“Let’s do a basic Irish, five, six, seven and eight,” Randy Skinner, award-winning producer, choreographer and director, told a beginning tap dance class.
As he skipped from one leg to the other, he flicked his toes out while lifting each foot gracefully into the air. The students followed his lead, sounding like a rhythmic army as they moved their feet.
When the students were confused or lost the beat, Skinner slowed down the pace and broke down the steps. He encouraged the class to “not dance safely and go for it,” to be aware of their arms and to dance strongly from start to finish.
On March 12 and 13, Skinner came to Columbia from New York City to teach tap, ballet and jazz classes in the Dance and Theatre departments. He talked to the students about the performing world and what it takes to break into the industry.
“My reason for bringing [Skinner] here [is that] we have been focusing on developing our musical theater tap classes,” said Amy Uhl, assistant professor in the Theatre Department. “Our students’ skills have been incredible in terms of improvement, so that is [reason] to have a tap specialist come in.”
Skinner instructed Beginning Tap I and Jazz II in the Dance Department March 12. In the Theatre Department on March 13, he taught Intermediate and Advanced Musical Theatre Tap as well as Musical Theatre Dance II. Skinner also engaged students in an open dialogue during a Q-and-A.
According to Uhl, as an acclaimed choreographer, Skinner played an important role in the revival of the Broadway play “42nd Street.” She added that Gower Champion, a multiple Tony Award-winning director and choreographer, was his mentor. During the Q-and-A, students were curious about the role Champion played in Skinner’s professional life.
“I learned some real interesting techniques from [Champion] about choreography, such as if you are not needed in the room, clear the room,” Skinner said. “That is one of the best lessons I learned from him.”
Students also wanted advice on how to combat nerves before auditions and performances. Drawing from what he looks for when casting people for a show, Skinner advised them to be prepared because they will most likely learn the dance ahead of time.
He also told them to take advantage of different instructors who teach different dance styles and to constantly be open and willing to learn.
Sophomore theatre major Melissa McKenna agreed that switching teachers is beneficial for students.
“I hope the Theatre Department continues to do things like this because we take classes with the same teachers each semester, twice a week,” McKenna said. “It is nice to have somebody else come in and learn a completely different style with a completely different way of teaching than what we are normally used to.”
With years of experience in the dance world, Skinner also shared the secrets of the connection between choreographers and directors in the performance industry. He told students that many directors or choreographers call each other after auditions to get a feel for the person who just tried out, especially if they have a bad feeling about his or her performance.
In this day and age, technology has become a force that cannot be ignored, Skinner said. He told students not to post on Facebook, Twitter or other social media sites whether or not they were cast for a show because people in the industry look at them with concern.
He explained that if a student types in a gloating status, it breaks the spirit of others. If a student posts one saying he or she didn’t get the part, professionals see this as defeat. But he offered students advice for doing well in auditions to avoid
“You can’t ever go wrong by being focused, by being attentive, by being polite, by being cordial,” Skinner said. “That will ensure you do well in life.”
Skinner shared these same pieces of advice during the dance lessons. David Peterman, a first-year graduate student in the Theatre Department, said Skinner’s teaching methods and pace was helpful in understanding the steps.
Both Peterman and McKenna said Skinner’s fast-paced teaching style and technique was a fresh approach to dance for them. After teaching for two days, Skinner said he enjoyed the incredible spirit Columbia students shared with him.
“I have seen focus and improvement during the hour and 20 minutes of class because everyone is in different levels being in a musical theater program,” he said. “What I have seen is growth from everybody.”