How I teach lyrical jazz

The beginning of Suzi Taylor’s lyrical jazz class closely resembles a ballet barre—except there isn’t a physical barre to cling to and there aren’t pauses for rest between exercises. It’s a strenuous, nonstop warm-up packed with all the tools of classical technique: pliés with port de bras, rond de jambe en l’air and fondu. At one point, Taylor, sweaty from leading the class full-out, runs around the room to shape students’ feet as they balance in sur le cou-de-pied. It isn’t until an hour in that the dancers get to take on her choreography full of expansive shapes and gooey transitions.

Technicians like Taylor are rare in today’s choreography-obsessed industry, where classes outside the codified forms quite rarely reach beyond the stretch-and-learn-a-combo equation. “Style has become a technique and it drives me crazy,” says Taylor, who teaches with New York City Dance Alliance and at Steps on Broadway. “You almost have to threaten kids to take ballet these days.”

When she first moved to New York, the term lyrical, a subset of jazz, was just becoming a brand. The style budded in California, where Taylor studied under Doug Caldwell, one of lyrical’s early teachers. And though many stamp her class with the label, Taylor doesn’t often use it herself. “When they decided to name it lyrical, I was like, ‘What the heck is that?’” she says. “I always found that a weird thing to call it. Sure, I use music with lyrics sometimes, but often I don’t. What really got people interested in my class was the floorwork and exploring movement that was familiar, but not necessarily ‘big and jazzy.’”

Taylor says she understands that since then, dance trends and training have shifted—e.g. the often indefinable style of contemporary has become a mainstream favorite. “There’s some beautiful contemporary work happening professionally that I really admire, but I worry when young dancers attempt it and don’t understand where the movements are coming from. It takes them out of the process of training, and that’s not doing much to prepare them for their professional life.”

This fall, Taylor became an adjunct professor at Pace University’s commercial BFA program. And while she loves the vibrant communities at Steps and NYCDA, she’s excited to work with students at a different stage in their dancing. “It’s hard to find a consistency of people who want to train,” she says. “I’m a teacher, and I like this work because I want to see the changes that happen with them.”

Suzi Taylor trained in Southern California with Douglas Caldwell, Jaime Rogers and Philip and Charles Fuller before moving to New York City. There, she studied at The Ailey School and with Doug Wassel, David Howard and Finis Jhung. She has been teaching at Steps on Broadway for 25 years and is a founding teacher at New York City Dance Alliance. In fall 2013, she joined the dance faculty at Pace University.

Rachel Kreiling trained with Abby Lee Miller in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Under Taylor’s mentorship, she began assisting at New York City Dance Alliance and, in 2008, joined its touring and summer intensive faculty. She also teaches at Onstage New York. Kreiling has danced in Rasta Thomas’ Rock the Ballet and currently dances with Alison Chase Performance.

Photography by Matthew Murphy

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