Style, technique and soul

Dance master from Chicago brings jazz expertise to Exeter.

Nicole Pellaton
December 20, 2019
Jazz dance master Nan Giordano leads class in Exeter's Dance Studio

“How are we doing?” asks Nan Giordano, the jazz dance master and artistic director of Giordano Dance Chicago, as she strides into the Goel Center’s expansive dance studio. Twenty students from Exeter’s advanced dance class are milling around in front of her, wearing black leotards and ponytails, restless on a frigid midafternoon in late December. Giordano finds the answer too quiet, so she repeats the question in a voice trained to be heard above loud music. “You guys are too young to feel tired!” she says. “So, let’s start breathing.”

The students spread out in rows, and Giordano, also in black and ponytail, uses her body to illustrate stretches and introductory exercises. A performer for many years, Giordano stopped dancing in 1985 because of injuries. Her body still knows the moves, though, and as she sketches them out, the students, in copycat form, extend them with agility and curiosity.

Dancers follow along with Nan Giordano in Exeter's dance studio.

After a few minutes, the students are moving in unison, focused on one thing only: Giordano. She launches Peter Gabriel’s “Book of Love.” Sound invades the room, bouncing off the enormous mirrors along one wall of the studio, the gray sprung floor, the black ceiling.

For the next hour, the dance master leads an exercise of repetition, addition and repetition, with increasingly complex moves entering the routine. Tentative movements become joyful. By the final run, dancers are no longer watching Giordano, they are watching themselves in the mirror, many smiling at their success.

Calypso complexity

This is Giordano’s first visit to campus, but her presence has been felt for years. Allison Duke, director of dance, and Sarah Duclos, former dance faculty, have both completed the Nan Giordano Certification Program for teachers, which focuses on classic jazz and has a strong technical core.

“The students love it,” says Duke, who actively uses the program as the basis for teaching jazz dance, “because it organizes the knowledge.”

Nan Giordano talks to an Exeter student in the dance studio.

The success of the approach is in evidence during this afternoon class as students master technical moves and gain confidence.

“Know your body. Be smart.” Giordano advises just before she starts the dancers on a new calypso walk with a complex ribcage isolation.

“Jazz, it’s all about the style,” she says. “The Giordano technique is grounded, there’s no bounce.”

Students try the complex move. Giordano gives a few tips. “If it feels awkward, it’s probably not right.”

The dancers try again, with no music. Giordano supplies sounds to accentuate the movements: “Phoom … pha ... phoom … pha.”

“When we think too hard, does it work against us or with us?” Giordano asks the dancers, encouraging them to trust their bodies.

“Against us!” they shout in unison.

As the dancers repeat, capturing the movement one by one, Giordano shouts, “Oh, that was so good!”

“She’s the Bill Belichick of jazz dance,” Duke says appreciatively as she watches.

Students practice dance moves as Nan Giordano walks among them, coaching.


Sharing the knowledge

At the end of the day, and the end of Giordano’s two-day residency on campus, students from Andover, Berwick Academy, and Ballet North, a local dance academy, join Exonians for a community master class.

The routine is simplified for this group, which has a broad age spread from middle school to high school senior, and varying levels of dance experience.

“We’re going to do air resistance,” Giordano says to introduce an improvisational exercise. “I want you to be thick in the air. And have some eye contact.”

The dancers try the improvisation, working in groups of two.

“You’re being artists. A dancer is an artist!” Giordano encourages.

The students improvise a second time and smiles break out.

“Freeze!” yells Giordano. Bodies stop in mid-movement. “And go!”

Giordano gazes at the students with a mixture of firmness and appreciation for what they have achieved in short order. She recognizes their tremendous potential for growth. Working with Exonians for the past two days, she was struck by their intense interest. (“Their tenacity to get it is non-stop!”) So, she repeats a query she has posed dozens of times during her visit to Exeter: “Any questions?”

Three dancers improvise as Nan Giordano watches.