Music for Class: Setting Dancers Free

Erica Sobol characterizes her modern fusion classes at the EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles as “out-of-the-box contemporary.” Her combinations don’t include high extensions or perfectly turned-out positions. Instead, they are raw, breaking dancers down to nothing but pure emotion, throwing their bodies and truly internalizing the music.

“I’ve had beautiful, technical dancers walk in the room who had never really expressed themselves in a way that felt organic and real,” says Sobol. “My great hope is to set those people free.”

Sobol is also founder and artistic director of collidEdance Company, which was founded in NYC in 2004 but moved to L.A. with Sobol at the helm in 2007. The company now has about 30 performers who are dedicated to her mission of blurring the line between theater and dance. With a BA in dance-theater from Barnard College, Sobol began her professional dance training at Broadway Dance Center in New York City, where she was inspired by hip-hop teachers like Kevin Maher and Rhapsody James. Eventually she transferred everything they taught to her own unique contemporary style.

“Like hip hop, my movement is very soulful and not at all pulled up,” she says. “Everything sort of drops down through your center to really connect to the floor. It’s pedestrian,

human movement.”

She also credits her hip-hop mentors with instilling in her a sense of musicality, and she tries to use contemporary music in similar ways, really listening to and embodying its lyrics and beats. DT

Artist: Matt Duke

Album/Song: Kingdom Underground, “Rabbit”

“Matt’s voice is haunting and his lyrics are sort of magical and odd. Since a lot of people don’t really know who he is, it’s a cool surprise for them to really connect to his music. I use ‘Rabbit’ a lot for meditation at the beginning of class, when I allow everyone to lie on the ground, close their eyes, feel the floor and listen to the music. It brings their bodies and their hearts into the room.”

 

Artist: Ingrid Michaelson

Album: Everybody

“There’s something about Ingrid Michaelson’s work and my work that marries well. Her songs are cheeky but sensual, wounded but strong. I do a lot of improvisation to her music. It fills me up, and all I want to do is overflow with all of my ideas and all of my movement.”

 

 

Artist: Jason Mraz

Album/Songs: We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things, “Details in the Fabric” and “Butterfly”

“This is a big album, but it’s varied. When I use ‘Details in the Fabric’ in my warm-up, people just melt right into the floor because it’s so beautiful. Conversely, ‘Butterfly’ is extremely sexy, upbeat and funny. So, no matter what the mood is for my combination, a warm-up or even a meditation, I can always find something on that album to play.”

 

 

Artist: Ani DiFranco

Album: Living in Clip

“Ani DiFranco’s lyrics are unexpected and poetic without being cheesy. Her music allows me to be unapologetically pedestrian. A lot of my movement is extremely based on her lyrics. If not literally, it’s all about referring to what the song is speaking about.”

 

 

Artist: Dave Matthews Band

Album: Before these Crowded Streets

“This album is dreamy and fantastical. I use it a lot, especially if I want to spend a little extra time warming up. The songs are long but never boring. It allows people to just get lost in the room, in their bodies and in the music.”

 

 

Artist: Björk

Albums/Songs: Vespertine, “Pagan Poetry” and “Cocoon”; and Homogenic, “Unravel”

“For wildly different reasons and in completely different ways, all three of these songs really shift people’s energy: ‘Cocoon’ in a sexy, warm way, ‘Pagan Poetry’ in a wrenching, awful way and ‘Unravel’ in an offbeat, sad way. People are always completely moved by Björk’s music. It’s literally like she lifts them up and plops them down somewhere else.”

 

Watch Erica Sobol's students showing off her unique contemporary choreography:

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Photo by Leo Lam, courtesy of Erica Sobol.

News
Courtesy Russell

Gregg Russell, an Emmy-nominated choreographer known for his passionate and energetic teaching, passed away unexpectedly on Sunday, November 22, at the age of 48.

While perhaps most revered as a master tap instructor and performer, Russell also frequently taught hip-hop and musical theater classes, showcasing a versatility that secured him a successful career onstage and in film and television, both nationally and abroad.


