How Chet Walker Teaches Jack Cole Jazz

Walker, center, with Rosie Lani Fiedelman and Emanuel Abruzzo. Photo by Matthew Murphy at Steps on Broadway in NYC

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Kismet, The Merry Widow—the list goes on. Jack Cole is responsible for musical numbers in many classic movies, but the scope of his legacy goes much farther. He trained artists including Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth and Gwen Verdon, and his revolutionary style influenced scores of choreographers: Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins, Ron Field, Gower Champion and Alvin Ailey. "Mr. Cole brought jazz to the Broadway stage," says Chet Walker, who for the last five years has researched and taught the work of Cole. "He created a look—a technique—and transformed dancers into stars, and stars into megastars."

Cole first made his mark with the Denishawn company and as one of Ted Shawn's Men Dancers. “One of his early teachers was Ruth St. Denis, who did faux-Oriental dancing. But he couldn't stand the fact that he was doing faux anything when you could just learn the actual style," says Walker.


So Cole trained in bharata natyam, and while in New York (working with Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman) also frequently visited the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem to learn the lindy hop. “A friend of his said, 'Why don't you take the Indian work and put it to big band music?' So in an apartment on Madison Avenue is where jazz as we know it today began."

Once Cole moved to Hollywood, he formed a workshop at Columbia Pictures where he developed his own training method in order to prepare his dancers for the choreography in his numbers. Cole's style is an amalgamation of Cecchetti (his early dance training), Denishawn, East Indian, lindy hop and Afro-Cuban movement. “Isolations are a big part of his work. It's low into the floor and totally rhythmic, very musical," says Walker. “You were trained to be able to do anything. You had to be versatile; that's what he demanded of his dancers."

The Cole technique classes that Walker leads (as the director of the jazz and musical theater program at The School at Jacob's Pillow and at Steps on Broadway) start like many modern and jazz classes, with a slow warm-up that focuses on centering the body and stretching. Great emphasis is placed on the hamstrings and psoas muscle with deep lunges, pliés and downward dogs. “So much of his work is in more than plié. If you don't do lunges and stretch, you'll end up tight and hurt."

Cole's dancers moved in and out of the floor constantly, and one step that particularly resonates in his work is a hinge. Here, Walker breaks down a spiral into a hinge, a step that allows dancers to (seemingly) drop to the ground seamlessly.

Chet Walker made his Broadway debut in the first revival of On the Town. He's appeared in musicals including The Pajama Game, Pippin, Dancin' and Sweet Charity on Broadway, and he has directed or choreographed productions of Chicago, 42nd Street, A Chorus Line and Follies (among others). He co-conceived the 1999 Tony Award–winning musical Fosse, for which he re-created Bob Fosse's eminent works. Walker has been the director of the jazz and musical theater summer dance program at The School at Jacob's Pillow for 13 years, and he has taught internationally and as a guest faculty member at Steps on Broadway in NYC. He's the artistic director of the nonprofit musical theater dance company WALKERDANCE, and in May 2012, he remounted Jack Cole's work in Heat Wave: The Jack Cole Project at the Queens Theatre in New York.

Rosie Lani Fiedelman is a member of WALKERDANCE, as well as Jennifer Muller/The Works. She made her Broadway debut in the Tony Award–winning In the Heights in 2008.

Emanuel Abruzzo is on faculty at The School of Jacob's Pillow as assistant to Chet Walker, whom he's worked with for 11 years. Abruzzo has also worked with Les Ballets Grandiva, Compañía Internacional de Teatro Musica and Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo.

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.

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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.

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