Sue Samuels and her company keep traditional jazz alive
8 Dec 2010
Sue Samuels has been performing, teaching, and choreographing jazz in New York City for more than 35 years. From her ballet beginnings in Florida, to performances with the Dance Company of Haiti, and later on Broadway, jazz has been her connective tissue. As a teacher, Samuels is on a mission: “to keep the traditional form of jazz dance alive.” So passionate is she about it that she formed the troupe Jazz Roots Dance in November 2009 to do just that.
Samuels’ Jazz Roots Dance troupe, founded last year, is dedicated to preserving the classical jazz dance form. (Photo by Billy Grey courtesy Sue Samuels)
Jazz Roots Dance, a troupe of 12, is dedicated to preserving the classical jazz dance form and aims to entertain and educate the younger generation about the roots of jazz dance—a genre she calls “underrepresented” in the dance community today. Think jazz and the companies that come to mind are Hubbard Street, Giordano, and Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal—a short list, to be sure.
Embodying the mission
The repertoire of Samuels’ Jazz Roots Dance Company emphasizes clean lines and strong technique, blending jazz with her classical ballet training. “It’s the kind of jazz that is used for transitions on Broadway,” Samuels says, “with a theatrical style. But it’s not theater dance. There is no story driving it, and it’s not limited by any one kind of music.” When pressed for a Broadway example that might exhibit the sort of style she’s referring to, she says Memphis comes immediately to mind.
Arrangements within the music—whether it’s salsa, Afro-Cuban, pop, folk music, or even rock ’n’ roll—drive the choreography. Of course, show tunes aren’t ruled out either. The movement vocabulary is varied, from lyrical to Latin to theatrical, the way classical jazz dance was influenced by musical variations and infused with stylistic relevance. “The history of jazz dance,” says Samuels, “is a merging of other forms.”
One of the reasons jazz is so often misunderstood, Samuels emphasizes, is because “there are no rules for [it]. It uses contractions like Graham technique. It uses rhythm like tap and hip-hop. Jazz is as different as the people who do it—not just in terms of the shape of their bodies, but in the shape of their thought, interpretations, and performances.”
Samuels explains why she thinks this kind of jazz is important today, reiterating what she told Back Stage in a 2008 interview about her new company. “Jazz has many facets: It’s lyrical, it’s Latin, it’s theatrical, it’s funky, but today it’s all gotten separated. If you want lyrical, you have to take a contemporary class. If you want Latin, you have to go somewhere else and take Latin dance. If you want something theatrical, you’ll go to a theater-dance class.” Samuels is interested in keeping alive the traditions of the jazz greats who came before, who fused their own choreographic voices into the melting pot that is classical jazz.
The need for tradition
In the Back Stage interview, Samuels laid out the case for teaching classical jazz. “In tap, they honor their traditions. In ballet, tradition is undeniably important. And in modern, even while they’re moving forward, they still do Graham choreography and Horton technique and keep the work of all the traditional moderns alive. But jazz does not do this. A lot of my young students know nothing about the history of jazz dance, how it evolved, where it came from.”
She expanded on those words in her interview with Dance Studio Life, adding, “In every other form of dance—ballet, tap, modern—not only do we know who the founders are, we also know how the forms have evolved and who is advancing them.”
Samuels cites choreographers like Matt Mattox, Phil Black, Jo Jo Smith, Frank Hatchett, and Chuck Kelley as key figures with whom anyone interested in studying the form should be familiar. Mattox took the fluid, vigorous style of jazz pioneer Jack Cole and merged it with his own strong background in ballet to create a clean, powerful, and challenging technique for “freestyle dancing,” as he called it. The Hatchett style is a blend of strength, funk, and individual interpretation, with an emphasis on selling one’s performance. Jo Jo Smith (once married to Samuels—their son is famous tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith) popularized his unique African-Caribbean style in New York City in the 1970s and 1980s and was a major influence on former student Debbie Allen.
