Rabab Al-Sharif | Staff Writer
At 19, Jon Lehrer, founder of LehrerDance, took his first dance class on a dare.
After living in Queens his entire life, Lehrer decided to head upstate to attend the State University of New York at Buffalo, because it offered many programs, and he had no idea what he wanted to study.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he said. “I knew I’d find it there, though.”
During his freshman year, he started to date a dancer. When the two received their grades at the end of the semester, his girlfriend had fared much better than he had.
In what he called “typical male fashion,” he teased her about her course load.
“I said ‘Of course you got all A’s, all you do is dance all day,’” Lehrer said. “And she, being a very strong female, said, ‘Are you kidding me?’”
After lecturing him on her course amount — which included the same general electives he was taking along with her dance classes, rehearsal schedule and a job — she informed him that dance classes were more than just dancing around all day. She still had to read books and write papers.
She bet Lehrer he couldn’t get an A in a dance class.
“She finally said, ‘OK, if you think it’s so darn easy, why don’t you take a dance class,’” he said.
During his sophomore year, Lehrer accepted the challenge and signed up for a beginner-level modern class.
“Honest to goodness, after the first week, I knew something in my life was drastically about to change,” he said. “It was the most amazing experience of my life.”
The course was a general modern class rather than one that taught a specific technique, such as Graham or Horton, he said.
“That definitely would have scared me away,” Lehrer said.
Growing up in Queens, Lehrer wasn’t exposed to the arts, but was into athletics. He even received college scholarship money from playing baseball.
Dance seemed very athletic to him, making that transition much smoother, he said.
“It was just one of those great modern classes where you can run, and jump, and roll, and they’re teaching you technique along the way,” Lehrer said. “So I just fell in love with it.”
The next semester, he added a jazz class and then ballet. Before he knew it, Lehrer wasn’t going home for summers so he could take private lessons to catch up, auditioning and performing in shows at school.
“It was great,” he said. “It really changed my life.”
Lehrer will talk about his transition in a lecture, “From Athlete to Dancer: the Story of LehrerDance,” hosted by the Chautauqua Dance Circle at 3 p.m. today in Smith Wilkes Hall.
Lehrer geared his entire professional career on being an athletic male dancer, he said. He played to his strengths.
“I knew that I wouldn’t be a Baryshnikov — I wouldn’t be a ballet dancer,” he said. “There was no way in hell that starting at 19 I was going to get into a ballet company.”
He said he did not have the training, but what he did have was a raw physicality. He learned good technique along the way.
Lehrer said he doesn’t think he would have liked dance, had he taken a ballet class first.
“It just would have been too foreign to me,” he said.
Even without a lifetime of training, Lehrer got into two major companies during his 12-year career: Erick Hawkins Dance and Giordano Dance Chicago.
Although one is a Graham-like classical modern company and the other a world-renowned jazz company, both are athletic in their own right, Lehrer said.
Both Erick Hawkins and Gus Giordano were just trying to say something with dance, he said.
“Erick was trying to say it in his way, and Gus was trying to say it in his way,” he said. “They appear to be polar opposites in what they present, but they were both just trying to express themselves through a very specific style.”
After rising to associate director at Giordano, Lehrer thought it was time to take the next step and start his own company.
In 2007, LehrerDance was born in Buffalo.
“We’re known for our extreme athleticism combined with technical virtuosity,” Lehrer said.
People always ask Lehrer if the company is jazz or modern, and he tells them it is organically athletic.
Lehrer will also introduce his company to Chautauquans with a demonstration at the lecture.
Dancers Manny Naylor and Colleen Walsh will perform “Fuse” during the talk.
Lehrer did manage to get an A in that first dance class. As for the girl — he married her.