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Jumpin' at the Savoy
Savannah Arts Academy presents a jazzy evening of music and dance
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It’s a natural fit. For the first time, the Savannah Arts Academy’s award-winning Skyelite Jazz Band is joining forces with the school’s dance department.

The result is Jumpin’ at the Savoy, the recreation of a night in 1926 at the famed Savoy Ballroom. "The lead character Mama Rae is played by a dance major at the school, Sheray Franklin, a senior," says Christina Powell, head of the dance department and artistic director for the show.

"She’s like our emcee, the mama of the show," Powell says. "She tells the background of the club and how she is friends with Ella Fitzgerald."

The original Savoy Ballroom was located in Harlem from 1926 to 1958. Many dances such as the Lindy Hop became popular there, resulting in the Savoy being known as the "Home of Happy Feet."

Modern battles of the bands originated at the Savoy. Popular orchestras and musicians of the day, including Benny Goodman and Count Basie, challenged the house band to contests to see which band was best.

Dancers loved those battles as much as the musicians and packed the house. The Savoy’s ballroom was a block long and had a double bandstand that held two bands. Some of the dancers were so good, they turned professional, appearing in both Hollywood movies and Broadway productions.

Audiences will believe they are at the Savoy. "This is a collaborative effort," Powell says. "We worked hard to not make it a concert-style show, but a production."

The students portray the various characters who could be found at the Savoy -- waitresses, the High Hats, the Goody Two Shoes, the Floozies, the Sophisticated Ladies, and more. "We’ve worked hard to make it feel like a real night at a 1930s dance hall," Powell says. "It’s jazz history as well as music to make it an entire experience for the performers and the audience."

Back then, new dances were inspired by the music, Powell says. "They had bands and dancers that were very improvisational," she says. "Because they had nightly band competitions, all this dancing came out of it."

The 32 dancers are all members of the Savannah Arts Academy Dance Company. The Skyelite Jazz Band has 28 members, including three vocalists, so the stage is packed.

"This is quite different from our Cinderella production," says Powell, referring to the school’s first full-length ballet, presented in March. "The dance company is students who are sophomores through seniors. We don’t allow freshmen to come in at first."

The company was founded in August 2007. "We hold auditions every year," Powell says. "You have to be a dance major at Savannah Arts Academy to be in the dance company, but just because you’re a dance major doesn’t mean you’re automatically in the company.

"This is a select few," she says. "We have 85 dance majors, and 32 out of 85 are in the company. Auditions are based on technical ability, performance skills, stage presence, responsibility and the ability to work well with others."

The dancers also must demonstrate the ability to learn and recall dance movements quickly. They do performances outside of the school as well as regular in-school performances.

Powell has pulled together costumes currently available at the school and in the students’ own closets. "For a lot of the pieces, they’re wearing their own clothes," she says. "We want it to feel like they really are in a dance club, where everyone is wearing their own unique outfits."

Jumpin’ at the Savoy will be presented May 7 and 8 at 7 p.m. in the Savannah Arts Academy Theatre, 500 Washington Ave. Tickets are $6 general admission and $3 students and senior citizens. Call 201-5000 for information.