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CHHS Performing Arts Students Dance with “Hamilton” Cast Member

By the beginning of fifth period on Tuesday, November 27, dozens of energized, intensely focused students filled the stage of Hanes Theater at Chapel Hill High School, all eyes on Tyler McKenzie, their guest instructor from the Broadway play, "Hamilton." Not your average performing arts class, and one that most of those students will likely remember for years to come.

Jake Genderson, a junior theater student, said, “Working with Tyler was amazing! Working isn’t even the right word, more like partying with structure. He was such an amazing person to be around, just experiencing his personality was its own lesson. It was an honor to have such a fun time with someone so eager to share their wisdom and life advice.”

Alyssa Gillikin, in her first year as chorus teacher at CHHS, arranged the two hour master class with McKenzie, who happens to be an old college friend from the musical theater program at Western Carolina University. They both graduated in 2013, Gillikin taking her first position as a high school teacher and McKenzie bound for the touring production of “Mama Mia.”

“I contacted Tyler a couple of months ago when I heard that he was doing some dance and music workshops,” said Gillikin. “I felt like dance would be the best workshop to do to embrace the most students- movement and dance can reach so many people, and in musical theater, it is important to be able to move. Tyler has such a great energy and spirit and I felt that the students would really connect with him, and that is what happened. Students were so excited during and after the workshop, and it was just such an honor to get to work with him again.” All dance, theater and chorus students were invited to participate in the master class, and more than 75 took advantage of the opportunity.

Theater teacher Thomas Drago said, “Tyler brought incredible energy and did an amazing job teaching our students about stage technique and life as a performer.”

warm up with Hamilton McKenzie wasted no time as he led students through an extended, but brisk series of warm-up exercises. “All that matters is here, in the abs,” he said as he motioned to his body. “You’re releasing tension, focusing and helping prevent injuries.” He demonstrated the movements, and then he roamed the stage, giving individual instructions and affirmations. “This is a judgment-free zone,” he said several times. As he asked students to hold different positions beyond their normal endurance, he laughed and said, “Shaking is so okay!” One student called out, “People who say theater isn’t a sport are crazy,” and McKenzie replied, “It is SO a sport!”

Once McKenzie deemed the students sufficiently warmed up, he began teaching short jazz movements, towards building a five minute piece for the second half of the class. After he introduced each new movement, he asked smaller groups to step forward to try out their versions. “Guys-- all my guys-- to the front!” Or at various times he called dancers forward by grade level, and though he asked a few dancers to step forward for solo modeling, he was balanced in his attention and instruction.

McKenzie asked Ryin Corcoran, a freshman dancer, to step forward, and Corcoran demonstrated a polished and stylized version of the basic choreography, while McKenzie nodded approvingly. “For me, one of the most enjoyable parts of the class was the environment,” Corcoran said. “Tyler McKenzie filled the room with energy which made the class very enjoyable. We were able to learn a lot about this style of dance while still having so much fun. It was an opportunity unlike any other that I have ever had.”

When the dancing was finished, McKenzie invited students to sit in the rows in front of the stage and “Ask me any question you want. Anything.” Students wanted to know about his early years as a dancer, and they seemed uniformly astonished that he only started as a junior in high school near Charlotte. “I saw a dance performance and wanted to express myself that way.” He acknowledged that he was behind his peers because of the late start, but “I caught up as quickly as I could.” He paused and said, “You’ll find that this job is 25% talent, 50% hard work, and 25% community, or networking. Finding joy and uncertainty in the industry is what keeps me going.”

One senior told McKenzie that she’s soon embarking on a series of dance auditions at colleges and she was hoping for tips. He nodded sympathetically. “Start practicing now, not comparing yourself to everyone else there. Focus on yourself and only compare yourself to others in positive ways. Don’t let others bring you down! It’s about what you and only you bring to the table.”  

Hamilton's McKenzie Q & A Corcoran said, “It was so cool to have someone come in and work with us that has so much experience and talent. I found it very useful at the end of the class to sit down and hear about his past experiences and how he got into the field of work. You could tell how much he inspired all of the people taking his class.”

Gillikin added, “It was valuable for the students to learn about how they can be involved in musical theatre/performance in their life, should they choose to go that route.”

Principal Charles Blanchard was able to join the group for the last part of the session. “We were very grateful to Mr. Mackenzie for taking time out of his busy schedule to spend an afternoon with our students!  The workshop provided a once in a lifetime opportunity for our students to sing and dance with a performer from 'Hamilton.'”