Traci Angel, Special to The Kansas City Star
Professional dancer Jamal Story took to the air to demonstrate a grand jeté à la seconde, a split leap. His body sailed high as his legs straightened.
As Paseo Academy students watched, their eyes widened. Their jaws grew slack.
Then a voice piped up.
“I want to be just like you."
Story is a guest professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City who has worked with dance companies over the years. On this day, he was instructing Paseo students who are collaborating with the Owen/Cox Dance Group for an upcoming performance of the “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.”
“It’s very eye-opening for the students to see,” said Jennifer Owen, co-artistic director for the group.
In recent weeks, nine students have trained with the dance group and will present a contemporary jazz performance of the show Dec. 9-18 at the H&R Block City Stage Theater
Students have practiced twice or three times weekly, plus weekend rehearsals, to prepare. Owen and rehearsal director Christine Colby Jacques lead the group, and the students have received visits and instruction from professional dancers to glimpse the dancing life. Money from the Missouri Arts Council helps pay for the in-class instruction.
The idea for the show, now in its third year, stemmed from Owen’s conversation with former Paseo dance instructor Torens Johnson, who also danced with the company. Johnson mentioned that Owen might want to include the students in a performance.
“The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” allows for more dancers than traditional ballets, Owen said, and therefore would be an opportunity to bring students into the mix.
In this version, music is contemporary and covers the New Orleans big-band sound, which can switch to a youthful club and techno beat.
Although funding from the Missouri Arts Council helps to assist with bringing in professionals to teach, Owen and other dancers in the company volunteer their time as a service to the community. They check in with students to ensure they have transportation for rehearsals, and they arranges for rides.
“We want to make sure they have that support and are not limited,” Owen said.
Students also receive a small stipend, like professional dancers. There is a contract for them to sign as a way to ensure they honor rehearsal time while instilling a sense of responsibility.
“It introduces them to a professional world,” Owen said.
Adhering to the contract was easy for junior Maria Jones, 17, who also trains at Forever Dancing Studio and with Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey.
“I’m already a dancer, and adding another dance rehearsal was easy,” she said. “I want to be a professional dancer and this is a great start.”
Jones found additional inspiration from a visiting professional dancer, Rose Taylor. Jones had taken some of her ballet and pointe classes over the summer, but for rehearsal she watched Taylor switch her focus to jazz. Jones was mesmerized.
“I thought I could do that,” Jones said. “I don’t have to do ballet all the time.”
Latra Wilson, dance director at Paseo, helps with the production and also participates.
“You can see the transformation from (students) coming to rehearsals at school,” said Wilson, who boasts a professional career. “It doesn’t hit them until they get in the theater and you see the looks on their faces.”
The performance is a good opportunity for Paseo students because they can showcase what they are learning at the performing arts school while interacting with professional dancers, Wilson said.
That was the incentive for Martez McKinzy, who still takes dance classes with Owen and plans on attending MCC-Penn Valley and eventually UMKC. He performed in the 2010 performance and graduated in 2011. The aspiring dancer wanted a taste at a higher level.
“It seemed a fun experience and I wanted to see what it would be like to dance on a professional level,” he said.
Several students who have worked with the company have attended dance programs at universities to major in dance, Owen said.
“It’s an important step in any dancer’s experience to work with a production company and gain stage experience,” Owen said. “We like to think we have helped to encourage students. Our hope is that the students know they have potential and there’s a big world out there.”