Ben Vereen visits Savoy to watch dance students

Published online Feb. 9, 2005
By Ernst Lamothe, Jr., News-Gazette Staff Writer

SAVOY – Leaning back in his chair in the corner of a dance studio sits a man with a gray video camera. He tapes some of Christine Rich’s ballet and tap dance students, panning the entire room with each movement.

The man behind the camera in Savoy Tuesday evening was Ben Vereen, the on Tony and Emmy award-winning Broadway actor.

Vereen, who exhibited his boundless energy with the students, was visiting Rich, who operates her own dance studio in Savoy, which teaches ballet, jazz, tap, hip-hop and Irish dancing.

“I got an e-mail from Christine. She wanted to know if I wanted to come here and see the kids,” said Vereen, who will be performing in Chicago this weekend. “I came to see what God has blessed Champaign with.”

Vereen, who talks about the arts as if he’s dependent on them for oxygen, wasn’t going to simply observe. He called several tap dancers one by one to perform their routines, offering a mixture of professional and fatherly advice. Several students looked nervous performing before the entertainer of television, movies and theater. But he put them at ease with a flash of his trademark smile and a few tips that can’t be found in a book.

“The idea is just to feel it. The idea is to feel the rhythm and you can feel the music,” Vereen said to a student after one performance. “If you really get into the sound and listen to the lyric … and listen to the beat behind it, you will find a whole marriage happening.”

After watching a tap dancing duo, he told them “You have to look inside yourself to feel where the beat is coming from. It’s all about how the music makes you feel.”

And after watching a ballet performance by two youngsters, who were playing out a dramatic scene, he offered more hints.
“You’ve got the technical part down, so let all that go and let it be,” continued Vereen. “If it is real to you, it is real to me.”

Vereen has performed in many Broadway plays, winning a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical for his lead performance in “Pippin.” In 1977, he appeared in the television blockbuster “Roots,” as “Chicken” George Moore.

He also starred in a one-man show, earning him the “Entertainer of the Year,” “Rising Star” and “Song and Dance” honors from the American Guild of Variety Artists. He is the first person to win those three awards in one year. He enjoyed dance at an early age and hopes others do the same.

“We in the community need to support the arts, which supports the kids. And if we support the kids, we support our future,” Vereen said. “The arts are suffering all over the place. The schools are cutting the arts. We’re teaching kids how to make a living instead of teaching them how to live. Not everyone is meant to play football, basketball, soccer or golf. Some are meant to experience the arts through music, dance and drama.”

Rich said she has seen children who were teetering on the edge of a troubled life brought back by the arts.

“It completely turns some people around,” said the executive director of the Christine Rich Studio Dance Academy. “Dance literally saved them. It gives people hope.”

Rich, who has taught thousands of children in her career, now creates contemporary choreography on the stages of Chicago, alongside Hubbard Street Dance and the Joffrey Ballet. Rich first met Vereen when she was a back-up dancer for some of his shows. She remembers being awed by the legend and was thrilled when he accepted her offer to come to East Central Illinois and watch her dance classes.

“I can’t speak highly enough of him,” she said. “We are grateful that he could stop here.”

Vereen urged the community to support their shining star.

“It is wonderful what she is doing here. Hey, she got me to come here,” Vereen said.

He wants Rich to start her own dance company.

“That way people will go to Champaign because there is a light being shone where the company is formed,” Vereen said. “You’ve got to stop saying that you have to go to Chicago to see dancing or that it’s all in New York. We have to nurture our own so Chicago comes here to our festivals.”

Currently, Vereen is shooting an HBO film called “My Life in Idlewild,” starring Ving Rhames, Cicely Tyson and the musical hip-hop duo OutKast. The movie is about two kids who grow up in the 1930s – one the son of a mortician and one raised by a gangster.

“It is hip-hop musical put in the 1930s,” said Vereen, who is also serving as an acting coach for the film.

He continues to headline in Las Vegas, Atlantic City and Lake Tahoe, as well as Europe, Asia and the Caribbean.

You can reach News-Gazette Staff Writer
Ernst Lamothe Jr. at (217) 351-5223 or via e-mail at elamothe@news-gazette.com.

Copyright 2005 News-Gazette, Inc.

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