Technique: Ray Leeper

How I teach jazz

Convention teacher for more than 20 years and longtime commercial choreographer, Ray Leeper has experienced plenty of choreographic trends, the latest being “contemporary.” A composite of many dance disciplines, contemporary is everywhere, practiced at conventions and popularized by television. And although contemporary classes are often the most coveted by students at conventions, Leeper prefers to stick to strictly jazz when teaching. “A lot of the professional work out there has nothing to do with contemporary,” he says, noting that none of the commercials he’s worked on featured this quirky style. Instead, what students need for successful careers, Leeper says, is an understanding of how fastidious ballet training truly correlates with jazz.

“We all say ad nauseam how important ballet training is,” he says. “But we’re not communicating to the kids exactly why they should be in ballet class, and how it applies to jazz. We need to spell it out for them.” Leeper often highlights a student who performed a phrase well and then discusses with other dancers why his or her movement was so successful. “I ask them, ‘Why are you so engaged in what this person is doing?’” he says. “And when we break it down, they see it’s almost always because that dancer is in control and engaging her technique: She’s holding her core, her rib cage is closed and she’s pulling up, out of her hips.”

Leeper’s classes are structured classically. He starts with a long warm-up of center work that follows the organization of a ballet barre. “It gives everyone a chance to get on their legs and in touch with their bodies,” he says. Then Leeper teaches long across-the-floor combinations that, although containing basic steps, are highly stylized. “In the real world, choreography is mixed with technical aspects,” he says. “At an advanced level, it does no good to just practice piqués across the floor. You’d never do that in a professional setting.” Students are forced to apply the technical concepts they work on at the beginning of class—standing in correct alignment, engaging their inner thighs and keeping their hips and shoulders square.

“Kids will throw themselves into shapes they think look good, instead of thinking about lengthening or making sure their pelvises don’t tilt,” Leeper says. “If you explain stylized movements from a technical base, dancers can look really great. Someone just has to help them connect the dots.”

Here, Leeper and dancer Daniella Cavaleri demonstrate three stylized jazz positions that can be traced back to their ballet roots—second position grand plié, tendu en avant and retiré.

A Los Angeles native, Ray Leeper started dance training after playing the role of The Artful Dodger in an elementary school production of Oliver. At 17, he began seriously studying jazz with Joe Tremaine and just two years later was teaching for Tremaine’s convention. Leeper has also taught for JUMP/Break the Floor and Broadway Dance Center, and he is currently the executive director of NUVO Dance Convention. He credits his comprehensive ballet training to L.A.-based ballet teacher Paula Morgan. Leeper’s off-Broadway and stage credits include the Il Divo World Tour, Franco Dragone’s INDIA and ONE LOVE in Las Vegas and Matthew Morrison’s 2011 promotional tour. He’s choreographed TV shows, including “So You Think You Can Dance” and “The Big Bang Theory,” and commercials for Pepsi and Sierra Mist, and he has worked with Cher and Elton John.

New Yorker Daniella Cavaleri is a teacher and choreographer for competition studios in the area. She performed on the national and international tours of Fosse, and she was a swing for the Radio City Christmas shows.

 

(photo by Matthew Murphy)

News
Courtesy Russell

Gregg Russell, an Emmy-nominated choreographer known for his passionate and energetic teaching, passed away unexpectedly on Sunday, November 22, at the age of 48.

While perhaps most revered as a master tap instructor and performer, Russell also frequently taught hip-hop and musical theater classes, showcasing a versatility that secured him a successful career onstage and in film and television, both nationally and abroad.


His resumé reads like an encyclopedia of popular culture. Russell worked with celebrities such as Bette Midler and Gene Kelly; coached pop icon Michael Jackson and Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane; danced in the classic films Clueless and Newsies; performed on "Dancing with the Stars" and the Latin Grammy Awards; choreographed for Sprite and Carvel Ice Cream; appeared with music icons Reba McEntire and Jason Mraz; and graced stages from coast to coast, including Los Angeles' House of Blues and New York City's Madison Square Garden.

