What does theater dance mean today? On Broadway, we’ve recently seen everything from hip-hop in Hamilton to pointe work in Anastasia. As a result, theater dance class can truly run the gamut when it comes to genre and even music. “A jazz, tap, or modern class will focus on specific codified technical training,” explains Jim Cooney, who teaches theater dance and serves as the educational department’s resident faculty advisor here at Broadway Dance Center. “In theater class, we work on storytelling, style, and musicality. You focus on communicating the story–what you’re thinking and feeling—through dance. It’s like an acting class, but instead of text we’re using movement.”
And to Jim, theater class should be a staple for every dancer. “Versatility is so important nowadays,” he says. “Theater dancers should be taking all different styles. But other dancers should be taking theater as well! Whether you’re in a classical ballet or a Beyoncé video, it’s still about storytelling.”
Jim got the dance bug as a kid during a visit to the happiest place on earth, Disney World. “I loved the shows!” he recalls. As soon as he returned home to Cleveland, Ohio, Jim dove into dance, singing, and acting classes. “I wasn’t drawn to one particular style,” he says. “I loved the whole art form.”
But, as his father had warned, Jim’s middle school peers made fun of him for taking dance lessons. “I quit until I got into high school, where you could take dance at the local college instead of gym class. Being a part of the theater community in high school was much more supportive.”
Jim continued taking dance class and participating in his high school’s musicals. “I had always thought that I wanted to be a school teacher,” Jim remembers. “But when my dad bought me tickets to see the Broadway Series in Cleveland, I realized, ‘Wait, this is a job?!’”
After graduating high school, Jim went on to study musical theater at Otterbein University. “I learned pretty quickly that I preferred the creative side,” he admits. “In high school, I would choreograph shows for my middle school, in college I worked as a teaching assistant, and in shows I always served as dance captain. When I was performing, I got bored once the show opened! My dream was never to be front and center on stage. I wanted to be part of making the bigger picture come together.”
Choreographing and teaching came naturally to Jim. “I’m a sponge. I love learning and feel like no matter the style or teacher, I can always gain insight and knowledge from taking class. I feel like I’m a good teacher because I’m a good student,” he explains.
When asked what else makes a good dance teacher, Jim emphasizes three key points: 1) creating a safe environment for learning, 2) making class fun, and 3) being aware of the current needs of the industry and tailoring class accordingly. “As teachers, we can’t just teach the same way we were taught,” Jim explains. “The business is changing and it’s our job to train dancers to be successful.”
Jim began teaching at Broadway Dance Center back in 2003, and his theater class has grown acclaimed for its diverse repertoire. “Each week, I work on a different time period, a different genre of dance, and a completely different feel,” Jim says. “Nowadays it is so important for dancers to be versatile.” And as a teacher and choreographer, Jim is as versatile as they come. “Some choreographers are known for a specific style or way of moving,” Jim notes. “But for me, I don’t feel limited to one style of dance. No matter the project, I feel totally free to create.”
Nor is Jim limited to one level of students. “I teach everyone from absolute beginners to Broadway professionals,” Jim notes. “Everyone has life experience to bring to the table. So no matter if it’s a jazz square or a quadruple pirouette, the ability to tell a story is at the core.”
As faculty advisor for the training programs here at BDC, Jim acts as a sort of bridge between the educational department and the greater industry. “As a working choreographer, I’m relaying what I’m seeing at auditions and hearing from casting directors.” This direct connection to what industry professionals are looking for is what makes BDC’s educational programs–The Professional Semester, Training Program, and International Student Visa Program–so unique. “First of all, you’re in New York,” explains Jim. “And you’re learning from players who are currently active in the business. It’s an incredible networking opportunity to meet, connect, and create relationships.” But what sets BDC apart most from other similar training programs? “We emphasize the importance of being nice,” Jim says. “In a business that’s stereotypically cutthroat, we focus on the fact that you can be both successful and supportive.”
Wearing his many hats as teacher, choreographer, and faculty advisor, Jim has noticed significant trends in what’s going on in the dance world today. “Dancers these days have the most access to information thanks to the Internet,” he explains. “There are so many opportunities to train at conventions, workshops, and intensives. And as live entertainment has become such a key part of pop culture, dancers have more job opportunities in terms of commercials, live events, and more.”
However, with those advancements come several setbacks as well. “Having everything at your fingertips can create a lazy attitude,” Jim notes. “Dancers sometimes take these resources and opportunities for granted, or they expect this career to be easy. It’s anything but! Especially because versatility is so valued today, you have to be a smart and hardworking dancer.”
To Jim, dance class is that safe place to fall down, stand back up, and grow stronger. “If you’re only taking a class to get footage for your social media, you’re not present in your journey,” he says. “Rent a studio and spend the time and effort to cultivate quality footage where you can look and feel your best. Don’t take class for granted–use the opportunity to challenge yourself.”
“The most rewarding part of teaching,” Jim says, “is when a student tells me he or she has booked a job! My goal is to help get them working, keep them working, and reach their dreams.” You can catch Jim’s Intermediate Theater class at Broadway Dance Center on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1:30-3pm.
By Mary Callahan