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Published on February 11th, 2013 | by The Local

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A Local Treasure: Patti Rutland Jazz

Patti Rutland Jazz had quite a busy year in 2012 which is nothing abnormal for Dothan’s own dance company and unless you live underneath a rock, you have seen their mark plastered all over town. PRJ had their (metaphorical) sleeves rolled up during 2012 with opening a new dance studio, performing original productions, and assisting with choreography in SEACT’s production,The Full Monty. When PRJ is not busy with rehearsals and productions, they are working with local elementary students as part of their outreach program, one of the largest in the state. Do not let a New Year fool you, locals, because PRJ has no signs of slowing down. Founder, Patti Rutland Simpson, was gracious enough to sit down and answer my qua-zillion questions over a chat session via the web. Her responses are enough to make us all PRJ lovers and patrons for life. Anyway, after I thanked her several times for her time, I dove right into an Oprah-inspired interview.

Local: How long have you been dancing?

Patti Rutland Simpson: I started late. My dad did not take me seriously and thought it would be a waste of money. My mom convinced him we would save money by correcting my pigeon toes in ballet class so we didn’t have to buy shoes so often. I always wore my shoes out on the outside edges. Once my foot was in the door at age 14, I knew I would never do anything else.

L: Tell us about the young Patti Rutland!

PRS: I was a nightmare with way too much energy. I have always been a rebel. I wanted to create work that made a statement. If it didn’t have meaning, I wasn’t interested. I hated the world of competitive dance and what was considered “good work.” It has always angered me that dance was only for privileged kids and most studios were only interested in the bottom line. So, I spent a lot of time fighting losing battles and got mad when I didn’t win. I wanted to fight racism, fight AIDS, and fight for equality. That fight in me hasn’t really changed. I am still the rebel. I listen to my music way too loud. I would rather be barefoot. I consider jeans proper dress for all occasions and I still fight my battles. The only difference is that I don’t have the energy that I used to have and I go to bed before nine instead of two in the morning! Oh, and my temper has calmed down a lot.

L: In three words describe Patti Rutland Jazz.

PRS: Friends for life.

L: I think your company and volunteers should have those three words tattooed on your arms or something. So, what inspired you to open the new Studio?

PRS: I saw the need to provide dance classes beyond the outreach program for students that want to pursue more of a dance education. We officially opened in June of 2012 with three very successful dance camps. Classes are taught in ballet, tap, jazz, hip-hop and contemporary throughout the year for dancers that range in age from 3 to 56! In addition, there are partial scholarships available for students to receive free or discounted lunches. The Dance Centre is also home to Patti Rutland Jazz and all rehearsals are held in this space.

L: Awesome! What are the overall goals you have set for the new PRJ Dance Centre? What experiences do you and your company wish to give to young students?

PRS: The goal of the PRJ Dance Centre is to provide the best possible dance education to all students. We plan to grow as our students grow, adding the tools they need for a good dance experience. That is the thing! Our goal is for our students to be lovers of the arts for the rest of their lives. When we produce a student that loves the arts, they want their children to have the same experience they had and they contribute to the arts.

L: What is PRJ’s biggest asset? I don’t mean “asset” in a financial way, but I’m sure you know that.

PRS: Undiscovered talent in the amazing kids we teach has to be our biggest asset. We see it in small doses in the hour classes we teach in the elementary schools. We see it big-time in the kids we see in the studio. We have big dreams for these kids.

L: Tell me about PRJ’s outreach program.

PRS: PRJ’s outreach program is the largest in Houston County and one of the largest in the state. Our teachers provide weekly dance classes for all Dothan City elementary schools including Webb
Elementary and Ashford Elementary for a total of 1,872 classes taught per year. We also partner with Vaughn Blumberg Center, Boys and Girls Clubs of America, Girls, Inc., Calvary Baptist
Church and The Cultural Arts Center to provide dance classes in their locations. The total amount of students dancing weekly through our outreach effort totals to over 6,000.

L: I feel like I should mention the PRJ Outreach program is completely free for students which is crazy remarkable! How is that even possible?

PRS: Our outreach program is three quarters of our total budget. We receive one grant from the state to assist in outreach funding. In addition, PRJ has two major private supporters. The rest comes
from smaller donations and income produced from shows.

L: What aspect of PRJ do you find most rewarding?

PRS: The friendships I have made over the years. The people I can call when I am down or scared or just need a laugh. They are the people that grew up in the company and shared the dream with me. Seeing my dancers on Broadway or dancing professionally then hearing them say, “I miss PRJ. Those were good times” is extremely rewarding. Lastly, the integrity of the dancers. It is still a priority to use one show as a food drive for people that are hungry, and when the going gets really tough and we have to cut money somewhere, we never cut money from our outreach program.

L: What has been the biggest victories/obstacles throughout PRJ’s journey?

PRS: Wow! That varies from day to day! The biggest, I guess, is having the professional company. People said Dothan wasn’t big enough to support it. Now, there are people that would move here from all over the country to dance with Patti Rutland Jazz. In turn, our dancers leave us and dance all over the world. It is a great place to begin and a great place to end up.

L: I can’t wait to see Bad: A Tribute to Michael Jackson this month! The dance from Thriller is probably my all time favorite. In fact, just the other day I had a back seat dance-off with a friend
when the song came on. Needless to say, ALL of Dothan is excited to see this new PRJ show. What can guests expect from this production?

PRS: This is from the press release and it probably says it best. “Patti Rutland Jazz, one of the most innovative professional dance companies in the Southeast, will be presenting Bad: A Tribute to
Michael Jackson on February 14th – 18th at The Dothan Opera House. Bad is the second Tribute show to Michael Jackson by this critically acclaimed group of dancers. In 2010, Black and White had 7 sold out performances! Bad promises the same excitement and will feature popular hits like ‘Beat It’, ‘Thriller’, and ‘Smooth Criminal’ as well as many other works by Michael Jackson. This tribute to the King of Pop will fall during Black History month. Once again, our community will be reminded of the important role black artists have had on the music that has helped shape our culture.
Undeniably, this will be the hottest ticket available in 2013! When the artistry of Patti Rutland Jazz is met with the musical genius of Michael Jackson there is only one thing that can be produced…MAGIC!”

L: Who Choreographed Bad?

PRS: All choreography is done by the principal dancers of PRJ and myself. Not only do we have great dancers, we have great choreographers in the company. I predict a few of them will make their mark in the world of choreography; they are that good.

L: How does Bad differ from other the MJ productions?

PRS: We have a bigger budget, three-quarters of the numbers are new works and we have stepped it up on the technical end. There will be some cool special effects in this show!

L: Ok, I’m channeling Oprah at this point and I have just two more questions! At the end of the day, what inspires you most?

PRS: Music inspires my choreography. The students inspire the vision and dream. It inspires my work ethic when people say, “It can’t be done.” I have been hearing that for almost thirty years and I
am still here.

L: Where do you envision PRJ in ten years?

PRS: I hope we are doing the same thing we’re doing now. I want to boast that 12,000 kids are taking classes through our outreach efforts! We want to add middle schools next year and eventually all
county schools! I hope we have kids on Broadway or dancing professionally because of our outreach program and because we invested a little bit of time and effort to make their dreams come true.

Holly Roberts

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