Dance Performer Jamal Story Makes Impact on SMU Dancers While Teaching Master Classes
Formerly with Cher, Madonna and Complexions, Story Shares Insight with Students
The following is a first person account of Jamal Story's residency with the Meadows Dance Department by dance major Chrysta Brown (B.F.A. Dance '10).
I remember meeting Elijah Wood at a Starbucks in Manhattan. Well, maybe “meeting” isn’t the right word - maybe “seeing” is better. No, I’m pretty sure the right word is “gawking,” defined as “staring openly and stupidly.” So, yes, I remember gawking at Elijah Wood at a Starbucks in Manhattan. Which, now that it is written down in plain black and white, is a really embarrassing confession, but it happened and I can’t take it back. In my defense, he’s famous. I might have reacted differently had I not been getting over an unfortunately long Lord of the Rings obsession. In my mind, he was still 3 feet tall and an important figure for the survival of the free world. Regardless of reality and the fact that I had been wearing heels and he barely came up to my shoulder, all I could do was gawk. He did smile, though it was an awkward smile, which I guess was an apropos reaction. Smiling was the cordial thing to do but I could tell he thought I was an idiot. Thank the Lord I didn’t drool . . . or that if I did, neither one of us remembers.
The first time I heard about Jamal Story was my freshman year at SMU. Honestly, I had no idea who he was. “YOU DON’T KNOW JAMAL STORY?!” was typically the reaction. After taking a moment to recover from my ignorance, they would go on to tell me that he graduated from SMU with degrees in dance and communications, had danced with Cher and Madonna, had danced with Complexions in New York, and had performed on Broadway. I would hear about it at least twice every semester. He was pretty much larger than life by my senior year.
In high school we had a master class with an alumnus who was dancing with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. I remember three things about that class, the primary one being that he made it perfectly clear we were NOT as good as he was. So when I got an email saying that THE Jamal Story, whose career was a combination of individual dreams of most of the senior dancers, would be teaching class Wednesday through Friday, I prepared myself for a recurrence of that “humbling” high school experience.
A few of us were standing near the call board, discussing the upcoming Winspear Opera House performance in the spring with Debbie Barr-Truitt, when a group of three people walked up to the door of dance studio B120 and asked if anyone was inside. We told them no, so they went in. “We’re just being nosy,” one of them said. They exited the studio and looked at the audition board. “There’s a Jamal!” one of them said, “and he spells his name like yours!” The one called Jamal took a moment to celebrate the coincidence and then asked if there were rehearsals happening that night. “Yes,” I answered, “but it’s the first day back from break so maybe you don’t want to come tonight.” “Oh, no! We’ll be in later in the week. I’m Jamal, I’m an alum,” he said, shaking each of our hands. “I’m Dana. I graduated in ’02,” said his companion. She also shook our hands. Then they walked away. “That was Jamal Story,” Debbie said, in a way that only she can, and went on to tell how he had done every enviable thing in the dance world. “Interesting...” I thought, “you would have thought that someone would have mentioned he was so personable.”
A few days later I was in his first master class. “Now I don’t know this combination so we’ll figure it out together,” he said. He walked around the room while we were dancing and reminded us to breathe and offered corrections and was so encouraging when we made even the tiniest amount of progress that you couldn’t help but have a small personal celebration. “People in the real world care a lot less,” he said during one of the two question and answer sessions he had with us, regarding the biggest difference between SMU and the world outside.
In one of the classes he gave us movement to do across the floor. Most of our movement, although creative, was far from correct. Through laughter he said, “I applaud you for making choices. You didn’t know the combination but at least you did something.” He used that as an opportunity to give a lesson about the best ways to pick up smaller details which could be used to inform the larger picture. At our level of training he said that we did not necessarily need to focus on things like “getting the leg up,” but rather how the leg ascended. We didn’t need to know that the arms extended to our sides – we needed to know whether they shot directly out or whether they unfolded to reach their destination. “It’s those details,” he said, “that will help you get hired.”
Jamal’s classes had a strong educational aspect to them. Every combination or correction was infused with information that was directly applicable to movements we would do later in the class. “The best thing you can have,” he said when offering advice about surviving life as a professional dancer, “is a lot of information.” In addition to that both he and Dana (Ingraham, who was in Dallas performing in the touring show of The Color Purple) recommended constant preparation. “Your job is to be ready!” Dana stressed, and continued by telling about a performance she did for choreographer Karole Armitage in Italy. “I started out in a pointe shoe, I switched to a tap shoe...” She paused as if mentally performing the piece. “Did I put on a pump?” Jamal picked up where Dana left off, saying that people often ask him how he switched from Cher to Complexions. “The answer is to be ready,” he said.
