Erika Black demonstrates a classic Luigi move. Photo by Matt Murphy.
From Miami to San Diego, it’s not unusual to walk into a new jazz class and still know the beginning of the warm-up: As you lunge onto your right foot and push into your right hip, you stretch up through a lengthened right arm overhead. Then you switch to the other leg and continue to alternate sides in a rhythmic sway that’s both relaxing and invigorating. (See images at left.)
This universal step came from a single source—and his name is Luigi. As one of the fathers of classic jazz dance (along with Jack Cole, Matt Mattox and Gus Giordano, among others), Luigi developed a codified approach to jazz technique, which he describes in his book, Luigi’s Jazz Warmup and Introduction to Jazz Style and Technique. Now, the sprightly 84-year-old’s unique approach has become the backbone of classic jazz dance. “Luigi’s technique is the finest foundation a jazz dancer can have,” says James Gray, dance captain for the Broadwday production and tour of the musical Young Frankenstein. “Every student should experience his style.”
A native of Steubenville, OH, and one of 11 children, Eugene Louis Faccuito (Luigi’s birth name) began performing with encouragement—and informal lessons—from his brother Tony. Luigi also took tap lessons for three years with Lenora and Angela McKean, and toured as a singer with a performing orchestra in his teens.
A duty tour in the army from 1943 until 1946 interrupted his developing performing career, but upon his return, Luigi moved to Hollywood to study ballet with the famous instructor Madame Bronislava Nijinska. However, he soon realized he wanted a more diverse dance education. So he switched to Falcon Studios, where he began studying with director Edith Jane, as well as Michel Fokine and Eugene Loring, great instructors of the MGM Golden Era.
Then, just months after moving to Hollywood, a terrible car accident put Luigi in a coma. When he woke, one side of his body was partially paralyzed. Doctors worried he would never walk again. But Luigi remembers, “Something inside me kept saying, ‘Never stop moving.’ All I could think about was getting back to dance.”
During the three months Luigi spent in his hospital bed, he practiced a set of angular port de bras created by Micho Ito, a eurythmic dancer. Luigi adjusted the placement of Ito’s arm movements (which were originally designed as exercises for musical conductors), putting them farther in front of his body, as in ballet, to create stability. From there, the nexus of Luigi’s own technique emerged. Now, if you take Luigi’s technique class in NYC (which he and his assistant Francis Roach still teach daily at Studio Maestro), you’ll learn the 24 arm motions Luigi created and dubbed L’urythmics.
One year after his accident, Luigi made it back into the studio, where he developed other exercises that helped his post-injury body. “As I tried to dance again, I fell a lot in the center,” Luigi says. “I decided I had to do the same thing away from the barre that I did at the barre.” He began by putting his arms in second position, palms facing the floor, to stabilize himself—as if he were pressing down on an invisible barre. He also incorporated épaulement from his ballet classes. “Épaulement helps you shift from one position to the next, and puts you in the right spot for each transition,” Luigi explains. Karin Baker, a Luigi devotee and Broadway veteran who danced in the original cast of 42nd Street, finds that Luigi’s use of épaulement “teaches you to connect A to B. He helps you understand how movement flows from one place to the next.”
Luigi behind the Falcon Studios in Hollywood. Photo by Edith Jane.
Thanks to his unique rehabilitative exercises, Luigi was soon back onstage. After performing in a Falcon Studio showcase, he was snatched up by MGM scouts and began dancing in movies. (Catch him in classic films like An American in Paris, Annie Get Your Gun and White Christmas.) On set, he met his mentor, the legendary Gene Kelly. Kelly renamed the dancer Luigi (“He told me there were too many Genes!”), and encouraged Luigi to be proud despite residual physical issues. “Originally I hid my face on set because it was still a bit paralyzed,” Luigi says. “Gene told me, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing but lift your face. It’s beautiful.’ That helped create the carriage I stress in my technique now. It’s like you’re leaning your face up to feel and see everything you can.”
