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Pattie Obey: Leading Lady of Jazz Dance

By Nancy Wozny

How one teacher/choreographer made her mark in the male-dominated jazz-dance world.


Dancers fly in and out of the wings with such force it looks like they are being blown in by a strong wind—a jazzy wind, that is. With enticing smiles they take turns showing off whip-fast turns and eye-popping leaps. Watching the sassy moves of Pattie Obey's dance Zoom, performed by The Houston Metropolitan Dance Company, one grasps what this artist is all about—energy, pizzazz, and style.


Obey summarizes that style as "dynamic, passionate, elegant, and honest. I teach 'Pattie O,' which includes influences by my mentor, Gus Giordano, and teachers Lou Conte and Matt Mattox, and my own powerful femininity." Listening to her teach or talk, you also discover that she combines dedication with a snappy wit. A dancing force to be reckoned with, she has carved her own path in the field. Her impressive lineage, combined with her drive, makes her a key person in the preservation of jazz dance.


It's not easy being one of the few female jazz-dance legends. Obey stands out in the male-dominated jazz-dance world, making her own mark with her teaching, choreography, and charismatic personality. One thing shows through in everything she does—the woman loves dance.


Obey holds the position of the first woman to teach at the Jazz Dance World Congress. In 2000 she won the Congress' award for her contribution to jazz dance, an honor she shares with some of the field's greatest names, such as Peter Gennaro, Frank Hatchett, and Joe Tremaine. Still sleek with a dancer's body at 50, Obey's work schedule is jammed far in advance. She has taught in 35 states and 17 countries—and counting. She divides her time between the U.S. and Europe and says the hectic pace agrees with her.


Obey teaches a ballet-based jazz technique and subscribes to the motto "No ballet, no dance base." She finds that young students who study jazz dance are reluctant to put the time into maintaining ballet training. "Young kids don't like to go to ballet class, but I have learned how to incorporate it within my warm-up." Obey likes training ballet dancers because of their high technical level. "Once they let go of their resistance they really start having fun," she says. "I help them discover their rib cages."


She says that tap is essential to develop rhythm, and pointe work is great for developing strength in the legs. "Below age 10 I can motivate them," she says. "With teens and older, I can begin to pull the artistry out of them; whether it's natural or can be taught is still a big question for me." Obey has a talent for working with students who have gaps in their training, particularly those in musical theater. "When the training has been insufficient I say to myself, 'How can I get the student or performer to excel and shine?' My secret is to energize and ignite the passion and to think, 'Simplicity of movement.' It always works."


This dynamic woman may be an important person in the jazz dance scene, but you won't find her name on any dance company, studio, or competition company roster. Obey didn't follow anyone else's route, preferring to make a way for herself in the activities she found meaningful. Over the years she has created lasting relationships with teachers, studios, small dance companies, colleges, and conservatories that keep her time in the U.S. booked.


Obey has performing and choreographic credits all over the dance map, including Broadway musicals, films, television, summer stock, and industrial shows. She has taught at dance festivals throughout Europe and for both Dance Educators of America and Dance Masters of America. Her choreography is in the repertory of several companies, including La JazDanz; Ormao Dance Company; Spectrum Dance Theater; Dublin City Ballet; Houston Metropolitan Dance Company; Jazz Dance Theatre in Saline, MI; Playhouse Dance Company at Point Park University; and Pori Dance Company in Pori, Finland.


Born into a performing-arts family in Chicago, Obey was around dance and theater for most of her early life. Her father was a musician in the Chicago Lyric Opera and her mother and aunts performed musical theater. Obey started her dance training at age 3 (with her mother) and loved it from the start. At 9, her plan was set: she wanted to be a dancer. She remembers being an angel and a snowflake in The Nutcracker and how she loved dancing in the party scene. But when Obey was 14, a teacher told her she was never going to be a ballerina. It's pretty hard to rain on Obey's parade, though. "Dancing was my life; nobody was going to stop my dream," she says. She took the advice to heart, continued dancing, and holds a lifelong appreciation for ballet training. Obey claims her port de bras comes from Richard Ellis and Christine DuBoulay, former soloists with The Royal Ballet. "They put me together classically," she says. "They were the most brilliant ballet teachers."


Ballet may have been Obey's beginning, but it was jazz that lit her dance fire. At 14 she got her first taste of it at her sister's urging, who was also a dancer at the time. She went to the Gus Giordano Dance Center to study with Giordano, Debbie Hallak (also known as Casey Cole), and Jim Kolb. "They were so dynamic and dedicated," says Obey. "I was way too balletic at first. I had to work my butt off."


In 1970 Obey landed a scholarship at Giordano's school and took every class she could fit in after school and on weekends. Hooked on jazz, she set her sights on a professional career. "My parents were both in the business and gave up their performing careers when my sister was born," she says. "They knew the hardships and made me aware of them. They didn't stop me; they knew my drive." In typical high-gear fashion, Obey graduated from high school at 16 and joined Gus Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago, traveling to the former Soviet Union on the troupe's groundbreaking jazz tour.


