“I’ve always danced,” says Eric Jenkins. Whatever dances the kids were doing in his Maryland hometown, Eric was a part of the action. But everything changed when Eric saw the music video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” “I begged my mom to go buy the VHS so I could watch it over and over,” recalls Eric. “Even back as a kid, I knew to mirror the choreography when I was learning it!”
Music videos were a huge influence for Eric. “I loved Janet Jackson’s ‘What Have You Done for Me Lately?’” he adds. “I noticed the same dancers would appear in different videos and dance backup for different artists. That’s when I realized this is a career…to always, always dance!”
And dance he did! “I’m the youngest in my family, and my bedroom was the smallest one upstairs in our house,” Eric says. “They would hear me stomping and yell at me to turn my music down.” In high school, Eric’s parents moved his bedroom to the basement. “I could crank my music and do all the dancing I wanted,” he laughs.
Though Eric didn’t take formal dance classes, performing and choreographing seemed to just come naturally to him–and people began to take notice. “In middle school choir we sang ‘Hand Jive’ from GREASE,” Eric says. “I was so into it that they made me audition for show choir (like glee club) so I could really dance.” And in high school, Eric blew his classmates away at his school’s talent show. “I became popular for being ‘the kid who could dance.’”
After high school, Eric attended the University of Maryland: Baltimore County where he majored in visual and performing arts with a concentration in dance. “I didn’t really know what I was getting into,” Eric admits. “I didn’t understand the terminology. I thought ‘modern’ dance meant the stuff that everyone was doing now. So, I figured, ‘Oh, I’m ready for that.’ I was in for a rude awakening…but I ended up loving it!” In addition to modern, Eric trained in ballet, jazz, and African dance throughout his college career.
Eric made the big move to New York City after he graduated from college. “When I was new to the city, I had a job interview at The GAP,” remembers Eric. “I didn’t know the subway system well and I was turned away for being a few minutes late.” Disappointed, Eric popped into a nearby dance studio. On the call board, he noticed an audition for Jeté, a jazz dance company founded by J.T. Jenkins. It must be true what they say about When one door closes, another one opens, because after being turned away from The GAP, Eric auditioned and booked a spot in the dance company.
Eric went on to dance for artists and in countries around the world. “I would scan Backstage Magazine every week for upcoming auditions,” Eric says. He went on to dance for the New York Liberty women’s basketball team and for a big Toyota industrial in Japan. He also danced with artists like Brandy, Missy Elliott, and Ricky Martin. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing for Eric, who worked part-time at Au Bon Pain between performing gigs. “There were a lot of ups and downs,” Eric says. “Money in the bank, then no money in the bank. The struggle was real.”
At one point, Eric finally quit his side job, determined to invest more time and energy into his craft. He began subbing at Broadway Dance Center for teachers like Chio, Jermaine Brown, and Rhapsody. “I got my permanent slot–Thursdays at 9pm–on July 8th, 2004,” Eric smiles, having recently celebrated 15 years here at BDC. “My class is billed as Hip-Hop/Street Jazz. It’s a combination of hip-hop elements with a stylized form of jazz and bringing that together. I like the fluidity of going in and out of both of those styles.”
Broadway Dance Center has been a special place for Eric both as a teacher and as a student. “Years ago, I was taking class and Travis Payne, Michael Jackson’s choreographer, scouted me for a gig.” In his own classes, Eric focuses on performance quality as much as the choreography itself. “You’re going to mess up,” Eric says. “It’s up to you to not let your mistakes hold you back. As a choreographer, you can teach steps, but you can’t teach passion. Don’t let technique get in the way of your performance because you never know what opportunities might be around the corner.”
For many street-style dancers, performing for an artist is the ultimate goal. From experience, Eric knows that dancing backup is sometimes not all it’s cracked up to be. “There will be dark before you get to the light,” he explains. “Learn from your experiences and make it worth it. Approach each new job smarter than your last. That might mean you end up walking away from something. Changing direction is okay. Just commit to staying present in your journey.”
Eric practices what he preaches. Teaching classes and creating choreography every week can be challenging, especially when your job is to inspire an entire class of students every day. “I get inspired by music,” says Eric. “I listen to songs and don’t even realize I’m choreographing in my head!” But sometimes, when choreographing feels more like a chore, Eric watches performances from artists (like Missy Elliott’s recent show for the VMAs) or pops into a class outside of his genre. “I like to move differently every once in a while, with class from Cecilia Marta or Brice Mousset. It helps open myself up and feel free to explore in my own classes.”
In addition to teaching drop-in classes at BDC, Eric also assists with the International Student Visa Program placement auditions. “I imagine it’s overwhelming to be in a new environment trying to grasp the concept and choreography without fully understanding the language,” Eric says. “When I teach at these auditions, I try to lighten the mood and to communicate differently. Sometimes sounds and noises can tell you a feeling where a count can’t. I see the intimidation in these auditions, but I also see the joy. The students are so ready, willing, and open–it’s awesome.”
Eric’s favorite part of dancing has not changed since he was a little kid jamming to Michael Jackson in his upstairs bedroom. “I love being able to create, and then to see something you create come to life and make other people happy,” Eric acknowledges. “When you do what you love, you never know what kind of amazing experiences will open up to you.”