FRANK HATCHETT
by Bob Boross (1999)

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Frank Hatchett - the name instantly refers to what is hot, fresh, and new in the world of jazz dance. As a teacher and choreographer for more than 30 years, Frank Hatchett has been a driving force in taking the latest steps and trends from street and social dance and translating them into a jazz dance style he calls VOP. From the 1960s twist to the 1990s hip hop, Frank Hatchett has been the conduit from the street to the commercial stage.


The unenlightened dancer or observer may then jump to the conclusion that Hatchett spends his time picking up on what street dancers are doing and merely transports their steps to the dance studio. In reality, his style is based in strong concert and ethnic dance techniques. To become proficient in VOP, a dancer must know technique as well as have attitude and flair. As Frank said in a recent interview at NY's Broadway Dance Center, where he leads three classes daily in his style, "You can be a dancer today by just knowing the latest steps, but to me you can see the difference in a dancer that has a knowledge of the older styles. I think that it just makes a stronger, more secure dancer."

In an effort to shed more light on his thoughts on VOP, jazz dance, and the proper training of a jazz dancer, Frank has written a textbook in conjunction with Nancy Myers Gitlin that reveals the building blocks of his life's work. In Frank Hatchett's Jazz Dance, some startling revelations are offered that may cause the novice to rethink their methods of dance training, and provide a blueprint for teachers who are trying to give their students the best training possible.

For instance, after beginning his dance career as a young boy in a local Massachusetts dance studio, Frank made his way to New York where he studied the meticulous, precise, and strong technique of modern dance pioneer Katherine Dunham. He advanced his knowledge with classes in African, East Indian, and Caribbean dance. It was only after the young dancer had established a strong foundation of dance technique that he branched out to develop a signature style that resided in his soul. His possession of strong technique presented the movement skills with which to say what he had in his heart - and that was VOP. Although today's observer sees contemporary dance when observing him in class, Frank's work is laid upon a detailed knowledge of classic dance methods.

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As a teacher, Frank expects his students to have technique - from studies in ballet, modern, jazz, and ethnic dance classes. From there, he works to develop the student's ability to VOP. What is VOP? In his book, VOP is described as "a unique energy put into dance as well as life; a spirit; an attitude" and as a way to "communicate with an audience; to make the audience feel part of the dance experience." VOP is an individual interpretation of jazz or other rhythmic music that comes from the dancer's soul. This description places VOP in agreement with a defining characteristic of jazz dance, where the dancer is expected to react individually to musical influences and elicit movements that either reflect the rhythmic structure of the music or display the dancer's personal reaction to the music. VOP demands a marriage of the movement and the music. Therefore the ability to feel music on a personal and emotional level, as well as being able to display that feeling with clarity, confidence, and energy, is essential to a dancer's skill in VOP.

Frank feels that many dancers today have a hard time finding the feeling within music, as musical choices on radio and television are limited. "Nowadays," he says," dancers' knowledge of music is so shallow." So Frank has incorporated some teaching methods that help the dancer to break free from the chains of rigid technique and tap the wellspring of feeling music from the soul. One method is seen easily in the very name - VOP. VOP is not a real word or definition, and the letters do not stand for anything. VOP is a verbal incarnation of a feeling. It sounds like what the feeling feels like. When you've finally found it - you're VOPPING! Frank finds that this method of creating sounds, rather than solely relying on musical counting, helps to give the dancer a lead to what the movement feels like. Like a jazz singer scatting a melody, Frank fills in the spaces between counts with evocative phrases like "zaa baa aah aah" and "chicka chicka boom boom." As Frank stated, "It is the art of being the best of both worlds - it's our obligation to feel the music - to ride the music."

Another method in Frank's arsenal is to use contemporary movements as an unseen portal to a stronger basis in technique. "There are a couple of teachers who are phenomenal teachers, who are from the old school, and I see that the kids won't go for those. And I see kids standing outside their classes and say 'That's dated.' And I say, 'Yeah, but you know, you never know when that might come up at an audition. That's just going to make you stronger as a dancer. I use current music and I use current moves - different moves from the street, which I've always done from day one. So they like that. And I use that to get into their heads - then I can get them into a technique class."

And without this secure basis for movement skills, acquired by the dancer in technique classes, the ability to relax and find the groove is hindered. As stated in his textbook, the more a dancer can relax, let go, get down, and feel - the more the dancer can project, give attitude, energize - and VOP. The freedom to feel and interpret is based first on a technical understanding of the movement capabilities of the dancer's body, and secondly on an ability to feel music from deep in the soul, allowing that feeling to color, enhance, and embellish the movements a dancer chooses.

A final method is that dancers today should seek out a variety of classes and dance styles in order to broaden their outlook and prevent the "shallow" dancer that Frank sees all too often. "I think that dancers need to balance their schedules - to get into a jazz class that is strong technically but is still jazz. And add a class that is freer, so they can still stay on top of what is going on. Then, to get into a theatre class where a teacher might touch on some of the old choreography from musicals. A class like Phil Black used to do, where Monday might be swing, Tuesday might be latin, and Wednesday might be something from West Side Story. That makes a dancer well versed."

A final caveat was offered by Frank as a reminder that an over emphasis on technique can actually hinder a dancer's ability to feel the music. He warns " But more important is to stay away from a class where they are going to put on jazz music and then they just do ballet. They are really not teaching jazz, because there is no marriage of the movement and music."

It is obvious that Frank Hatchett is more than a contemporary dancer. His movement exceeds street dance and his methods borrow from the roots of jazz dance and concert dance techniques. As a teacher, Frank has encouraged thousands of dancers to find the feeling of music that resides in them and create a channel for the expression of that feeling. And as a dancer knowledgeable in the concert dance styles of the past, he has brought the integrity and discipline of those forms to young dancers of today - dancers who otherwise may never have been exposed to the movement of Katherine Dunham, Africa, and the Caribbean. Frank Hatchett is a leader in the fields of dance education, jazz dance, and a true original - the creator of his own signature style of jazz dance known as VOP.