Sunday, January 24, 2010

Dancing with FIRE!

jazz dance, jazz dancerWhat makes the difference between a good jazz performance and a great jazz performance? A very good choreographer friend of mine coined it once for me. It's "FIRE"! I don't think I can explain what "fire" is, in relation to dancing, unless I first explain what it isn't. "Fire" is not beautifully executed dance steps. It has little to do with perfect technique or a faultless axle turn.

I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder but for myself as an artistic director, choreographer and general paying audience member, I agree. You may all it "fire" or "energy" or "stage presence" or "selling" or any number of other names. If a group really feels the dance and connects it to the music and the audience then there's an energy that penetrates throughout everyone there. When that happens, it's an incredible ride.

Several years ago, a dear friend and fellow choreographer took a group of dancers with very little training and set a four minute piece for them that was not only beautiful, but moved the audience to their feet by the end of the piece. Out of the entire group, probably not one of them could even execute a clean single turn, and yet, it was an amazing performance. How? The dancers were a group of underprivileged kids with an enormous desire to learn how to dance. My friend took that desire, combined it with gospel music and dialogue by the late Martin Luther King, and set movement on the dancers that was not overly advanced for them. This was a subject these dancers were familiar with and a subject they had a passion for. The dance came purely from their hearts. The end result was a stunning piece that had an enormous amount of "fire" on-stage.

Senior Company Performing TemptationSo many young dancers think that a good performance is based on how many tricks they can do and focus their energy into only those things. There is so much more than just that though. Emotion and connecting to the music play very important parts in creating a convincing performance. A dance can be incredibly exciting with good staging, choreography, musicality and emotion regardless of the level of the dancer. It is up to us as teachers and choreographers to inspire and draw this out of our young dancers.

Applicable to art, music, and of course dance, "Fire" is a display of passion for what you are doing. I always explain to my dancers that this starts in the heart first, then moves to the head, which then travels to the body and the limbs. Many young dancers seem so preoccupied with dance tricks that there is little soul to their performance. "Fire" is the joy, the sadness, the sensuality, the playfulness - whatever the dancer and the music combined together conveys to the audience.

How do you help your students develop "fire"? It has to start in the heart. That's the first place to look. Can the dancers express themselves openly in words and in actions? Do they really love to dance? If they do, you already have a good start. Find creative ways to help them to connect to a particular piece. Do they have an event in their own lives that relates to the piece? Get them to discuss it. Teach them to not be afraid of displaying their emotions on stage. Start the learning process early, as young dancers haven't developed as many adult fears and inhibitions and are more willing to express themselves.

Dale Lam - Artistic Director
Les Mizzell - Technical Director
The Columbia City Jazz Dance Company Website
Dale and Les on Twitter

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Believe in Yourself - a guest post

Juniors performing In Your Eyes at JUMP Convention
There are many people in our lives who feel compelled to remind us "we can't" or "we shouldn't" or "it might not work." Their intentions may be good, but they inadvertently deprive us of the freedom to use our own instincts as our guides. If I had listened to "you can't" I don't know where I would be today. But because I believed in myself & listened to what my heart was telling me, I have lived out my dreams not only as a dancer but in many other capacities as well.

Lauren taking jazz class at JUMP Convention
Remember, you are not alone. Few of us were free from self-doubt when we started out. All those troubling questions: Am I good enough? Do I have what it takes? Will I ever feel confident enough to become a dancer? The answer can be "yes" to all three - but how do we get the "yesses" going?

We thought we'd bring you a guest this post. Dexter Foxworth is a Columbia City Jazz alumni. After graduating Dexter auditioned for Disney, and has performed in a number of disney productions. Dexter is still working with Disney in their production department and is responsible in helping bring new shows to life.

Believe in Yourself

Here are a few things that help me stay centered on my beliefs:
  • 1. Put notes up of self-encouragement on the bathroom mirror and the corner of your computer screen. Seeing these messages will encourage your mind to welcome them.
  • 2. Surround yourself with people who have confidence in you and let them know the kind of support you need. Ask your biggest supporters to remind you daily of your goal and encourage you to do it.
  • 3. If you sense someone is eager to share their negativity with you, talk to them about how they speak to you. If that doesn't work, consider moving on and developing other friendships.

Redirect some of that energy that goes into doubting yourself into building yourself up. You can start with a little self-praise. Give yourself a pat on the back every time you make progress, whether it's with those triple pirouettes in class or getting a good grade in school. Also, hear the praise you get from others, even if it's only about what you're wearing or how you've fixed your hair. Hear it and accept it. And silently agree with it. Agreeing with praise sends your mind a healthy message. You did something right. It's another step towards gaining the self-confidence you want for yourself. Putting a lot of small confidences together leads to believing in yourself. And, believe me, nothing's more powerful than believing in yourself when you step up to the line at an audition.

