How Jazz Educator Katiti King Teaches Students the Roots of the Genre
May 24, 2021

Barnard College lecturer and dance educator Katiti King is committed to teaching her students more than jazz technique—she wants them to understand the cultural and historical significance of the style.

 “Knowing the origin story behind jazz amplifies a dancer’s experience,” King says. “Acknowledging the persons and incidents responsible for it gives due credit, which is what they deserve for their contribution.”

King was raised primarily in Manhattan by classically trained musicians and educators. “Dance and rhythm are in my DNA,” she says. She began dancing at 10 years old and trained in a range of dance genres (Afro-Cuban ballet, Horton, Dunham and Graham) at a variety of schools. But her most influential teacher by far came in the form of Lynn Simonson, when King was just 13 years old.

“I went to take a Michael Owens class, not realizing he had moved to Paris, and Lynn was teaching instead,” King says. “She only taught adults, but somehow she thought I was 19 years old.” Later, when Simonson found out King was 13, she was stunned. Thankfully, she found her to be mature and allowed her to continue taking class—an opportunity that would set the foundation of her future. “My technique is rooted in Simonson, which works anatomically correctly within the limitations of a dancer’s body,” King says.

By 16, King was already getting offered substitute-teaching opportunities that morphed into one full-time gig after another. “I was teaching students my own age all over the tristate area,” she says. “I don’t even know how it happened, but suddenly I had a full teaching schedule of my own.”

At 19, King kicked off her professional dance career in Boston, performing for Danny Sloan Dance Company and Adrienne Hawkins’ Impulse Dance Company before returning to New York City to join the audition grind and eventually teach at the school Simonson co-owned, DanceSpace Inc.

“It was always two careers,” King says. “Being a teacher is nothing like being a dancer, but I did them both.”

In 1990, King took a job at Barnard for a single semester. “I thought it might be interesting,” she says. Thirty years later, she has been at the department longer than any other teacher. It’s a setting she enjoys, particularly because she gets to work for an extended time with the same students, rather than teaching master classes with different students each time. “I love to have the same students to develop a syllabus for,” she says. “I know what they worked on last week, and where they are ready to pick up. It’s incredibly gratifying to watch them grow over three months like magic.”

King gravitates toward contemporary jazz in her own movement and choreography, but at Barnard, she focuses mainly on pure jazz, exploring the rich history of the genre with her students. “Since the history of jazz dance is vast, the influencers and skills have changed, but the root is always there, from Michael Jackson to Misty Copeland,” she says. “As I teach, my main objective is to pass down that foundation, while also teaching them to find their own way to speak within it.”

Here, King speaks about the cultural and historical significance of jazz dance, how she structures her classes, and the teacher tools she can’t live without.

The influences that shape her jazz class: “The historical influence of jazz comes from Afro-American vernacular. Because of that, it’s easy for me to teach it. My parents, where I came from and my childhood, play a big part in that. From there, I have been influenced by the movement of artists like Bob Fosse and Jack Cole. I’ve also transferred contemporary and ballet technique into my jazz as well.”

Her cultural approach to teaching jazz: “The roots of jazz dance have West African, Caribbean, South American and Brazilian influences. What I find most interesting about the cultural significance of the style is the aspect of ritual and heritage. Slaves were brought here against their will, but the things that could never be taken from them were those rituals expressed through dance every day. Consider rain dances, the harvest, weddings, funerals and hunting. They brought rhyme, angularity and improvisation. I strive to teach that to my students.”

Her go-to class warm-up: “You don’t start by moving quickly—each muscle group takes three minutes to warm up. I start with head rolls, flat backs and rounding up/arching forward. Then I address the psoas, with circulatory work. Then, we go into pliés. I also do push-ups and more circulatory movement with my upper body (like active stretching). Then we do tendus with an arm coordination combination worked in, to get the brain going. Next, I move on to développés before isolations and battements.”

Her teaching philosophy: “Each dancer learns differently. I can’t give them all the same directives. For new students, I have to observe how they hear corrections in the warm-up in order to understand what they are taking in, and how they are transferring it from brain to body. That gives me the tools to teach them. If there are 30 people in the room, there could be 30 different methods of learning, and I need to be prepared to communicate differently with each.”

Her pre-class routine: “It’s crucial for me to roll my fascia out with a mini roller I found on Amazon (I carry it around with me always), and roll my hamstrings/feet out with balls from MELT. I also do some stretches with my class during their warm-up.”

Favorite teaching attire: “I typically just wear socks that are 100 percent cotton, so they aren’t slippery, or bare feet. Now, with COVID, we aren’t allowed in the studio barefoot, so I got some jazz sneakers from Balera that make my feet look great.”

Her daily breakfast: “I like to have two soft-boiled eggs, gluten-free Ezekiel bread, Agrarian Feast microgreens and half of an avocado. I need to have a good balance of protein with everything I eat.”

Books she recommends: Sondra Horton Fraleigh’s Dance and the Lived Body: A Descriptive Aesthetics and Butoh: Metamorphic Dance and Global Alchemy; Ananya Chatterjea’s Butting Out: Reading Resistive Choreographies Through Works, by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Chandralekha; Gus Giordano’s Anthology of American Jazz Dance.

Required viewing: African Dance: Sand, Drum, and Shostakovich, An American in Paris, The Red Shoes, Sweet Charity, Cabaret, Singin’ in the Rain, Saturday Night Fever, West Side Story.

How she recovers after a long day of work: “The best way is to lie flat on my back and put my legs at a 90-degree angle above me. Bathing with salts is also nice to put instant magnesium into my skin.”

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