Paris — He hits a tom-tom with a long stick in a stark, unadorned rhythm, and about 20 people, standing in rows with a good view of the mirror, crumple in the midsection. It may hurt.Their arms are down at their sides, muscles so tight they look as if they are each holding two buckets of concrete.
Usually the arms are moving, sometimes up and down in front of them, sometimes out to the side, as one leg or the other waves or steps and their torsos seem to knot up to hold all this energy together. They all sink, and over bent knees, rock their hips around a square, front, right, back, left, as fast as it takes to say that. It would look racy if they weren't all glaring into the mirror.
Sweat beads up on their foreheads and pops off as they whip their heads around to the side and one arm makes frantic circles from the elbow whooshing fast as a flywheel. The other looks as if the mechanism has broken down; it rotates, but very slowly. Without any warning, they whip their heads around the other way, the other arm springs into action and the fast arm takes a nap.
You almost expect to hear a click. They would look like robots if it weren't for the overwhelmingly human element, the sweat, the muscles, and, yes, the smell. This dance class smells like two periods of gym in a row. Except that in gym, nobody ever concentrated so hard. I'm concentrating, myself, and I can't figure out how they keep track of all those isolated moves. As the muscles flex , so must the minds. The concentration hangs in the air almost as noticeably as the smell.
The teacher looks like Mr. Clean with hair -- high-cheekboned and muscular. He holds his tom-tom with authority as he prowls their ranks. Whatever they're doing, they follow him with their eyes, listening for his short American-accented French barks. "Premier!" (first) he'll say, and a lone foot which is holding up someone with a leg out to the side and arms waving on high will shift, with mighty effort, about three-quarters of an inch.
They do well to pay attention to this teacher. For one thing, heis the only one who knows how to do all this without falling down. For another, he is Matt Mattox, who has danced tap, jazz, and ballet with Broadway's best. Old movie fans will remember him vaulting in splits over a sawhorse and pirouetting on a plank in Michael Kidd's exuberantly macho barn-raising ballet for "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers." (Other brothers included Tommy Roe and Jacques D'Amboise, also a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet.)
Mattox choreographed and danced every other week for two years for the Bell Telephone Hour before abandoning live TV. He also taught for five years in London's Dance Centre. Now in the dusty old quarter of Montmartre, he imparts his moves to the youth of Paris through physical toil rather than with words or reminiscences.
Anyway, he doesn't think they're flocking to Ecole Jazz Art Matt Mattox -- standing under his skylights and flexing to the beat of his drum -- because they're after the fine old tradition of American jazz dance. In fact, he won't even call it jazz, except when discussing the company he hopes to form to show jazz in a concert setting, as art. Jazz, he says, is more primitive than this barre (the series of exercises at the beginning of a dance class to warm up for the steps). A Mattox class partakes of ballet, flamenco, tap-dancing, Spanish dancing, and his own inventions. Rather than yearning to revive that uniquely American form of dancing you can still see in old musical comedies, the students are hee for one reason -- they can pick it up fast.
"Since I've been in Europe, I think many people have changed their mind in relation to whether they think dance is meant for people who start when they're 6, 7, 8 years old," he says, leaning back in his dressing room, abandoning French for English, gruff and New Yorkish, a language he seems more comfortable in. The Mr. Clean persona is gone, and he just talks like anyone talks about his job, with, surprisingly, no particular rhythm.
"I may be partially responsible for the idea that people who have passed, let's say 18, 19, 20 can learn to dance and dance pretty good and have a lot of fun learning it. . . . I blame that simply on a system of teaching that I have."
Basically, they muscle their way into the technique, much the way Matt Mattox learned jazz at age 28. His jazz, though, came on top of 17 years on stage, 11 of classical dance training, and what he considers the bedrock of his technique, six years of tap-dancing. He studied with Teddy Kerr, a woman vaudevillian; Willie Covan, a black tapper; and "the finishing touches," he says, were put on in Los Angeles by the renowned Louie de Prawn.
"Without tap-dancing, the rhythms inmy work wouldn't be there. So much of my footwork comes from . . . footwork that you learn in tap dance."
Choreographer Michael Kidd also relied on Mattox's ballet background. That training makes Mr. Kidd rank him as "one of the five best dancers in the US at that time," he says, referring to the 1950s, when Kidd was choreographing movies like "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers." "He was wonderful at ballet, jazz, and modern," he says. "I made a lot of movies for MGM, and he was always the first person I tried to get. He had enormous strength, versatility, precision, and technique."