Believe in yourself!


Special thanks to Dexter for sharing some of his knowledge with us!

Dale Lam - Artistic Director
Les Mizzell - Technical Director
The Columbia City Jazz Dance Company Website
Dale and Les on Twitter

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

From the Other Side Looking In

I don't think there is one teacher who hasn't gotten score sheets and wondered at one time or another if the judges knew what they were talking about or wondered if the judging was political.

"Did they see the same thing I saw?"

I was fortunate enough to be asked to judge a national competition this summer. I thought this would be a great chance for me to take my experiences as a teacher attending competitions and use those experiences to help me become the type of judge I’d like to critique my own group. I'd took the job very seriously and promised myself that all score sheets would be well commented as to why the number was judged the way it was. My goal was to try and help the groups I was judging to become better performers.

I was totally shocked when my 150% effort was criticized by a teacher with a group at the competition! This instructor cornered me in the hall during a break and tried to inform me that my score sheet comments weren't needed! She didn't want anything explained to her at all!

"It's the end of our season. Just give me the scores. I don't care what you think. You write too much!"

Is this person from the same planet I'm from? I'm not sure! I always thought that competitions were an educational tool to help dancers become better performers. A comment about a dancer's alignment or turnout on a score sheet is no different than a correction given by an instructor during class in the studio. I've always valued the comments I've gotten as I see my own dancers every day and another set of eyes will often catch something I've missed or not thought of before.

Forgetting the fact that she was confronting a judge in the middle of nationals, which is unthinkable, what the heck was this raving lady standing in front of me thinking and why did she believe that the scores were the only thing that mattered? I've gotten to know many teachers during my career, and most of us review every written comment, listen to every audio cassette, and watch every single video tape. The advice that we get from our fellow professionals is important to us and helps us improve the quality of instruction we give our students.

I know I'm not alone in this! I can still remember one of the very first competitions my group attended when I was just starting out as a choreographer. Doug Caldwell gave me some wonderful comments on an audiocassette. He suggested that I didn't have enough formation changes and that I needed to create different "pictures" that went with changes in the music. I took his suggestions seriously. When my group returned to the studio I restaged sections of the number..

Another judge at New York Dance Alliance told me that a specific piece I was using was something the younger dancers in my group couldn't really feel yet, and that they might have trouble with ¾ time until they became a little more experienced and understood the rhythm better. I listened, and I made adjustments. It didn't matter to me whether it was the beginning or end of the season. These comments early on in my career helped me to become a better choreographer and teacher, and were of great benefit to my students. I still read and listen to all comments. They're an important learning tool for my company. Regardless of how good any group becomes, there's always room for improvement and the day I believe different is the day I stop becoming an effective teacher.

So, to me, having somebody tell me that they didn't want any comments seemed pretty, well, stupid.

As a judge, I look directly to the back row. Why? Because I do the same as a teacher. I want the dancers in the back row to be as clean and sharp as the dancers in the front. I like to watch feet. I never realized what a "foot person" I was until I judged. Where is each dancer putting their feet? Are they turned out? Neutral? Is everybody in 4th position or is it 5th? Is the foot landing side? Back? A lot of teachers try to hide weaker dancers in the back. I've tried to never do this. Each dancer has something important to contribute. It's our job as teachers to help our students discover what that contribution is.

I stood my ground with the teacher during the confrontation and told her that as a teacher myself, I would really want to know exactly what needed to be worked on. Many of my dancers want to become professionals, and the better prepared they are, the better chance they have when they start auditioning professionally. She told me that her students weren't interested in becoming professionals, so it didn't matter to her.

Why, I wondered? Her dancers had beautiful bodies, lovely faces, and most would have a great chance at becoming a professional. I can only look to their techer as an explanation for this. If you care about your dancers, motivate them, and instill in them a love for the art of dance then many of them will at least consider a career in dance. I digress though…

I don't feel the issue here is about each dancer choosing to become a professional or not. The issue is that we as teachers should train them as if they're all want professional careers. Their parents should consider us remiss in our jobs if we didn't give them the absolute best instruction possible, especially considering the price of tuition, dance shoes, supplies, convention and competition fees. If they decide to pursue dance further, we should be confident that we've given them the best instruction possible to prepare them. I expect the best from each of my dancers. Why shouldn't they expect the same from me?

