Students able to take master class with Jim Cooney

Jim Cooney (center) teaches the choreography to ‘Jet Set’ from the Broadway musical ÒCatch Me If You CanÓ during the dance master class on Saturday in Gordon Wilson Hall. (Mike Clark/HERALD)

Kristina Burton

On Saturday, WKU Dance students were able to attend a master class with Jim Cooney, an award-winning choreographer who has taught jazz, tap and musical theatre across the world.

Clifton Brown, WKU Dance’s coordinator and associate professor, played a role in making Cooney’s visit become a reality.

“I was invited in December 2013 by Bonnie Erickson, director of educational programming of Broadway Dance Center (BDC), to their annual winter concert in New York City,” Brown said. “I was so impressed with the caliber and professionalism of their work and what the professional program had to offer, I knew I had to bring them to WKU.

“After much difficulty in obtaining funding to make this opportunity happen for the dance majors, I received funding from the Honors College, Honors Faculty Engagement Grant and the WKU National Dance Education Organization student chapter,” Brown said.

Brown said Cooney, during his time at WKU, will be teaching a master class, presenting material on the BDC professional semester program and also a mock audition for students pursuing a professional career in dance.

“These events are crucial to WKU students obtaining work in the field of dance upon graduating with a BA in Dance,” Brown said.

“We are excited and honored to have Mr. Cooney at WKU representing Broadway Dance Center. I would like to thank Bonnie Erickson for her support to make this happen as well.”

Erickson said she fell in love with the BDC while attending Columbia University.

“I started as work-study in the International Student Visa Program because I speak French and a smattering of other languages and simply climbed the ranks from there,” Erickson said.

“I left to pursue writing for a while, including a stint at The New York Times, but my heart was always at BDC, and when the directorship of the programs came open, I leapt at the chance to return.”

Erickson said she’s essentially created the programming she wishes she had when she was a young dancer trying to make it.

“I graduated from a world-class university with a degree in dance and found upon graduating that I had no idea how to embark on a career as a professional dancer,” Erickson said. “I had the talent but none of the pragmatic tools, and so that’s what I seek to teach the dancers in my programs. We also truly think we have a calling to change the dance world (and ergo really the whole world) from a competitive, cutthroat place to one of abundance and compassion. Thousands of dancers from around the world come through our programs, and so we think we have a profound opportunity to have an impact on the world by imbuing them with power and positivity, and with a culture of kindness.”

Erickson said she’s proud and honored to have Cooney as the Faculty Advisor for the BDC’s Professional Semester.

“To me he is the pinnacle of professionalism, which in a word is what we’re teaching,” Erickson said. “We so believe in our message and Jimmy simply exemplifies it. My hope is that he will inspire the dancers at WKU to new heights of excellence and to help them see their dreams within reach.”

Cooney is the faculty advisor for the full-time educational programs at the BDC.

“Our Professional Semester Program is what I’m coming to talk about with the WKU students,” Cooney said. “It’s our elite training program that takes well-trained dancers and turns them into working dancers by giving them the tools they need and making connections to industry professionals.”

Cooney said the BDC has a relationship with several schools where its employees meet students and award scholarships.

“Some schools even offer college credit to their students who attend our program,” Cooney said. “This is our first visit to WKU, and I imagine our relationship will continue down a similar path.”

Cooney said one of the highlights of his career is seeing the world.

“Another highlight is doing something different every day,” he said. “I teach at Broadway Dance Center, but around the world as well, and different levels from beginners to professionals, so even that isn’t static. I couldn’t go to the same office every day, and do the same thing. I much prefer the variety of life that this career affords me.”

However, Cooney said the highlights of his profession can also be downsides.

“Excessive travel can be exhausting, and continually making sure you have jobs lined up gets stressful,” Cooney said.

“You also have to be frugal with your money, making sure you’re saving for retirement, finding an affordable health insurance and paying for it, and keeping a safety net should you get injured and need to take a couple months off or if the work stops coming,” he said. “Overall, though, I love it.”

Cooney said there are multiple things he wants to make sure of during his time at WKU.

“First, that they can make a career out of dancing. I’ve been doing it, and so have countless others. I want them to see that it’s possible,” Cooney said.

“Second, I want to bring the ‘real world’ to them. Universities are safe places because you get very familiar with your teachers and there is a finite number of students. In NYC, you walk into an audition and aren’t guaranteed to already know that choreographer, director and producer sitting there at the table. There are hundreds of dancers all competing for the same job. There isn’t really a way to replicate that in the university setting, so I hope to bring some of the energy into the room and provide them with some of that info.”

Third, Cooney wanted students to remember dance is their passion.

“Yes, it’s how you pay your bills, but it’s also what you love to do,” he said. “Never forget that. If you just want to get a job, then go to another profession with better job security and higher salaries.

“Last, I want each student walking away knowing at least one thing they can improve so they feel more confident at their next audition,” Cooney said.

Cooney said he feels that the relationships between the BDC and universities are win-win.

“It helps the university provide their students with a way to get work after they graduate,” Cooney said. “The amount of connections the students make during their four months with us is basically impossible to do on your own. Plus, they get to practice auditioning with our series of mock auditions, and get real-time feedback, which doesn’t happen in a real audition. It’s really one of the only places you can actually practice auditioning. The benefit for BDC is we get to work with very well-trained dancers who have developed their discipline and craft while in school. They also have a sense of maturity that you don’t always see from dancers who come straight out of their hometown studios.”