"This is what it's like to be a professional"

Abdel Salaam works with TWU dancers
Abdel Salaam watches TWU dancers rehearse one of his works, Smoove (photo by Michael Modecki)

DanceMakers preparation includes visit from legendary choreographer

Abdel Salaam works with dancers

April 17, 2023 – DENTON – As much as a university prepares students for life after education, it's impossible to simulate the real world. After all, it's rare that students get fired from college.

But a university can provide glimpses of what awaits, what will be demanded, and how graduates are expected to comport themselves. That view is especially impactful when delivered by someone with the deeds to back up their words.

Students in the Texas Woman's University Division of Dance got that experience this spring and a select few got hands-on experience when Abdel Salaam spent a week at TWU. He spoke with students and worked with a group of student dancers who will perform a portion of one of his works at the 2023 Spring DanceMakers, which takes place April 20-22 at Margo Jones Performance Hall.

Dancer, choreographer, teacher, and mentor, Salaam has blazed across five continents in a 53-year career, piling up decades worth of choreography awards and fellowships and a stack of theatre and television credits. He is co-founder of one of contemporary dance's most influential dance companies and artistic director of a prominent event.

"The value of working with someone who has that much experience and that kind of eye is something I wanted to share with the students," said Charmian Wells, TWU assistant professor of dance. "Obviously, I can't bring Abdel here for a whole semester, but even a week-long experience can be transformative for students to be exposed to what it's like to be in that kind of intensive company environment."

It's a taste of the big time and what it means to be a professional dancer.

Salaam is approaching his 73rd birthday, and he walks a little slower and favors a recently injured leg. But when he removes his jacket and trademark cap, it's obvious that he is still powerfully built. Broad shoulders. Muscular arms. Dancer's footwork. Sharp eyes. An even sharper mind.

"What good is knowledge," he tells an assembly of TWU dance students, "if you don't know how to use it? Seek wisdom. Do work."

And prepare yourself for the rigors of a world that it not as nice or forgiving as that on a college campus.

"I don't want to scare them," Salaam said. "But the real world is not a safe environment at all. And so if you can't strengthen, stiffen, whatever term you want to use, get some armor going in order to be able to deflect some of the just devastating stuff that's going to be thrown at you, you're going to have a problem. You're going to have a serious problem. What we learned in all of our professions is there's constant challenge. There's always something. There's always a problem that has to be solved. No matter how much you plan, no matter what you do. If you're going you're trying to be the best that you can be, you're going to encounter obstacles and challenges and things that you did not see coming."

TWU dancers rehearse Smoove
TWU dancers rehearse Smoove (photo by Michael Modecki)

Salaam has been in the arts since he was five-years old, when he studied piano, xylophone and glockenspiel. He graduated from the High School of Music and Art in New York City in 1968, but at Lehman College in the Bronx, he was recruited into the school's first dance major program. After college, Salaam worked with several dance companies.

In 1981 Salaam co-founded Forces of Nature Dance Theatre based in New York City. He is also artistic director of DanceAfrica, which holds one of the nation's largest African American dance, music, and art festivals at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Forces of Nature is a dance melting pot. Ballet, classical, and modern/contemporary dance mix with movement languages from West Africa, South America, Central America, and U.S. influences like hip hop.

"There's a huge range of movement languages and dynamic qualities the company works across, and it demands dancers have fluency across multiple movement languages," said Wells, who has danced with Forces of Nature and Salaam describes as "one of my dance daughters."

"The African diaspora dance needs to be a part of higher education curriculum because it's actually a huge part of the professional world," Wells said. "A fluency across multiple movement languages is really what's required for 21st century dancers."

For his discussions with the broader audience of students, he's also a bit of a philosopher.

"Maybe I like reading things that trick my imagination and make me want to know more," he said. "Like I said to the kids, I'll be 73 this year. I'm not finished. I'm going to the last breath. Last breath, man. If there is something on the other side, hey, I'll find out once I cross that bridge. But until I get there, I've got this time in the light, I'm going for it, man. Find something every day. I will seek higher knowledge each and every day in order to gain new insights into the meaning and purpose of life. Every day I'm going to learn something else that I didn't know. Even if it seems to be insignificant, learn it. It's just going to become a part of something that's going to impact my understanding."

Wells has long connection with Salaam. She danced with Forces of Nature from 2006-2011, and last year she was in their annual Kwanza show at the Apollo Theater in New York. During the fall semester, she worked with the modern four class and taught some of Forces of Nature's repertory before returning to New York for the Apollo show in December.

She selected seven dancers – Asiyah Martin, Surayya Raheem, Mya Evans, Charles Collins, Raechel Corey, Ilse Mascorro, and Victoria Hicks – to perform the third section of Salaam's 2008 work B Flowin' ... B Smoove! Beginning in January, the group began rehearsing to perform Smoove at the spring DanceMakers. Salaam sat in on rehearsals during his visit to campus.

The heritage of Smoove and its choreographer was not lost on the Texas Woman's cast.

"This piece is very fulfilling because it's already been made and it has its own history," Evans said. "So just becoming a part of that is really fun. I feel super connected to the dancers that have performed it."

"It's been performed on multiple stages," Raheem said. "Just to be able to connect to that history and to become a part of that legacy is something really special that definitely distinguishes this from anything else that I've done."

Abdel Salaam demonstrates arm movements to a dancer
Abdel Salaam demonstrates arm movements to a dancer (photo by Michael Modecki)

The thought of working with such a figure was a little intimidating, and the cast had to overcome a somewhat reverent attitude toward Salaam. However, he quickly put them at ease, but his impact was still profound.

"I feel him being here has changed my life," Evans said. "It's just a new way that I understand that I can move my body and just, I don't know, being a person. It's a transformative outlook on life as a whole."

"It was very special to be in his presence," Raheem said. "Now I have a story that I'll be able to tell forever."

The interaction wasn't all worship. Salaam put the dancers through their paces.

"He will tell you, 'That's broke.'" Raheem said.

"His thing is, that's broke," Evans agreed. "Or he'll be like, what was that?"

"Yeah," Raheem said. "He'll definitely let you know."

"This isn't it," Evans said. "Let's fix this."

"They're working very hard," Salaam said. "The project is difficult for them because they're working in an African diasporic language which they're not familiar with. Charmy is doing a wonderful job teaching them a section of an old piece from the repertoire of Fortunes of Nature. I'm only here to support."

Even in support, Salaam can't get through a rehearsal without getting involved, working closely with Wells on the nuances of execution. Elements of grace. Pointing out fine details. Not just the movement of arms and hands, but the curving of fingers and the placement of fingertips. His instruction is three dimensional. He tells one dancer to "finish in the diagonal." Tells another to not look right, but to "snake right."

"Let it go," he implores, pushing the student dancers not to think cautiously to avoid mistakes, but instead give full intensity. "You can't half articulate the sentence," he says.

Any one of these elements will go unnoticed by the conscious mind of the vast majority of an audience, but they combine to make a performance complete, even if the audience doesn't know why.

Salaam finds, examines and fine-tunes those details with the dancers as a whole and in brief one-on-one conversations.

"One rehearsal, we had to do an extra run-through," Evans said. "We had a set time that we were supposed to be done, but we wanted to keep working, so we did.

"And I felt like, this is what it's like to be a professional, doing the extra rehearsals. It was really fun. It was tiring and it was hard, but it was so fun."

2023 Spring DanceMakers

Thursday, April 20, 4 p.m.
Friday, April 21, 7 p.m.
Saturday, April 22, 7 p.m.
Margo Jones Performance Hall

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Page last updated 8:53 AM, April 17, 2023