Thursday, March 5, 2015

Lou Conte: Standardizing Dance Education in Chicago

Most people know that Broadway is more than a street in New York City. Broadway has become synonymous with live entertainment. Anything Off-Broadway is deemed second tier to tourists’ evening plans. Why is that? Dance.

The Theater District on Broadway Street in Manhattan has always been largely successful with over 40 theaters. The aspect of entertainment has not changed, but how we entertain has changed. Early performers just had the “it factor” and grew famous through their performances. There was no standardization to what Broadway dancing meant. Typically, Broadway dance includes tap and jazz, but that was just what matched the flashy show tunes of most theatrical performances. Nowadays, you can flip through Playbills and see there is a wide variety of shows; there’s Phantom of the Opera, Lion King, Mamma Mia!, all the way to the Book of Mormons. That being said, Broadway dancers just can’t be a tap legend like Fred Astaire. They have to have the whole package.

Lou Conte began tap-dancing at age 7 and later studied ballet and jazz. He kept dancing while he studied zoology in college, but he postponed his scientific career to dance in New York City. He was hired as a dancer on Broadway’s How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. He toured the world with musicals, gaining an abundance of theatrical experience. Upon returning to the United States, he focused on choreography. He established the Lou Conte Dance Studio in Chicago in 1972. In 1977, he founded the Hubbard Street Dance Company. It said that Hubbard Street defined Chicago dance to the rest of the world.

What does that mean to define dance? In any given Hubbard Street performance at the Harris Theater of the Museum of Contemporary Art, the company is mainly a contemporary dance company. While beautiful and entertaining, it is by no means Broadway. How did Lou Conte transfer his theatrical experience to a deeply artistic contemporary company?

The Lou Conte Dance Studio teaches a variety of dance classes. From classical ballet to jazz funk, Lou Conte instructs dancers to be malleable dancers. Since not everyone can be a tap-dancing protégé, dancers need a fundamental background in technique. With this broad-based technique, dancers are able to pursue a wide variety of performance opportunities upon maturity.
Audiences are no longer one size fits all. Aesthetic concepts have different effects on different audiences, as explained by Hagendoorn. What makes one person laugh might not be as enjoyable to what makes another person cry.

Of course dancers want to be able to explore their creative outlets and pursue their own dreams, but most dancers are just trying to get hired. By studying fundamental techniques as outlined by Lou Conte, dancers are more likely to be able to succeed in any field they pursue, whether it Broadway or Hubbard Street. Lou Conte’s experience traveling the world as a Broadway dancer helped him outline the techniques necessary for a diverse dance career. His first choreographic performance featured four women at a nursing home, so while that may not have been Tony-worthy, there was some creative genius that was able to unite a world of dance.

Lou Conte definitely was not the only one of his kind to quantify such a field of creativity and performance, but he did that for Chicago. Young dancers aspire to moving to New York City for Broadway or Los Angeles for commercial dance, either of which can be trained in the Midwest via Lou Conte Dance Studio.

Hagendoorn: Hagendoorn, I. (2011 ). Dance, choreography and the brain. In F. Bacci and D. Melcher (Eds.) Art & The Senses. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

"Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame." Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Mar. 2015.

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