Trending

What It's Like to Take Class From Judith Jamison

Judith Jamison celebrating Alvin Ailey. Photo by Tiba Vieira, courtesy of Ailey Extension

When you're offered a chance to take a class with Judith Jamison, you don't say no.

The company's beloved artistic director emerita rarely teaches open classes. But to celebrate the legacy of Alvin Ailey on what would have been his 87th birthday, she gave a special two-hour workshop at the Ailey Extension on Friday night. I had to try it, even though I was desperately hoping that she wouldn't make us do any Horton coccyx balances. (Spoiler alert: She did.)

So what's it like to take class with the larger-than-life icon?


She's Serious About Honoring Our Elders

In addition to teaching the class snippets of phrases from Ailey's Revelations, Jamison gave us combinations that drew on other historic choreographers who contributed to the company, like Talley Beatty and Pearl Primus. She'd infuse her directions with a bit of dance history, without ever slowing down the pace of class—after asking if everyone knew who Primus was, to anyone who said no, she saucily responded, "Google it."

Jamison taught a triplet exercise she learned from Pearl Primus. Photo by Tiba Vieira


She Treats Everyone in the Room Equally

The all-levels workshop included former Ailey star Renee Robinson and dancers from Ailey II working right alongside novices in their 50s and energetic kids so flexible that they could fool you into thinking they had no hamstrings. Jamison approached every student equally. She offered corrections for anyone on the Marley who wanted to learn. Without talking down to those with less experience, she made sure that everyone was pushing for their own version of excellence.

Jamison corrected anyone she saw trying hard. Photo by Tiba Viera


She Highlights The Power of Strength in Simplicity

For being director emerita of a company as slick and virtuosic as Ailey, it surprised me that many of Jamison's notes had to do with simplifying movement down to its basics. Hand gestures were not to be "too lace-y," torso undulations had nothing to do with the shoulders. Jamison was looking for a straightforward presentation that connected to the audience, with genuine intention and eye contact.

Gestures were to be as straightforward as possible, with nothing extra. Photo by Tiba Viera


She Taught Us That the Sacred Can Get Something Out of the Secular

Although we learned phrases from Revelations, instead of playing the iconic gospel score, Jamison had us practice the movements to funk hits to help us loosen up and capture the grooviness of the movement. It worked.

Jamison demonstrates how to groove. Photo by Tiba Viera


She Has a Reverential Love of Dancers

Throughout the class, Jamison gave careful attention to how all the students were feeling, pausing at one point when a dancer's calf cramped up. She treated even the least experienced physiques with the utmost respect. It made sense later when, during a Q&A, someone asked her about the electric response audiences have to company performances:

"It's about identification with the dancers, and Alvin's appreciation of those dancers," she said. "To him, dancers were gold. They're a treasure. He saw rehearsal as a sacred space, and the stage was a sacred space to share with the audience."

And for all of her many accomplishments, what she professed to be the "greatest joy" in her life was not building on Alvin's legacy, running the Ailey company, or debuting works like Cry. It's passing those works on to other dancers.

Ailey II dancer Khalia Campbell demonstrates during Judith Jamison Workshop Celebrating Alvin Ailey. Photo by Tiba Vieira
Teacher Voices
Getty Images

In 2001, young Chanel, a determined, ambitious, fiery, headstrong teenager, was about to begin her sophomore year at LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, also known as the highly acclaimed "Fame" school. I was a great student, a promising young dancer and well-liked by my teachers and my peers. On paper, everything seemed in order. In reality, this picture-perfect image was fractured. There was a crack that I've attempted to hide, cover up and bury for nearly 20 years.

Keep reading... Show less
Health & Body
Getty Images

Though the #MeToo movement has spurred many dancers to come forward with their stories of sexual harassment and abuse, the dance world has yet to have a full reckoning on the subject. Few institutions have made true cultural changes, and many alleged predators continue to work in the industry.

As Chanel DaSilva's story shows, young dancers are particularly vulnerable to abuse because of the power differential between teacher and student. We spoke with eight experts in dance, education and psychology about steps that dance schools could take to protect their students from sexual abuse.

Keep reading... Show less
Technique
Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.