Dancing outside of the box

New York dancer Christopher Benjamin, formerly of Hannibal, works with students at Studio A Dance Conservatory Thursday morning, teaching them contemporary jazz dance techniques. Benjamin provided a two-day workshop for local dance students that continues today from 9 a.m. to noon.

During the workshop Benjamin told students they needed to focus on dynamics and level changes for their dance moves. “Body language is such a huge part of it (and) focus,” he said. “I try and get them out of their box.”

Benjamin’s workshop included students from ages 6 to 16. He said he began taking dance classes at age 5 and eventually graduated from Stephens College in Columbia with a bachelor’s of fine art in dance.

New York professional dancer Christopher Benjamin, 28, is bringing inspiration to young students this week as he teaches two workshops that help them individualize their technique at Studio A Dance Conservatory.

Benjamin, formerly of Hannibal, is a 2008 graduate of Stephens College in Columbia, and college dance partner to Anna Crumley Nelson, the studio’s owner.

“Since I’ve been open he’s been here three times,” Crumley Nelson said. “He comes and inspires the kids.”

Upon graduating from Stephens, Benjamin began dancing immediately with the Missouri Contemporary Ballet, of Columbia, performing for several seasons. In 2010, he permanently located to New York City to work in commercial dancing.

“I started working with Sheryl Murakami, she is the choreographer for Beyoncé,” he said. “That’s one of the major artists that she’s worked for. She helped me get signed with the Clear Talent Group.”

Benjamin signed with CTG and began auditioning in New York and started picking up “random gigs” that involved back-up dancing and commercials.

“I danced for Joss Stone for Fashion Night Out,” he said. “Macy’s and Tommy Hilfiger partnered and brought in Joss Stone for a live concert …”

He also flew down after a hurricane to dance for contemporary pop artist Carishma in Tampa, Florida.

“We had to rehearse in New York because they delayed the plane because of the hurricane,” Benjamin added. “They had to keep us all in the center of the city and then finally it subsided and they flew us to Tampa.”

Since becoming a professional, he said every performance has been beneficial to his career.

“I’ve took something away from every gig,” he added.

In the last 10 years, Benjamin said dancing styles have begun to “morph” and he sees the trend continuing.

“Before, when I was growing up in dancing it was strictly classical jazz and classical ballet,” he said. “There weren’t as many fusions. Now so many different styles are influencing each other. Hip-hop has broken out into so many different styles. Jazz and ballet kind of morphed and lyrical kind of morphed into contemporary. Every person who says they are going to do contemporary is going to do a completely different style. Because there’s no actual set contemporary technique.”

Contemporary dance draws from many techniques and dancing styles. Benjamin has also found dancing is influenced by changing musical styles and current events.

“All of these new dance forms are kind of emerging,” he added. “Music directly effects movement and dance. They are kind of changing together. When you get into the commercial side of dance, music, fashion and dance is all progressing together. I find it interesting how they all effect each other.

“Current events effect choreographers,” Benjamin added. “Choreographers are usually saying something about something and making statements; it’s like a commentary.”

He said he wants to teach students more than just dance technique; he wants to help them find the message behind their dance.

“Body language is such a huge part of it (and) focus,” he noted. “I call it dancing by number. It can be really boring to watch because it’s very static. I try to get them out of their box.”

Before each class, he tries to make the students comfortable and he talks with them about making “choices” and “deciding how they are going to work.”

“Forget about everything that’s going on outside, forget about all the social medias,” he said.

When Benjamin was little, he remembers traveling to dance conventions and how he was inspired by other professional dancers and what they taught. Those memories help him individualize teaching techniques for his students.

“Being in a bigger city and seeing the different lifestyles, and also, experiencing a summary of the dance teachers … You can get used to your teacher and how they teach, but when you get someone else’s teaching style, and movement … it might click in your brain and give you an epiphany,” he said. “It can completely change the way you attack movement. Everyone learns so differently.”

Benjamin plans to return home to Missouri this summer. He was offered a position with Starstruck Performing Arts Center in Kansas City where he will perform and teach dance.

“The studio there also owns a company called Seamless Dance Theater,” he added. “I danced with them for five years. I’ve done four shows with them and performed with them in New York. We just performed June 12-14 at Union Station. I’ve kind of fallen in love with the Kansas City area; it’s a mix of big city and Midwest.”

Sedalia Democrat
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