That choreographer leading Isaac E. Young Middle School’s young actors in a dance number from
Once on This Island wasn’t much older than the students in his charge when he made his debut on Broadway.
The student drama group is rehearsing the musical with the help of Jason E. Bernard, a professional dancer and tap dance choreographer who was 17 when he performed in
Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk. Now here he was the other day in the IEYMS auditorium, bringing his know-how from the Great White Way.
“Bring it down
sloooowwllyy,” he guided them in one move, as they all pulled their hands in from an upward reach. Then, finishing with an outward thrust of the palms: “Boom!”
His work with the students comes thanks to the show’s director, Shawana Kemp, a special education teacher who took over the drama club this year. She has some stage experience herself from an earlier career that included a stint in the traveling show of
The Tap Dance Kid. (She was then the age of her current students, and turned 13 on the road.)
Kemp has renamed the IEYMS drama club Jazz Hand – it’s a working name – and she plans on bringing in more professionals to work with the students on all aspects of theater. Performers, stage managers and others will nurture students’ interests in the myriad career possibilities.
Watching the students at one rehearsal, she said; “Some of them already know all the steps; they’re budding choreographers.”
Once on This Island, a musical about class division and the power of love on a tropical island, is an ambitious show to stage. It is all song with virtually no spoken lines, like an opera.
“The songs melt into each other, so you have to know your place,” said sixth grader Makayla Herrera. “You’re telling a story through singing.”
Kemp expects the group to stage the show in March. The exact date hasn’t been chosen yet. There’s even talk, not yet finalized, of performing at the Brooklyn Public Library. The students have been practicing since November and sixth grader Makayla Lawrence, who plays the lead role Ti Moune felt up to the challenge.
“I don’t stress it because they tell us to listen to Broadway music so we have a taste of it,” she said.
Also, they have Kemp’s guidance, and Bernard’s help honing their skills for this show and beyond.
“They have natural talent and natural rhythm. It’s a matter of helping them to shape it,” Bernard said. “We want to mold that special gold into a piece of jewelry.”
They’ll get a whole new perspective on Bernard when they go to Radio City to see him perform in
Riverdance 25th Anniversary. Already, his energy gives them a boost.
“He makes us want to dance,” Herrera said. “It’s really fun.”