Nijawwon Matthews: How I Teach Contemporary Jazz

Photo by Kyle Froman

With serpentine fluidity, Nijawwon Matthews gives his intermediate contemporary jazz class at New York City's Broadway Dance Center a rundown of his warm-up sequence. His spinal undulations, spider-like finger articulations and seemingly infinite wingspan transform a relatively standard array of pliés, roll-downs, head rolls and stretches into something soulful. "Warming up is like being in a meditative state of mind," he says. "You're working from an internal place out to the external."

His teen and adult students love the way his class gets them to move—full-bodied and dynamic, transitioning swiftly between spatial levels and textures. But his style is more than just the dramatic phrasing and flashy moves typical of contemporary choreography. At its core is a rock-solid ballet foundation—tendus, piqués and a particularly arduous sustained relevé combination are essential components of his warm-up—and influences as varied as modern, classic jazz and hip hop. During dégagés in second position, he brings the dancers' awareness to healthy alignment. "We've got to work from an honest place," says Matthews, "and for most of us, that's on the diagonal."

When it's time to move through the space, Matthews directs the class to improvise across the floor while thinking about undulation, spirals and circulation. “It's about using the whole body," he says, as the dancers dive, slide, roll, twist and turn. After everyone has completed one pass, he offers valuable feedback: “You have to emotionally connect to the music," he says. “Get lost in it." His students are eager to impress, but Matthews encourages them to dance for themselves. “Don't look to me for approval. Explore what you do as an artist," he says.

Matthews constantly moves around the room, watching the class and cueing his students. “Open the heart. Feel that power. Beautiful dancers!" he offers with an energy and enthusiasm that he hopes will rub off on his students. Later, as they casually shuffle onto the floor to perform the center combination in groups, he issues a verbal wake-up call. “If you come on like you need a cup of coffee, you're going to dance like that. However, if you come on like this…" he says, as he bounds onto the floor with a spring in his step. The dancers clearly get the message; the energy in the room dials up several notches.

As the class gears up for a final round of the combination, Matthews provides some final words of wisdom about confidence. “Make a decision and stick to it," he tells the class. “That's what's going to transform your life."

Nijawwon Matthews, 30, trained as a gymnast and in jiujitsu before beginning his dance training at age 16 in ballet, jazz, modern and hip hop at Absolute Dance in Auburn, New York. He has performed with companies across the country, including Philadanco, Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble and Deeply Rooted Dance Theater. In addition to teaching at Broadway Dance Center, he is currently a resident teacher and choreographer at the Joffrey Ballet School in New York City and has taught at Steps on Broadway, Peridance Capezio Center and Harlem School of the Arts. Matthews performs, choreographs and directs his own company, XY Dance Project.

Brooklyn Bass is a dancer with XY Dance Project.

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