James Robey’s syllabus builds dancers from the ground up
By Joshua Bartlett
“You need a stable, grounded lower body,” says James Robey to his attentive students in an advanced jazz class, “and an expressive, mobile upper body.”
Robey, who directs Ridgefield Conservatory of Dance in Ridgefield, Connecticut, is passionate about jazz dance as a serious art form and wants it to be taught with integrity. Over the past 15 years he has worked on a syllabus to teach jazz technique that parallels modern and ballet techniques, which have been well codified for decades. The result: the Jazz Dance Technique and Syllabus.
“I first started trying to figure out what was available to teach at what level and at what age, to build up to the level of the end product—being able to perform the difficult steps with proficiency,” says Robey. When he took the leadership position at the Ridgefield Conservatory of Dance in 2001, after teaching there since 1996, he was charged with creating a ballet and modern syllabus for the school. “I was researching the Vaganova and RAD syllabuses and studied how they structured their lessons and how the system works,” says Robey. “I used all of that and applied it to jazz.”
So why the need to put jazz, a dance form that has historically been a little bit rebellious, into a systemized format for teaching? “Some of the pillars of jazz and pioneers like Gus Giordano and Luigi—their technique and class process has been codified and it’s wonderful—it’s part of the history that we draw from,” says Robey. “But the system of actually training from beginning to end has not been codified. I saw that as a real hole in jazz dance education.”
With ballet training, Robey points out, teachers can obtain plenty of guidelines with different syllabuses; and dancers, to get decent training, can find teachers who use a particular method all over the globe. Jazz methodology, on the other hand, has been more haphazard for teachers to find structured training.
“Mine is a codified, progressive syllabus that takes teachers and students through the very first physical abilities all the way through the advanced,” says Robey. “One thing I think is important about this syllabus is that it is free of stylistic conventions. Jazz dance is so sensitive to time. It changes and shifts according to the whims of popular culture. A lot of the material out there for jazz dancing is just the latest, trendiest combination of styles. I didn’t want to compete with that—there are tons of stylistic stuff out there. This is a real foundation for teachers of any style, whether they are musical theater jazz dance teachers, street jazz teachers, traditional or contemporary dance teachers. They can use this as a base and put their style on top of it.”
Robey began his jazz training in college with Priscilla Wagner at the University of Akron. It was Wagner, whose style was drawn from Matt Mattox and Jack Cole, who mentored him and instilled in him a respect for jazz as a profoundly serious dance form. Robey earned his BFA in dance from the University of Akron and also studied with Gus Giordano and Luigi, as well as being schooled in Horton modern technique. During college he worked at Disney World and after college as a jazz dancer on cruise ships and at Tokyo Disneyland. “It was mostly the commercial side of jazz, and I wanted to take a more serious, artistic approach to my career,” says Robey.
He eventually earned his MFA in dance from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee and served as director of the dance program at Western Reserve Academy and of the Jazz and Modern Program at Eastern Connecticut Ballet. Additionally, he has been a faculty member in the dance programs at The Hartt School/University of Hartford and the University of Akron. As a professional performer, he danced with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, Connecticut Ballet, GroundWorks Dance Theater, and numerous other troupes.
Robey initiated the development of his jazz curriculum in 1996, but it started to take a specific shape in 2000–01. He put it into effect when he took the leadership post at Ridgefield Conservatory of Dance, implementing it at all levels. “Now that I have been here for 10 years, I have been able to see it taught from the youngest all the way up,” says Robey. “I have also applied it with students when I taught in Manhattan and when teaching the BFA students at the University of Hartford.” Robey formally released the syllabus for purchase in July 2010.
To give teachers an idea of what the syllabus covers, Robey breaks it down into six levels. Jazz 1 (ages 7 to 9) introduces traditional musical theater steps that involve weight changes. “For young beginning dancers, just knowing when to put weight on your foot and when not to, plus all the tricky rhythms you can create, is something you can delve into for a long time,” says Robey. Some of the Jazz 1 steps include the lindy, the sugar, and truckin’ (hopping on one foot consecutively and then the other). Jazz 2 (ages 8 to 11) continues with more weight changes and adds other traditional steps such as the camel walk (bent-kneed walk with undulating pelvis), stag leap, and crazy legs (legs bent while bouncing knees together). Each level is normally an academic year but depends on the student’s progress.
Jazz 3 (ages 10 to 13) adds more sophistication and finesse to the movement. “The students learn a lot more about how line comes into the work, how the effects from ballet and modern techniques like Horton take hold, and seeing how the steps really begin to develop,” says Robey. Jazz vocabulary like the clip turn, jazz slide, and over the top are taught in Jazz 3.
With Jazz 4 (ages 11 to 14), which introduces moves like the barrel turn (a leap that involves arching the back, throwing the head back, and turning in the air), the bison, and Cuban walk, Robey stresses that having a strong ballet and modern foundation with the jazz training is vital. “At level four you start to see the advantage of all the ballet technique and the energy and the weight of the modern,” says Robey. “They add to the dynamics and the explosiveness of jazz dance. I believe that cross-training is the key to the future because dancers today aren’t expected to do just one thing.”
