Dale Lam

By Bonnie Boiter-Jolley

Dale Lam packs a lot of punch in her four feet and ten inch stance. Spending her life fighting to make a career for herself in the entertainment industry has instilled in her a passion and drive she hopes to pass on to her students. Owner and Artistic Director of Columbia City Jazz Dance School and Company, Lam finds herself in a position to use her guidance and instruction to do just that.

Born in Augusta, Georgia, Lam grew up in a very close, traditional, and musical, Asian family. Her mother encouraged her to join her brother and two sisters in their musical pursuits, urging her to delve into the cello, not the dance studio. Nonetheless, as an eleven year old, Lam took her first ballet class at Augusta Civic Center with Zanne Beaufort. Lam credits Beaufort with introducing her to the mantra she lives by today, “It isn’t what you don’t have, it’s what you do with what you have.” Lam’s career illustrates the sentiment.

A talented but reluctant musician, Lam received a full scholarship to study cello at USC. Once enrolled, however, she came to the realization that she needed to make a choice, to decide where her passion lay and pursue it 100 percent. Lam transferred to the University of Georgia to study theatre and dance. While taking a master class during a visit to New York City, Lam was introduced to Robin Dunn, assistant to Frank Hatchett. “Modern came easy to me,” she says, but standing just two inches shorter than five feet, ballet was a different matter. Hatchett, largely influenced by jazz and breakdance techniques, advised Lam to “throw the ballet out the window.” Lam remembers she felt “released.” Lam also attributes much of her development to Mia Michaels whom she met at a dance convention in the 1980s. She remembers being immediately intrigued by her unusual style of movement modeled after a combination of hard hitting jazz and something called “liquid dancing” that was popular in dance clubs at the time. This new, contemporary dance gave Lam what she felt was a home.

A skilled performer, challenged by her height and ethnicity, Lam learned to fight for what she wanted. “You have to be pushy,” she quips. “I did anything.” Lam rattles off a grab bag of industry experiences including but not limited to dressing up as a clown to deliver balloon bouquets, delivering singing telegrams as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, appearing in a Hawaiian Punch commercial while wearing a grass skirt, and touring Europe with the Department of Defense. Ultimately, Lam decided to return to where she was the happiest, in Columbia, SC.

In Columbia, Lam began teaching jazz at William Starrett’s Columbia Conservatory of Dance. The program began with eight ballet-based students, and was strongly influenced by musical theatre type movement. The Columbia City Jazz Company was formed in 1990 and five years later had grown to 34 dancers. Nationally acclaimed, CCJC has toured overseas on numerous occasions, performing in Plovdiv, Bulgaria as part of the European Cultural Month, and at the Tanzsommer Festival in Innsbruck, Austria in 1999. In 2000, the company toured Singapore performing thirty shows over the course of the winter. In 2006, the company traveled to China for five weeks as part of a cultural exchange program to prepare for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The dancers toured and performed in Jinan City, Qingdao City, Zibo City, Weifang City, Chongqing City, Guangzhou City, Shenzhen City, and Shanghai among others.

In 2002, CCJC received the honor of being named one of the “Top 50 Dance Companies in the USA” by Dance Spirit Magazine. The same year came with less happy news, however. The company was informed that there was no longer enough room for them at the Main and Taylor studios. Having outgrown their space, the dancers were without a home. Lam passionately recounts how her husband, Les Mizell, financed the move of the school and company to their current location at great personal sacrifice. Emphasizing the family aspect of the dancers, Lam is adamant that the company and the school have been “built from love.” Though she has never given birth to a child, Lam has children all over the country. Her students are her family.

Lam’s philosophy on teaching reflects the love she has for her students. Drawing much of her inspiration from choreographer Jason Parsons and teacher and choreographer Denise Wall, Lam emphasizes the process and notes that this can be different from dancer to dancer. As with learning to play a musical instrument, there are steps that must be taken. Lam cautions against allowing students to merely copy movement, and instead works with the “science of the body,” to learn the technique from within. Returning to her mantra, Lam encourages her students to understand how their “instrument” is put together so that they may do the most with what they have. “Each child has a strength that should be celebrated,” she insists. Her students can be sure she will push them to find it. In rehearsal, Lam is likely to spend fifteen to twenty minutes perfecting one transition, talking her student through the process and giving them exercises in order to feel the proper muscle engagement. “Now feel that, now hold that, now do that. Go.”

Before Dale Lam returned to South Carolina to begin teaching, she confesses she was selling radio and television advertisements, working at what was a $150,000 a year job. Though she now earns just a fifth of that, she chose instead to have “a legacy.” Former CCJC dancers are working throughout the country. With jobs in the industry, they perform on cruise ships, in LA, NYC and in various companies. Alumni are now graduates of CalArts, attending London Contemporary School of Dance, and USC. She reflects that there are turns her life took that she might not have chosen, but insists she has no regrets. “Don’t do anything half way,” Lam says. “Make your life count, make it stand for something.” She certainly has.


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