American Performing Icon Visits Savoy

From Tolono County Star
March 18, 2010
By Christine Walsh

SAVOY — For more than three decades, Ben Vereen, a Tony award-winning, Golden Globe and Emmy Award-nominated actor, dancer and singer, has inspired audiences with his versatility and creativity as an entertainer.

Last Tuesday, he inspired young dancers during a visit to the Christine Rich Studio, a dance academy and performing arts center in Savoy.

“I’ve known Christine for years,” Vereen said.

Vereen admires Rich’s philosophy of positive thinking — “using your energies toward developing your dream,” he said. “It’s a manifestation of your consciousness.”

Vereen said that while not all of Rich’s students will go on to have careers in show business, they are being given extraordinary opportunities.

“She’s giving them a wonderful life,” Vereen said. “She’s an amazing visionary. She’s given a vision to these young people. These are the fertile grounds of creativity.”

Vereen often visits with young dancers in part because he himself was inspired as a boy by a fighter who visited his elementary school.

“My gym teacher was his coach,” Vereen said. “I remember to this day the impact it had. The aura in the room changed. It’s important that we in the industry give back.”

Vereen said when he first started telling people he wanted to be a dancer, he was given some advice — “keep my focus,” he said. “Work on your fundamentals and develop yourself as an artist.”

Not one to live in the past, Vereen doesn’t rest on his laurels.

“The present is alive and vibrant,” he said. “I’m having a blessed life.”

When admirers tell Vereen that they want to be like him, his response is usually the same.

“You better not be like me,” he tells them. “You be yourself. You have art to bring to this industry.”

Vereen has had many encounters with young dance students that he has visited over the years and encountered later. One of his favorites was when he was first on the set of the television miniseries “Roots” to play Chicken George and saw a young man he recognized.

“What are you doing here?” Vereen asked him.

“I’m playing Kunta Kinte,” replied the young man, LeVar Burton.

While at Christine Rich’s studio last week, Vereen began inspiring a new generation of performers.

“It’s pretty cool to have someone from Broadway come here to Savoy,” fifth-year dancer Megan Ogle of St. Joseph said.

While Vereen said he was only there to observe, Rich had other ideas, inviting him to critique her dancers as they worked on various routines.

He watched a group interpreting the song “Stepping Stone” by Duffy, a dramatic song about self-possession, strength and restraint. The dancers carefully followed through each step and movement.

“Do you know what this song is about?” Vereen asked the dancers. “Have you ever had something like that in life happen to you? That’s what you’re dancing about. That’s your inner story. Your job as you’re dancing is to fill up your steps with your story. Does that make sense? Because that’s what dance is — the nonverbal expression of ourselves.”

The dancers tried the routine again, this time showing more emotion.

“Beautiful, babies,” Vereen encouraged. “Stay focused, stay in it. Feel it on the inside.”

Afterwards, he continued to share his insight.

“Anyone can dance, but can you move me?” he asked. “When you’re dancing for an audience, you want them to say, ‘That was an experience; you changed my life.'”

Vereen is currently on tour doing lectures and is writing a show called “Brooklyn to Broadway.”

Vereen, who has type 2 diabetes, is also involved with a national movement called Start Taking Action Now for Diabetes (S.T.A.N.D.).

“Juvenile diabetes is on the rise,” Vereen said. “We have an epidemic on our hands.”

He is even writing a book on the topic.

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