in the Funk
boom," says jazz-dance teacher Kari James as she
hits the pose. "Ba boom. I have to feel like you're
coming at me. Really put out some attitude." Students
mimic her stane, and "the tough look" is achieved
with varying degrees of success.
find her jazz-dance style hip, fun, fast-paced and streetwise.
Critics label it unsophisticated or unacademic. Either way,
James always gives a class full of contemporary choreography
that stays fresh. With yearly pilgrimages to Los Angeles and
New York City, where she learns from top choreographers
including her mentor and friend Frank Hatchett James
takes pride in bringing the hottest new moves to the dancers
of St. Louis.
always go for a week and take as many classes as I can,"
James explains. "When the money situation is good, I
go twice a year. I built up my confidence on the East Coast
before heading West, where the scene is much more fierce and
competitive. I always get this wonderful feeling from bringing
things here. To do it here means an awful lot to me."
And that makes sense. On the East or West Coast, dancers with
James' flashy style and choreographic sensibilities are a
dime a dozen. Here, she fills a niche. Her gifts are at a
premium and most appreciated by those who take advantage
knew the first class I went to with her that this is where
you want to be," says dancer Carol Voss, who has studied
with James for eight years and has become a personal friend.
"She is dedicated to constantly coming up with new material.
Her attitude is that no one is ever too old to learn. She
never looks at somebody else like, 'You can't do this.' No
one else in St. Louis does this for such a large adult audience.
This is not about just exercising. She makes us feel like
younger than 16 is allowed in James' classes. She explains
her logic: "Adults get discouraged and drop out. What
adult wants to stand next to a 7-year-old? A lot of studios
say they offer an adult class, but it's not a priority. My
classes are for adults who want to have a good time but who
also want to work."
has danced all around town, and those who don't know her from
her days teaching at the Fitness Center on Clayton Road might
know her from her former studio in Olivette, Steps Unlimited.
These days, James is giving a new life and vitality to the
adult dance program at the Center of Contemporary Arts, in
the Delmar Loop. "I like to keep a pace. You have to
go for it. I always want people to walk away thinking, 'I'll
get it the next time.' "
the people have hope for themselves, because they keep coming
back, with a tendency to bring friends. In just two years
at COCA, James' classes have grown to nine offerings a week,
including three levels of jazz and two tap classes. After
losing her studio in a dispute with her former partner, James
is definitely back on her feet, and loyal to the adult dancers
who have always been the heart of her program.
closest friends are some of the people I dance with. These
people have seen me through to where I am now, and I'm forever
grateful for their support," says James, who just turned
40, although one would never guess it from her well-sustained
energy and enviable extension. Still, James has no regrets
about shunning the road to a big dance career, insisting she
never saw herself as the type to have her name in lights.
"I won a dance scholarship to Columbia College after
high school and turned it down. I didn't think I had the personality
to pursue dancing as a career. I was really shy, and dancing
was really healthy for me, but I just couldn't see myself
on Broadway," she says.
an inkling of James' natural-born modesty. On a 1993 trip
to LA, after taking a class from choreographer Toni Kaye,
James was invited to perform in Sugar Babies, put on
by the San Bernardino Civic Light Opera. No audition was required,
Kaye insisted; James' classwork said enough.
for the St. Louis dance scene, James came home when the show