Jamal Story also gave advice on dance career preparation. He and Dana gave a list of agencies in New York and California as well as resources for finding auditions. He went to the board and wrote out his resume, which consisted of names such as Cher, Madonna, Donald Byrd, and performances with Complexions, The Color Purple, and the Video Music Awards. “With your resume, you want to put yourself in a position so that whoever’s auditioning you has to ask you questions,” he said. But above all, Jamal stressed integrity: “Be careful of the contracts you sign.” Apparently, six degrees of separation is shorted to four in the dance world. “People talk,” he said, warning us to guard our reputations. “Ladies,” Dana said, “it’s harder for us but remember, this,” she motioned to her body, “is your instrument. You use it to market yourself, not sell yourself.” She told us to hold those words if we ever found ourselves in a position that challenged that. In literature, you know a phrase is important if the author feels the need to say it multiple times. “This is your instrument,” she said again.
I got the opportunity to talk to Jamal privately after class his last day. “Is there a place to get coffee around here that isn’t Starbucks?” he asked. I was bitterly reminded that they closed Dunkin Donuts, which is a story for another day. So we got in his car and went to Pearl Cup where he got a Mexican Hot Chocolate and introduced himself to the barista who was making our drinks. He asked me what I wanted to do with dance. I told him I wanted to be a human rights choreographer. “Do you want to choreograph on human rights issues or be a part of the movement?” he asked. I had never thought about that question. It was actually the first time I’d even said it out loud. He thought about it and told me which companies, as well as the types of companies, to audition for and illustrated each suggestion with a story from his life. He asked me where I was from and about my family. I told him about my sister who is going to graduate school at the University of Denver and wants to work for a nonprofit and my mother who expects us both to be wealthy someday. He told me about his aunt who plays the violin and wrote a novel. I told him about our SMU guest choreographer Donald McKayle and having the opportunity to perform a solo in his work Songs of the Disinherited at last year’s fall dance concert. “Were you Angelitos?” he asked. I nodded – confessing to have performed that solo is still very surreal. “You look like an Angelitos,” he said. He told me he’d done one of the original versions of Songs for the Lula Washington Dance Theater. He knew all the parts and showed me some of the evolutions that had taken place within the choreography, although the enclosed seating arrangement of the coffee shop prevented him from doing them fully. When we got back to SMU he put on the music and we compared versions.
Timing is an interesting phenomenon. I am in my last semester of college and people keep asking me what I am going to do with my life. My answer is usually “Buy a puppy,” and up until a few months ago that was as far as I had gotten with the writing of my future. Then a few months ago, I heard someone mention Donald Byrd, and I looked him up. As someone who loves choreographing, I was interested in the proactive role he requires of his dancers, but it was his blog, particularly the entry about television, that intrigued me. I asked Jamal how it was working with Donald Byrd. He laughed. “Hard,” he said, “but so rewarding.” He went on to tell me how much is required of a Donald Byrd dancer emotionally and physically. He said the best way to prepare for that type of work is cross training and vulnerability. He showed me a few pieces from the company’s repertoire and told me some of the logistics of Byrd’s choreographic process.
I followed him as he went to say goodbye to department chair Myra Woodruff, who was involved in the rehearsal for the upcoming Winspear performance. “Did you get to spend time with this one?” she asked, motioning to me. “Yes,” he replied, “I’m helping her plan her life.” Fortunately, I will have at the very least tentative plans beyond a puppy.
My dad says that important people make other people feel important. Jamal Story taught the Modern and Advanced Ballet classes during his residency, led two question and answer sessions, and gave us practical advice for life after SMU. I was expecting twenty minutes of his time and he gave me three hours. His dancing was impressive, his class was insightful, but what I remember most was how humble he was. “People expect dancers that have done what I’ve done to be divas,” he said, “but whatever.” Jamal Story came to SMU intending to teach a few classes, but he brought more than a lesson in technique and resumes – he brought a lesson in humility, kindness, and character that will last us long after our dance careers have ended.