“Jazz is not about what you look like, but how you look while you’re dancing. You’ve got to look as if it’s easy, be loose-looking and relaxed.” —Sue Samuels, to students
Samuels co-founded Jo Jo’s Dance Factory and served as its co-owner for 10 years. “You used to be able to stand in the hallway and look into any one of the studios and recognize right away who was teaching the class by the style of jazz they were doing,” she said. “The way I do my arms—squarish—and the jazz walk characterize my own particular style.”
Taking it to the classroom
Samuels’ weekly schedule includes 10 classes that range from beginner level through intermediate, at Broadway Dance Center, Arias Dance, and The Ailey Extension.
Entertainment professionals and aspiring artists from around the world have sought her expertise, and her students have included such stars as Melba Moore, Brooke Shields, and Irene Cara.
At Broadway Dance Center, her packed beginner-level Broadway jazz class is a multigenerational mix of male and female, dancers and non-dancers alike, in all shapes and sizes. Class begins at the barre with hip presses and back stretches. Like Mattox, she says, “I’m ballet trained, and that’s where my jazz bends out of.”
Samuels’ warm-up concentrates on placement, stretch, and strength and is done to live percussion. Ankles, knees, feet, and neck are loosened up and exercised, as Samuels explains that tendu is about stretching the foot, not lifting. As they work with turnout and battements, she reminds her students that “the body has limits” and each of them should work within their own. The shoulders and low back get warmed up before crunches. Isolations are next—head, rib cage, shoulders, and hips. The class continues with across-the-floor work on turns, kicks, and jumps. Last, using the fundamental movements already addressed, she sets a choreographed combination to contemporary dance music, which gets the students dancing and having fun.
In the studio, Samuels advises her students to stop looking at themselves: “Jazz is not about what you look like,” she cautions, “but how you look while you’re dancing. You’ve got to look as if it’s easy, be loose-looking and relaxed.” Then she has the class turn away from the mirror and face the back wall. “You have to feel it,” she says.
Her teaching style is a passionate mix of no-nonsense and nurturing. There’s no sense of competition here. “You’re not the first person to have trouble with a pas de bourreé,” she tells one student. “It’s a national epidemic.”
Samuels started an “absolute beginners workshop” in the 1980s for singers and actors, as a way to introduce them to the basic steps and how to perform them. “Even if they don’t need to be dancers, they still need to look comfortable onstage.” Other teachers in other dance forms now offer similar workshops.
Using the story and music of Chicago, Samuels demonstrates that jazz choreography is often characterized by largeness; the movement is designed to create a distraction—“look over here” razzle-dazzle. “Don’t worry if you make a mistake,” she tells her students. “This is a dance class; you’re not onstage.”
Swinging toward jazz
Contemporary dance has dominated the dance scene for a while now, thanks to shows like So You Think You Can Dance,Samuels notes. “The tricks are so attractive and wowing, but it’s not necessarily dance.”
And she points out that the pendulum always swings both ways. “There’s a hunger for strength and simplicity of movement now,” she says. “Things are coming back around to allowing other styles to be OK again. But people need a basis from which to do this movement; they need to know where the steps come from.”
Her class provides a model for exactly that, with a structure that borrows a rigorous ballet approach toward warming up the body and preparing the mind. From the various steps and isolations, she constructs a combination that makes the most of hips, shoulders, spine, and line. She draws the steps from a broad lexicon and sets them to a wide range of musical accompaniment.
The end result is a Broadway-esque expression of showy movements linked by rhythm, and punctuated by individual pizzazz. Various styles seamlessly flow through the choreography, held together by music, strong lines, and performance—a testament to the potential of classical jazz. No story necessary.
Want to Learn More?
For more information about Samuels’ Jazz Roots Dance Company: www.jazzrootsdance.com.
For more on the history of jazz: “All That’s Jazz,” by Tom Ralabate, Dance Studio Life, December 2008, or online atwww.dancestudiolife.com/2008/12/all-thats-jazz.
To read the full Back Stage interview with Sue Samuels: www.backstage.com/bso/advice-dance-movement/preservation-call-jazz-dance-1003990409.story.