COLUMBIA — When he was younger, Bob Boross was a self-described sports-minded and music-minded person. When he wasn’t working to make weight for wrestling, he was listening to jazz and rock.
But when Boross saw his first community theater musical at age 20, he was immediately hooked. “I think what drew me into it was the fact that theater dance is both athletic and musical at the same time,” he said. “It was incredible.”
Boross then took a year off from Denison University in Ohio, where he was majoring in economics, and became serious about dance. Now, almost 30 years later, he’s in his first year leading the dance department at Stephens College.
Before he started teaching dance choreography and theory full time, Boross was a performer. One of the first shows he performed in was“West Side Story;” which was choreographed by Rosemary Bacon, who would eventually become his wife. After they married, the couple decided living from audition to audition wasn’t going to cut it anymore, so they moved to New Jersey.
“I did love doing Broadway, but begging for a job just wasn’t for me,” Boross said. “There would be 300 people auditioning, and they’re only going to hire four. I just couldn’t do that for the rest of my life.”
In 1979, the couple opened the Red Bank Theatre and Dance Center, a studio for children and adults in Red Bank, near the Jersey Shore. “We had serious students who wanted to have a professional career, as well as adult classes for recreation,” Boross said.
The couple produced musicals, hired dancers and put on productions for almost 16 years. Boross then got his master’s degree in jazz dance history and performance from the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University and began teaching at colleges and universities.
Boross enjoyed the maturation process from performer to teacher. “As a performer, you need a certain ego, as you are focused much more on yourself and what you personally can contribute. Performing is much more of a ‘me’ thing,” he said. “Teaching is so different than performing, in that it’s about having a knowledge of the technique and establishing a communication with students to transmit the knowledge.”
Former student Cynthia Kastner, who knew Boross when he was at the University of California, Irvine, from 2000 to 2007, said he is a charismatic teacher.
“He showed me a very different side of jazz that I didn’t know existed,” Kastner said. “He taught us jazz in the (jazz dance choreographer) Matt Mattox style while incorporating bits of choreography from Broadway musicals and various other dance styles such as modern, lyrical and hip hop.”
Ashley Fazio, a dance student at Stephens College, said Boross’ teaching style has enhanced her dance classes. “He tells us he wants to see our ‘inner smiles,’ and one day he used (the sound) ‘whoosh’ to help us understand the movement he was teaching.”
Kastner said Boross was the only teacher she’s ever known to use his own drum to count out beats for his students. “We used to always groan when Bob brought out the drum,” she said, “because that meant we would be whipped into shape pretty soon.”
Last spring, with the impending departure of Stephens’ dance chairwoman Mary Rotella, Boross became interested in leading a department and was impressed by the school’s dance curriculum. Stephens has a three-year undergraduate program in dance rather than the usual four-year program at most schools. Boross said that gives students an edge because they have an extra year on their side in a competitive field that values youth.
Students make up for the lost year by participating in intensive six-week summer programs after their first and second years in the dance program. Boross thinks these summer sessions help the students because the focus is solely on dance.
“The fact that the students don’t have to attend class and write papers allows them to fully focus on the physical aspects of dance,” he said.
The only setback he sees so far is that there just isn’t enough money within the department budget to do everything he would like to do. He recognizes this is a common problem among college arts departments, however, and hopes it will improve as the school expands its dance program.
“So far he has really started to make some needed changes in the department — we already got new ballet barres,” said Fazio, a senior dance major. “He’s bringing in some great ideas and opportunities for our department and us as dancers, and he really cares about making the department great.”
Settling down in Columbia, however, does not mark the end of Boross’ travels. He returned to one of his favorite performing venues in Finland this month to judge choreography for the dance competition “Jazztanssi.” The competition is held every two years; Boross also helped judge in 2005. The Finnish people are welcoming and open, he said, and he enjoys returning whenever he can.
“Judging choreography is a great way to learn more about creativity in individuals,” he said. “Each piece represents the unique creative ability of the choreographer, so it’s inspiring to me to see what so many choreographers can do with jazz dance expression.”
He’s continually looking for fresh and innovative jazz choreography, particularly while judging in foreign countries. “It’s a great way to learn more about their respective cultures,” Boross said. “It’s about how the people of each country have internalized American jazz dance and then interpreted it in their own way.”