The group of judges I was working with was all folks that "knew their stuff". We each watched for different things. That's the point of having 5 or 6 judges, right? Judging is subjective, and shouldn't be taken as a personal criticism. If you take the combined comments from the entire group of judges at the competition seriously, you've got a great tool for helping your dancers improve. In my opinion, if you’ve gotten to the point where you only care about your scores and if you’ve won or not, you’re doing this for the wrong reason.


Dale Lam - Artistic Director
Les Mizzell - Technical Director
The Columbia City Jazz Dance Company Website
Dale and Les on Twitter

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"We're going to KICK YOUR BUTT!!!"

The comment above was left in our website Guestbook from a dancer training at another studio just before a convention we were preparing to attend. Normally, we'd ignore such a thing and delete the entry, but after some thought, this seemed to be begging for a reply!


I am replying to this message as an artist, a teacher, a director, and as a representative for my dancers.

I feel that it is a shame that "kicking someone's butt" at a competition is the highest goal any dancer would wish to attain. I have tried to teach all my students in my own company, and other companies when I'm a guest instructor, that competition is a place dancers and teachers attend to learn more about themselves and to admire the great work of others. It's a place to learn how much they have attained technically and artistically, and to see how far they've come in their goals at becoming better at their art.

Dance is not a sport to be "won" like a football game. There are no national rankings and when a dancer is ready to enter the professional world, nobody cares what competition or convention they've attended. Dance is a wonderful art form and an expression of beauty to be admired, whether it is our company or any other company.

I know your teacher, and I truly believe she has not instilled this attitude in her dancers. Trophies don't make great dancers; the single-minded goal to win them doesn't either. It's not about that.

Long after high school graduation and competitions, dancers will face either auditioning for a professional career, or for college scholarships and placement into a scholastic dance program. Will they, as an individual, be ready for this? As a teacher, I feel that preparing any student I teach for this next step is the most important thing I can do.

I wish you and your company the best of luck at JUMP. I hope to enjoy your pieces this coming weekend and hope you enjoy ours. I send you the best of luck in obtaining your wish. We've already obtained ours, which is to become better performers, train harder, work with some of the best instructors and choreographers in the country, and to help all our fellow dancers in giving 110% in everything they do.

"Kicking butt" is not our goal. It only brings jealousy, anger, and a false sense of pride and power to a world that already has way too much of all of that.


Dale Lam - Artistic Director
Les Mizzell - Technical Director
The Columbia City Jazz Dance Company Website
Dale and Les on Twitter

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

On the Passing of Michael

To some it might seem odd, but some people like me never really knew what fans we actually were until the passing of Michael Jackson. As I grew up I knew as a small child that I really thought "ABC" was a cool catchy song. Even cooler was the whole "Off the Wall" thing. It was great music to sing to while driving to one of my first paid dance jobs in Tennessee. "Rock with You", "Workin' Day And Night", then later the dance impact of "Thriller" and "Beat It" ... all great music.

Now, as a dance teacher, I still love this music, using “Gone Too Soon” for a student's solo, "Billie Jean" for a young group number, "Wanna Be Startin Something" and others. But still, I just never connected the dots, the part his music played in my entire life as a child, a dancer, a teacher, a choreographer.

There are personal memories attached to many of his songs, like the time I traveled back late to school just to stick around at home and watch the whole Motown thing with the moonwalk with my parents. My dad was still alive then, and this is a special memory for me. I never stopped to think about the impact that walk or anything else associated with Michael Jackson actually had on my life, or the influence it had on many dancers from that point on. I only saw it for the cool thing it was at the time.

I guess like so many of us I thought he had plenty of hits to go, new horizons to thrill us. It came as a shock during rehearsal for a July show at the Koger center here when I received a text from my husband telling me that Michael Jackson was gone. It seemed so unreal.

In the few days that have lead up to the memorial, I've actually had time to think about the impact his music made on my life. While writing this on the day of the memorial, I decided to listen to my library of his music. It's my iPod now, not a cassette deck or portable CD player like years ago! I thought he'd want all of us to do that on this day of all days, and I was singing "Rock With You" just like I did in my car so long ago. The memories flooded in. "I'll be There" then, "Never Can Say Goodbye" ... that's when the tears started to pour. I hadn't listened to those songs in a very long time. Those songs are my history, my past, your past, our past.

It seems the end of an era. There will never be another Fred Astaire, Charlie Chaplin, Audrey Hepburn, James Brown, John Lennon, Gene Kelley, or Michael Jackson. I'm grateful that I have been around long enough to experience their brightness in the span of my life. Stars like that burn so bright, and there seem to be none like these left. Michael has left a void and I find this so sad because generations of dancers, musicians, and kids will only know the legend of the "King of Pop" without actually being able to experience it the way so many of us were fortunate enough to experience while he was still alive and creating his phenomenal music.

