Tremaine tells all on jazz, teaching, and his own high-stepping life
By Karen White
Joe Tremaine is the quintessential jazz dance pro. Growing up in the New Orleans area, immersed in what he calls “the best music on Earth,” Tremaine danced his way to New York City and Europe, cruised through TV jobs and Vegas shows, and eventually landed in Los Angeles, where he ran a “studio for the stars” for almost 30 years. He combined that teaching experience with his insider’s knowledge of show biz to create his Tremaine Dance Conventions and Competitions, now heading into its fourth decade. Through it all, Tremaine has been an ambassador for his own brand of heart-pumping, high-kicking, funky-and-fun style of jazz dance that still thrills his students and fans today. We caught up with him this fall, fresh off his appearance at the DanceLife Teacher Conference.
At the DLTC, the teachers couldn’t get enough of your jazz classes. What’s your secret?
I want everybody to have a great time, and I think number one is the music. Music is what jazz is all about. It’s the vernacular form of dance based on American popular music. My first trick is to have them dance to the hottest music possible. Get the class engaged in a few steps, then put the music on. The pacing of the class is extremely important, especially if you’re teaching younger kids. When I teach 6-, 7-, 8-year-olds, I’ll teach them an 8 or two 8s, and I’ll go, “Do you want to do it with music?” “Yes, yes, yes,” they’re screaming right away. As you progress from there, you can correct the technique and so forth.
How long have you been teaching?
I started teaching a little bit in high school. I didn’t want to, but I lived in the cotton fields of Louisiana. In that area I knew more about dance than most people, which is not saying a lot! People had to drive 35 miles to get to a dance studio, so they said, “You can teach us.”
Did you always gravitate toward jazz?
Jazz was always my favorite. I tapped at first, then modern jazz, as they called it, was beginning to evolve and I said, “Oh yeah, that’s what I want.” When I was 8 or 9, I was dancing to music on the radio in my dad’s grocery store, and I remember one of the workers said, “Man, you’re good! When you grow up, you’re gonna be an exotic dancer!” He didn’t know what an exotic dancer was, and neither did I. I felt it was a great compliment at the time.
But I had that influence, considered back then the street influence. It wasn’t hip-hop obviously, but it was called freestyling. I got many jobs because I could tap dance, I could do ballet, and I could out-freestyle anybody. I’d go into nightclubs and clear the floor dancing if I wanted to. But again, it’s all about the music.
You worked in the early days of TV, on The Jackie Gleason Show, The Jerry Lewis Show.
I moved from the cotton fields into New Orleans and worked in the French Quarter in legit shows, then moved to New York on a one-way bus ticket and lived at the Y. I started getting jobs. June Taylor hired me for a show called Mardi Gras starring Louis Armstrong and Joel Grey, and we played at Jones Beach in New York. After eight weeks June took me and three other guys to Miami to do The Jackie Gleason Show.
Most TV shows in those days were done live. How did that help you grow as a dancer?
It’s either do it or die. Today they call a season 12 shows—we did a 32-week season, and I did two years of live TV with many, many stars. It was the best training ground ever. There were no second takes—you really had to know what you were doing.
And I never stopped taking class, ever. We finished a show or walked out after rehearsal, where would we go? We would go to class. It was the best thing I ever did. You can never stop working on your instrument, on your body.
How did that all lead to teaching?
I was very lucky because I met so many stars on The Jerry Lewis Show—Jane Powell to Bobby Darin to everyone imaginable, and they would be like, “You’re really good—would you work for me?” That’s when I started choreographing. Eugene Loring had a school in Hollywood [Loring was director of the American School of Dance] and he said, “I want you to teach for me.” I opened my own dance center in 1971.
What was your studio like?
It was almost all adults. When I first opened I don’t think I let in anyone under 14, and then eventually dropped it to 12. But they were stars. Choreographers would take my class. Even Cyd Charisse took my class.
