Shawl-Anderson Modern Dance Center is a blue two-story building on Alcatraz Ave. — the first blue house on your right, if you're walking eastward from the intersection at College. The lobby downstairs is small and homey, with low, pew-style benches and weathered hardwood floors. The rooms upstairs have mirrors and ballet bars, and lights that stay on well into the night — until the last class packs up at around 11 p.m. A recent Monday night was no exception. At 9 p.m. the north-side room was filled with dancers in kneesocks and ballet slippers, most of them so taut-limbed that when they stretched, you could see the muscles shifting in their calves. Gatorade and Crystal Geyser bottles cluttered the far wall, big band music blared from a boom box, and the smell of sweat kept wafting in. The dancers — mostly in their teens and twenties — did perfect splits and butterfly stretches; a pair of them were twirling across the floor in tandem. Meanwhile, a middle-aged man sat in one corner of the room, wearing a cowboy hat and nose ring. He was eyeing everyone from afar.
He looked like a throwback to a funkier era, as though the fashions of the '80s and '90s had completely passed him by. He wore stretchy workout pants and multiple rings on each finger; a Sharpie pen hung from one of several necklaces jangling on his chest. He was sitting on the floor, looking askance at the young, pert ballerina you stood in front of him, a seventeen-year-old newcomer named Melissa Schuman. Schuman was small and muscular, with a spray-painted wife-beater shirt and eyes wide enough to indicate her awe — mixed, perhaps, with a little fear — at meeting Reginald Ray-Savage.
Mr. Savage (as his students call him) didn't seem to care a lick what this Schuman thought of him. He instructed the girl to do a pirouette and she obliged, making an elegant twirl with her arms curved gracefully outward. To the untrained eye, it looked beautiful. Mr. Savage was not impressed. He turned to the girl's mother and said she hadn't been trained properly. She had a "biscuit" — meaning that one of her feet didn't point. She had to keep her left foot turned out and pull up the right side of her hip, he said. Melissa had already taken seven years of ballet classes, but Mr. Savage was ready to tear down her entire foundation and remold her into a different kind of dancer. She had come all the way from Fairfield that night to hear him dish out criticism. Apparently, she didn't mind. When Mr. Savage turned to the young dancer and asked if she was ready to train hard and take her work seriously, she gave him an obedient nod.
At fifty years old, Mr. Savage has that kind of command. Born in St. Louis, he's a self-described "hard-working brother from the Midwest" who started dancing thirty-three years ago at Katherine Dunham's Performing Arts Training Center in East St. Louis, Illinois. (In his staff bio, Savage claims he fell into it by accident, after following a fine woman to class one day.) He started teaching at Shawl-Anderson in 1989 and formed Savage Jazz Dance Company three years later, debuting at Eighth Street Studio in West Berkeley. He's a big fan of Balanchine technique and likes to keep everything old-school. He's never driven a car or had a credit card, and only recently started carrying state ID. (He gamely recounts the many times he's pissed off a cop with the line, "Read me my rights, arrest me, and let me make my phone call.")
Mr. Savage is not particularly canny around the media. He enjoins all journalists to read his staff bio before asking any questions, because otherwise, "it's tempting to make shit up." He considers Savage to be a black dance company — "because it's mine, and I'm black" — even though he's happily recruited a mix of black, white, Asian, and Latino dancers. He describes his philosophy with a lyric cribbed from Prince's Dirty Mind album: Black, white, Puerto Rican, everybody just a freakin'.
In spite of these eccentricities — and perhaps because of them — Mr. Savage easily endears himself to students. Many stay for years. Take Maia Siani, who joined the company in 1995, while attending San Francisco School of the Arts. Siani is now twenty-nine but looks about ten years younger, and when she stretches her arms you can see the delicate bones of her clavicle, and the well-chiseled muscles on her back. A few years ago she began choreographing her own pieces and found, to her surprise, that Mr. Savage approved of them. "Mr. Savage doesn't speak fondly of a lot of choreographers," she explained.
That Monday night the dancers rehearsed three numbers: the "Gravity" segment of Siani's new suite, Between Us (paired with music by R&B artist Maxwell), and two by Mr. Savage — "Adagio for Strings" and "Blue Claix." The Adagio was by far the most gripping number, done over a rich, ever-expanding melody that steadily crescendoed. The dancers' sweeping movements — a combination of elegant ballet turns with looser, theatrical jazz styles — brought out the intensity of the piece, particularly in the beginning when veteran dancers Siani and Alison Hurley did a sensual pas de deux that ended with them rolling over one another. Mr. Savage might have plucked a vintage hit from the American songbook, but his reinterpretation was violent, and kinda sexy. "To me, the song reminds me of a blues," he said. "It's just common people wanting and hurting."
"Determination and discipline" are the crux of his teaching philosophy, and it's what gives him real staying power. (Though the larger-than-life persona certainly can't hurt.) "I used to get thrown outta class so much that when the girls saw me coming to the studio they started crying for me," he said, recalling his early days at the Dunham Performing Arts Center. "About twenty minutes into class the great Norman Davis would grab me by my tights and tell me, in casual words, to 'Get the fuck out of here.' He got so tired of throwing me out, that's why I stayed."
But all the beat-downs gave him a will to survive, which he eventually passed on to others. Siani said that when she came to Savage Dance Company she had a splotchy ballet background, probably akin to that of newbie Melissa Schuman. She now credits Savage with identifying her limitations and putting her up on game. "It's almost like a conversation between your body and what the teacher's trying to give you," Siani explained. "He wouldn't take no for an answer."