One TCU student is working hard to chase “a fire in his soul” all the way to New York City.
Alonzo “AJ” Thompson Jr., a sophomore modern dance major, is teaching a free West African dance class at the TCU Recreation Center. He is accepting donations in hopes of earning enough money for him to attend Joffrey Ballet School in New York City this summer.
“I auditioned last year at Booker T. Washington High School for Performing Arts in Dallas, and it was the most intense audition of my life besides the audition to get into TCU,” Thompson said. “Surprisingly, I made it [into Joffery] with a partial scholarship. However, there were certain financial things that I could not take care of which caused me to stay at home for the summer.”
Thompson said he expressed to officials at Joffrey last summer how much he wanted to be a part of the program. They understood his circumstances but were not able to fly him to New York City.
Now he is preparing to attend the school’s intensive summer program, which lasts about four to eight weeks.
“Right now my goal is to raise about $2,000,” Thompson said. “The $2,000 is to cover the expenses for me to get to and from New York City.”
Thompson said he will be accepting donations via an online account.
Thompson said officials at Joffrey told him if he auditions and he is accepted into the program again they will provide him with a full scholarship for the summer. Thompson is teaching classes on campus this year pay for his traveling expenses to get to New York City.
Thompson said dancing has always been a part of his life, however, he has only been practicing as a “trained” dancer for four years.
Thompson said his dad passed away in February of 2010, and that is what inspired him to start training as a dancer.
“My mom didn’t want me to dance because she thought it was too sissified but I was like whatever,” Thompson said. “I was a kid who could not stop shaking. I just had to move.”
Thompson said he trained at a performing arts high school and a dance company in his hometown, Jackson, Miss.
“It’s a funny story how I started dancing in school,” Thompson said. “I was in school to study theatre before I started dancing. I hated theatre.”
“So I would leave class to go to the bathroom. All I wanted to do was watch the dancers because their door was always open. So on my way to the bathroom I would stop and I would just watch,” he said. “After the teacher started noticing me standing at the door she told me that I could come in. And while I was supposed to be on these bathroom breaks I was really in the dance classroom dancing.”
Thompson said from there he auditioned for the dance class and got in because they needed boys, and has been training ever since.
“I really aspire to have a performance career and get accepted into a company that will make me grow as a dancer,” Thompson said. “After my performance career dies down and my body can’t take it anymore I want to open up a studio in Mississippi, where I come from, because dance is not always available to minorities there.”
“AJ is very promising,” said Jennifer Hobson-Benton, a West African dance adjunct professor at TCU. “He can go very far as a professional male dancer. I am very proud of him. He is at the top of my class.”
“Joffrey is like many summer programs,” said Elizabeth Gillaspy, an associate professor of ballet at the TCU. “It’s an intensive studio practice over a number of weeks during the summer, depending on how they are framed. There are intensive ballet classes, intensive modern classes, and various styles. Students spend their days in the studio in various classes. It is a place that a lot of aspiring dancers go.”
“AJ is energetic and passionate about his dancing,” Gillaspy said. “He brings a curiosity and determination to his work that will serve him well as he embarks on his Joffrey adventure.”
West African Dance Class
“African dance as a whole is a form of ethnic dance,” Hobson-Benton said. “It is characterized and identified by the region from which it came and that it originated. West African dance is found in the western side of the continent of Africa, and it is very dynamic.”
Thompson said the class he teaches is free to attend.
“I do accept donations from those who enjoyed the class or just want to donate and help so that I can attend Joffrey,” he said. “I don’t want to force anyone to give me money.”
Thompson said it is the opportunity to teach West African dance that is important to him and he understands that not everyone is able to donate.
Thompson said the class consists of four major parts: the warm up, the across the floor, the ashaie circle, and the respect to the drummers.
“During the warm up students warm up their pelvis, spine, neck, and legs which are the main body parts used in African dance,” Thompson said. “Once we finish loosening our muscles, we begin the main section of the class which is called across the floor. We spend the majority of the time in this section.”
Thompson said during the across the floor section of the class there is no talking. The students watch him execute a dance move or combination and they mirror his movements as they dance across the floor from one side of the room to another.
“If the students have a question they won’t say anything,” Thompson said. “They will simply show the movement they are having difficulty with, and I will show the movement back to them without talking.”
Thompson said traditionally if any talking does take place in the class it is spoken in the language of the country that the dance originates from. The form of West African dance that he teaches is from Guinea, where the native language is French. So, if he must talk during the class he speaks in French.
“Once we’ve all sweated out and finished the across the floor section, we form an ashaie circle,” Thompson said. “In the ashaie circle everyone shows off their best moves one by one.”
Thompson said the last thing they do in the class is form a line and pay respect to the drummers. [There are live African drummers at each class]
“We pay respect to the drummers because they are our voices [during the class],” Thompson said. “There are many different ways you can pay respect to the drummers, but I personally like to kiss the floor right beneath their feet because it shows a very strong sign of respect and honor. Once you pay respect to each drummer the class ends.”
Ircilia Inácio, a sophomore economics major who attended one of Thompson’s West African dance classes, said the class was filled with energy.
“I felt like I was at home because I am from Angola,” Inácio said. “When I was in elementary school, at the end of every year at the talent show we would perform a piece of African dance because we’re African. What AJ did was a little different from what we did because he focuses more on Guinea.”
“Because there is so much overlap and we speak the same language as Guinea in Angola, and we were colonized by the same people we share a lot of cultural things and dance. So the class made me feel like I was at home,” Inácio said.
Inácio said if students go to the class they will really enjoy it. She said it is physically demanding and like a workout, but it is worth it.
Khia Adams, a junior communication studies major, said she does not have a background in dance, but still enjoyed the class.
“The class is very powerful,” Adams said. “AJ seemed very knowledgeable on the subject and he seemed really into the class which made the class even more fun.”
Thompson said the energy from the students is what keeps him going, and gives him so much joy when teaching.
“Dancing is what I was meant to do,” Thompson said.
Update: This story was updated at 11:27 a.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 6.