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Jazz dance instructor returns to improvisational roots

Wednesday, February 27, 2008 | 6:23 p.m. CST; updated 9:44 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
Sheron Wray, a jazz dance choreographer and performer, responds to a question from a student during a presentation at Stephens College's Stamper Commons on Wednesday. Wray discussed her range of work and shared video clips from her experimental films and improvisational performances.

COLUMBIA — Cell phones, overhead projectors and TV screens are just a few of the things Sheron Wray incorporates into her approach to teaching jazz dance. A London native and founder of JazzXChange Music and Dance Company, Wray uses technology to involve audience members in her performances.

“I’ve called this the kaleidoscope approach,” Wray said. “It’s quite different because in traditional dance techniques we have just focused on one specific way of being. Whereas this approach is really looking into who you are and how you express yourself to other people.”

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As a guest instructor at Stephens College, she has been working with dance and film students over the past six weeks on a collaborative piece titled “New Amazonians: Part 1.”

Stephens students will perform the piece March 7, 8 and 9, as well as March 14 and 15, during the college dance company’s spring concert. The project has brought together nine dance students, ranging from freshmen to seniors, and three student filmmakers.

“It has really bridged the gap between the two departments,” sophomore film student Olivia Anderson said.

While Wray uses traditional choreography and synchronization as a foundation for teaching jazz dance, she also focuses on including improvisation in her work.

Jazz music in its original form is improvised, but when dance was set to jazz music, dance instructors decided to choreograph and tell students when and what to do, said Bob Borros, the chair of the dance department at Stephens.

What makes Wray’s technique unique, Borros said, is that by focusing on improvisation, she is moving back to the basics of jazz music while adding technology.

Wray said she came to Stephens without a specific plan, ready to improvise.

“I came here full of naivety,” she said. “I wanted to work with certain music and then this idea with women and all their different dimensions kind of bore itself.”

Wray gave a presentation Wednesday about her current jazz dance collaboration at Stephens and past works, which include “Texterritory,” a project that allowed audience members to text message performers on stage. The dancers would then act according to the messages they received from the audience.

While Wray’s current piece doesn’t deal with this kind of technology, she does use video projection along with live dancers.

“There are parts where it is just video and parts where it is integrated,” she said.

Borros said students are challenged by Wray’s improvisational techniques, but the challenge isn’t a bad thing.

Jasmine Charles, a sophomore who is dancing in the piece, gave Wray a positive review.

“The combinations were complex, and they made you think,” Charles said. “Her choreography is really interesting and demanding, but I liked her style.”

While Wray’s work at Stephens will end next week, she’s not finished teaching her improvisational dance tactics and will do work at New York University in the spring.

“This is something I will carry on with,” Wray said. “It’s like a seed germinating.”


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