Billy Siegenfeld is one cool cat. A dance faculty member at Northwestern University and founder of the Jump Rhythm Jazz Project, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, he is the creator of an innovative dance technique that seems so simple it is a wonder it was not thought of before.
“I’m a rhythm person,” Mr. Siegenfeld says, “I was a drummer. I love rhythmic music, and I dance rhythmically,” he adds.
Rhythmic dancing is not as simple as it looks, nor is it new. Mr. Siegenfeld refers to Fred Astaire as one of the great American rhythm dancers: “He moved rhythmically with his whole body.”
In 1990, Mr. Siegenfeld was dancing in New York and was drawn to tap and African dancing. Though he had an interest in both styles, he says, there was always something missing in each. “One was rhythmic but without meter. And in tap, they only used their legs [to dance].” Unsatisfied, he set out to create a disciplined technique that used the whole body to express emotion.
After gathering a following in New York City, Mr. Siegenfeld was invited to teach at a number of schools around the country, including Northwestern University, where he now teaches. In 2005, he was made a Fulbright Senior Scholar, which led him to travel to Finland. He teaches his Jump Rhythm technique there annually at the Arts Academy of Turku University of Applied Sciences.
The Jump Rhythm technique uses the theory and practice of “ideokinesis,” an approach to posture and movement that Mr. Siegenfeld says promotes healthy and efficient musculo-skeletal function. He describes it as “simply” stacking bones on top of each other and “standing down straight.” Traditional jazz, tap, modern and ballet techniques usually focus on holding the body up to promote the feeling of weightlessness.
Mr. Siegenfeld says that his technique moves with gravity and focuses on inner strength. “It’s a full-bodied technique. We use energy to elicit an inside source of motion, because that’s where energy comes from – it’s not outside, it’s inside,” he said.
That inner energy and strength is where it all begins, according to the Jump Rhythm technique. Mr. Siegenfeld compares it to pushing a piano or lifting a heavy box. “You won’t see a dancer push a piano from fifth position,” he said, referring to a basic ballet position.
Since the Jump Rhythm technique is so different from traditional dance techniques, the dancers for JRJP are not easy to come by. “It’s hard to find dancers who are able to let their weight go,” Mr. Siegenfeld says. Rather than holding open auditions to pick one dancer out of 50, the company holds intensive programs during which dancers take classes and learn choreography over the course of a week. “We get to know dancers better that way,” Mr. Siegenfeld says.
Even in its warm-up, a Jump Rhythm class is different from a traditional warm-up. A jazz, modern or ballet class would have dancers warming up with exercises and stretches to get the body moving, but Mr. Siegenfeld has even transformed this process. “Traditional stretching pulls the bones away from each other. We work with the body as it was meant to be worked with,” Mr. Siegenfeld says. “We let go of the bones and let the body move,” he adds.
In addition to moving their bodies, Jump Rhythm dancers also sing and scat while dancing. Mr. Siegenfeld says that, since the voice is one of the main rhythm-makers in the body, it should be incorporated into his “full-bodied technique.”
JRJP stays busy with many performances, intensives and workshops. The group’s most recent work is a three-part piece called “Why Gershwin?”
“We tell stories and elicit emotions through rhythm,” Mr. Siegenfeld says. “Dancing with rhythm is an emotional activity.”.
“A lot of dance is about ‘showing’ to be elegant and is based on appearances,” Mr. Siegenfeld said. “Jump Rhythm uses the principles of confidence, elegance and strength.