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Saturday, Dec. 23, 2006
Artist of movement takes it to the next generation
By ANGELA JEFFS
Steve Tomlinson is feeling pretty wretched, but having staggered from his bed in Tokyo's Koto Ward, puts on a brave face. The show must go on, right? Tomlinson is what he calls an entertainment artist -- instructor, choreographer, dancer, singer, actor.
Now in his early 40s and still juggling all these skills, he is thinking that passing on what he knows to the next generation is maybe one way to go. So from January, he will be teaming up with the Austrian Ballet Company (ABC) in Tokyo's Mita Ward to teach two days a week.
"I'll be starting with classes in jazz, tap dance and hip-hop. Then we'll see." Tomlinson is a familiar face to thousands of Japanese children from Hokkaido to Okinawa. As a long-standing member of the performing troupe World Family -- this cheerful, optimistic and lively American is one of the reasons they are enjoying learning English with World Family Club.
While WFC is under license to Disney to sell a system of learning called Disney's World of English, it has no connection with Disney, and creates its own promotional characters and programs. "Being on the road with WFC's musical dance show is such a privilege," he says.
Born in New York to parents of Jamaican heritage, Tomlinson grew up passionate about any kind of music that got his toes tapping.
"Drums, percussion, jazz, marching bands -- I loved it all. But my elder sister was my baby-sitter, so I had to follow her around, and she was into gymnastics. Try this, try that, the instructor would say -- when my sister quit, I stayed on."
From the age of 7 to 14 -- "I was busy growing up" -- he dropped out of anything physical. Then came the chance of a part-time job with Disney and that's when his dancing career took off. "Under the Decca Program for working kids in show business, I was doing half a day of academic studies and the remainder rehearsing or performing.
"This gave me enough credits to graduate. When I got to 17, 18, I was offered professional training, which helped me move up in the company very nicely."
Tomlinson did everything imaginable as a Disney performer: played costume characters, toured, traveled abroad, worked on promo shows. "It was an incredible experience," he says.
When he looks back now, he can only think, "Wow!" It was coming to Japan in his 20s in the 1980s that made him take stock: "I could have stayed home opting for job security, or choose to go out into the world to evolve more."
Contracted here to dance in shows seven days a week, mostly in country onsen hotels, he came backwards and forwards for some 10 years.
During this time he met many people, including his wife, whom he met through a close friend and initially communicated with via e-mail.
"She was a great buddy, incredibly supportive. Taking me to the airport one day, she gave me a letter to open on the plane. No, not a Dear John -- quite the opposite."
Since 2001, he has taught tap, jazz and hip-hop at international dance schools in Tokyo. He began working with World Family three years ago, and his workload is rapidly increasing. "I do a lot for them. Not only performing but also now choreographing shows."
Also, he has private classes and teaches at various locations around the city. In Tamachi, he has classes in hip-hop and jazz; he has also started a tap dance company for youngsters 12 and up.
"Right now I only have three, so if there are any budding talents out there, come and see me. However, I do think it's important to know the basics of ballet before starting any other forms of dancing.
"Even with hip-hop, which is essentially about self-expression, it helps tremendously."
Back in the States, Tomlinson was constantly being challenged by younger dancers. Here he's not pushing his body for the challenge as much anymore, and that's good, he reckons: "I'm 42. I need to stay healthy, keep myself in good shape." He can hear his body protesting, so is pacing himself.
"Teaching helps me slow down, makes me move with more consideration." One of his Japanese students is so in love with jazz and hip-hop that he follows Tomlinson religiously around Tokyo from class to class. He is not interested in turning professional; he just loves to dance, the one thing he thinks himself capable of doing.
It's a mentality that Tomlinson approves of wholeheartedly. Hip-hop, he says, is somewhat misunderstood. Rooted in African culture, it's been accepted and adapted into many cultures.
In Japan, interest is really growing; little kids love it. As for the clothing, it began with the need to wear loose sweats but has now been commercialized and branded.
"I see a lot of young people picking up on hip-hop's lifestyle aspect, getting the wrong idea of what it's really about. Will it be an Olympic sport in 20 years time? Who knows? All I know is I don't have to dress hip-hop to be considered black."
Steve Tomlinson; tel: (090) 9957-6761; fax (03) 3641-3606; E-mail: email@example.com;Web site: stevetomlinson.comABC Studio, phone 03-5420 4765; fax 03-2460 2269Web site: www.abc-tokyo.com