Let’s dance

County Prep offers award-winning dance program

County Prep offers an award-winning dance program as well as a residency for local companies.
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County Prep offers an award-winning dance program as well as a residency for local companies.

The award-winning dance program at County Prep High School is gearing up for a new season in 2019.

The school, which is one of the Hudson County Schools of Technology, is located on Montgomery Street in Jersey City, but the program has students from throughout Hudson County from Bayonne to North Bergen.

Overseen by Heather Warfel Sandler, this is a modern dance program with a focus on the creative process, one that has been recognized by the National Honor Society for Dance Arts, Hudson County Teen Arts Alliance, NJ State Teen Arts Festival, Dodge Foundation, and the NJ Governor’s Awards in Arts Education.

Most of her current students are from Jersey City but some are also from Bayonne, North Bergen, Union City, and Kearny.

“Our program teaches modern dance, but we tend to spend a lot of time of creative process, focusing on technique and performance.” — Heather Warfel Sandler

Much of the training is centered on the production of an annual show, and often draws some professionals.

“Each year we come up with a theme, but we try not to treat this like a recital,” she said. “This usually involves about 25 students in one long work.”

The dance program is a four year course, and any student at the school can apply. Freshman year is seen as one long audition, rather than the typical one day.

This class gives freshman students an overview of dance as an art form, and provides the opportunity for students to experience a variety of dance styles (West African, ballet, tap, jazz, modern) in a safe, non-competitive environment.

“This way, they get to know the program and we get to know their skill level,” Sandler said.

The second year the students meet daily and they practice regular technique classes in modern dance, and also incorporate ballet, Pilates, and yoga in training the body.

The third year introduces students to a more focused and vigorous level of dance performance and composition.  Students continue to study modern technique at a higher level, including partner work.

The fourth year has a strong focus on performance and technique skill building. Students develop an advanced level of dance technique and refine skills as both choreographer and performer.

While it is almost impossible to track students after they leave, some of the students returned for a 15th anniversary in 2015. Most of those who left the program wound up involved in performing arts, television or other media. Some of these students went on to perform with people like Mariah Carey and Jennifer Lopez, Sandler said.

Another aspect to benefit local talent

Although the program has existed since 2000, Sandler introduced a new aspect of the program in 2017 called Choreographers in Residence Program (CHIRP) to give local choreographers space to work/perform and to connect students with the professional dance community.

Sandler said because the area is strapped for performing space, she thought that by opening the school’s black box theater at the Earl W. Byrd Center to local talent, her students could also benefit.

“As vice chair of the arts council for many years, I was well aware of the lack of venues for dancers. I helped designed this 140 seat black box theater,” she said.

“We have one group for fall and another for spring,” she said. “This can be a company or an individual.”

The program focuses on bringing in younger talent in the spring, and then more seasoned professionals for the fall.

In the fall, the program brought Kyle Marshall Choreography as part of its residence program. Marshall is a 2018 New York Dance and Performance “Bessie” Jury Award recipient and a New Jersey State Council of the Arts Fellow. His work has been commissioned by Montclair’s Dance Festival, NJPAC and Harlem Stage.

“My dance company had the pleasure to receive a CHIRP residency at County Prep High School this fall,” Marshall said. “The residency allows us time in the studio space to try new ideas, prepare for performances, and build our new dance, ‘Reign.’ Teaching the students was a blast. Heather Warfel’s students were open minded, curious and enthusiastic. We ended our residency with two public performances. We would not have been able to put up our show without the tech interns and student volunteers who assisted our front of house and production.”

To comment on this story on-line, go to our website, www.hudsonreporter.com. Al Sullivan may be reached at asullivan@hudsonreporter.com