When dancers walk into their first rehearsal for The Ensemble, they're rarely happy to be there. After all, membership in this company was probably not their first choice. You see, The Ensemble is made up of dancers at Center Stage Dance & Theatre School who don't make the cut for the elite senior team. At first, these students, many of whom have been training at the East Brunswick, New Jersey, studio since they were little, view membership in The Ensemble as a sort of consolation prize. But thanks to Jason Warley, they don't see it that way for long.
“These are the kids who would fall by the wayside at another studio," says Warley, who has directed The Ensemble since its inception 15 years ago. “They'd say, 'I can't be on the team? I'll go somewhere else with a team I can be on.' But in my program, I don't lose people." With a fine-tuned blend of technique and performance, plus a healthy dose of fun, Warley has turned The Ensemble into a company any kid would feel lucky to be a part of. “They may come in unhappy," he says, “but I have confidence that I can turn this experience into something they're excited about."
Warley didn't always know he wanted to be a dance educator. When he graduated from Lehman College, he planned to pursue a performance career in New York City. Then he met Frank Hatchett. “I remember observing the way he taught class, and there was so much passion and joy," says Warley, who went on to assist Hatchett in class and at conventions for several years. “Dancers walked out of his class changed. Seeing that magic drew me to dance education."
Still, Warley danced with Peter Pucci Plus Dancers and did some commercial work while finding his way to Center Stage. He signed on to teach jazz one day a week as a way to supplement his performance income. But Center Stage's artistic director George Warren saw something special in him and asked him to increase his time commitment. “Jason had such a love of kids, plus this amazing technical talent," Warren says. “But, most important, he had the humor and personality that allows kids to continue the joy they had in their junior years of dancing."
Warren offered Warley an important role—to develop a program for those kids who weren't up for the technical demands or the time commitment of the senior company. It didn't take much convincing. Warley took on the challenge with gusto, and The Ensemble (originally called The Jazz Cats) was born.
He began to spend three to four days a week at the studio, running rehearsals and teaching technique classes. And over the years, his creative ideas have consistently transformed groups of not-quite-there-yet kids into happy, confident dancers who quickly improve. After a few years in The Ensemble, they often end up making it into the elite team, but Warley says that's not the goal. In fact, some choose to stay in The Ensemble even after being accepted to the more advanced team. Given the opportunities The Ensemble grants them, it's no wonder they want to stick around.
For starters, Warley schedules two or three trips to NYC every year exclusively for The Ensemble. In the early years, he'd take them to Broadway Dance Center for professional classes with those he'd previously trained with—Hatchett, Sheila Barker and Kat Wildish, for example. On recent trips, he's rented a studio in the city and hired instructors to teach private master classes. Afterward, the group might catch a matinee before heading back to New Jersey—Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater or a Broadway show. (On their last trip, they saw Newsies.)
He also puts on an annual student choreography showcase, where Ensemble dancers perform solos they've choreographed. Warley points out that, while The Ensemble attends a limited number of regional competitions, this extra performance opportunity is a way to remove any shadow that might be cast by the elite team.
“When their focus isn't necessarily on competition, I see them grow more as people," he says. “When they compete, they do get a platinum here and there, but when they don't win, I don't see disappointment. They're really just happy to be dancing. I think that shows that the program works."
Warley makes sure to reward the dancers' hard work in the studio—often in an off-the-wall way, like with an impromptu Halloween party. And every Ensemble dancer is a winner at his annual Biscuit Awards. He acts as emcee for the Oscars-like exclusive dress-up event and hands out fun prizes like “The Pirouette Princess Award" for the best turner, or “The Walking Diva Award" for the dancer with the best jazz walks. “It's the silliest thing, but the dancers look forward to it all year," he says. “And to this day, alumni from years ago will come back for it."
After graduation, Ensemble dancers generally dance in college, but most don't go on to dance professionally. Even so, their allegiance to The Ensemble runs deep. “My friends from Center Stage and I are always reminiscing about the great times we had, and we still miss Jason's technique classes," says Aziza Gazieva, one of Warley's first Ensemble students, who is now an analyst at a bank. “Those years with The Ensemble were crucial for me. I didn't have the best turns or the best leaps, but Jason pulled something out of me that no other teacher was able to. He taught me confidence." Gazieva has rarely missed a Biscuit Awards ceremony.
Warley has made his mark on countless students—but this year's group may be his last. With only 13 members, the current Ensemble is smaller than usual (the team has been as big as 25), so he's taking the opportunity to focus on another venture, Man In Motion, a network of 40 male dance instructors and choreographers he formed in 2012 as a resource for studios. “When I travel for workshops and master classes, there's often just one boy in class, and I've had many studio owners say, 'It's great that he finally gets to dance with a male teacher,'" says Warley.
Meanwhile at Center Stage, faculty member Danielle Mondi is shadowing Warley to eventually take charge of The Ensemble, along with Victoria Moots. The three are documenting the curriculum, and Warley plans to remain involved as a consultant. “Jason has made The Ensemble such a joyful place, and he'll always be its guardian angel," says Warren. “Wherever life takes Jason, his work with The Ensemble will live on."