Of his jazz technique, Mr. Kidd says, "He's a great jazz dancer the way Andre Previn and Leonard Bernstein are great jazz musicians. He has all-round technique, he's a superb dancer, and I think he'd be good at any dancing he undertook."
Mr. Kidd remembered Mattox was so demanding of himself that he did several scenes in "Seven Brides" over, though even Kidd saw little wrong with them. Mattox has a reputation for demanding the same perfection from his students. Since the students, for the most part, haven't lingered for years in dance studios the way he has, the barre Mattox teaches them is not precisely the method by which he grabbed his jazz moves at 28. The tap-dancing -- he also teaches a separate tap class -- in built in.
The intimidating tendency of his exercises to have various limbs springing off into several different directions at split-seconds intervals -- not to mention different arms and legs going at different speeds -- repeat the lessons tap-dancing teaches: to center the weight and be ready for anything. Like tappers, Mattox students almost defensively bend their knees when they speed up togive themselves better mobility.
Strenuous and mind-boggling, the exercises give a dancer brawn and speed at the same time, though one former student characterizes the constant flexing of muscles and isolated movements "unorganic" and unnecessarily painful. That one eye on the teacher, though, is indisputably a useful coordination to develop. After four years, if the students puts himself or herself through all this faithfully every day, Mattox says, they can "certainly make the auditions for the musicals."
His technique seems to have made him the toast of Europe, even though there aren't many chances to exhibit one's prowess at highkicks and step-ball-change for a juicy little chorus part in "Guys and Dolls." He teaches a workshop for Norwegian students every year (this year they came to him; some years he goes to Norway). Most become teachers and keep the newer recruits practicing till he can get back to them at the next workshop. He also spends most winter weekends teaching at what are called "stages" -- dance conventions, where he'll have 140 people on the floor at once, twitching and flexing to his beat. People come from Japan to watch his classes, and everywhere in France he has problems with that sincerest form of flattery, imitation, as students branch off and advertise themselves as Matt Mattox's assistants.
This bothers him mildly. But what bothers him even more is that there are now platoons of precision-trained, fast, jazzy dancers, with no place to strut their stuff. He wants to start a company to present jazz in a concert setting. This can't be achieved by simply taking his jazz class for four years, he says. That's fine for musicals, but for concerts, you need ballet, too. He doesn't have much hope in professional dancers, either. They try his classes once, canht do the fast coordinations and snappy changes, and never come back. He wants to teach a workshop that would lead to performances, and he advises students to study ballet if they are serious about concert dancing.
"I have constantly endeavored to lift this kind of dance to the category of an art form, just like classical dance or pure modern," he says after a class, his gray hair slicked back from his bony forehead with sweat but his eyes as sharp and excited as an ingenue's. He could be Gene Kelly arriving in New York with his suitcase, leaning slightly forward with muscles rippling, singing "Gotta dance!" You wonder how he has kept this quality, having arrived not only in New York, but in London for a five-year stint and now Paris, always leaning slightly forward, always eager.
In a tap class, he lures five Parisians into the time-honored rhythms of the shim sham. Well, four. The fifth, a woman at the back, hangs her head with its short, poodlelike hairdo, shrugs, and stops trying. He stomps in front of her, keeping the rhythm, but slowing down a bit. She stays put. He does, too, shim-shamming patiently in front of her. Finally, she drags her feet through the step, stomping just behind his heels. The whole class takes up the rhythm, her head comes up, and, nearly jaunty, she swings her arms.
With all his commitment to jazz dance as art, he believes in the good old show-biz virtue of entertainment. He has no patience with dancers who only perform for their own satisfaction. As far as Mattox is concerned, dance is for audiences. ou can entertain the public, tell a story, all in the form of jazz dance, and be tremendously successful from an entertainment point of view," he says. What he envisages, one feels, is his version of the ideal Broadway musical, uncluttered by singers and actors, unencumbered by plot, where a drama unfolds in the form of brilliantly synchronized, death-defying dance routines: precision timed, head-snapping fleet-footed, with perhaps a whole section based on hip swivels and another on kicks. And maybe some sawhorses for props. All the high points one can remember from the backgrounds of all one's favorite musicals. But definitely in the foreground this time.
Mattox sticks to his jazz credo: jazz dance is an art, but an entertaining, straightforward, audience-engaging art.
"I will never give that up. If students don't want to learn that, I will stop teaching." But they are already in there for the 6:00 class stripping down, limbering up, stretching out their legs, and listening for the tom-tom. He won't get a chance to stop teaching. And if musical comedy suddenly blooms in the small boites of Montmartre or the theaters of Oslo, you'll know why.