When Kelly’s assistant, Alex Romero, asked Luigi to assist with and perform in Broadway’s Happy Hunting, Luigi jumped at the chance. During the show’s run, he took another of Kelly’s suggestions and showed his technique to dancers in NYC. A loyal student following quickly emerged. Soon, he opened his own studio. It was a success from the start, with stars like Barbra Streisand and Liza Minnelli filling his classes. Because his technique allowed each student to align his or her body individually, classes attracted actors and singers learning to dance, along with avid dance veterans. “I opened around the time that West Side Story first came to Broadway, and suddenly performers had to act, sing and dance all at once,” Luigi says. “There were no separate choruses anymore.”
Since then, Luigi has dedicated himself to teaching. “I want to help students work on each movement and moment fully. Then they can execute the steps correctly and not lose the ‘moving’ part of dance,” he explains. “I want to help dancers achieve that combination of feelings—desire, elegance and sophistication.”
Harper Watters is a ballet dancer for today's generation. A social media maestro and a charismatic performer, the Houston Ballet soloist is equally at home in front of the camera hosting his hit YouTube series, "The Pre Show"; interacting with fans on his crazy-popular Instagram account; or showing off his beautiful classical technique onstage. It's a multifaceted identity that's proven to be invaluable to his career—and it's taking him to places he never even dreamed of.
Maud Arnold is one of the busiest tap dancers on the planet. As a member of the Syncopated Ladies, Maud—along with her big sis and fellow tapper Chloé Arnold—is on constantly the road for performances, workshops, and master classes. For the average person, that kind of schedule could lead to a serious derailment of healthy habits. But Maud's far from average. Here's how the fit, fierce, flawless tap star stays stage-ready—no matter what time zone she finds herself in.
The dancers who take our breath away are the risk-takers, the ones who appear completely fearless onstage. "When you see somebody trying to travel more, go farther, push the limits of their physical abilities, that's always going to be inspiring," says Ballet BC dancer Alexis Fletcher.
But dance training can feel like it's in conflict with that idea. We spend thousands of hours in the studio trying to do steps perfectly, and that pursuit of perfection can make us anxious about taking risks. What if we fail? What if we fall?
Luckily, fearlessness is a mental skill that you can work on, just as you work on your technique. Here's how you can learn to push yourself past your limits.
If you're in need of a piece that's both trendy and sophisticated, look no further than this Só Dança crop top. Featuring elegant long sleeves, a high neckline, and a delicate lace trim, it's both classic and contemporary—perfect for everything from that big audition to a long night in the studio. Enter below for your chance to win it!
Auditioning for summer intensives in person may be the ideal—but for Anna McDowell, a 16-year-old student at Juneau Dance Theatre in Juneau, AK, it's rarely possible. “Living in Alaska, it's difficult to travel to auditions," she says. “It gets way too expensive!" Instead, each year, with help from her teachers and a videographer, she puts together a well-crafted video and submits it to schools around the country. Last year, her high-quality video helped her earn acceptance to nearly every program she applied for. Most summer intensive programs, eager to attract students from far and wide, will accept video auditions from those who can't travel to take class. But major schools look at hundreds of submissions each year, which means video auditioners have just a few minutes—or even seconds—to make a great impression. If you're about to create an audition video, follow these tips from the professionals to put your best digital foot forward.
There are zillions of things to think about when choosing a summer program, but here's one you might not have considered: using an intensive as an opportunity to focus on a new style. Maybe you're a tap dancer who's ready to see where else your rhythm and quick feet can serve you, or a contemporary dancer curious about the more traditional roots of your genre. A summer program can be the perfect place to broaden your horizons, giving you the opportunity to make technical and artistic changes that stick throughout the year.
Happy birthday, George Balanchine! The great choreographer and founder of New York City Ballet would have been 114 years old today. Balanchine revolutionized ballet, especially American ballet—and he also had quite a way with words. To celebrate Mr. B's birthday, we rounded up some of our favorite iconic Balanchine quotes.