Full Out Talent
September 2020 Issue
by Marina Karis
Photography (top) by Christian Lee
The performing art form of purposefully selected sequences of human movement is known as dance. Now combine that movement with a creative imagination, and you have choreography. It’s not something that everyone can do; it takes a creative mind to see movement through music. It takes someone like Jamal Edwards. You might recognize this native Hilton Head Islander from 13 seasons of the local annual performance of the Nutcracker Ballet. Jamal began his dance career 20 years ago at Hilton Head Dance School. Now, he gives back to the school that propelled his life-long love and passion for dance.
“I got into dance because I started in musical theater. A choreographer came up to me and told me I was a natural mover, and that I should start taking dance classes. She suggested taking jazz and tap because that would get me on the right track for musical theater, which was what I wanted to do. So, I started taking a combo jazz/tap class at Hilton Head Dance School. At the time, my best friend, Sonya, was taking ballet there and would stay to take jazz and tap with me. While she was in ballet, I sat outside and did my homework. One day John Carlyle (one of the directors of the school) came up to me while I was doing my homework and encouraged me to take the ballet class. At first I was unsure about ballet because I really just wanted musical theater. I ended up taking the class, and the rest is history.”
After four years of classical ballet and jazz training, Jamal went off to the University of Alabama to major in dance. There, he immersed himself into the dance scene getting involved in a dance fraternity, the hip-hop dance team, and the classical repertory and student choreography programs. These experiences opened his eyes to different styles of dance, avenues for careers and gave him the technique and confidence to make his place in the dance world.
“When I was younger I said I wanted to be a choreographer before I ever wanted to be a dancer. I just loved making up dances, and I started at it very young! After school, my friends and I would buy a Nutcracker Ballet CD at Barnes and Noble, and we’d make up dances to the music. I was putting on big productions in my head a long time ago.
However, this art form is a harder road for guys. Unfortunately, we live in a society where if you aren’t playing sports, everything else is kind of frowned upon. So it was hard at times, but I have always had a very level head.
My grandma instilled in me that I need to do what I want to do and never worry about other people. I haven’t dealt with the teasing or bullying like so many other male dancers have. However, many times when people would watch me dance, they were taken aback by how well I move my body. I would get, “I’m so surprised you do so well for your size.” I overcame the hate by diving deeper and working harder; none of it ever got me down to the point where I didn’t want to dance anymore.”
College was where Jamal got his first pre-professional choreographing experience. In his dance program he learned how to cast a piece, rehearse it, pick out costumes and design the lighting. It was then he started choreographing for the younger dancers’ spring show at Hilton Head Dance Theatre. Since graduating from college in 2009, he has been performing with, choreographing and teaching for the dance school.
The first full-length musical Jamal ever choreographed was Wedding Singer for Hilton Head Island High School in 2015. “It gave me a whole different approach and appreciation for choreographing because you find yourself working with people who don’t know your ballet vocab, or your jazz terms, but you still have to get them to move the way they do. So it made me figure out other ways to approach things.”
Like most artists, Jamal finds himself going through phases. His work doesn’t just reflect the strengths of his dancers, but also where he’s at in his life, creatively. “Sometimes I am just in a more focused place, so you’ll get a structured ballet from me, where other times I’m more scatterbrained, so I just get in the studio, put on music and see what happens.”
Even through all of Jamal’s experience, the fear and nerves of putting your own thoughts, emotions and creativity out there for the world to see is very real. “Choreography is such a raw thing, that anytime you put it on stage, it’s subject for critique and judgement. I get more nervous for my choreography than I do performing. Because it is out of my hands, and I have to let go. It can be very scary.”
Constantly striving to become a more well-rounded dancer, choreographer and teacher, Jamal has used this pandemic time to reflect and set goals both personally and for his students’ future. After completing the American Ballet Theatre National Curriculum Training certification, he not only learned so much more in teaching good technique to his dancers, but also the psychological side to teaching dance to young minds.
“What I love about teaching is seeing the progress and growth in these dancers, even from year to year. I love to watch them become themselves. That’s the best part. I want to help the dancers figure out what works for them and prepare them for all that comes next in their lives, whether they continue with dance or not.”
Along with getting his dancers and the studio to the best level it can be, Jamal plans to get more outreach activities going. “There is so much undiscovered talent right here in our own community. A big dream of mine would be to establish a program through the Boys and Girls Club, where I can take some of my dancers to give many young kids the opportunity to see and learn dance. I really believe the more people we go out and support, the more people will come and support us.”
“This pandemic has helped me realize how much of an outlet dance really is. Not only for myself, but for students, too. Just being able to go into a studio with a teacher at this point is a blessing for anybody. For me, it shows not to take things for granted. I would get tired and burnt out just like anybody else in any job, but at the end of the day, I am so lucky to have a career in what I love doing. Dance has always been a stress reliever for me. No matter what kind of day I’ve had, what I’m going through, or what is going on in the world... for that hour and half, it doesn’t exist. I know dance will be that for me, and I’ll always have it to come back to.”