Technique

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.

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

Keep reading... Show less
Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.