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Uttara Asha Coorlawala
Dance Teacher Profiles
Jazz Dance
Steps on Broadway
United States
New York City
New York
New York, NY

The Body-Mind Dialogue: Nancy Koch's Method of Teaching Jazz

by Uttara Asha Coorlawala
March 2, 2009
Steps on Broadway
2121 Broadway
New York, NY 10023
(212) 874-2410
For more information about Nancy Koch's classes, please email nkoch1@nyc.rr.com .
On one of those I-wish-it-were-spring mornings, I wake up to bones that feel as fragile as crystal, and which might shatter into thousands of bits, with any nudge….Then my body is cajoled into taking Nancy Koch's Advanced Beginner Jazz class, at Steps NYC dance studios (also known as Steps on Broadway). This class consistently has the amazing effect of grounding my body back to its elastic muscular bindings, its resilient abilities. So I embarked on this project of trying to describe what, how and why Nancy teaches in my own effort to understand how it all works for all of us who are committed to her classes.

To start with – the class is for Advanced Beginners (whoever we are)!!! The "Advanced" references the flow and brisk pacing because it assumes some understanding of alignment and dance practice. The warm-up, workout and final performance segments of the class can be accessed at different personal levels of physical ability and are designed for kinesthetic realignment, stretching, strengthening and fun. An advanced level dancer might for example participate in this class so as to more deeply rebalance and strengthen those muscles that get so pounded in performance. Another person might take this class to acquire skills and fluidity in Jazz dancing.

The class most interestingly flows from Koch's own body-space, as she performs the actions alongside a verbal stream of injunctions. She also moves through the room making individual corrections ….and all without missing a count! As a teacher myself, I found this most interesting. We know that each of us has preferred modalities for accessing the process of acquiring the movement and making it our own. One can learn movements by watching it, hearing it described, and by doing alongside other people. Nancy Koch's pedagogical approach includes all modalities of bodily access.

The class consists of 4 segments: an introductory warm-up, barre, center stretches, and jazz combination.

Isolations of the head, shoulders, upper torso and hips introduce a brisk pace, maintained by the tendu, plié with diagonal twists and developpè sequences that follow. Throughout the arms are kept very active so that there is an aerobic component. Nancy believes that our bodies already engage with multiple areas of simultaneous activity, so why not practice and improve this ability.

Participants then move to the barre. In this segment of stretching and strengthening activities, the barre is used for more than stabilizing the "standing side" of the body. One bends over, leans into and pulls away from the barre counterbalanced by the weight of the person on its other side. The opportunity to pull out and away is mined to support and lengthen the deeper muscles of the abdomen and torso while isolating and stretching the forward bending or side bending groups of muscles . Parts of these sequences add on rélevés, élevés and pliés, and so draw attention to how we support such bending and stretching activities at the level of the feet. (For example, I tend to clench my toes. This an indication that I need to re-align my balance.)

Returning to the center, we continue with more phrases and phases of stretch, sitting and squatting, lengthening and strengthening the hamstring group, varied situps for different ab sub-groups. Finally we are rewarded with the jazz combination - let it rip.

Throughout it all, one hears Nancy address our concentration from her experiential space, "pull out of the hips aggressively now… more and less, more and less." (She is referencing how we need to vary tensions in the muscles rather than gripping.)

Between segments we break our intense flow to re-group and perhaps Nancy might address an aspect of the workout like the importance of actively engaging counter groups of muscles at all levels of strengthening and stretching rather than relying predominantly on joint action. She might elaborate upon the postural consequences (clenching the butt in compensation) of excessive attempts to "turn-out" at the hips.

Nancy Koch, erstwhile writer in a photo news agency, studied Journalism at NYU and has been teaching her inspirational sweat and stretch jazz classes at Steps NYC for continuously 20 years. Yet she manages to stay alert and present for every class she teaches each week, So with this uncertain lifestyle of teaching open classes (and variable income) how does one renew herself? Here, Nancy Koch spoke of her "assets" - character traits that enabled renewal - commitment, passion, a deep interest in analyzing and understanding how the human body moves, intellectual curiosity. Over the years, Nancy has incorporated body insights from her movement encounters with other dance classes: Dunham, Limon, Simonson and Restifo's teaching techniques. But her teaching methods encompass more than traditional dance pedagogy in that it also draws also from the culture of fitness and sports clinics. Nancy draws on her experiences with swimming and from her one-on-one work with individuals in various stages of recovery from surgeries, or injuries and is always looking out for more insights.

"It is not that I do any kind of mental exercise with myself to hang in there. The material itself pulls me through. I find that I am always able to stay engaged. I do not really know why. It might be a detriment. The problem is that I continuously enjoy doing it." A supportive cheerleader, Nancy is fully aware of the experiential fulfillment that derives from the deeply human concerns with body and self, that are expressed and shared in the performance of the class routine. She also spoke of "a level of camaraderie that is addictive, a looseness and autonomy that is hard to find in more conventional jobs. There is also a certain kind of denial that you have to be in, or I would still be working at a desk somewhere."

The language of function and pragmatic material at first seems at odds with Nancy's idealistic enthusiasm for dance. However, her analytic delving of the effectiveness of every expended action is not unique to her experience, and the contrast between language and act clues me to look further. Linguists grapple with excavating meaning from strange languages. Translators of past texts try to recover lost contexts…. Foucault calls it archive fever. As dancers, perhaps we too become, as Nancy suggested, addicted to trying to understand perception itself. Various styles of dance enable us to embody perceptual processes of other peoples' bodies in other spaces and states. Finally, it is perception and perceptual process that materialize for us as the vocabulary and grammar of dance.

"Drawing the abdomen in and up, send those hips back – now less, now more…" Somehow, in the shared experiential space of the studio, we understand just exactly what she means. Crystal has turned into bones, safely encased in muscle, tendons, enlivening and pleasurable impulses. Who cares about the sleet.

Nancy Koch's schedule:
Advanced Beginner Jazz
MWF 11:30 - 1:00
Sat    11:00 - 12:30


Developpè: In this movement, the working leg is drawn up along the standing leg and smoothly unfolded till it is fully extended.

Élevé or raised, refers to pressing through the foot so that the heels rise off the ground to a position of standing on the balls of the feet.

Plié: Literally fold, refers to the action of bending the knees.

Rélevé is the action of snatching the heels upwards into a position of standing on the balls of the feet, or on full Pointe.

Tendu: the foot and leg are stretched along the floor till the foot is arched "en pointe" and the knee caps are pulled up.
Nancy Koch

Nancy Koch

Photo © & courtesy of Lori Grinker

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