Joel Hall’s advanced/professional jazz class sounds like a nightclub. Never mind that it’s only 11 am. Thumping house music blasts from the speakers, and Hall’s voice shouts above it, “Work!” and “Yes!” His always crowded class begins with a nonstop floor barre, leading into center combinations full of attitude in Hall’s signature Urban Jazz style. And his class wouldn’t be complete without walking it off with sassy jazz walks across the floor.
“True jazz dance has diminished during the past decade and moved more toward contemporary,” says Hall. “But, jazz is alive and well here. There are us old-schoolers who try to maintain a semblance of the past. I’m going to keep it up because jazz is an important part of American culture.”
Hall founded his company, the Joel Hall Dancers, in 1974, and the Joel Hall Dancers & Center on the north side of Chicago is one of the biggest in the Windy City, offering all-age classes that range from jazz to ballet to modern to hip hop. Hall himself sticks to jazz, teaching teenagers and adults only—he feels they benefit most from his challenging style.
To keep his students’ energy up, Hall likes to download house music in free or inexpensive iTunes podcasts. Or he’ll use GarageBand on his computer to compose his own layered tracks. “You may very well hear pieces in my class that are house music wrapped around jazz, African or even an Irish jig,” he says. “It’s very urban and multicultural. It’s like everybody’s in the soup and we get minestrone.” Here, Hall shares some of his favorite ingredients.
Artist: Frankie Knuckles
Frankie Knuckles, like Hall, is from Chicago, the birthplace of the electronic house music style. And in his classes Hall turns to Knuckles more than any other artist. “I’m very inspired by Frankie’s music,” he says. “The late ’80s/early ’90s was an exciting period for me, when house was really the edge of music.”
Artist: Freddie Bain
Hall uses Bain, another house DJ, to break up class and keep the excitement alive during a long, sometimes painful warm-up. “Freddie’s music is club-like,” Hall says. “He’ll throw some stuff in there out of the blue that will just blow your hair back.”
Artist: Antonio Vivaldi
Hall rarely strays far from his beloved house music, but he does mix other genres in with his favorites. “I layer my music so that I can tell a complete story,” he says. “And I’ve been playing around a lot with the fusion of classical music and house.” This juxtaposition gives his students an ear for layering and musicality while mixing the old with the new.
Artist: Shirley Horne
“I’d suggest that teachers listen to old-school jazz music to get an idea of jazz’s history,” says Hall. “My students and I can all listen to the same piece of Horne’s music but hear something different.” Songs with texture like this are perfect for improvisation sections of class. Each student can dance to the part of the music that stands out for them.
Multicultural music brings Hall back to his urban roots, and he introduces his students to different parts of the world. “Kodo is a Japanese group who I’ve been really inspired by,” he says. “I’m trying to become more global with my music choices. It keeps things fresh.”
Photo by Jennifer Girard, courtesy of Joel Hall Dancers & Center