His resumé reads like an encyclopedia of popular culture. Russell worked with celebrities such as Bette Midler and Gene Kelly; coached pop icon Michael Jackson and Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane; danced in the classic films Clueless and Newsies; performed on "Dancing with the Stars" and the Latin Grammy Awards; choreographed for Sprite and Carvel Ice Cream; appeared with music icons Reba McEntire and Jason Mraz; and graced stages from coast to coast, including Los Angeles' House of Blues and New York City's Madison Square Garden.

But it was as an educator that Russell arguably found his calling. His infectious humor, welcoming aura and inspirational pedagogy made him a favorite at studios, conventions and festivals across the U.S. and in such countries as Australia, France, Honduras and Guatemala. Even students with a predilection for classical styles who weren't always enthused about studying a percussive form would leave Russell's classes grinning from ear to ear.

"Gregg understood from a young age how to teach tap and hip hop with innovation, energy and confidence," says longtime dance educator and producer Rhee Gold, who frequently hired Russell for conferences and workshops. "He gave so much in every class. There was nothing I ever did that I didn't think Gregg would be perfect for."

Growing up in Wooster, Ohio, Russell was an avid tap dancer and long-distance runner who eventually told his mother, a dance teacher, that he wanted to exclusively pursue dance. She introduced him to master teachers Judy Ann Bassing, Debbi Dee and Henry LeTang, whom he credited as his three greatest influences.

"I was instantly smitten, though competitive with him," says longtime friend and fellow choreographer Shea Sullivan, a protégé of LeTang. "Over the years we developed a mutual respect and admiration for each other. He touched so many lives. This is a great loss."

After graduating from Wooster High School, Russell was a scholarship student at Edge Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles, where he lived for many years. He founded a company, Tap Sounds Underground, taught at California Dance Theatre and even returned to Edge as an instructor, all while maintaining a busy travel schedule.

A beloved member of the tap community, Russell not only spoke highly of his contemporaries, but earned his place among them as a celebrated performing artist and teacher. With friend Ryan Lohoff, with whom he appeared on CBS's "Live to Dance," he co-directed Tap Into The Network, a touring tap intensive founded in 2008.

"His humor, giant smile and energy in his eyes are the things I will remember most," says Lohoff. "He inspired audiences and multiple generations of dancers. I am grateful for our time together."

Russell was on the faculty of numerous dance conventions, such as Co. Dance and, more recently, Artists Simply Human. He was known as a "teacher's teacher," having discovered at the young age of 18 that he enjoyed passing on his knowledge to other dance educators. He wrote tap teaching tips for Dance Studio Life magazine and led classes for fellow instructors whenever he was on tour.

In 2018, he opened a dance studio, 3D Dance, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he had been living most recently.

Russell leaves behind a wife, Tessa, and a 5-year-old daughter, Lucy.


"His success was his family and his daughter," says Gold. "They changed his entire being. He was a happy man."

GoFundMe campaigns to support Russell's family can be found here and here.

Teaching Tips
@jayplayimagery, courtesy Blackstone

Zoom classes have created a host of challenges to overcome, but this new way of learning has also had some surprising perks. Students and educators are becoming more adaptable. Creativity is blossoming even amid space constraints. Dancers have been able to broaden their horizons without ever leaving home.

In short, in a year filled with setbacks, there is still a lot to celebrate. Dance Teacher spoke to four teachers about the virtual victories they've seen thus far and how they hope to keep the momentum going back in the classroom.

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News
Betty Jones in The Moor's Pavane, shot for Dance Magazine's "Dancers You Should Know" series in 1955. Zachary Freyman, Courtesy Jacob's Pillow

An anchor of the Humphrey-Limón legacy for more than 70 years, Betty Jones died at her home in Honolulu on November 17, 2020. She remained active well into her 90s, most recently leading a New York workshop with her husband and partner, Fritz Ludin, in October 2019.

Betty May Jones was born on June 11, 1926 in Meadville, Pennsylvania, and moved with her family to the Albany, New York, area, where she began taking dance classes. Just after she turned 15 in 1941, she began serious ballet study at Jacob's Pillow, which was under the direction of Anton Dolin and Alicia Markova for the season. Over the next three summers as a scholarship student, Jones expanded her range and became an integral part of Jacob's Pillow. Among her duties was working in the kitchen, where her speedy efficiency earned her the nickname of "Lightning."

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