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Community Highlights: Meet Maria Majors of STL Rhythm Collaborative

Today we’d like to introduce you to Maria Majors.

Hi Maria, thanks for sharing your story with us. To start, maybe you can tell our readers some of your backstories.
My name is Maria Majors. I am the Executive Director of STL Rhythm Collaborative and Artistic Director/Performer with the moSTLy TAP ensemble.

I grew up in St. Charles, MO. I began taking dance classes at age 3 and dance has been part of my identity ever since.
As a young teen, I trained at Performing Arts Centre (in St. Charles) in various styles of dance. My teachers gave me a solid foundation and encouraged me to round out my dance education by seeking training from as many different professional performing artists as possible. At a young age, it was instilled in me the importance of being in a constant state of learning and being open to new ideas to inspire growth and creativity.

I think many teens struggle with the question of what they will do for a living when they “grow up,” but I knew without a doubt, that I wanted to be a professional dancer. I also knew that if my plan didn’t work out, I needed dance to be part of my life somehow, whether that meant choreographing, teaching, arts administration, etc. I was open to learning about all of it because it strengthened my relationship with dance. Little did I know, I would use every. single. skill.

It was in my late teens that I began to gravitate toward tap dance specifically. My tap teacher, Karen Davenport, encouraged me to attend the annual St. Louis Tap Festival, presented by the late Professor Robert L. Reed. The festival, which occurred annually for almost 25 years, was a week-long celebration of tap dance. World-renowned master instructors came to St. Louis to teach classes all day, every day for a full week. Every evening there was an event (panel discussion, jam session, student showcase, to name a few) to encourage community, education, and an opportunity to spend time with all the instructors.

The week would finish with a professionally produced show, treating the public to performances by all of the master artists. It was the encouragement of Professor Reed and the atmosphere of the community he created, that made me feel comfortable reaching outside my comfort zone and diving deeper into the art of tap dance. The festival allowed me to build new friendships with many of the master instructors and students who attended. Many of the elders of tap dance, considered the masters of the dance, attended the St. Louis Tap Festival, and I’m so grateful to have been in their presence during that time.

Post high school in 1996, local opportunities for me to pursue my dream while also supporting myself were scarce. My tap teacher was planning to move to New York and I chose to go with her. I was 18. We moved in the early summer of 1997. We sublet an apartment in Manhattan and I started auditioning 2 weeks after touching down in NYC. Looking back, I had no idea what I was doing, but I was on top of the world.

The first company I auditioned for was Manhattan Tap, under the direction of the incredible Heather Cornell. I was accepted into the apprentice company and began rehearsals later that summer. In the fall of 1997, the performing company was preparing to travel to France for a tour. I was pulled up from the apprentice company to learn the show and tour with the group. It was an incredible experience, to say the very least. The show featured an on-stage jazz trio, included improvisational solos by the dancers and musicians, and the whole show was a celebration of jazz music.

I had little experience with improvisation or working with live music, and very little knowledge of jazz music. I quickly learned there was so much more to the art form than I ever imagined. I spent the remainder of that season and part of the next touring with the company. I had the extreme honor of being in the original cast of Manhattan Tap’s “Excursion Fare,” featuring Keith Terry and Crosspulse, which opened at the Joyce Theatre in June of 1998. Michael Minery, an incredible tap dancer and fellow Manhattan Tap company member at the time, later shared that he felt Heather had an innate ability to see potential in dancers that maybe others don’t see.

I’m truly grateful that even with my incredible lack of experience in those areas, Heather saw something in me and allowed me to be a small part of the Manhattan Tap journey. It changed my trajectory completely and I don’t know what kind of artist I’d be without that experience. She taught me so much and gave many pieces of advice, but one of the simplest yet most impactful was, “Listen to more jazz!”

I moved back to St. Louis later that year and threw myself into teaching so I could share all I’d learned. I got married and my husband, Adam, and I started our family. I continued to teach dance and accepted a position at the Center of Creative Arts, COCA, in St. Louis. Over my next ten years there, I served in many different roles; Pre-Professional Program Director, Tap Program Coordinator, and COCAdance youth company Assistant Director. I gained valuable experience working with students and families in an administrative role and formed lifelong relationships with St. Louis area leaders in the arts.

Over the last 10 years, while Adam and I raised our family, I’ve continued to teach dance and have served in administrative and consultant roles for various arts organizations. I feel very blessed that throughout my career, I have been able to keep dance close in my life and career.

In 2017, my friends and fellow St. Louis tap dancers and I choreographed a short tap dance routine that we planned to perform for fun in the Performing Arts Centre’s recital. The process of creating the piece and performing it together came way too naturally to ignore, so we made it official and began building the professional performance ensemble that is now moSTLy TAP. We began performing at area art festivals and presenting in-studio workshops at local dance studios. In early 2018, we began collaborating with local musicians, and moSTLy JAZZ was formed under the direction of St. Louis musician and my good friend, Phillip Russo.

Within the first couple of years of moSTLy TAP’s journey, I met many young tap dancers all over the region, hungry to learn more and in search of the same opportunities I was once looking for after high school. I learned that while there is both a vibrant local dance community and a deeply rooted jazz music community, it seemed there could be more collaboration between the two.