Obey started teaching as soon as she got in the company. "I got paid $8 and all my friends came. I liked teaching right away. Perhaps my desire to teach came from my mother," she says. She finds a synergy between dancing and teaching. "I became a much better dancer because of my teaching," she says. "Movement becomes clearer to you when you have to explain [it] to someone else. Teaching is a shared responsibility, and to ignite the passion in dancers is a beautiful thing."


She danced with Giordano until the fall of 1976. Then she was off to New York City to dance in Hellzapoppin' with Jerry Lewis. She danced in industrial shows, dinner theater, and even nightclubs. "I wanted to experience everything in dance," she says, "so I could pass this knowledge on to my students." In 1978 her mother became ill, so Obey returned to Chicago to be near her and taught for Lou Conte.


While teaching a summer session at the Giordano Dance Center Obey met Benjamin Feliksdal, formerly of the Dutch National Ballet. Feliksdal's invitation to go to Amsterdam marked the beginning of Obey's bicontinental life. "I had to discover that world and go see what was happening in the jazz world," says Obey. "It was the beginning of the American invasion of the '80s, and I guess I wanted to be the female Gus Giordano—and still do." She speaks Dutch, some German and Spanish, and enough French to get by. She keeps a condo in Del Ray, FL, but spends half the year in Amsterdam with her husband, Ted Willemsen, a physical therapist for Nederlands Dans Theater and the Dutch National Ballet. Currently she's a guest artist at the University of Performing Arts in Tilburg, The Netherlands.


Obey's teaching has touched dancers all over the United States. Houston is one of the many places she has made a name for herself. Delia Stewart, a former Broadway dancer, first brought her to Houston in 1984. After Stewart retired, Obey continued to work with the company that took over Stewart's studio, The Houston Metropolitan Dance Company (aka The Met). She maintains a close relationship with The Met, the city's only contemporary jazz dance company. "My heart is close to Houston," she says. "People there have supported my work since 1984." Obey has set several works on the company— most recently Zoom—and teaches master classes there. Offers to choreograph keep coming her way, but she considers making dances only one of the many things she does. She averages about two pieces per year. "For me it's got to be good and it's got to be right," she says. "I'm a bit obsessive."


Obey's high-octane style is a perfect match for the upand- coming young Met. Artistic director Michelle Smith says that her company is enriched by the teacher/choreographer's frequent visits. "Her classes are tough but full of energy; she makes you want to work for her and achieve her style to perfection," she says. "She is one of the few who have held onto true jazz technique."


Obey expresses concern about the overly competitive climate of today's dance world. "It is good for young dancers to compete so that they can challenge themselves, but it has all gone to such an extreme," she says. She prefers competitions that are linked to conventions, where a learning experience is possible. "There's a place for healthy competition in the classroom—[it] builds better dancers and kicks in more drive."


Judging by the uniformity of style seen at competitions, Obey feels that jazz technique has eroded. "The dances looked cloned, as if there are prerequisite movements," she says. "Where is the creativity?" She's also alarmed at the diminishing presence of jazz dance on the concert stage. It's alive and well at the Jazz Dance World Congress competitive event, though, and Obey currently serves on the jury.


Despite her accomplishments, the teacher/choreographer dreams of doing more. "I've never directed a dance company," she says. "That is something I would like to try, right here on the east coast of Florida." She imagines a company along the lines of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago or Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago.


In the meantime, Obey's restless nature keeps her on the road. "My life is expressed in my movement. I'm a born mover—that's why I travel." But regardless of which continent she's on, she's never far from home. "The home that is closest to my heart," the jazz dancer says, "is the one I have in the dance studio."   



Photo captions (from top to bottom):  


Pattie Obey. Photo by Deen van Meer.  


The Houston Metropolitan Dance Company performs Pattie Obey's Zoom at their 2006 Spring Concert at the Wortham Center in downtown Houston, TX. Photo by  


Pattie Obey with Joe Tremaine at the Jazz Dance World Congress 2004 in Costa Rica. Photo by Alejandra Barzuna.  


Pattie Obey and Gus Giordano at the Jazz Dance World Congress 2004 in Costa Rica. Photo by Alejandra Barzuna.  


Pattie Obey at the Jazz Jamm at the Jazz Dance World Congress 2004 in Costa Rica. Photo by Alejandra Barzuna.  


The Houston Metropolitan Dance Company performs Pattie Obey's Zoom at their 2006 Spring Concert at the Wortham Center in downtown Houston, TX. Photo by   



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Copyright 2006 Goldrush Magazine, a division of the Rhee Gold Company and Gold Standard Press, LLC. Goldrush Magazine and Goldrush Online is published twelve times annually. No contents of Goldrush Magazine and Goldrush Online may not be duplicated in whole or in part without permission of the publisher. Inclusion in the Goldrush does not imply endorsement by Goldrush or its employees

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