Eric Jenkins on committing to your journey as a dancer

“I’ve always danced,” says Eric Jenkins. Whatever dances the kids were doing in his Maryland hometown, Eric was a part of the action. But everything changed when Eric saw the music video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” “I begged my mom to go buy the VHS so I could watch it over and over,” recalls Eric. “Even back as a kid, I knew to mirror the choreography when I was learning it!”

Music videos were a huge influence for Eric. “I loved Janet Jackson’s ‘What Have You Done for Me Lately?’” he adds. “I noticed the same dancers would appear in different videos and dance backup for different artists. That’s when I realized this is a career…to always, always dance!”

And dance he did! “I’m the youngest in my family, and my bedroom was the smallest one upstairs in our house,” Eric says. “They would hear me stomping and yell at me to turn my music down.” In high school, Eric’s parents moved his bedroom to the basement. “I could crank my music and do all the dancing I wanted,” he laughs.

Though Eric didn’t take formal dance classes, performing and choreographing seemed to just come naturally to him–and people began to take notice. “In middle school choir we sang ‘Hand Jive’ from GREASE,” Eric says. “I was so into it that they made me audition for show choir (like glee club) so I could really dance.” And in high school, Eric blew his classmates away at his school’s talent show. “I became popular for being ‘the kid who could dance.’”

After high school, Eric attended the University of Maryland: Baltimore County where he majored in visual and performing arts with a concentration in dance. “I didn’t really know what I was getting into,” Eric admits. “I didn’t understand the terminology. I thought ‘modern’ dance meant the stuff that everyone was doing now. So, I figured, ‘Oh, I’m ready for that.’ I was in for a rude awakening…but I ended up loving it!” In addition to modern, Eric trained in ballet, jazz, and African dance throughout his college career.

Eric made the big move to New York City after he graduated from college. “When I was new to the city, I had a job interview at The GAP,” remembers Eric. “I didn’t know the subway system well and I was turned away for being a few minutes late.” Disappointed, Eric popped into a nearby dance studio. On the call board he noticed an audition for Jeté, a jazz dance company founded by J.T. Jenkins. It must be true what they say about When one door closes, another one opens, because after being turned away from The GAP, Eric auditioned and booked a spot in the dance company.

Eric went on to dance for artists and in countries around the world. “I would scan Backstage Magazine every week for upcoming auditions,” Eric says. He went on to dance for the New York Liberty women’s basketball team and for a big Toyota industrial in Japan.  He also danced with artists like Brandy, Missy Elliott, and Ricky Martin. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing for Eric, who worked part-time at Au Bon Pain between performing gigs. “There were a lot of ups and downs,” Eric says. “Money in the bank, then no money in the bank. The struggle was real.”

At one point, Eric finally quit his side job, determined to invest more time and energy into his craft. He began subbing at Broadway Dance Center for teachers like Chio, Jermaine Brown, and Rhapsody. “I got my permanent slot–Thursdays at 9pm–on July 8th, 2004,” Eric smiles, having recently celebrated 15 years here at BDC. “My class is billed as Hip-Hop/Street Jazz. It’s a combination of hip-hop elements with a stylized form of jazz and bringing that together. I like fluidity of going in and out of both of those styles.”

Broadway Dance Center has been a special place for Eric both as a teacher and as a student. “Years ago, I was taking class and Travis Payne, Michael Jackson’s choreographer, scouted me for a gig.” In his own classes, Eric focuses on performance quality as much as the choreography itself. “You’re going to mess up,” Eric says. “It’s up to you to not let your mistakes hold you back. As a choreographer, you can teach steps, but you can’t teach passion. Don’t let technique get in the way of your performance because you never know what opportunities might be around the corner.”

For many street style dancers, performing for an artist is the ultimate goal. From experience, Eric knows that dancing backup is sometimes not all it’s cracked up to be. “There will be dark before you get to the light,” he explains. “Learn from your experiences and make it worth it. Approach each new job smarter than your last. That might mean you end up walking away from something. Changing direction is okay. Just commit to staying present in your journey.”

Eric practices what he preaches. Teaching classes and creating choreography every week can be challenging, especially when your job is to inspire an entire class of students every day. “I get inspired by music,” says Eric. “I listen to songs and don’t even realize I’m choreographing in my head!” But sometimes, when choreographing feels more like a chore, Eric watches performances from artists (like Missy Elliott’s recent show for the VMAs) or pops into a class outside of his genre. “I like to move differently every once in a while, with class from Cecilia Marta or Brice Mousset. It helps open myself up and feel free to explore in my own classes.”

In addition to teaching drop-in classes at BDC, Eric also assists with the International Student Visa Program placement auditions. “I imagine it’s overwhelming to be in a new environment trying to grasp the concept and choreography without fully understanding the language,” Eric says. “When I teach at these auditions, I try to lighten the mood and to communicate differently. Sometimes sounds and noises can tell you a feeling where a count can’t. I see the intimidation in these auditions, but I also see the joy. The students are so ready, willing, and open–it’s awesome.”

