Jimmy Locust was just minding his own business in the back of the studio, waiting for the session to begin.
He may have been nervous; he doesn’t say. And who could blame him?
Not many dancers can say they’ve danced in a Michael Jackson video. Locust was sitting in the back of the studio when the King of Pop walked through the front door and made a beeline for the back.
“He had his security team with him,” Locust said. “And they followed him as he walked up to me.”
This was one of life’s moments to remember, and Locust can’t help smiling in awe as his memory re-creates this picture.
“I mean, Michael Jackson was standing in front of me,” he said.
Jackson had seen Locust’s work in one of Janet Jackson’s videos.
“He said, ?You dance in my sister’s video,’” Locust said. “I said, ?Yes.’ He said, ?I really like your work.’”
Yes, Jackson, probably one of the world’s most original dancers, liked Locust’s work. This makes this experience even more meaningful for dancers in the Cangelosi Dance Project studio.
Locust, on this particular morning, is passing along the dancing skills that not only Jackson but so many others in the entertainment business have admired through the years.
Locust taught jazz dance in the Cangelosi Dance Project’s summer camp. He’d teach a hip-hop session later that evening, but the jazz class was his first experience with the Cangelosi dancers.
“And I’m so impressed,” he said.
“We even had younger dancers in here, and they were able to learn and keep up, and they wouldn’t be able to do that if they weren’t well trained. Kris is an excellent teacher, and it’s because of her that they’re all dancing at this high level.”
He refers to Kris Cangelosi, founder and artistic director of the Cangelosi Dance Project. Cangelosi met Locust while the two were working in Atlanta in 1996. The friendship was instant, as was the mutual respect for one another’s work.
The two have kept in touch through the years, and Cangelosi invited Locust to instruct at this year’s summer camp.
“Kris and I have the same views about dance, and we share the same love for dance,” Locust said.
“We believe in the art of dance, and we believe that it should be shared.”
Never mind that Locust has danced with Michael and Janet Jackson and that he choreographed The Stunners’ show as the opening act for Justin Bieber’s 2010 summer tour.
Yes, that Justin Bieber.
“The Stunners opened his show,” Locust said. “I not only choreographed their show but created it, planning everything - even their costumes. They’re like the American Spice Girls. There are five of them, and they’re all solid performers.”
Though the experience was fun, it still doesn’t matter as much as this moment in the Cangelosi studio, because this is the most important process to Locust.
He divides the group of 30-plus into smaller groups of five. He’s shown them how to warm up and walked with them through every step of this dance he’s created.
Now he watches as each of the smaller groups performs it. It works better this way, because smaller groups give him a chance to see who’s getting it and who isn’t. Is he surprised when even the youngest of Cangelosi’s dancers not only understand the choreography but can perform it? Maybe.
Then again, maybe not.
“The moves I’ve taught you today are challenging, and you couldn’t have performed them if you hadn’t been well trained,” Locust tells the dancers. “And you are well trained.”
Most of the dancers leave the studio after the class, with only a handful staying behind to rehearse the program for Cangelosi’s annual summer library tour. It’s these dancers who get to hear Locust’s story of how Michael Jackson recognized him, then complimented him.
How he was a featured dancer in the 1989 film Coming to America starring Eddie Murphy.
Now there’s discussion of a reality television show featuring Locust and his dance school, Locust Contemporary Dance Works and Locust Performing Arts in Stamford, Conn.
And about his work on the MTV Video Music Awards, the Academy Awards, the Grammys, the closing ceremonies for the 1996 Summer Olympics and even his commercial work with Speedos and Reebok.
So, are these Cangelosi dancers feeling a bit overwhelmed at this moment? Should they?
“They’re the important ones,” Locust said. “They’re the ones we are passing the art to, and hopefully they’ll perform and create and pass the art to someone else.”
He means it, and he applies the same philosophy when speaking of his own school.
Locust moved from New York to Connecticut to open the school. He simply wanted a place that was quieter, a location where there was actual trees and grass.
Plus, Stamford is only a relatively short train ride from New York, and Locust found himself teaching celebrities’ children alongside his other students as a result.
Now there’s talk of the aforementioned reality program that will feature the school as a central location. The prospect interests Locust, but he’s also wary of it.
“I want to tread carefully on this ground,” he said. “I want it to be about my ability to be a good example and to reflect positively on dance and my views about dance. I would have to pass on it until I feel completely comfortable with it.”
He would be flying to Los Angeles the day after the Cangelosi camp to discuss the show, but Baton Rouge was most important to him on this day.
“This is my first trip to Baton Rouge, and Kris gave me the tour,” he said. “I saw Mike the Tiger.”
He doesn’t just say this ? he exclaims it.
“He’s a beautiful creature,” Locust said.
“And I’ve eaten some of the great food here. This has been a great trip for me, and I’ve loved working with the students. I plan on coming back and teaching more.”
It’s here where he reflects on his past, where the remaining Cangelosi students hang on to his every word, listening to his stories of the dance world.
And joining him on memory lane as he relives the day when he received the highest of compliments from the King of Pop.