BWW Interview: Up-Close with Jazz Dance Teacher Debbie Roshe
Originally published by Bob Rizzo on www.thedancecoach.com
Slick, sassy, and sexy are three key adjectives that describe Debbie Roshe's jazz dance class. You just have to peek into her lively class at STEPS on Broadway to see the energy and passion her students bring to her work. It's clear that her dynamic style brings out the "attitude" in her dancers as it has that cool, "hey, look at me" type of vibe. There's also an element of surprise to her distinctive choreography as she punctuates random counts that most people wouldn't normally choose to emphasize. That unique quality, along with her eclectic choice of music, attracts a wide range of Broadway dancers, Rockettes and commercial dance hopefuls to her class.
As a young dancer growing up in Ohio, Debbie Roshe wanted to be a professional ballerina. She was offered scholarships to study with SAB. When she turned 18 it was either go to New York City or go to college. She chose college and decided on Indiana University that she heard had a great ballet program. After Roshe graduated and arrived in New York City she realized she was too old to dance in a ballet company. So she decided to take her first jazz dance class with none other than Luigi, and fell in love with it.
Roshe eventually landed dance jobs performing on Broadway in Camelot with Richard Burton and Woman of the Year with Lauren Bacall. Her strong ballet technique especially came in handy when she did the national tours of Song and Dance, West Side Story and La Cage Aux Folles.
Becoming a teacher
Roshe continued to study and one day discovered Michael Owens' jazz class. She knew after taking her first class that his style was for her and she never looked back. He became her mentor and she eventually began assisting him and covered some of his classes. When Owens left NYC to move to LA, Roshe wanted to carry on his class. "Michael had a huge following that loved his style, so I figured I'd continue his legacy and structure my class from his work," she says.
Based on Michael Owens' jazz class, her warm-up is about 35 minutes long. She doesn't believe in over-working the body. Included are tendus, isolations, stretches, and floor work, followed by a jazz adage. While many dance instructors have a set adage, Roshe changes hers for each class to also make it a brain exercise for her students. " My jazz adage is stylized, a little slinky, and incorporates extensions, penches and balances to get the dancers on their legs," she explains.
There is a short break after the adage where most of the female dancers change into their character shoes and heels. It seems like a right of passage for some of the younger women in the class as they gear up for attacking Roshe's leggy and stylish choreography. "I will sometimes ask the women to take their hair down in my class," says Roshe. "It's a better look to me and it gives the dancers more freedom to throw themselves into the work."
Following the jazz adage is the final combination that incorporates her trademark "weird counts" and a lot of dynamics. She likes to hold counts, change direction and play with phrasing within the choreography. "I don't like choreography that is always definite, with nothing in between," she says. " I like to serve the places where you're a little more laid back. That way the "punch" seems much stronger."
"I also don't do a lot of technical tricks in my class," she continues. " If I do incorporate a turn or a jump, it has to go within the context of what I'm doing rather than just adding it for show."
Having a very diverse taste in music, Roshe chooses songs that range from 70s rock and roll to rap to Britney Spears. She believes that part of the draw of her class is the fact that she picks such a variety of music to dance to. She likes to use pop music because she finds the beat stronger. "There's a lot of requests for pop music, so I try to stay current, though I personally love the sounds of the 70s, 80s and 90s," she remarks.
On the day of this interview she announced to the class that she was using two songs that were recorded by Chloe Lowery, one of her students in class that day. A ballad and a rock and roll number by her band, Chameleon, had the entire class totally engaged and complemented Roshe's style perfectly.
Most recent choreography project
Roshe just finished the choreography for the music video "Boys Cry More" by RESH. One day after class, one of her students, Marco Palou (a.k.a. RESH), had come up to her and told her he was working on a new song and preparing to shoot a music video. When she asked him who was choreographing it, he said, "You are!"
A real departure from her trademark "women dancing in heels" choreography, this time she worked mainly with men. "My choreography on men has always been different," explains Roshe. "It's even more dynamic, has more turns and jumps and I use the floor a lot. My style really worked for Marco as his performance in the video had that quirky, gender confusion thing going on," she says. "So it worked well for him to do choreography that could be set on women or men."
Her advice for dancers seeking a musical theatre career
Roshe believes that to be a consummate performer you have to take your dance classes seriously. She adds that jazz dancers need to be as sharp as they can be so that the places in the choreography that may be more lyrical make sense. For Roshe, "being dynamic is one of the most important things in a jazz dancer. It also helps them to stand out at auditions." She also strongly encourages students to study voice and take acting class. " They don't hire just dancers nowadays," says Roshe. " You have to be a triple threat to work in a chorus on Broadway."
Debbie Roshe teaches her jazz dance classes weekly at Steps On Broadway
Cover Photo: Kyle Froman Photography