Like most boys, Christopher Jackson wasn’t interested in dance, especially when his mother coerced him into going to a studio performance.
“I wanted to stay home and watch TV,” he recalls. “Even when I was there I didn’t pay attention – until an all-boys group came out and did a Power Rangers number. They were jumping and kicking and doing all sorts of martial arts.” Something clicked.
Jackson told his mother he wouldn’t mind doing those kinds of moves. Before he knew it, the 13-year-old was backstage, talking to the studio’s owner and signing up for classes.
“I took one class a week and liked it so much I expanded to five classes a week. I realized in high school if I wanted to make it a career, I’d have to move to New York.”
Before that freshman year in college, Jackson got a scholarship to the Ailey School, the educational arm of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and quickly moved up the company’s ranks.
Today, he’s associate artistic director for the Victory Dance Project and an instructor at the Dance Theater of Harlem and Stage Door Connections. He’s also a veteran of such Broadway shows as “The Lion King” and “The Wiz,” and, this weekend, an instructor and judge at the Mainstage Productions master classes and competition.
“Dance is tricky,” Jackson says. “We can all have a passion for it as a hobby, as a recreational thing. But when it comes to a career, you’ve got to be willing to put in the time it takes.”
Example? Producers saw Jackson’s dance videos on Facebook and thought he might be a good fit for a musical about actress Dorothy Dandridge. The problem? The job was for a tap dancer “and I don’t tap at all. I came in and literally freaked out at rehearsals. ‘What am I going to do?’”
Rather than quit, he got tap lessons on the side and learned so well the producers wanted him to go with the show when it transferred to London. Moral of the story: “If you feel like you can pull it off, you really, really have to know yourself.”
Today, Jackson says, there’s a lot of dance work available. “I have 10 friends on Broadway and 10 on tour. In three months, who knows?”
Jackson stayed with “The Lion King” for three years before leaving with injuries. “I tore my meniscus – I was on stilts (as a giraffe) and my wrists were jacked up. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to dance, but I knew I had to do something else.” He started teaching and found he had a real passion for the work.
Additionally, he worked on the pre-production of the current Broadway revival of “Once on This Island” and looks to expand the choreographic aspect of his career.
Teaching, meanwhile, is very enlightening.
“I love teaching teenagers in the 13-18 range. If they don’t want to listen, I give them the truth of what reality is: ‘If you don’t wake up and pay attention, you’re going to get left behind.’ If they get out of hand, I’ll sit and grab my phone. ‘Go ahead, take your time. I’m still getting paid.’ That gets their attention and we can get to work. You have to size up the audience. Some learn by yelling and screaming. Some learn by being quiet.”
And the future? “I’d like to own a school or a company,” the soon-to-be 35-year-old says. “But, who knows? I’m not sure what I’m going to the next 10, 15, 20 minutes. I just know I want to be creative.”