My Weekend with Janet Jackson and Her State of the World Dancers.
As a Hip Hop dancer who loves to learn, I often watch YouTube videos of classes with these amazing dancers that you wish you could see or take a class with in person. Even if you are not a dancer, these videos have a talent level that will end up distracting you from your reality for at least 30 minutes as soon as you click on the first one. Having Janet Jackson’s dancers in town and 3 of them teaching a workshop hosted at the Future Dance Center (FDC) created this feeling inside me that I felt I’ve been holding on to since the first time I realized Michael Jackson had a Sister that is just as talented as he is. It was even more special to know one of the dancers received their dance education at the FDC in Hamburg before solidifying a dance career in Los Angeles. To bluntly put it, I was about to live out a dream that I never realized would happen in my life time.
Learning from Allison Buczkowski and Her Talented Friends:
On Friday November 3, 2017, the day before the concert, Susie K and I were nervous but excited to meet as well as take classes from Janet’s dancers. Most importantly, we were pumped to support the hometown talent, Allison Claire Buczkhowski as was performing in Buffalo for the first time since she left for LA. She has without a doubt earned her spot to dance alongside Janet, and we wanted to show her some individual love. Susie and I have been confined to teaching and other responsibilities, so it has been a challenge to invest in taking classes more regularly. We were more than ready to get to Future Dance Center to finally get some class time in with Janet’s Team.
Whenever there is a buzz about famous choreographers coming to the studio, there is this live energy that you can feel when you walk through the doors of FDC. Susie and I walked in and were met by two of our regular clients Cynthia Winnie and her daughter Crystal. Then we were surprised by the Bollywood dancer Gaitrie Devi who was also surprised to see us. She happens to be a huge Janet Jackson fan as she explained her childhood of studying Janet Jackson’s moves from her music videos. She also longed for the experience of being a student for a few hours with quality professionals to learn from. This made it a unified experience for 5 individuals that appreciated talent and a well needed challenge.
We paid the price of admission, signed in, and proceeded to enter the room in which the channel 2 news camera was already taking footage of the eventful evening. We were surrounded by young dancers from the host studio and others from all around Western New York. It was a beautiful moment to witness as we waited in excitement for the first instructor to appear. I caught a glimpse of a few of Janet’s dancers and Janet’s longtime head choreographer Gil DulDulao who I took a workshop from about 2 years back.
The first instructor Dominique Battiste, aka Dom, entered the class room through the teacher’s lounge with confidence, bleach blond hair, comfortable fitting sweats, and an open focus. We all cheered with a sense of readiness as the classes began. She gave us a needed stretch to warm up our muscles and then jumped right into her choreography. She presented her movement with patience and care but was still able to move at a pace we had to adjust to. Her movement embodied the song of choice, ‘Needed me’ by Rihanna, and her musicality was just on a different level. We all enjoyed her style of teaching, and she proved to be everything we signed up for. Of all the classes, I came closest to being comfortable with absorbing all the material she presented for the first class. Regardless of being out of practice with my process, I was just like a kid excited about dance again for the first time in a long time. After she taught and she gave us plenty of opportunity to execute the routine, she blessed us with a performance with the other tour dancers that included the young YouTube dance phenoms Taylor Hatalla and Kyndall Harris. Then she performed a solo that displayed her elite control and artistry.
Our second class with taught by Denzel Chisolm. He had a shy, quiet personality that you would not expect from his bold movement and good looks. His choreography material was a different blend of styles within the Hip Hop genre. Throughout his class, one thing remained consistent; his musicality was just on a different level unlike any that we have been exposed to in a while. I still struggled through a few of the movements in his class, but I loved his class the most because it had a dancehall vibe that I could feel. Plus the visuals he created between movements were just beautiful to watch when executed correctly. It was a free flowing conversation that had moments where each person could freely express themselves through the movement. The stories he told made the ladies even more attentive than they were before. He too ended the class with a group performance with his tour mates and solo performance that had us in awe.
I have taken a class with Allison Buczkowski before and was also lucky to watch a class of hers recently so I was familiar with her style of movement. It always has an energetic quality with explicit swag and unearthly musicality. She definitely ended the night with a bang as we all were reminded of how talented she is as a dancer/choreographer. She danced ever beat as if it is her last, and she demanded the same from each person in the room. I loved her swag and enjoyed her combination of old and new school grooves that she openly said was corny but decided to bring it back anyway. Again like the previous classes I have experienced, she gave us ample opportunity to get comfortable with the movement through grouping and individual stand outs, but what made every routine they presented for the 3 hours live was when the dance family from the tour took center stage to dance together. Each time they danced together you felt it, and Allison’s choreography just filled the room with the energy that made the evening worth every penny. Of course the group just elevated her choreography when they performed it, but Allison blessed us with a solo performance that made us all proud to see one of our own living her dream. That moment was so special as we cheered her on at the end. Her mother was so proud that it brought tears to her eyes.
The night ended the way it began, anticipating the Janet Jackson’s concert but enjoying her State of The World tour dancers. We took pictures with almost all the dancers, genuinely thanked them for taking the time to dance with us for 3 hours, and let them know how excited we were to see them Saturday night on stage dancing with Janet at the KeyBank Center.
