Island ballet kids get jazzified

Guest teacher Chet Walker arrives with a mission to break all the rules Sunday, July 27, 2008


walkerSTATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- At the Staten Island Ballet School this month, fledgling dancers are being knocked off their tippytoes. They're slouching, they're shuffling, they're rolling their hips.

All around the school's Sea View studios, students are ignoring -- if not breaking outright -- the rules that company founder Ellen Tharp has revered for 40 years. She couldn't be more delighted.

Her summer intensive program students -- about 30 in all -- are learning classic jazz dance, a discipline very, very unlike traditional ballet regimen. "When I was a student, you were a ballet bunhead or a modern dancer or a Broadway dancer and that's pretty much where you stayed," she explained. "It's completely different now. Today, you have to be fluent in everything."

So when she was planning her summer curriculum, she began to think about hiring Chet Walker, a teacher/choreographer who is determined to preserve "classic jazz dancing," a pure form promulgated by dancers like Jack Cole (1911-1974), who is considered the father of jazz dance technique.

Walker spent his own apprenticeship under another jazz/Broadway dance legend, choreographer Bob Fosse (1927-1987). Fosse devised dances for "Damn Yankees," "Pajama Game," "Pippin" and the movie "Cabaret," among many other award-winning projects.

Walker's Island gig was something of a homecoming. His assistant, Tim Kasper, is a former Staten Island Ballet dancer. For the summer sessions, Kasper taught the 7-to-10-year-olds while Walker worked with the 11-to-16-year-olds.

Although the sessions were intended for the students, company members drifted in in increasing numbers. "He's an amazingly charming teacher," Ms. Tharp said. "I was ready to take the class myself." Jazz moves might sneak into her own choreography in the next few months, she conceded. "Chet is the best and I'm always happy to steal from the best."

Walker, who has taught all over the world, will head north to the Berkshires next month for workshops and performances at the Jacob's Pillow, the summer-long dance series in Lee, Mass. At the Pillow, Staten Island Ballet School student Courtney Ramos, 17, will join the workshops having been awarded an on-the-spot scholarship.