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Blog: Hama Dance Center: One of the Last Bastions of Lyrical Jazz in L.A.

Victorian Chick's ode to Hama and the lyrical jazz tradition he and his teachers at Hama Dance Center keep alive in a world dominated by hip hop.

Dance was a central part of my life in high school but when I went to college in New Haven (Yale), I never sought out a class or a teacher. While I had not danced my senior year at Westlake School for Girls (pre-merger, yes I'm old) due to injuries, I was picky about dance. By 1989, I had transitioned out of dance and into low impact aerobics and body sculpting (or "stretch and tone") which I taught at Main Street Dance and Exercise in Santa Monica, now the second branch of Yogaworks. 

My dance life from 8th to 11th grade had nothing to do with school, though then- dance teacher Cynthia Bonner was an exquisite dancer with a ballerina body trained by Margalit and other UCLA modern dance luminaries. Advanced Dance was a big deal and the annual concerts among the largest draws of any sporting or arts event, but it was modern and emphasized choreography. This was of no interest to me. I didn't want to choreograph; I wanted a great teacher to tell me what to do and how to do it!

Yaledancers was no more appealing to me, in part because it too emphasized choreography. But perhaps more to the point, after you study with Hama or one of his proteges in a major dance studio in LA (or NYC), almost no one measures up. I assisted for his protege Tracey Durbin, now at the Northwest Dance Project, and while she blended jazz and modern beautifully, I was unlikely to be impressed by a college-level dance troupe not directed by anyone of note. 

In March of 2011, after a two decades hiatus, I started studying at Luigi in Manhattan (48th between Central Park West and Columbus) and this summer I took the Intensive (5 hours a day for a week). Francis Roach teaches the classes (style at 11AM and 7PM and intermediate/advanced at 1PM) but Luigi often comes to class and directs the combination. The reverence and love his students of 10, 20, 30 or more years feel for him is palpable and my classes at Luigi are one of many reasons I live in Manhattan 3 months a year. 

However, even after many classes at Luigi (where there is no across the floor or work specifically on turns), my turns and spotting leave much to be desired and I'm not ready for Hama's class on Saturdays. Still, it gives me such joy to see Hama when I come to Risa's calss. Risa is a simply luminous dancer with a sweet disposition which puts you instantly at ease even when you're bumbling around as I do, unfamiliar with her style.

Two weeks ago I was leaving and recognized a woman who taught turns in the 1980s at Santa Monica Dance Center on Lincoln (now a carpet store or something quite depressing) and when I said, "Kris from SMDC?" she threw her arms around me and it felt like coming home to a dance community I'd been away from 20 plus years.

Many of the same women taking Hama's class both at SMDC and Katnap on Venice Blvd by the high school continue to study with him and it really is a family (minus the drama which attends dance at this level, particularly with proteges vying for attention or assistants young enough still to be contemplating a career in or around dance). 

Risa doesn't teach Luigi (or the similar yet distinct Hama style) but her class is spectacular with a shortish warmup--25 minutes or so--followed by about 15 or 20 minutes of across the floor and then a combination. 

I also love Jerry Evans' class but sometimes he has other jobs as a film editor and I have missed him both at Hama and Van Nuys Performing Arts Center. Jerry has choreographed over a dozen major films including The Mask with Jim Carrey. You can see clips both of Risa's and Jerry's combinations on the studio's website.  

Jerry's class is too advanced for me at this point. I will be taking some privates with Risa when I return from 3 weeks in NYC and then I hope to start taking his Monday 1:30 PM class. 

Studios like this can't make it on the Westside with its astronomical rents unless, like Westside School of Ballet, they cater to children and adolescents studying several hours a day.

I've had a lot of fun coming to Studio City for class and then parking at Sammy's Woodfired Grill, whose tomato basil soup and mini-duck tacos with kafir, feta and prodigious amounts of cilantro with a 7 dollar special white or red. 

The classes are not large and it occurs to me that while it is true (and to me lamentable) that hip hop has supplanted classical, lyrical jazz even on Broadway and in NYC, some people in the Valley might not know just how special this studio is. Francis Roach, artistic director of Luigi Jazz Dance Centre at Studio Maestro on the Upper West Side, regards it as something of a mission to keep the history and tradition of Luigi alive.

While no teacher in LA teaches pure Luigi style (or uses music like Frank Sinatra, Eydie Gorme, Ella Fitzgerald, or Oscar Peterson), Hama, Jerry, and Risa--while very different from one another--keep lyrical jazz alive in LA.  It's worth a drive from the West Side: if that isn't an endorsement, I don't know what is! 

Note: It's always good to call ahead as classes do get canceled with some regularity and they do not hire subs like Westside School of Ballet where my mother of 73 takes three or four beginning or intermediate ballet classes per week.  

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Erik Anderson February 10, 2013 at 08:03 PM
I don't know anything about dance, but it's a pleasure to read something by someone who does.
Victoria Ordin February 10, 2013 at 08:20 PM
Glad you enjoyed it. There is one factual error: Luigi is 48 W. 68th Street. NOT 48th Street. Also it could be more explicit that Hama, early 80s, was a main protege of Luigi, now 87. A recent Dance Magazine tribute of many pages traces Luigi's enormous influence in the world of jazz dance as one of its fathers/founders.

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