Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Remembering Luigi

With the news of the passing of jazz dance legend Luigi, I dug up this online article I wrote 15 years ago about him. With a deep bow of reverence to the man and his contribution...

Class with Luigi

On the back cover of Luigi's Jazz Warm Up, movie star John Travolta says, "Luigi always defined Jazz dancing for me in the same unique form that Jack Cole did."  As I cut through Manhattan's Central Park on my way to Studio Maestro, where 75 year old jazz dance legend Luigi currently teaches, I am reminded of the movie Staying Alive - the sequel to Saturday Night Fever.

In Staying Alive, John Travolta plays an ex-disco dancer who turns professional Broadway dancer. While the script and the acting of Staying Alive were poor (a tradition that has been carried on by other dance movies such as Showgirls and more recently, Center Stage), John Travolta, restrained to only a few small dance combinations and a loin cloth, looked surprisingly professional.

As legend has it, Travolta studied dance with Luigi to play the part.

The Movie Stars' Teacher

A list of Luigi's past students reads like a who's who of movie, musical theater, and dance celebrities. Liza Minnelli, Barbara Streisand, Bette Midler, Ann Reinking, Madonna, Patricia McBride, Christopher Walken, Jacques D'Amboise, Alvin Ailey, Michael Bennett, Twyla Tharp, and Susan Stroman are just some of the names that sought Luigi's tutelage.

With all this flipping through my mind, I barely remember the walk from Central Park to the front door of Studio Maestro on 68th St. I open the door with a mix of anticipation and a healthy dose of skepticism; anticipation for meeting a living legend and skepticism about what makes this man so special (just because that is my nature).

We Meet...

Immediately I feel warmth and friendliness in the studio atmosphere. Both Luigi and Francis Roach, a main teacher of Luigi's technique, are present and I am excited to learn that Luigi himself will be teaching the class.

In introductions we learn that a common bond connects us. Luigi, Mr. Roach, and I are immigrants from Ohio (myself being from the town of Litchfield, population 450 - and no, I never cow- tipped).

Eugene Facciuto, later to be nicknamed Luigi by Gene Kelly, was born in Steubenville, Ohio. In his early twenties, already a dancer, he was partially paralyzed in an automobile wreck. To speed his recovery he developed dance exercises that safely rebuilt his body. These exercises and the philosophy he developed with them became one of the first standard jazz dance techniques. Since the 1950's Luigi has been passing his technique on to students around the world.

"Where did you hear about my class?" Luigi asked.

"I've heard about you from everywhere," I reply (okay, I admit it was not one of my best responses).

"Ahh," he chuckles with an ironic smile," I am being rediscovered."

The Class

I find myself in class with an eclectic group of 15 other dancers. A group of students with their teacher from Atlanta huddle off to the side to stretch. A middle-aged man practices balance exercises that I am soon to learn are part of the class. One of the regular students wears a sleeveless shirt revealing muscled arms and tall, dark looks. I chuckle to myself thinking that he resembles the Tony Maneiro character Travolta played in Staying Alive.

Class begins. As if to punctuate Luigi's reputation as teacher to celebrities, Phylicia Rashad (better known to television fans as Claire Huckstable, sports fans as Ahmad Rashad's wife, and to dancers as Debbie Allen's sister) pops her head in to watch part of class. Luigi focuses on carriage of the upper body. His elegant and fluid style exudes confidence. I find myself marveling at the perfect alignment of a 75 year old man who can still kick his legs above his head while using proper technique!

The Technique

One of the unique aspects of the class is his use of the word "technique". Many classes today use the word to mean anatomical facility or mechanical efficiency. The dancer with the most flexibility, highest développé, most pirouettes, and the greatest leaps is considered technically proficient. This is not so for Luigi.

Luigi focuses on the quality of the movement. To him, the quality is the technique. The two are inseparable. Great energy is spent on learning to do even the most basic steps with "proper technique". Many dancers can do highflying tricks, but do not have a grasp of proper technique.

In contrast, students of Luigi's technique (like Tony Maneiro - er...I mean I think his name was Alexander) do a series of simple looking step-touches, ball changes, and glissades that leave the impression they can without a doubt perform amazing leaps and multiple turns! It was an incredible phenomenon.

Star Quality

I once saw Chita Rivera perform at a fourth of July show (at Disney World - yes I was working for the Mouse). It opened with some high-energy young dancers flying across the stage. Each dancer was allowed a diagonal pass across the stage to do their most impressive leaps. The audience watched placidly.

Once the stage had cleared Chita Rivera entered from stage right and slowly, graciously walked to the microphone at center stage. The audience was mesmerized. Jaws dropped (including mine). And all she did was walk.

So Why is Luigi a Legend?

Half way through the class I had an epiphany. I figured out what was so amazing about this man's technique. Because Luigi teaches quality of movement as technique from the very first step, students of every level learn to move with incredible confidence and amazing stage presence.

Ever look with a critical dancer's eye at Liza Minnelli and think, "She isn't doing anything difficult - but she sure looks great?" This is why so many stars have taken his class. He teaches them how to move in a way that conventional classes have forgotten about. He teaches them to move from the inside. In the rush to get the legs higher, quality has been lost. But Luigi still has it.

Passion for Teaching

Combine my revelation with the fact that at 75 years old Luigi approaches every moment of his class with determined passion and his uniqueness is revealed. Luigi lives to pass on his technique. A bottomless well of passion for teaching feeds the blood in his veins.

An Invaluable Lesson

Jazz dance students looking for the latest trendy steps, cutting edge style, and tricks will not find them in Luigi's class. But the lessons students are missing by passing over his class are crucial. Call it stage presence or aura or star quality or whatever you like - Luigi knows how to teach it.

I left class feeling both enlightened and honored. Although it was only my first class with the man, his 72 years of dance experience jolted me like a chocolate covered espresso bean.