Jazz Dancers and Musicians Together… Katherine Kramer Comes to UW-SP

The NFAC dance studio was filled to capacity with nervous music and dance students meandering around, fiddling with their instrument or stretching their limbs.  They looked around, unsure of what was going to happen in the next hour.  There was a clear and somewhat uncomfortable space in the middle of the large room that divided the group into two distinct sections and not one of the students seemed willing to disrupt the segregation.  Suddenly a quirky woman in pigtails began making bizarre noises and gathering the group.  Enter Katherine Kramer.

This was the scene last week when tap and jazz dance master Katherine Kramer gave a jazz improvisation masterclass to the UW-SP dancers and jazz musicians.  Kramer is a tap and jazz dancer and teacher who has been a presence in the art form for decades.  She has worked and performed with some of the most well-known names in dance like Charles “Honi” Coles and UW-SP students were lucky to learn from her.

In Kramer’s masterclass, there were both dance students and music students, which doesn’t happen very often at all.  Even though dance and music are so heavily intertwined, the artists don’t always have a clear understanding of how important their relationship is.

“I want them to understand the power of rhythm and how it can connect people,” Kramer said.

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Dancers and musicians finding a common pulse or beat. PC: Michael Estanich

The class began with everyone walking in the space with no destination, just walking. After a while, Kramer would direct the class to shift into a different “gear” and the group would increase or decrease the speed of their walk based off of the one they were in previously.  Eventually the group melded together and found one common pulse that was easily agreed upon.  Even after just this one exercise the separation between dancers and musicians was easing.

“[Katherine Kramer] speaks to dancers as if they are the musicians and speaks to the musicians as though they are dancers,” Sydney Enzler, a senior dancer, said.

To introduce her idea of the relationship between dance and music, Kramer stood in the middle of the circle the class had made and started to “conduct” the students.  She waved her arms about and each person in the room physically embodied what she was doing.  Then she switched and had the class verbalize, or scat, the dancing she was doing.  The class erupted in strange whirs and clicks in response to the quality and range of Kramer’s movement.

Finally, the dancers and musicians were paired up and were going to embark on an improvisational journey together.  They were instructed to improvise in their medium for a short time and the other would improvise in response to what they saw or heard from their partner.  With each rotation, something new was always happening and the students’ faces lit up and it was obvious everyone was learning something new about both the opposite art form as well as their own.

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Kramer facilitating an improvisation session between a dancer and trumpet player. PC: Michael Estanich

Kate Suszek, a senior at UW-SP, is a member of the jazz ensemble and participated in the class.

“I feel that having 2 different art forms collide like that really gave perspective to both sides of each art form,” Suszek said.

This experience never would have happened if Kramer wasn’t a guest artist.  Jeannie Hill, professor of dance, explained how important it can be for guest artists to come and work with students.

“The excitement for students to have a new face, a new voice, and a new point of view adds both density and texture to the experience,” Hill said.

Kramer’s message of jazz being able to connect people was clear to see as these students who entered the dance studio as strangers left smiling and understanding each other more than they had that morning.

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