At the old train depot in Oxford, a spirited piano composition played on a CD player as members of the freddyJet dance troupe performed. The girls’ fingers flittered and filtered downward like snowflakes, which is fitting for what they are about to do — stage a show named “Frost” to celebrate the winter season.
Studio owner Rani Welch, who worked for several years as a dancer and teacher in Manhattan and other cities, now coaxes local students into maintaining abdominal control while they stretch, twirl and kick their pointed toes in what she hopes is their idea of personal expression. Her theories behind the style of modern dance she teaches are not as free as it might first appear. Her choreography methods are based on a style made famous by the late Martha Graham, an iconic figure in American dance.
“She took classical ballet,” said Welch, “and realized it was too confining for her body type. She came up with the Graham technique, a grounded type of dancing.”
Welch, who has a dancer’s slim body, in spite of having recently given birth to a son, follows Graham’s style of dancing with bare feet and deep-to-the-floor bends. Although the moves are based on ballet and other strict forms of dance, contemporary dance allows a freer style of movement that is not restricted to a youth’s height or weight. Welch not only uses modern dance theories to choreograph the pieces for dancers, but also she allows students to make choreography decisions of their own.
For instance, in the piece they practiced for their show, the students lined up shoulder-to-shoulder and performed several synchronized dance moves. They held their poses as each came out front and performed solos or danced in tandem. During the practice session, Welch urged each to try and re-try her solo in order to make the most of her featured moment.
The girls bent and swayed their legs like wintry trees.
“A lot of ballets are fairy tales,” said Welch, “light and beautiful, but unrealistic. Graham thought there should be more to dance than that.”
The freddyJet dancers stage a show each month, the next on Thursday, at 7 p.m. at the studio. Welch choreographs each show by first asking the students what issues they are dealing with. Sometimes, the students want to express a concern they have at school, or they want to express something happy or sad. She chooses three or four of their basic exercises and groups them together as a basis for the dance. Then, for the same piece, she will also help the students express their feelings through movements they create. Contemporary dance, she said, deals with realism, current issues, in-your-face feelings — all different kinds of storytelling.
“Within the structure of each piece there are partnering moves — mirroring exercises where they watch a dancer and follow her — and improvisation.
Apparently, Welch’s students enjoy her methods.
“I have been dancing for only a month or two,” said Susie Fox, age 16. “I’m doing this for exercise and fun — not to become a ballerina.”
Another student, 10-year-old Savanna Lambert, has been dancing for two years. “Even when I am resting,” she said, “I think about my movements.”
Welch said she often gets positive feedback from parents. She’s received many emails stating how a child has grown more confident after taking dance classes. Welch is proud of all of her dance classes, especially the advanced class she teaches on Monday nights, as many have been with her the entire two years since she moved back to Calhoun County. In fact, one of her advanced students, a male dancer, just received a scholarship to the Alabama Ballet in Birmingham. Others danced in “The Nutcracker” ballet that was performed recently in Anniston.
Another challenge in choreographing youths, said Welch, is that she must address what is happening with the changes taking place in their bodies.
“A dance makes dancers vulnerable,” said Welch. “They are asked to put their bodies out there, and that is not easy. I want them to learn to move without fear of someone making fun of them.”
Welch plans to take a group of the advanced dancers to New York in June to take part in the Young Choreographers Series, a competition where youths from across the United States submit their work.
The freddyJet dancers will perform on Thursday, at 7 p.m. at the old Train Depot in Oxford, 15 Spring St. Admission is $5.