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Dance Jam Kids: Spreading Modern.

"WHAT KIND of dance do you like?" I ask a few of the 500 kids packed into the Potrero Hill Middle School auditorium for a program by ODC/San Francisco's youth company, the ODC Dance Jam. Though the school is a performing arts magnet, there's no dance in the curriculum. So the kids tell me what they've seen on TV: African and Puerto Rican dancing, swing, hip-hop, ballet, ice-dancing.

Until the Jam skips, slides, lunges, chugs, jigs, and leaps onto stage, these kids have never even seen modern dance. In a pack or in clusters of twos and threes, the dancers, ages 10 to 14, devour space. Their torsos curl and arch. Their arms spring straight out, like arrows released from their bows. The nine dancers move with grounded clarity and unaffected forthrightness.

A member of the Jam since it began four years ago, and a dedicated gymnast on non-dancing days, 10-year-old Jereme Bigelow launches slow, elegant handstands onto a tiny chair. Max Van der Sterre, a 14-year-old who takes class seven days a week, catapults himself into a sideways leap, hovering over split legs like a hungry bird of prey. An exceptional student as well as dancer, 14-year-old Rachael Cleveland turns away from us, her back so animated it's like we're looking into an excited face.

Eight to ten times a year, the Dance Jam throws itself open to audiences at public elementary schools, at ODC's annual spring season, at community centers, at Francis Ford Coppola's private estate. But until today, they've never come so close to rejection. The captive audience grudgingly approves of Jereme's meticulous handstands, Max's gorgeous leaps, Rachael's rapturous back. But when the performers nearly touch, a low murmur of outrage builds into shouts of hostility that ring throughout the auditorium. Responding with bravery uncommon even in adults, the Jam dances steadily to the end of the hour.

While most Americans know something about ballet and gymnastics, and many kids study these forms, modern dance remains foreign. The kids in the Dance Jam were brought up on it. Before the Jam was even a hope, the San Francisco-based modern dance company ODC began taking The Velveteen Rabbit, its alternative to the Nutcracker, on tour around the country. ODC co-director and Rabbit choreographer KT Nelson encountered children who, she says, "could either do nothing--skip and do cartwheels--or were in rigid programs. I got dancer or gymnast. I didn't get the human being. I felt there's something else possible working with kids."

In fact, she didn't just feel this potential. She experienced it with every new crop of Rabbit dancers she recruited from city schools, auditions, and among dancers' children. Four years ago, after years of witnessing the expansive imaginations and enthusiasms of her bunnies, Nelson established the invitation-only, tuition-free troupe. At the same time, ODC inaugurated its extensive modern dance program for children ages 6 to 12.

The Dance Jam kids meet twice a week for three-hour sessions in which they study technique and composition, and rehearse the original works they perform. Half of their time is spent in class. "This isn't the floating scarves school of modern dance," instructor Livia Blankman explains. "It's serious, rigorous. What I teach the kids, I would teach adults." She emphasizes not only proper alignment but also the body's weight and how to move big. "In ballet, it's more about holding up and staying up," says Rachael. "In modern, you can release and go with your weight."

After class, the kids rehearse with Nelson and other active Bay Area choreographers. Within the wide-open parameters of "modern dance," they're exposed to many movement and choreographic styles. "You can really feel the difference between each choreographer," says Max. Some know exactly what they want, and just teach it. Others give instructions by which the dancers create their own phrases, later integrated into the piece.

In modern dance, choreographic talent and skill as a dancer are considered mutually reinforcing: if you know how dance is made, you'll be better at dancing it, and vice versa. In the Jam, Nelson regularly takes time from rehearsal to teach composition. "They're rich with ideas and energy, and they just need tools. We teach them what's possible inside a leg or arm or back phrase. There's an overall style, there's introduction, theme, variation, and development. And there's an unusual thing outside the syntax of the phrase, whether it's a grace note or a little pocket of information. They're learning all these ways of building their imagination out into the world."

And they're doing it years before most dancers. "This group of kids will have accessed the tools of choreography not in college but when their minds were more connected to their imaginations," Nelson says. "If they keep going, we could have a really interesting generation of choreographers."

Rachael describes the power of the Dance Jam this way: "Imagine your favorite, favorite thing and times it by ten thousand. To make up stuff--oh my gosh! People are like, `Wow, that's really beautiful!' And you're like, `Wow, I made that up!' And to dance! You're filled with energy. Even when you're going slow, you're just electrified. You're completely out--everything is just coming out."

The Dance Jam will perform in San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater as part of ODC's Spring Season April 20, 22, and 25. For more information, call (415) 863-6606.
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Title Annotation:ODC Dance Jam youth modern dance company
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Apr 1, 2000
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