District Information

 Jazz Co

A Historical Perspective

by Charlou Woodrow, Jazz Co Director

Jazz Co is a district-wide program that provides dance experiences and performance opportunities during upper elementary school, middle school and high school. The program has become an essential and prominent part of the school culture, in which dance becomes a vehicle for students to gain insight and discipline, to learn skills of leadership and teamwork, and to integrate knowledge of self and issues through the arts.

The high school company consists of 110 dancers, 20% of the student body. Students are selected after a probationary period based on their dedication and level of responsibility. Jazz Co members work with professional choreographers of national and international renown (including Dan Froot, Jody Oberfelder, and Victoria Marks) during the season to prepare for the annual performance. Students create dances relating to their adolescent experience, and learn the technique of tap, hip-hop, jazz, and theater dance with guest choreographers. The commitment to Jazz Co combines the dedication of a sport with the creativity and performance elements of the arts. A few devoted high school dancers become assistants in the middle school and elementary program thus developing leadership and teaching skills in addition to dance technique and choreography experience. Jazz Co has developed over the past 18 years and evolved into what it is today. To understand the full Jazz Co story we need to go back even further, to my first years at Eastchester.

When I first began teaching at Eastchester in 1969, I was hoping to develop a dance program. I had become totally involved in dance at college and recognized that the addition of dance to the existing physical education and sports program would be of great benefit to the students. I started small with an afternoon intramural. I would meet weekly with a few girls and teach dance steps, create dances and prepare for the annual Sunday Arts Festival. During the late 70s we named our little group, Confetti as we continued sharing a mutual interest in dance.

In the early 80s a few things happened that would change the direction of the dance group. Firstly, I attended the Lincoln Center Institute during the summer of 1980 and began working with dancers and choreographers form NYC. This experience convinced me that the students would benefit from working with professional choreographers. We could all learn more about dance and how dances are created.

Returning after maternity leave in 1982, I began to investigate this idea. A teacher I met at the Lincoln Center Institute in 1983, Victoria Marks, was willing to collaborate. At the same time a new Chorus teacher and theater director, Joy Varley, invited our dance group to join the theater students to dance in the annual Cabaret. It was these productions that trained me to understand the demands of performance and changed my dancers into a company of performers. Now the company, still predominately women, began to include male dancers. Soon the company wanted to change our name from Confetti to something that reflected the dances they performed, thus Jazz Co was created. Next, as a group we decided to add a show of our own to our growing list of performances, so in the spring of 1986 we began with a Thursday performance of an Evening of Dance. Our first performance featured about 20 dancers and an audience of 100. Things have certainly changed. This year 106 dancers performed for an audience of over 2000 members of our school and community during The Weekend of Dance.

Each year at least 10 outside professional choreographers create dances for Jazz Co. Some choreographers work with the students to develop the dances in a partnership, others teach dances from their own company's repertory. As the company expanded in the 90s we added more staff to deal with the many rehearsals and responsibilities, Sue Mariano became the artistic director. The addition of John Gwardyak to our district as auditorium manager has given Jazz Co the chance to explore many new and sophisticated ways of presenting dances with his exceptional talents for lighting and solving all set dilemmas.

My dance work was not only confined to HS Jazz Co. In my teaching I taught dance for many years both at the high school and middle school level as an elective in the physical education classes. In the early 70s I also began an intramural dance program for elementary students grades 3-6 which I taught at Waverly for many years, then at Greenvale and now the fourth and fifth grade dancers join us at the Middle School for class on Thursdays in the Spring. The MS Jazz Co began when I started teaching in the Middle School.

It has grown from a once a week spring intramural to a four day a week intramural with close to 200 hundred members. I have sponsored faculty workshops and community workshops to bring others into the world of dance. As the Jazz Co program took off in the middle 80s, I was lucky to receive many years of funding from the New York Foundation of the Arts. This allowed me to continue my collaboration with Victoria Marks and to add many more artists to our program in collaboration with Victoria; we created our dance retreat, first for the women, and more recently for the men in the company. With Joy Varley and Sue Mariano I redesigned the Arts Festival to showcase the entire Districts attention to the Arts. This began in 1986 and has grown and developed into a premier event in the district. All of our performing and visual arts staff is involved with this weeklong event. This festival has flourished as many members of our art department have taken over the leadership of this event.

This has been my journey at Eastchester, to fulfill my wish in developing a dance program for the students. Although I am the Director of Jazz Co, I did not create it alone. Hundreds of dancers have been involved in its evolution as well as all the wonderful artists that have shared their talents in choreographing. Beside my wonderful staff, hard working officers, I also had much administration and community help along the way. Now 33 years later, Jazz Co is still going strong and of course, always reinventing itself. Jazz Co is a place where students may learn about dance, themselves and performing. What I wish for all the members of Jazz Co past, present, and future, is that they find success, a sense of community, and a love for the arts.

Charlou Woodrow, Jazz Co Director

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