Jazz 5 (ages 13 to adult) and Jazz 6 (ages 14 to adult) coincide with ballet syllabuses in relation to the techniques of turning, jumping, phrasing, and transitions. Steps such as the axle turn (a turning jump with both knees bent), straddle leap, and calypso come into the Jazz 5 training, while Jazz 6 introduces advanced steps like the double fan-kick turn, tour jeté fouetté, and turning scissor leap. “Level 6 is an open-ended, advanced professional lifelong journey,” says Robey.
In July 2011, Robey and his wife, Melissa Gerth, held a teacher-training intensive in Ridgefield, Connecticut, to teach his jazz syllabus to dance instructors. According to Robey, those who benefit the most from learning the syllabus are instructors interested in teaching pure jazz movement through progressive levels.
“There are important elements that make jazz dance unique from modern dance. . . . The core elements are dynamic rhythms that come from syncopation and jazz music, initiation from the solar plexus, the low center of gravity, and openness to individual style.” —James Robey
“What they learn from this training program is how to teach a strong foundation, free of stylistic limitations,” says Robey. “There are important elements that make jazz dance unique from modern dance—today there is a lot of fusion going on. The core elements are dynamic rhythms that come from syncopation and jazz music, initiation from the solar plexus, the low center of gravity, and openness to individual style. We list those as foundational elements in our teacher training.” Teachers also come away with some historical information—every jazz-dance legend has a small bio or a slice of historical context that teachers can pass on to their students. “They get that jazz dance is a respectable, noble art form,” says Robey.
One teacher who has adopted Robey’s jazz syllabus is Genevieve Zerf, who has owned Flying Free Dance and Pilates Studio in Pretoria, South Africa, since 2010. “I wrote my own syllabus for ballet,” says Zerf. “In South Africa we have two syllabi for ballet, RAD and Cecchetti. I wanted to offer my students something more and something different. I was exposed to many different forms of dance and really fell in love with jazz dance. I wanted to give my students a chance to pursue any dance career and not just ballet.”
Zerf took Robey’s 2011 teacher-training intensive. “I started looking for jazz-dance teachers’ courses or qualifications,” she says. “The shortest was six months. I don’t have that kind of time at my disposal. I needed knowledge more than a qualification. After months of looking all over the world—on Google and talking to people—I found James’ website. Attending his workshop changed my approach to teaching not just jazz, but my teaching as a whole.”
Normally, when attending a workshop or a course, says Zerf, “there is a lot of hype and excitement that wears off a few days after everyone goes their different ways. This was not the case with James. I had a lot of time to myself after every session and I could process and go through what I learned that day. He gave me tools for how to approach classes and students and individual personalities. I was inspired to teach when I returned to South Africa.”
In his teaching, Robey is particularly adamant about stressing the low center of gravity in jazz. “This is an American art form that has its roots in African tribal dance,” he says. “There is this low center of gravity—watch any of the movies that Jack Cole choreographed. He had them so low to the ground, with knees bent and strength like a tiger ready to pounce.”
Having traveled around the country to judge dance competitions, Robey has seen watered-down jazz that is a poor hybrid of ballet and jazz. “I used to see dancers doing jazz very pulled up, very away from the ground,” he says. “It had a light, poppy feel like ‘We’re off to see the wizard.’ You have to work really hard to get the kids connected to the ground. When you are in ballet class, you pull up. In jazz class, you pull in and down. In modern you are free to go through the whole range.” The distinction is important. “The worst thing you can do is go into a ballet audition and do it like a jazz dancer, or vice versa.”
The next jazz teacher-training intensive is planned for July 2012 in Ridgefield, Connecticut. The last session focused on all exercises in every lesson and on sharing teaching tools. The next intensive will include anatomy and physiology, which are particularly helpful in body placement awareness. Robey has worked closely with his brother, Jason Robey, director of Athletic Training Services for Appalachian State University, in designing a technique that adds current information in physical training techniques.
In creating his syllabus, Robey has included Patterns of Total Body Connectivity, a Laban Movement Analysis method that focuses on basic body coordination and that is sometimes used in modern dance. “Dancers, in their earnestness, put a lot of time into becoming technically very proficient,” says Robey. “We work very hard to put our limbs in the right places, and sometimes we lose the connection through the torso and through the movement. Total Body Connectivity helps to refine that—it makes even the most efficient dancers more organic and artistically expressive.”
Yoga, tai chi, and Pilates are all modalities that Robey has worked with, and he includes elements of many of them in his teaching, especially in the warm-ups. He has also incorporated Buddhist principles into his work, particularly lessons around attitudes and etiquette.
“There are ideas of interconnectedness and approaching others with an attitude of compassion for each other,” Robey says. “It’s different from the common approach of competitiveness—the fragmented feeling of me versus this other person. There is a mildness, a softness to my teaching in that sense. I feel that with my students we are all in this together.”
The Jazz Dance Technique and Syllabus includes class structure outlines; time-management charts for 60-, 75-, and 90-minute classes; 247 exercise cards with teacher notes; photographic glossaries of body positions; and historical dance references. The program costs $110 for each level of instruction or $550 for all six.
For more information about the syllabus or future teacher training intensives, visit robeyjazzdance.com.