The dance dynamo and life force that is Jackie Sleight
By Joseph Carman
To say that Jackie Sleight exudes charisma is akin to saying a lion sports a mane.
Like a bolt of electricity, Sleight (pronounced “slight”) zigzags around the stage at a recent L.A. DanceMagic (LADM) convention class, belting out directions, corrections, and humor-filled tidbits. Wearing black yoga pants and mid-calf boots and flicking her fire-red hair, she’s an über-mom for a sea of eager teenagers jazzing to a recording of “Vegas Lights” by Panic! At the Disco. Sleight wants the best for them, and in her purview nothing less than aiming for perfection is acceptable.
“Instead of going here, open your torso back there,” Sleight says, demonstrating by rotating her left shoulder and arm into an open expression of the chest. “I like you to be very specific,” she says, then slips in some career advice. “As a dancer, you’re immediately going to be better if you can hook into what the choreographer wants and what they’re looking for. If you can figure that out, your life’s going to be simple.” Then, in a mock whisper, “Oh, and you’ll work more”—maybe even for a Beyoncé tour.
Sleight’s career has encompassed performing with and choreographing for her female dance group, A Sleight Touch (both as an opener for rock stars and as a headline act); choreographing music videos for legendary singers such as Paula Abdul; creating the Freedance fitness program; choreographing commercials for Levi’s, Honda, and Butterfinger; co-founding LADM with her then-husband, Dave Carter; and becoming, judging by LADM attendance, one of the country’s most popular jazz teachers.
Sleight, standing five-foot-three, has long maintained that by dance standards she wasn’t “the prettiest, the tallest, or the best.” Still, she says, “I wouldn’t go away. I knew I wasn’t the best dancer, but I thought maybe I loved it more than most people. Deep inside, I had no other choice. I always said—not always to my benefit—‘I can do this. I will figure it out.’ ” Citing her origins in Inglewood, California, which has a history of toughness, she says, “Everyone [there] carries a gun. I was raised there. I always feel like I can do it, ’cause you’re not gonna knock me down.”
And she has done it. Since 1999, Sleight’s LADM conventions, held across the United States, host thousands of students and teachers each year, in a supportive, motivational forum. Most of the students—numbers range from 500 to 1,200 participants per booking in 15 cities annually—are in their mid-teens, although the conventions offer special classes for 5- to 7-year-olds and 7- to 12-year-olds. The teachers get their own seminars with training in topics like music editing and using apps for studios.
“I love teenagers because I think they’re wacko,” Sleight says. But she likes them to be truthful in their dancing and to enjoy the process. “I don’t want anybody to feel like they have to pretend. Dancing is not pretending—it may be acting, but you have to do it for real.” She emphasizes that LADM’s family- and studio-friendly environment still demands full-out commitment. “But the way we demand it, everybody’s in. It’s just crazy when you look around the room and no one is sitting down. Everyone is up dancing.”
Although she connects to teenage energy, Sleight didn’t start dancing until she was 18, when a friend invited her to observe a class at Dupree Dance Academy in Hollywood. She watched from the doorway and “cried for an hour because I couldn’t believe what was going on,” she says. “I remember it still. It was an absolute turning point for me. I didn’t know what they were doing, but I knew I had to do it.” In her view, initiating training late in life served her well because she didn’t have a moment to waste.
Ditching her plans to go to law school, Sleight studied ballet three times a day with Sallie Whalen while training in jazz with Joe Bennett, Roland Dupree, Rick Morand, and Joe Tremaine. Eventually she switched her focus to jazz but continued with ballet classes because, she says, “I still believe that jazz dancers are ballet dancers gone crazy.”
Sleight’s career as a choreographer began, not unexpectedly, with a gutsy grab at opportunity. In the mid-1970s she was dancing at a nightclub in a disco act, choreographed by Dupree, when the panicked club owner told her that he needed a new act, and soon. “I looked at him—I had never choreographed a step in my life—and said, ‘I’ve got one.’ I didn’t have a clue. I went to Roland the next day and said, ‘What have I done? How am I going to do this?’ ” Dupree snatched a record from his shelf, handed it to her, pushed her into the studio, and said, “Go!” From the success of that solo act, she says, she started A Sleight Touch.
The group grew into a nightclub act of six women, which Sleight took on the road to Las Vegas, Japan, the Philippines, and Mexico. She used the name A Sleight Touch again for her teenage female dance team that won seven shows and the grand championship on the TV competition Star Search in the 1980s. When the show’s producers asked her if she had anything to submit for the next season, she put together Boys’ Club, which repeated A Sleight Touch’s success as the top winner. Through the nightclub circuit, entertainment celebrities noticed Sleight’s talent for choreography, and she was soon staging acts for such stars as Barbara Eden, Barry Manilow, and Engelbert Humperdinck.
But it was her partnership with Paula Abdul that generated some of the biggest buzz of Sleight’s career. In 1989, a year after the release of Abdul’s debut album, Forever Your Girl, Sleight choreographed the singer’s iconic R&B/dance-pop music video “Opposites Attract,” in which the star boogies and struts with an animated alley cat. Working with several dancers to create the animated steps, Sleight spotlighted Abdul’s talents. “Every second of the video was about movement,” she says. (The video, which won a Grammy for Best Music Video–Short Form in 1990, can be seen on YouTube.)
In the late 1980s, the producers of the girl group Exposé enlisted Sleight to create the singing troupe’s gestalt through movement. “They were individually hired, and we had to come up with their entire chemistry and vibe,” she says.
