Music for Class: Straight to Stardom

Gail Benedict in Bob Fosse's Dancin'

Gail Benedict has spent a good part of her life on the Broadway stage, but, for the past 16 years, she’s settled in a place far from the Great White Way: Louisville, Kentucky, where she teaches dance and musical theater at the Youth Performing Arts High School. Despite the city’s small size, she says, this school has a lot of talent: “These kids aren’t just dabbling in the arts. They want to be in class because they have a dream and a real passion.”

As Peggy Sawyer in 42nd Street

 

As Sheila in A Chorus Line

Benedict began her professional career as assistant to choreographer Donald McKayle in Dr. Jazz. She then played principal roles in A Chorus Line, Me and My Girl, Raggedy Ann, 42nd Street, Pal Joey and Finian’s Rainbow, among others. And, in Bob Fosse’s Dancin’, she not only danced in the original Broadway cast, but directed multiple national and international touring productions.

Now, her classes at YPAS incorporate every style she’s come in contact with during her time onstage: ballet, modern, jazz, tap and theater dance (as well as humanities and dance history). And, in her limited spare time, she is finishing a doctoral degree in creative psychology and writing musicals of her own.

 

“The thing that I learned from those 22 years in New York, and that I now teach my students, is the absolute, 100 percent bust-your-butt-everyday work ethic,” she says. “That kind of commitment is required from everyone, because there’s no such thing as a chorus dancer anymore. Everybody’s a principal.”

 

 

Artist: The Pussycat Dolls

Album: Doll Domination

“I’ve recently started using music produced by alumni of YPAS, like Nicole Scherzinger, who’s the lead singer of The Pussycat Dolls. I use her music (the appropriate ones) in my jazz class, not only because it works well in dance class, but because it’s also a way of telling the kids, ‘Maybe in 20 years, if you work as hard as Nicole did when she was here, this will be you on a recording.’”

 

 

Artist: Mosaic

Albums: Mosaic and Will Sing for Food

“Corwyn Hodge, another YPAS alum, had an a cappella singing group called Mosaic. There are no instruments in their songs, just six gorgeous voices that sing pop music and opera. I use Will Sing for Food practically every day for my jazz warm-up. And, their first CD, Mosaic, is wonderful, too. They just have great, funky, jazzy grooves.”

 

 

Artist: Chaka Khan

Album: I’m Every Woman: The Best of Chaka Khan

“I use Chaka Khan for my jazz warm-up and isolations. The songs are long enough to do a real warm-up, because they go on for four or five minutes. It has a sustained energy but with breaks or twists that are very useful. It’s almost like having a percussionist in the room.”

 

 

 

Artist: Brave Combo

Album: No No No Cha Cha Cha

“Brave Combo is a weird zydeco kind of band, and they are so cool. I use this for going across the floor or for funky Latin or jazz. They’re also great if I’m teaching rumba, cha cha or mambo. It’s fun music because the lyrics are silly, and the sound is melodic.”

 

 

 

Artist: Eurythmics

Album: Eurythmics–Greatest Hits

“I love the Eurythmics. I still use the old classic hits like ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),’ because they’re just wonderful for doing Jack Cole jazz runs and big moving things across the floor. It’s the stuff I danced to back in the ’80s, so it’s retro.”

 

 

 

Artist: Frank Sinatra

Album: It Might As Well Be Swing

“My number one rule for music is that it has to swing. And there’s nothing like the kind of orchestral meat, dynamic and structure that an old swing song will give you. I just choreographed a big dance for my advanced kids to ‘Fly Me to the Moon.’ Sinatra lights that song up, and it just makes you want to dance.”

 

 

 

Photo of 42nd Street by Martha Swope; all courtesy of Gail Benedict

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"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

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