Photo: Mercedes Vizcaino
Memorial Day weekend is upon us and with summer just around the corner, I’ve become inspired to search for more meaningful experiences rather than my usual, yet beloved, fitness-goals-saboteurs: BBQs and happy-hours. What’s a New York City libations and foodie adventurer to do? Explore Ailey Extension’s upcoming dance schedule to not just stay in shape – mentally and physically – but also have a blast in the process.
I recently participated in Ailey Extension’s dynamic fitness class event catering to all fitness levels. First, I took Hip-Hop Cardio, a class designed for beginners with no former dance experience. It’s goal: to up your cardio game by at least 100, challenge your coordination, and assault your sweat glands into submission. Sound extreme? Not really. The class will make you feel energized and emboldened. Thoughts of joining Beyoncé’s dance troupe will cross your mind. It doesn’t hurt that the instructor, Matthew Johnson Harris, is a big fan of the acclaimed pop star and features her music throughout his classes. DSMC chatted with Matthew to learn more about his love of dance.
Matthew Johnson Harris, Photo: Courtesy of Ailey Extension
DSMC: What inspired you to become a dance instructor?
Matthew Johnson Harris: I have struggled with anxiety and depression in the past. Moving activates endorphins that can literally make you feel happier. Dance and fitness are a natural antidepressant and I love to share that joy with the world.
DSMC: You are a multi-hyphenated force. What are you most passionate about, dancing, teaching or activism?
Matthew Johnson Harris: Activism is at the center of everything I do. Outside of volunteering and fundraising for multiple organizations – I’ve been teaching a free class every Friday in Harlem to promote health and fitness. We should use all of our gifts to inspire change.
Check out the Harlem hospital class here: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=QwTwTBOmq_0
DSMC: What’s the one piece of advice you offer novices to dance? And, when did you start collaborating with the Ailey Extension?
Matthew Johnson Harris: There is no way you can mess up. Give whatever your best effort is and just keep moving. I created the Hip-Hop Cardio Class for Ailey Extension in March and it’s been the greatest experience.
My second favorite class of the day to exceed my expectations: Beginner Hip-Hop with Jonathan Lee. While Mathew’s interpretation of Hip-Hop was a little more relaxed and liberal with the movements, Jonathan was very precise with his dance steps. We’re talking focused choreography here! He had a Bob Fosse-esque quality to him that the class gravitated to and obediently mimicked his instructions. At the end of the class, I felt as if I really mastered some modern Hip-Hop moves and was ready for a dance-off . Okay, perhaps I was getting ahead of myself, but Jonathan has the capacity to get his students to push themselves and reach choreographic bliss. DSMC chatted with Jonathan to get the scoop on his motivation for dance.
Jonathan Lee, Photo: Courtesy of Ailey Extension
DSMC: What are your earliest memories of wanting to become a choreographer and what inspired you
Jonathan Lee: My earliest memories of wanting to become a choreographer began early in my training. Whenever my teachers allowed me to freestyle, I was able to put my stamp of movement into the piece. Also working with some great choreographers that inspired me as well.
DSMC: Where do you see the evolution of dance going in the next few years?
Jonathan Lee: In my opinion, dance will evolve to become more of a fusion of various styles. I believe a dancer will need to be more versatile in many styles rather than just proficient in just one style.
DSMC: What piece of advice would you give students new to dance and or choreography?
Jonathan Lee: My advice to young dancers would be to really hone your craft. Always be open to new things because dance is evolving. To train in various styles and techniques, learn from many teachers. To young choreographers, I would say: what do you have to say with your movement? Make sure your choreography makes a statement.
DSMC: How long have you been an Ailey Extension dance instructor?
Jonathan Lee: I am one of the original instructors at the Extension. I’ve been there since the Extension began 14 years ago.
What was next on my dance agenda? Afro’Dance with instructor Angel Kaba. When Angel turned on the music everyone in the class was instantly transported to the electric and carefree sounds from The Congo, Ivory Coast, and Angola. With a mixture of African influences and street dance, this class challenges students to loosen their hips and move the rest of their bodies to the flow of the thumping beats. The cultural, social and free-spirited vibes of the class is contagious and dance students at any level will enjoy it tremendously. DSMC spoke to Angel, who now calls New York home, about her dance career.
Angel Kaba, Photo: Courtesy of Angel Kaba
DSMC: What or whom inspired you to become a dance instructor?
Angel Kaba: My mother was a traditional Caribbean dancer from Martinique (French West Indies). She moved to Europe, Luxembourg specifically to be a professional dancer. When she had me, she brought me to concerts with her. My first concert was “KASSAV.” I ended up going on stage and dancing with the band. I was 4 years old. So my mother decided to find a dance class for me and I started dancing ballet at the age of 6. Teaching came pretty early in my life. At 16 I was teaching Hip-Hop for kids in my neighborhood. I love helping people feel happy and good about themselves. Music is also a big part of my inspiration. I always say: I don’t do choreography, I make people dance!
DSMC: You mentioned growing up in Belgium, what influences did you grow up with there?
Angel Kaba: Belgium colonized Congo (formerly Zaire). There is a lot of Congolese in Belgium. Even though I didn’t grow up with my father, who is Congolese, I was still surrounded by my culture a lot, music, food, hairstyle, fashion and gossip. Belgium is a small country with a lot of talent, very interesting! We speak basically 4 languages: French, Dutch, English and German. Brussels, where I was born, is very well situated in Europe, so I had access to a lot of cities like Paris, Amsterdam, London, Madrid, Prague…. I traveled a lot and that opened my mind and heart.
Belgium is my country, but my roots are from Africa. I learned everything I know from Belgium especially dance, theater and music. Belgium taught me and New York made me. In Belgium I was able to understand who I was. In the U.S. I learned how to be free by being myself.
DSMC: How long have you been an Ailey Extension instructor and what piece of advice do you give aspiring dance students?
Angel Kaba: Very interesting question. I knew of Alvin Ailey since I was I child, my mother told me about him and his legacy. It was in 2012, when I met my mentor Robin Dunn, and got the experience – taking classes and performing with the Ailey Extension community. I became an official Ailey Extension instructor as of May 2019! I started to teach my Afro’ Dance class, just a few weeks ago!
To my students, I would say something like: Hello, and welcome to my world. I’m Angel Kaba, and I help you express yourself through movement and music. Yes, that’s right; I teach you dance moves through rhythmic and afro-dance choreographies but most importantly, I help you express your deepest self without using a word. I help you go deep into your soul to find the light that only you have. I strongly believe that everybody is great at something and I also believe that dancing is a vehicle to tap into that gift. And I would add, beginners are more than welcome with my French accent, Let’s dance!! Voilà!
I’ve been going to the Ailey Extension for a over a year now, and every time I try their new roster of classes I become more motivated to stick to my fitness goals – and guess what, I suspect you will to if you sign up. Each of these instructors have different teaching methods, yet will inspire you to dance like you’re up for your next audition. Check them out!
This summer Ailey Extension promises to get New Yorkers moving with the return of NYC Dance Week, June 13 – June 22, not to be left behind, The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Lincoln Center engagement will run from June 12 – June 16. The annual citywide festival offers over 25 free dance and fitness classes for adults of all experience levels. To view Ailey Extension’s complete NYC Dance schedule, visit www.aileyextension.com/nycdanceweek. New students must present a downloadable NYC Dance Week voucher for all classes at The Ailey Studios, available here.