As if the late 20th century wasn’t busy enough for Sleight, a fitness company from Miami recruited her to create the aerobics/dance brand Freedance. The producers wanted Marine Jahan, Jennifer Beals’ dance double in the movie Flashdance (and a student of Sleight’s) to lead the Freedance videos. Working with a professor from the University of Miami on one of the pioneer projects of the dance/fitness industry, Sleight flew from L.A. to Miami every Friday night for two years to blend the physiological workings of dance with aerobics. “They licensed Freedance in health clubs,” says Sleight. “Every month the clubs would get a new class that I choreographed.”
Meanwhile, Sleight continued to teach jazz at Dupree’s studio, and then at Joe Tremaine’s conventions and his studio, which she says eventually became Tremaine/Sleight Dance Center in North Hollywood. She’s grateful to Dupree for allowing her to teach each level of the jazz spectrum, from beginner to advanced—but only when she was ready to do so. “I learned as I went, but I think I taught on an emotional level,” says Sleight. “I got them to do the steps in what I felt was the best way.”
Sleight’s choreography is an extension of her teaching. About choreographers, she says, “One makes up steps. One tells a story. And one translates music—that’s me. I know where my strength is. I can listen to a sound and make it physical so the movement looks like the sound. But I can’t tell a story very well, and my steps are mediocre at best. My strength is definitely translating music.”
When asked about her moniker as a “teachers’ teacher,” Sleight shrugs. “I think that’s a big title,” she says. “I like to teach teachers, but I think teachers gravitate to me because I give my point of view and opinion as much as technique.”
In 1999 Sleight and Carter started LADM in order to run dance conventions in a way they felt most suitable. Sleight wanted to teach kids her way, no matter what anyone else thought. Even though LADM has blossomed into a juggernaut over the last 17 years, Sleight’s priorities haven’t changed. She wants students and teachers to engage in commitment, integrity, honesty, discipline, and diligence to improve their skills in dance and life.
LADM also has a dance company—students who have auditioned and made a commitment to travel to four cities per year. The company members, who attend the conventions for free, perform at each convention and focus on intensive training.
Apart from the company, six students are selected for the professional track. “They’re handpicked, and we’re going to teach them everything we can,” says Sleight. The professional-track kids attend every convention weekend and are introduced to agents and other figures in the commercial dance world. At every intensive, the faculty dances a performance, Sleight says, “so the kids get to see the people they got to know all weekend. A lot of times they’re in shock. It takes their breath away because of how great they are.”
LADM holds onsite auditions for numerous LADM scholarships, and Joffrey Workshop Texas scouts candidates for scholarships to its summer program. Pace University, Chapman University, Relativity School, and the American Musical and Dramatic Academy hold auditions for scholarship awards or program entry.
All of Sleight’s faculty members at LADM have studied with her, many of them for years. Her criteria for hiring teachers are strict: their dancing has to blow her away; they have to have clear intentions in their teaching that synchronize with Sleight’s priorities; and they have to put the students first. “If [the teachers] come first, I’m not interested,” she says. “This convention is a team. No one is the star.”
Will Thomas, 22, has been training with Sleight at her conventions since he was a 12-year-old student at Deborah’s Stage Door Center for the Performing Arts and Adagio Dance Company in Rochester Hills, Michigan. He now works as Sleight’s assistant and teaches for LADM. “Jackie’s actually a teacher,” he says. “At a lot of conventions, the teacher can be genuine and nice, but it’s just about putting out the coolest steps or teaching the coolest combo to a cool song. With Jackie it goes far beyond that. She gives life lessons outside of dance. She breaks down [the choreography] and teaches you the fundamentals you need to do the cool combos to the cool songs.”
Six out of the seven LADM teachers (other than Sleight) are men, and Sleight’s classes have consistently drawn male students. She speculates that that’s due to her straightforward, demanding style and less energy spent on competition with other female instructors. “Jackie is tough and strong,” says Thomas. “She used to kick people out of the room. She’s tough with us. Maybe in her eyes men aren’t so emotional.”
Did she ever think that being a woman in a male-dominated dance industry would hinder her? “I thought it might,” she says. “I just didn’t pay attention to it. But it was definitely male-driven. And the conventions are still male-driven.”
Sleight, who also teaches at Edge Performing Arts Center in L.A., teaches a pure form of jazz, and she detests it when people say jazz is dated. “It’s just maybe the word is dated,” she says. “Traditionally teachers used jazz music to teach jazz. Now they use pop music to teach jazz.”
As for social trends in dancing, she stays on top of them. “It’s not that you have to [borrow] those steps, but you have to know what the vibe feels like,” she says. “I definitely integrate a street feel even though I’m doing a classic jazz line. You have to stay current or disappear.” She relies on her young teachers to find today’s music. For example, she’ll let Thomas choose tracks by artists such as British singer Jess Glynne or the Russian-German DJ and musician Zedd, who uses an eclectic blend of electro house, progressive house, dubstep, and classical music.
What does Sleight hope to impart and pass on to her students? “The only way I will feel dance to the max is if I try to dance to the max,” she says. “It’s the only way to feel the full-out thing—that desire that goes through your body which cannot be explained.” Because she didn’t have a name for the feeling that overwhelmed her when she first saw dance, she thinks she “may be passion-driven and learned the other stuff as I went.”
That feeling that overwhelmed her? “Like I couldn’t breathe,” she says. “Not everybody loves the same thing, but I want my students to love something like that.”
Former American Ballet Theatre dancer Joseph Carman writes about the performing arts for numerous publications. He received a BA in journalism from The New School in New York City and lives in Palm Springs, California.