As 30 dancers in booty shorts and socks concentrate to perform grand pliés in center, Heather Rigg glides around the perimeter of the studio. She counts off the exercise as she checks students’ alignment to gauge their level of experience. “That’s when I see whether I need to take something out of the combination or restructure it. I can tell at that point what the pace is going to be.”
Rigg teaches a style of commercial jazz that reflects her training with Joe Tremaine in the ’90s and her subsequent touring career with Britney Spears. Though Rigg’s class is billed as beginner, aspiring professionals come to polish their technique and increase their marketability. It helps diversify their commercial dance repertoire beyond the dominating trend of contemporary. “Some elements of jazz may not feel current,” she says, “but like fashion, everything comes back. Dancers should have a knowledge of all styles.” Besides, she adds, “Technique is never going out of style.”
Her take on jazz is classic in its emphasis on proper placement, but it’s faster—usually at least 120 bpm, she says proudly—with a heavy dose of added sexiness. Many students mimic Rigg’s hair-down look, the better to whip it during thrashy choreography.
Warm-up is a no-frills, full-body workout designed to prepare dancers’ bodies to support movement from the center. It’s the kind of essential routine a dancer can take herself through before an audition or performance. The series of isolations, muscle work and stretches is a loose homage to Rigg’s mentor, Frank Hatchett.
This is not a class where dancers come to show off, but to hone their craft. Each student strives, more than anything, to get it right. “At some point, they have to stop thinking about counts and just put it all together,” Rigg says. “At least once per class I tell everyone to let go, breathe and just dance! If you fall on your face, I’ll come pick you up.”
Instead of across-the-floor drills, she rolls technical moves—chaînés, battements and attitude turns—into her choreography. She mixes carefully counted jazz steps with sections of pure style to keep things interesting. “I like to layer my combinations—like a sexy sandwich,” she says. “I’ll give an eight count of technique and then an eight of sexy. We’ll pirouette, then toss some hair.” Embracing old-school values that counter contemporary’s continuous-flow philosophy, she asks dancers to find positions efficiently, snapping the leg to passé during turns and consciously placing arms in a clean first. “Make the picture as quickly as possible.”
With a relaxed attitude and self-deprecating humor, Rigg cultivates a welcoming environment where dancers crave her feedback. While watching from the mirror, she doesn’t miss dancers in the back row. “Where’s your energy today? Don’t overthink it. Make me believe you. Try to frighten me a little.” DT
Unlike many dancers, Heather Rigg pursued a performance career solely to bolster her teaching resumé. As a child, she traveled from her hometown in Western Massachusetts to New York City to take classes at Broadway Dance Center, where she dreamed of becoming a teacher. As soon as she graduated from high school, she moved to NYC, where she assisted Frank Hatchett as a VOP jazz instructor and trained on scholarship with Joe Tremaine. Working with Hatchett, especially, shaped her technical approach to movement. She was also influenced by Marcéa Lane of the Tremaine Dance Convention faculty who taught her to flaunt her femininity. Rigg toured with Britney Spears on the Oops!…I Did It Again tour in 2000 and performed multiple seasons with Summer Music Mania, which featured other major ’90s acts like *NSYNC and Destiny’s Child. In 2007, she was hired as a faculty member at BDC.