But it was as an educator that Russell arguably found his calling. His infectious humor, welcoming aura and inspirational pedagogy made him a favorite at studios, conventions and festivals across the U.S. and in such countries as Australia, France, Honduras and Guatemala. Even students with a predilection for classical styles who weren't always enthused about studying a percussive form would leave Russell's classes grinning from ear to ear.

"Gregg understood from a young age how to teach tap and hip hop with innovation, energy and confidence," says longtime dance educator and producer Rhee Gold, who frequently hired Russell for conferences and workshops. "He gave so much in every class. There was nothing I ever did that I didn't think Gregg would be perfect for."

Growing up in Wooster, Ohio, Russell was an avid tap dancer and long-distance runner who eventually told his mother, a dance teacher, that he wanted to exclusively pursue dance. She introduced him to master teachers Judy Ann Bassing, Debbi Dee and Henry LeTang, whom he credited as his three greatest influences.

"I was instantly smitten, though competitive with him," says longtime friend and fellow choreographer Shea Sullivan, a protégé of LeTang. "Over the years we developed a mutual respect and admiration for each other. He touched so many lives. This is a great loss."

After graduating from Wooster High School, Russell was a scholarship student at Edge Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles, where he lived for many years. He founded a company, Tap Sounds Underground, taught at California Dance Theatre and even returned to Edge as an instructor, all while maintaining a busy travel schedule.

A beloved member of the tap community, Russell not only spoke highly of his contemporaries, but earned his place among them as a celebrated performing artist and teacher. With friend Ryan Lohoff, with whom he appeared on CBS's "Live to Dance," he co-directed Tap Into The Network, a touring tap intensive founded in 2008.

"His humor, giant smile and energy in his eyes are the things I will remember most," says Lohoff. "He inspired audiences and multiple generations of dancers. I am grateful for our time together."

Russell was on the faculty of numerous dance conventions, such as Co. Dance and, more recently, Artists Simply Human. He was known as a "teacher's teacher," having discovered at the young age of 18 that he enjoyed passing on his knowledge to other dance educators. He wrote tap teaching tips for Dance Studio Life magazine and led classes for fellow instructors whenever he was on tour.

In 2018, he opened a dance studio, 3D Dance, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he had been living most recently.

Russell leaves behind a wife, Tessa, and a 5-year-old daughter, Lucy.


"His success was his family and his daughter," says Gold. "They changed his entire being. He was a happy man."

GoFundMe campaigns to support Russell's family can be found here and here.

Teaching Tips
@jayplayimagery, courtesy Blackstone

Zoom classes have created a host of challenges to overcome, but this new way of learning has also had some surprising perks. Students and educators are becoming more adaptable. Creativity is blossoming even amid space constraints. Dancers have been able to broaden their horizons without ever leaving home.

In short, in a year filled with setbacks, there is still a lot to celebrate. Dance Teacher spoke to four teachers about the virtual victories they've seen thus far and how they hope to keep the momentum going back in the classroom.

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News
Betty Jones in The Moor's Pavane, shot for Dance Magazine's "Dancers You Should Know" series in 1955. Zachary Freyman, Courtesy Jacob's Pillow

An anchor of the Humphrey-Limón legacy for more than 70 years, Betty Jones died at her home in Honolulu on November 17, 2020. She remained active well into her 90s, most recently leading a New York workshop with her husband and partner, Fritz Ludin, in October 2019.

Betty May Jones was born on June 11, 1926 in Meadville, Pennsylvania, and moved with her family to the Albany, New York, area, where she began taking dance classes. Just after she turned 15 in 1941, she began serious ballet study at Jacob's Pillow, which was under the direction of Anton Dolin and Alicia Markova for the season. Over the next three summers as a scholarship student, Jones expanded her range and became an integral part of Jacob's Pillow. Among her duties was working in the kitchen, where her speedy efficiency earned her the nickname of "Lightning."

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