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Jeff Hyslop: The Man of a Thousand Dances

Headshot of Canadian stage icon Jeff Hyslop

by Lori Straus

(Appeared in just dance! magazine, Summer 2014 issue)

Store mannequin for 125 episodes. Opera ghost for 985 performances. Judge for countless dance competitions. Producer, choreographer, director, singer, actor, and dancer for almost 50 years.

Can one person truly accomplish this much, and as a dancer, no less?

Jeff Hyslop can and has and still is.

“I know. Isn’t it crazy?” he says, somewhat with astonishment. “I either say I’m really naive or I’m just a glutton for punishment.”

Surprisingly, Hyslop was a “morbidly shy child,” by his own description. “I started gymnastics when I was about four-and-a-half. I was just given an activity and it happened to be gymnastics which I just happened to be a natural for and one thing led to another through that.”

His dark, curly hair, bright eyes that easily connect with you through the camera, and a light, energetic and technically sound style of dance (and, hey, let’s stick in a song while we’re at it) make Jeff Hyslop’s dance performances memorable.

In true Canadian tradition, he got his professional break in P.E.I. at the Charlottetown Festival, playing Gilbert Blithe in Anne of Green Gables. That was 46 years ago. He’s choreographed for commercials, choreographed and danced in over 27 television shows (including 125 episodes of the 80s children’s series Today’s Special, which ran for six seasons), appeared in more than 24 stage productions, including A Chorus Line (Mike/Paul/Zach), The Phantom of the Opera (title role), Kiss of the Spiderwoman (Molina), and released two CDs. Most recently, Hyslop directed a new musical in Vancouver, Mrs. Claus’ Kitchen, which is being remounted this year. He also co-stars in Love Letters, along with his wife, Ruth Nichol.

“Diversity is the name of the game in today’s world,” says Hyslop. “More and more, the economics of the business are such that you have to do everything. They don’t hire a separate dance chorus anymore. You have to sing, dance, act, and play an instrument to just get in that chorus.”

I think diversity already was the name of Hyslop’s game. Choosing musical theatre as a career requires that. It’s difficult to sing, act, and dance, all with equal perfection. Even Gene Kelly could only carry a tune – he wasn’t a trained singer.

And by the way, Hyslop worked with him in 1974 in The Sandy Duncan Special.

“I got to do the number with Gene on the floor with live mics and a packed studio audience of Coronation Street performers and all the actors that were on the lot that particular afternoon. So, no pressure, no pressure!” Jeff says with a laugh.

Part of the key to Hyslop’s success is his warm-up. “I’m a big one for you get there a half hour early [to warm up],” says Hyslop. “Once you’re warm physically you can sing, you can act, you know, you can do anything.”

Given all his experience, it’s safe to assume he’s auditioned a lot. So when he gives audition advice, it’s best to listen.

And that’s his advice.

“Just listen. Listen,” he says.

Teachers can help by giving their students only 20 minutes to learn a new combination.

In real auditions, Hyslop explains, auditioning dancers are taught a combination by assistants. After 20 minutes, the main director/choreographer/artist comes in to see the results.

“There’s no time. And that seems to be what everybody’s Achilles heel is: learning it in a split second and then doing what they want to see.”

Self-confidence is also key, says Hyslop. When you’re in an audition, you can’t panic and let your nerves take over.  “Because once you do that, you may as well leave. It’s that old adage of going in not wanting the job,” he says. “Go in absolutely prepared.”

Also know what your strengths are. “If you know your strength is one thing and you’re going in to a hip hop audition, then why are you there? Know your strengths and go in and let it evolve,” he advises.

And then he repeats: “And listen, listen, listen.”

Dance has clearly evolved over the years, and Hyslop believes young dancers should know where their craft comes from. He suggests going on YouTube and looking for mash-ups of clips from old musicals put to contemporary music. Search for one with Rita Hayworth called “Stayin’ Alive.” It’s one of Hyslop’s favourites.

“Dance isn’t a one-level surface kind of thing,” says Hyslop. “No. It came from Charlie Chaplin walking as the little tramp, it came from that kind of style, that kind of energy that they bring on the screen. There was a reason they were superstars of their day.”

When you’re in dance class, never lose sight of how you started. You may not have found inspiration in Vera-Ellen or Eleanor Powell when you were young, but you did learn how to plié. Never forget that.

“I always say go back to basics, go back to first position. Go back to that first plié. Go back. You’re never too old to go back and rejig things. Go back and take another course. Go back,” Hyslop emphasizes.

Also stay in class when you’re doing professional shows. Class doesn’t just keep you grounded in strong technique; it also keeps you from getting “out of whack,” as Hyslop says.

“You know, you do a long run, you get out of whack. Your system, your physical being gets out of whack, your vocal gets out of whack because of the repetition.”

Hyslop turns 63 this month, so when I ask if he still dances, his answer astounds me:

“Absolutely,” he says emphatically. “I just came off nine weeks of nine shows a week doing the best show-stopping number in the show. I was very fortunate. I was given the gift of a number.”

So how does he do it?

“It’s a different kind of dancing. I know how to do it. I know how to look okay at this age. I do what I can do really well, you know, so that there’s no disappointment factor, I hope. But I do have a strong technique and thank my teacher, Grace MacDonald, for that.”

Hyslop has another claim to fame: he practically danced his way onto an operating table, got a new hip, and danced his way out of the hospital.

“I taught right up to three weeks before the new hip. So I went in in shape. I came out and I was dancing on the Playhouse stage three weeks later. And even though I’m in pain some days…you know, I still do it. I recommend a hip replacement to so many people, because it gave me another ten years.”

So how do you stay in shape well enough that you can still dance professionally in your 60s?

“I have a real stretch regime that I do, and I swear by it. I swear by my Footsie Roll to keep the balls of my feet and my Achilles and all of that supple. And I walk. I’m an avid walker.”

Hyslop gets his cardio workouts from teaching and performing.

Keeping his condition up is crucial to him. “I think once you lose that, then it becomes more difficult.”

The other factor that keeps Hyslop going is his audience.

“Well, you know, you come to a point where, yes, you’ve had some iconic roles you don’t realize you want until you’re well in to it,” he says. “And then you do that to a certain extent and then really it becomes about, ‘How do I sustain that?’ Then it kind of crosses over and you go, ‘Well, I have been around for a long time,’ and therefore there is a certain cachet around your performing or around your name and about people still wanting to come and see you or wanting to hear about you. And that’s very gratifying and that kind of keeps you buoyant.”

So, in other words, his audience helps keep him in his dance shoes, and Jeff Hyslop keeps the audiences attending theatre.

The Dancer Transition Resource Centre reports that the average career of a dancer lasts only about 14 years. Hyslop’s career has spanned almost 50 years, and he’s still going strong. But he has one main goal now: “I do a lot of adjudicating and teaching around BC, so that’s what I want to do before I forget what I do, you know what I mean? So that’s my goal in life. To download as much information I’ve gleaned over the years as possible. And hopefully it’s still relevant.”

Though dance has certainly changed over the years, there are some consistencies. Hyslop’s advice touches on these eternal aspects of dance: Listen. Warm-up. Diversify. Be confident in yourself but also know who you are.

It’s become a way of life that has kept him dancing for almost five decades, and it may just help you do the same.