With the COVID shutdown in 2020, I spent a lot of time reflecting on my dance journey over the years. I wanted to combine what I’d learned along the way and find a way to make more of those experiences available right here in St. Louis. I called each of the performing members of moSTLy TAP and shared my ideas. Without hesitation, everyone was on board and agreed to help however they could. In October 2020 my nonprofit organization, STL Rhythm Collaborative, was born.

STL Rhythm Collaborative provides opportunities for people of all ages to connect, learn about music and movement, and inspire one another through rhythm. We created 3 different programs, which are all presented at various locations throughout the area. Our Community Engagement Program provides free activities for all ages, no dance or music experience is required, just the opportunity to connect and enjoy music and dancing.

Our Education Program provides dance and music classes, in-school programs, summer camps, our Pre-Professional Program for young artists, and the annual STL Rhythm Fest (in honor of Professor Robert L. Reed). Finally, our Professional Program, consisting of our professional adult ensembles, moSTLy TAP and moSTLy JAZZ, continues to present performances throughout St. Louis and Illinois. Last year, the ensembles presented their first self-produced production, IN DUE TIME: A Live Music & Tap Dance Tribute to The Dave Brubeck Quartet. The moSTLy TAP ensemble just returned from the renowned Rhythm World Festival presented by the Chicago Human Rhythm Project, where they were invited to present an excerpt of the work.

I’m really proud of how much STL Rhythm Collaborative has grown in the 2 years since its inception. It is VERY important to note that this is because the dancers in the moSTLy TAP ensemble are just as passionate as I am, and more often than not, donate their time for rehearsals, shows, teaching, etc. to further STLRC’s mission. Our board members have been all-in from the start and the support from the community has kept us going. It’s been quite a humbling experience.

I didn’t really set out on my dance journey with a clearly mapped out plan, just an understanding of how important dance was to me. I never anticipated I would direct a professional ensemble or nonprofit, but I’m learning such a great deal alongside my closest friends in the dance. I suppose I let dance create my path and I was grateful to be along for the ride. Dance has provided me with so many meaningful relationships.

With the exception of my family, everyone I know in my life is because of my relationship with dance. It’s hard to put into words, how much those individuals mean to me. If I’m not mistaken, I believe it was Dr. Jimmy Slyde who once said, “I’m glad dance chose me.”

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
I don’t think anything of value comes without times of struggle.

There have certainly been times when it was hard to make ends meet. Salaried positions for dancers/artists are hard to come by and it’s difficult to budget your expenses when your projects and your pay vary from month to month. It’s definitely helpful to have experience in a variety of areas so that you can supplement your income if you need to.

When I was younger I used to get discouraged or jealous when other performers would get jobs or opportunities that I wanted or thought I should have. It’s easy to get caught up worrying about what everyone else is doing and comparing it to your own journey. I don’t have the time or energy to worry about that stuff anymore. I think that comes with age and a bit of perspective. My journey is my own, I will do my best with what I have been given, and I’ll be grateful for all of it.

Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions about tap dance (what it looks like, its history, and how it is presented) that inform people’s decisions about whether to see a performance. The same goes for jazz music. There are always audience members that approach us after performances and say things like, “I had no idea that’s what tap dancing could sound like!” or “I’ve never seen a show like that before!”

We love hearing that we’re changing perceptions a bit.

Thanks for sharing that. So, maybe next you can tell us a bit more about your business?
I spoke about the organization in my introduction but here is a brief synopsis.

STL Rhythm Collaborative is a nonprofit that has 3 programs.
Community Engagement: Free music and dance activities for all ages.
Education: A variety of opportunities are available here including multidisciplinary classes and camps, in-studio workshops, Pre-Professional Program, and the annual STL Rhythm Fest.
Professional Program: The moSTLy TAP & moSTLy JAZZ ensembles

We are best known for our professional ensembles, moSTLy TAP & moSTLy JAZZ. moSTLy TAP is comprised of the best tap dancers in the area. moSTLy JAZZ features some of the area’s finest musicians. The two ensembles together present live music and tap dance collaborations you won’t experience anywhere else in this area. Our latest production “Latin Pulse,” a collaboration between the dancers of moSTLy TAP and musicians of Acoustik Element, will premiere on November 5, 2022 at 2pm at The Wildey Theatre in Edwardsville, IL. I would recommend following STL Rhythm Collaborative on Facebook or Instagram or going to our website for our official announcement. www.stlrhythmcollaborative.org.

One of the first questions people ask us is “Where are you located?” The answer is “All over!” We rent spaces at various locations throughout St. Louis and Illinois areas to present our programs. We love traveling to different areas, but we are limited in how many programs and opportunities we can offer due to the lack of a permanent space. I would love your readers to know that we would greatly appreciate the support to help us secure a permanent home in St. Louis.

There is more information on the “Support” page of our website.

Contact Info:

Image Credits
Carly Vanderheyden, moSTLy TAP & moSTLy JAZZ, Tanner Caldwell (sax), Tommy Wasiuta (taps), Clarence Alford, Maria Majors, Amy Gammon, Tommy Wasiuta, Kelly Ging, Warrenton School District Photo, Scotti Iman, STLRC, and Megan Mayer

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