Just Dance!

Studio to offer classes for students with disabilities

From Savoy Star
By Erika Nelson, Savoy Star Editor
Editor’s note: This is the third story in a three-part series on the benefits of dance.

For an actor, musician or artists, a performance or recital is a test of progress.

And it is a test that means different things to different people involved.

“The experience of being on stage is really personal for each cast member,” said Christine Rich, founder and director of the Christine Rich Dance Academy and Performing Arts Center. “Some enjoy the celebration of hard work, some enjoy the celebration of their courage to get up on stage, some feel a boost to their self-esteem and some love the sheer joy of entertaining people.”

Every year, dance students at the Christine Rich studio take part in a performance. But performances are more than an opportunity for mom and dad to break out the camcorder and invite grandma and grandpa to one more event.

Rich said, on a dancer’s end, involvement in a production helps to foster a sense of teamwork and develop skills that her students will take with them well beyond the studio’s walls.

“A production gives even more of a sense of teamwork,” Rich said. “It is a skill needed for school, family life, a career. The main benefit is teamwork and camaraderie, and working together to give a gift – often to unknown people.”

Judy Gaylen of Urbana has been taking dance lessons for 13 years now, and has been involved in recitals and performances for as long as she can remember.

She said performing is an aspect of dance lessons that has benefited her overall learning experience.

“[Performances] help with stage fright,” Gaylen said. “They help you get used to having rehearsals and working with a schedule.”

This year, Gaylen will once again have the opportunity to dance in the studio’s December production. But the lessons learned from this year’s performance will go well beyond those typically gained from the stage. The upcoming production will allow Gaylen and her fellow dancers and actors the opportunity to learn from a professional in their field – Tony and Emmy award-winning Broadway actor, Ben Vereen, who is co-writing and co-producing this year’s performance.

The studio is straying from its typical holiday production of the Nutcracker Ballet, as Rich came up with the idea of performing an original holiday show. And Rich is getting some help from Vereen and the Parkland College Digital Animation department in pulling off this year’s production, title “Dear Santa.”

Rich described “Dear Santa” as a theatre and dance extravaganza that is “a little “Nutcracker,” a little “Wizard of Oz,” a little “Wicked,” a little “It’s A Wonderful Life” and a little “Toy Story” all wrapped up in one.

“I wanted to do this because I heard from so many fathers that ballet is boring,” Rich said. “I’d been intrigued with putting comedy acting with a wide variety of dance – it’s a very entertaining production.”

The ball started rolling on the original production when Maria Mobasseri, the department chair of Parkland’s computer science and information technology program, contacted Rich to pitch an idea for how to get more females interested in the computer science field.

“[Computer science] is sometimes a tough sell [on females],” Rich said. “Last year a student at Parkland animated a monster in a tutu doing ballet, and it gave [Mobasseri] the idea of partnering with the studio, since ballet is a female-dominated field.”

Rich and Mobasseri needed the vehicle to tie the two fields together, and began working on the script for “Dear Santa” this summer.

“We are viewing [the tie in] as a work in progress,” Rich said. “This production will allow us to possibly get additional funding, and possibly have a bigger, better production in 2007.”

“Dear Santa” will feature 3-D computer-animated projections created by the students in Parkland’s Digital Media program.

“We’re thinking of a screen area with a set built around it, and on screen, for example, could be an animated picture of a window, and we can have snow falling through the window,” Rich said. “If we wanted to portray a character walking on stage without actually having to move them, we could show buildings moving on the screen.”

And while Mobasseri had the initial idea of pairing computer science with ballet, Rich had the idea of involving Vereen in the production.

Rich had been asked to choreograph an honorary piece for Vereen when he received an award from the Black Theatre Alliance.

“I was talking with him and mentioned I wanted him to help with this piece,” Rich said. “I asked if he wanted to participate, and he said he would be interested, and it turned out that when he was here, he helped co-write the production.”

Vereen was in the studio at the end of August to give “Dear Santa” a look.

“He read the script through one time and without referring back to it, memorized virtually every line and began tightening scenes and changing characters,” Rich said. “He gave an overhaul that left us with a delightful, entertaining script.”

And Vereen has the experience and background too, not only to overhaul a script, but enrich the resumes of the dancers and actors involved in the production.

Vereen, who debuted in Hollywood in 1969 with his role in “Sweet Charity,” has performed in many Broadway plays, winning a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical for his lead performance in “Pippin.”

He recently played the role of the Wizard of Oz in “Wicked” and his long list of on-screen appearances include roles in “Idlewild,” “Why do Fools Fall in Love,” and the soon-to-be released “Somebody Like You.”

Rich said Vereen served as an acting coach for “Idlewild” co-star Andre Benjamin of Outkast, and he coached Usher for his performance in the Broadway production of “Chicago.”

In 1977, Vereen appeared in the Emmy-award winning mini-series “Roots,” as “Chicken” George Moore. He has also made television appearances on “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” “Star Trek,” “The Nanny,” “Touched by an Angel,” and “The Jamie Foxx Show.”

Rich said Vereen would like to make frequent trips to Savoy to help with the production.

“He would like to come back as often as possible to get his hands wrapped around the project,” Rich said. “In the mean time, we’ll put the play on its feet.”

And for the actors and dancers involved in “Dear Santa,” Rich said Vereen’s presence is invaluable.

“To have that many years of stage and screen experience – to help us with a holiday production – enriches the cast and the cast member’s resumes,” Rich said. “It gives them the experience of a lifetime. So for all of us involved – and in the community – we’re so blessed.”

The final day of auditions for “Dear Santa” will take place on Sept. 15 at the Christine Rich Studio. The studio is looking for actors and dancers from across Champaign County to take part in the production. For more information, visit the studio’s web site at www.christinerichstudio.com

Casting Call for “Dear Santa”

Auditions for the Christine Rich Dance Theater’s Original Play, “Dear Santa,” will begin at 4 p.m. on Sept. 15 at the Christine Rich Dance Academy and Performing Arts Center in Savoy.

“Dear Santa” is a theatre and dance extravaganza, co-written and directed by Tony and Emmy award winner Ben Vereen. The studio is also teaming up with the Parkland College Digital Media Program, which will provide special computer-animated projections for the production.

Auditions are open to dancers and actors of all ages. Auditions for dancers age four-and-a-half through six will begin at 4 p.m., and auditions for dancers ages seven through 23 will begin at 4:30 p.m. The studio is looking for dancers skilled in ballet, jazz, tap and tumbling.

Auditions for actors – females ages 10 and up and males ages 14 and up – will begin at 5:45 p.m. Actors should be at the studio at 5:15 p.m. to pick up their lines.

It is imperative that all performers be on time.

Performers will be cast as either an actor or a dancer. Any callbacks will be conducted on the same evening as auditions. The cast list will be posted on the studio’s web site, www.christinerichstudio.com, when complete.

The Christine Rich Dance Academy & Performing Arts Center is located at 1402 Regency Dr. West in Savoy. For more information on auditions and the production, visit the studio web

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