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)