at the Jacob's Pillow Archives during a recent summer. I had just been dazzled by footage of a ballet dancer performing hip hop, remarkably well. But my very next thought was, What if that isn't always a good thing? What if what one can't do is the very thing that lends character?

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Courtney Schwartz and Jake Mcauley perform a Talia Favia combination at Radix Dance Convention Nationals. Via Instagram

Summer intensives and Nationals make June, July and August some of the richest dance-video months of the year. There is so much fabulous content out there, we can hardly contain our excitement!

We have spent hours down the rabbit hole of class videos this week and thought you should see some of our favorite findings.

Enjoy!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Summit
Photo courtesy of Infinite Flow

While taking class in 2006, Marisa Hamamoto felt a tingling sensation in her elbows, then suddenly collapsed to the floor. She was hospitalized and diagnosed with spinal cord infarction, a rare spinal stroke that left her paralyzed from the neck down. Despite being told by her doctor that she may never walk again, let alone dance, Hamamoto miraculously walked out of the hospital two months later.

Since her stroke, Hamamoto has found a new lease on life. She has channeled her indomitable will to overcome adversity into a dance company that marries her love of ballroom dance with her passion for social activism. Los Angeles–based Infinite Flow is the first professional wheelchair ballroom dance company in the U.S. Over the past four years it has become a torchbearer for social change, performing worldwide and offering workshops and school assemblies to educate audiences about accessibility and inclusion.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox