Bringin' in the Funk

"Ba 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.

Supporters 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.

"I 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 of them.

"I 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 we're dancers."

No one 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."

James 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.' "

And, evidently, 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.

"My 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.

This gives 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.

Luckily for the St. Louis dance scene, James came home when the show was over.

— Deborah Cottin

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