So today of all days, I now know, I was and am a huge fan of Michael Jackson. My dancers, my dance children will forever be touched by his music and his dancing because he touched my life and in turn , I touched theirs.

One final thought several days after writing the above: Today during Nationals I counted over 20 entries choreographed to Michael Jackson songs from "Thriller" to "PYT". The legacy continues...


Dale Lam - Artistic Director
Les Mizzell - Technical Director
The Columbia City Jazz Dance Company Website
Dale and Les on Twitter

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Choices We Make In Life

It's funny how some of us find our way onto the path of teaching. Perhaps we began as a professional dancer and soon got tired of the life of a gypsy, going from show to show. There's no stability, it gets harder and more physically demanding as we get older… and then what? …or…perhaps we always knew from the start that all we wanted to do was teach, or we really didn't like the dancing itself as much as the creating of choreography and teaching gave us a way to do that. There are so many reasons we arrived at where we are now: Dance Teacher.

Most of the time we just do it. It's like automatic. We got here, we teach, we keep teaching, we teach some more, maybe we get better at it….then what?

I bring this up because I never thought about this path before. It was a natural progression of events for me. Student dancer. Professional dancer. Teacher. Choreographer….and one December several years ago I was faced with a very hard decision that I never in my wildest dreams could anticipate.

My company was in Singapore performing and a woman from a college there approached me about teaching for 3 months. I was touched that she liked my work. I was excited! Wow! Three months! All expenses paid. Really good pay. See the other side of the world! The credibility I'd gain on my resume alone was almost worth it. But then I began to think….three months away from my dancers? Many of their pieces for the season weren't even finished yet! Basically everything with my company would come to a screeching halt. I thought hard. I thought about what was best for my company and not what was best for me. I thought some more. My heart told me to decline. I listened to it. Then I declined.

I've always made decisions as they arose based on emotion, not practicality. Obviously this hasn't been a bad idea so far because the decisions I have made have taken the development of my company further than I ever thought possible. And, just as important as that, I've been able to live with those decisions.

Sometimes you do things in this business to get ahead and once you get there you really don't like the person you've become. I'm glad that this is not the case for me. Maybe it's age - being older - or maybe it's something deeper which I really can't explain, but now in my 40s I guess I was finally tested as to what I actually wanted and it wasn't the "BIG DREAM" of fame or money. It was what I have right now, my company, despite the ups and downs.

I thought about this in reference to young dancers on the brink of their careers and career choices. We dance because we were meant to. We're good at it and some of us get really good at it. With this comes opportunity. Making choices. Going for the BIG DREAM. Maybe Broadway. Maybe to be in a professional performance company. Maybe commercial.

These choices and opportunities will rise. For some of you this will happen sooner than you think. For some, like myself, much later than you think. Pay attention to what your heart says. It will show you the way. It is the only thing you can really trust because you are the only one who can live with your choices day after day. Not you parents, not your teachers, not your boyfriends, girlfriends or husbands.

Listen to your heart! Good luck!


Dale Lam - Artistic Director
Les Mizzell - Technical Director
The Columbia City Jazz Dance Company Website
Dale and Les on Twitter

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Importance of Improvisation

Early one season, I watched Frank Hatchett strike terror in the hearts of a class of dancers while working on combinations across the floor.

Was the combination so hard that nobody could complete it?

Was it so complicated that nobody could remember it?

Well, no. It wasn't.

Exactly what was the problem then? The combination was only 4 eights long. Frank choreographed the first two eights and the last eight. The third eight?

"Make something up! I want to see you dance for yourself! You've got a full eight! Go for it!"

Students that could perfectly execute every single choreographed move suddenly froze when they got to the "free eight". Others stumbled on their feet and tripped all over themselves. Some just did absolutely nothing. I don't need to say what Franks reaction was at the end of the first attempt of this horrible mess.

Improvisation is the fundamental basis of all jazz music. Why isn't it taught in jazz dance more often? If practiced, improvisation is not a difficult art.
There are many benefits for the student that is comfortable with improvisation. Their confidence is higher. They are more poised on stage. They are more likely to dance right through a forgotten section or recover from a mistake without the audience ever knowing anything was wrong. It helps free the creative mind.

Teaching your students to improvise is easy. It's simply a matter of having them do it often enough to be comfortable with the idea. Small exercises work great. Give them a few beats here or there. As they become more confidants with their ability, gradually increase the number of beats they have to themselves. Use different styles of music.

Improvising to lyrical is a lot different than percussive jazz or the more funky styles.

Teach them to not just dance, but to think.


Dale Lam - Artistic Director
Les Mizzell - Technical Director
The Columbia City Jazz Dance Company Website
Dale and Les on Twitter