Eric’s favorite part of dancing has not changed since he was a little kid jamming to Michael Jackson in his upstairs bedroom. “I love being able to create, and then to see something you create come to life and make other people happy,” Eric acknowledges. “When you do what you love, you never know what kind of amazing experiences will open up to you.”

For Neil Schwartz, BDC is home

This year Broadway Dance Center celebrates its 35th anniversary. In those three and a half decades, BDC has trained and inspired thousands of dancers, and also cultivated professional performers and talented teachers. For one such eager student-turned-adored teacher, Neil Schwartz, Broadway Dance Center has always been home. 

“I’m the baby of the family,” says Neil. “I always mimicked what my siblings did, and I started watching MTV at a young age.” Neil vividly remembers being inspired by the music videos of Paula Abdul and Janet Jackson. “I’ve always loved female entertainers,” he explains. “There’s something so bad-ass and powerful about strong female characters.”

At 7 years old, Neil began taking dance lessons at a local studio on Long Island. A family friend recommended Neil train at Broadway Dance Center. The rest is history!

12-year-old Neil would take class every week from Bev Brown and Chio. He continued taking classes throughout high school before heading to the University of Maryland to pursue a degree in Psychology. “I knew I loved helping people,” says Neil. “But I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I felt very lost.”

On a spring break vacation, however, Neil’s life completely changed. “At 21, I suffered a blood clot in my right leg that caused pulmonary embolisms in my lungs. I was very overweight at the time, and doctors told me I had a 50/50 chance to live. At that traumatic moment, I vowed to turn my life around.”

Neil’s health journey began with one simple thought, “As soon as I get out of the hospital, I have to dance,” he recalls with a solemn conviction. “I have to do what makes me happiest.” After graduating college, Neil returned home to Broadway Dance Center to participate in the Fall Intern Program (now the Professional Semester). “It was a huge eye-opener,” Neil remembers. “It was scary in a good way. It was my first taste of the ‘industry,’ and I realized I had so much to learn.” Neil trained with his mentors, Sheryl Murakami, Rhapsody James, Luam, and Eric Jenkins. He also credits ballet teachers, Dorit Koppel and Peter Schabel, for helping him accept and understand his body. 

It was during his internship that Neil also began choreographing for BDC’s Student Showcases. “The BDC Intern Program guided me in a lot of ways,” says Neil. “I realized my place in the industry was as a choreographer and teacher.” Neil admits he’s happiest when he’s creating, connecting, and inspiring others to be themselves. His goal…to teach at his home, Broadway Dance Center. The journey wasn’t easy. As a former student, Neil had to prove himself not only to the senior faculty at BDC, but also to himself. “It took me a year and a half to sub at BDC and another year and a half before I got my own slot,” he recalls. “Luam, Brian Green, Rhapsody James, Candace Brown, and Eric Jenkins all took my class. It was so intimidating. But I had the determination and patience to stick it out. I know that fight made me a stronger teacher.”

This year, Neil celebrates his 10-year anniversary teaching at BDC. “I don’t teach anywhere else,” Neil reveals. “I’m grateful to have been raised at Broadway Dance Center. This is my home.” Neil teaches all levels of Street Jazz, a style of dance inspired by the culture of hip-hop and fused with elements of jazz funk and contemporary influences. “I challenge my students both musically and emotionally,” explains Neil. “Music is like therapy. It impacts me in such a positive, energetic way. I encourage my students to connect to the music in their own way and to exude those feelings in their movement.”

Last year, Neil helped launch “BreakThrough: The Series,” an intimate, intensive workshop where dancers practice performance execution and gain confidence. “This was by far the best workshop I’ve ever been a part of,” Neil gushes. “We became a family in those two days. Dancers get the chance to be filmed, watch the footage, receive notes, and do it again. It’s an incredible opportunity to experiment, learn, and grow. I hope to host another BreakThrough workshop soon!”

For Neil, dance is all about communication. “Whether in the classroom or in an audition, it’s not about perfection,” he says. “I want to see your blood, sweat, and tears. I want to see why you have to dance–how you connect and communicate through your movement.” Neil’s ultimate test? “If my mom can understand, I know I’ve communicated through my choreography,” he laughs.

This idea of connection goes far beyond the “steps” Neil teaches in class. “I try to create a safe environment where dancers feel both challenged and empowered,” Neil explains. “For me, students are number one and I try to give my attention and energy to each dancer. I want them to know, ‘you matter.’” As a teacher, there’s no greater feeling for Neil than watching students achieve goals, push past limits, and break free from adversity. “I had a student once who told me my class empowered her to leave an abusive relationship.” That’s the sign of a truly great teacher, making an impact that goes far beyond the studio.

Whether you’re embarking on your own dance, professional, health, or emotional journey, Neil has the same advice: “Surround yourself with a good supportive system of friends and mentors. There is no shame in needing help. Dance can be the best therapy.” And remember that Broadway Dance Center is always your home away from home.