My date with Ms. Jackson
On Saturday November 4th 2017, I stood there in awe, section 119, row 8, seat 10 as my friend Dawn of 10 years joined me to her feet to welcome a legend on to her platform. The pre-show, throw-back hip hop came to an abrupt silence, and the lights in the arena dimmed so low that only the stage was glowing as the main existing source of lighting. Cell phones lit up immediately, and the 3 oversized projector screens that sectioned the stage into thirds started recapping the state of the world as it pertains to natural disasters, terrorism, poverty stricken countries, flared war relations between nations, refugee/immigration challenges, and the blatant injustice people of color face as citizens of the United States. I remember thinking, “I’m surrounded by so many different races in this section.” And looking around the entire arena there were numerous representatives from all different races standing in silence as these images flashed across the screen. I thought again to myself,” Does everyone around me agree with the narrative/images Janet is starting the show with?” Then that thought was immediately interrupted by Janet’s silhouette behind the screen on stage left. I immediately yelled, “Let’s Go!” my go to phrase of uncontrollable excitement. Janet slowly emerged from behind the screen to deliver her powerful opening mantra in her mistress of ceremony outfit that included a stylish commanding cane. The energy in the arena was controlled by one being at that moment, the legendary Janet Jackson. I remember thinking “Is this real? Am I really a neighborhood block away from one of my dance idols? Is this a dream or is this really my reality that I’m choosing to accept?” All rhetorical questions of course, because I darn well knew where I was. As she finished up her opening statement, she dispelled prejudice, ignorance, bigotry, and illiteracy paired with a song with lyrics that explained “Drugs and crime spreadin’ on the streets / People can’t find enough to eat / Now our kids can’t go out and play / That’s the state of the world today.” The title of the tour finally made sense. Then she chanted, “We want justice! Now lets dance!”
(Photo by Jordan King)
The Arena went into a roaring frenzy as a few of the dancers appeared on stage right behind the screen. The concert proceeded with performances that explained why Janet Jackson is related to the King of Pop but how she shaped her own identity as a performer. Her songs made everyone nostalgic as my section sang along to every word like her lyrics grew up with us. The dance routines made every moment even that much more live. Janet, now 51 years old, seamless managed her role as a strong woman, an artist, a performer, a dancer, and an overall committed entertainer.
She gave us some of her debut hits and songs from her latest albums that had those strong dance numbers we practiced over and over again in or living rooms as kids. Janet didn’t miss a beat in ‘Miss You Much’ where she used a chair as prop, her dancers to expand the visuals, and the moves that made her famous. Other favorites included:’ Nasty, The pleasure principle escapade, You want this control, When I think of you, It’s all for you all nite (Dont stop), and Love Will Never Do (Without You). But of course there’s not a Janet Tour without the routine that changed the game. She performed ‘Rhythm Nation’ and again, my section was not only singing along, but they were dancing as well. It brought back so many childhood memories of trying to copy those sharp, drill-like movements. I wished I could have been on that stage at that very moment, but I was frozen in my surreal reality.
Throughout the concert I stood consistently hypnotized by the fact that I am a dancer now because Janet inspired me and I was now watching her live in concert with the dancers I met yesterday. There was one particular performance woke me up from my daze. The ‘What About’ live performance had me from start to finish. It started with a male being confronted by his spouse about his drug abuse, and he in return becomes physically abusive. Then it switched to another couple in a heated argument that aggressively turned into a physical altercation. The production was so convincing that I felt myself becoming angry with the abuser and wanting to save the victims. Her dancers played such an amazing role in portraying the emotionally charged real life scenarios. This contemporary piece captivated the entire arena. It made the performance even more potent when Janet’s last word of the performance was, “This is my life!” as the stage went dark.
Another touching moment came at the end of the concert when Janet introduced her team of talented musicians and dancers. You could tell this was how she closed the show in every city but tonight was extremely special for one dancer in particular. As she went through the names and instrument of each musician, the Key Bank center cheered with appreciation. As soon as she started running through the names of each dancer, the energy just kept getting stronger in the anticipation for one specific name. All the dancers we met like Dom, Denzel, Taylor, Kyndall and the rest of the crew but one dancer was left for last. Janet Jackson said in excitement and respect “And your very own Buffalo, Allison Buczkowski.” It was a moment that seemed to take place in slow motion as Allison stood in place sobbing as Janet gave her the stage for Buffalo to show her love. It was also a moment that her dance mentors Denise and Gino Vaccaro, the owners of the Future Dance Center, watched as another product of their dance education on stage with one of the best performers of our time. It was an unforgettable moment that I am sure the Vaccaro’s, diehard fans of the Jackson family, and Allison will hold on to for a life time.
The weekend ended with a fullness that lasted several days following the end of the concert on Saturday. Meeting and taking classes from Janet’s Tour dancers with a few other friends made it a shared overall experience. Here is what a few of them had to say about the weekend experience. “The workshop was amazing! Being taught by professional dancers was a once in lifetime, incredible experience for Crystal and I. Then being able to see them perform made the concert much more special,” says Cynthia Winnie. “Taking part in the workshop at Future Dance Center was something that my body and mind needed. Although it was challenging, I was proud of myself; I stepped out of my comfort zone and tried something new. My body defiantly thanked me later! Through the challenges, I was really grateful to have the opportunity to learn and meet Janet’s team,” says Gaitrie Devi. “It’s not often that we are able to take classes and definitely not at that level. I was teary- eyed, but in a good way! It was an emotionally overwhelming experience for me because dance is a genuine passion of mine. And when I get to access that part of me, especially as a student, I’m acknowledging and releasing a part of me. It’s a liberating feeling, and I am grateful for the experience,” says Susie K.
Taking the workshop the day before the concert made my block distance away from the stage feel like I was in front row. It was a multi-level nostalgic experience that will always be tattooed in my memory. She is and will always be one of my favorite entertainers. She is a beautiful reflection of her brother Michael and an ambassador that continues to work on bettering the world with her love for all people by using her tour as a voice for change. This unforgettable State of the World Tour experience is one that all fans of Janet Jackson and those looking to learn who she is as well as what she represents should not miss. It made me appreciate those days watching her and her brother shape the dance culture that lives on in not just me but so many of us. Thank you, Janet Jackson.