That was before people were going to gyms to get physically fit, so everybody would come to dance class. I’m not being egotistical, but my beginner and intro jazz classes would be huge—50, 60, 70, 100 people in a room that should only have 35 or 40. So I’d teach class harder and weed out the people who couldn’t keep up. Every secretary, every waiter, everybody out here wanted to be actors. That’s how my studio mushroomed—because they came to class.
How did you develop your style of jazz?
Every night I would go out dancing in the discos—not just to dance for my pleasure, but to hear the music, see all the street stuff. I’d say, “Boy—that could make a great step.” I would make it mine. I’d put it in a jazz form, and that’s how I developed my style.
What was best about running your own dance studio?
The freedom to do what I wanted to do, and do it the way I wanted to do it. I’m kind of strong-headed in the things I believe in. I like to teach fast and challenge people.
I don’t know that there was a worst part. I feel selfish sometimes that I am able to do what I want to do, having the time of my life and meeting incredible people. I really don’t know how to do anything else, and I don’t care how to do anything else. I just want to dance. I always wanted to dance.
“When I was 8 or 9, I was dancing to music on the radio in my dad’s grocery store, and I remember one of the workers said, ‘Man, you’re good! When you grow up, you’re gonna be an exotic dancer!’ He didn’t know what an exotic dancer was, and neither did I.”
How do you see jazz dance changing?
Jazz encompasses so much, from lyrical to boogie-woogie to basic jazz to Broadway-style jazz. The most popular form now is probably contemporary. Everyone wants to do contemporary, even the 6-year-olds. My one concern is they don’t know why they’re doing it. I don’t think kids who lack emotional maturity should be doing it in competition. But in studios across the country they’re all trying to emulate the TV dance shows to some degree.
Teachers say they’re confused about what jazz is and that at competitions, different styles end up in the same category.
Jazz is open-ended. If you’ve got five people, you’ve got five opinions. There’s basic old regular jazz, funky jazz, then all the others. Obviously there is a Broadway-style jazz, but what is the fine line between that and musical theater? It depends on the competition and the way the judges define those genres. I think teachers have to define for themselves what it is and enter their numbers accordingly.
So jazz is connected to popular music, and since the music has changed, the movement has changed.
Jazz has no boundaries. Everybody is still going to dance to “Hit the Road, Jack,” or “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” and that’s the old kind of jazz stuff. The great thing about jazz is that it’s an amalgamation. It’s a big stew. You throw in anything and stir it up with some good music and that’s jazz.
Is hip-hop jazz?
I said that jazz dance is an American form of dance which comes from the vernacular. It’s the same with hip-hop. It’s picking up on the trends in the music, and that’s street stuff and the kind of jazz I’ve always tried to incorporate. So I guess yes, hip-hop is a derivative of jazz.
Where is jazz going?
I think it’s going to continue just as it is with all kind of variations on the theme. The direction of popular music is what drives it. That’s what has driven it all along, all the way back to the cakewalk and the black bottom to jitterbug and boogie-woogie swing, Caribbean influences, everything. It’s so wonderful and it’s all interconnected.
What was your reaction to receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award at the DanceLife Teacher Conference?
I almost fainted dead away. I had no idea I was getting an award. I was sitting there, enjoying everybody else’s performances, then suddenly it’s all about me, which was just astonishing. I was almost speechless, which I’m usually not. It was great to be honored in such a way by your peers. It can’t get any better than that.
Do you have any advice for studio teachers?
Keep training the kids to the best of your ability and know that we all get frustrated. Teachers say, “I haven’t taught in four years and I want to start again,” and my first reaction is that they should have never stopped. You can slow down; you can change your pace. You don’t have to teach four million classes a week. Teachers have to remember we’re training bodies, minds, and souls, not just bodies to do hop shuffle ball change or boogie-woogie. I always say dance training is life training. I would tell them not to stop—don’t give up.
Any last thoughts?
Anybody who moves to music or without music, if they consider it dancing, I think it’s fabulous. Everybody should be moving all the time. Get out of the damn chair and lift your legs and roll your head and snap your fingers and sway to the music. It’s so important to our lives.