Everything changes: Jonathan Lajas

Jonathan Lajas.JPG

Mr. Lajas

Everyone has a moment in life when things change. Sometimes we know it right away, other times we only recognize it looking back. With the turning of the year, we're taking some time to listen to people's stories about the moments that changed them, and what they've learned.

Jonathan Lajas is known as Lajas to his friends -- and Mr. Lajas at the place where he spends most of his time: Albany Community Charter School.

Lajas is a social studies teacher, baseball and track coach, and mentor who says he "bleeds red and black," the school colors. He firmly believes the school has been a key part of bringing new focus to Albany's South End neighborhood.

He's also a dancer and performer who once chased Lin-Manuel Miranda into an elevator to get an audition for the tour of his musical In the Heights. Lajas says his passions are education and performance, and one of his goals is to start a performing arts high school in the Capital Region. He has a boundless energy and a love for his scholars.

Lajas's love for learning came later in life, after being introduced to the students and teachers at Albany Community Charter School. But his passion for performance, something he carries into the classroom every day, was influenced by someone he met in the eighth grade -- when he was sent to detention.

The teacher running detention on the day the eighth-grade Lajas walked in was Broadway and film actor-turned educator Alan Weeks, a man with a reputation for seeing the potential in people and helping to bring that out.

Lajas tells the story of the lessons he learned from Mr. Weeks. How he continues to inspire him, and by extension, a new generation of students.
____

I was in eighth grade at Philip Livingston Magnet Academy, which is closed now. Only the real survived that one. Philip Livingston was a tough environment.

But Mr. Weeks, man, he touched so many lives in the city of Albany through all of the schools that he worked at. When I was at Philip Livingston he was teaching dance there. I think he was substituting, teaching dance, working in the library. He was just doing a lot, you know. Kind of like what I'm doing now.

I was in an African dance class and I ended up with him for detention. And he asked me about what dance classes I was taking at that time. You know, I'm like, "Yeah, I'm in this dance class and blah blah blah." And you know, I was like one of two boys in a class full of like 30 girls -- which was fine to me in middle school.

But I wasn't participating at all. And I remember being with him one day at the school and he was putting taps on shoes and he's asking me about this dance class, you know. And within a week I was in his tap class -- me and my two friends. And we really took to tap dancing.

He was running a program for the Student Theatre Outreach Program -- also known a STOP -- which was funded by the NAACP of the Capital District. He taught African drumming and dancing and the principles of nonviolence of Dr King. That was the foundation of it. He did it right down at The Egg Performing Arts Centre right across the hall from Ellen Sinopoli's dance company.

[H]e taught us African percussion and Latin percussion and African dance. And we would have tap dancing with him, and we would perform at different schools and colleges in the area. He was really one of my first introductions to the world of performing arts. And on a certain level I was learning about history in a different light, you know.

So after eighth grade tap dancing with him, he invited us to join STOP. So we did. And from there we continue to tap dance with him and he taught us African percussion and Latin percussion and African dance. And we would have tap dancing with him, and we would perform at different schools and colleges in the area. He was really one of my first introductions to the world of performing arts. And on a certain level I was learning about history in a different light, you know. The other two guys, for whatever reason, had to stop dancing. But I continued to tap dance and I continue to train, you know, and just kind of keep doing it on my own.

When he passed away a few years ago, his wife and his family really honored me and blessed me with the opportunity to take these tap shoes that he had accumulated over the years teaching tap at different schools in the city, and the percussion instruments he accumulated over the years. I inherited these things.

In that spirit I decided to launch what I called the TAP dance company of Albany, New York. TAP is an acronym for True African Performance because that was what he taught -- African drumming, African dancing, African history. The TAP Dance Company is my way of honoring his legacy.

I have a bad right knee right now and I've been busier this year than ever, so I haven't been teaching yet. But so many people are reaching out to me and I'm just really trying to figure out a time to say, OK, I can dedicate these three hours on this day just teaching tap. Time management is the thing, because I want to do everything -- but I can't do everything.

Savion Glover, when he came here, I had the privilege of speaking with him. And he knew my mentor Alan Weeks. He spoke very highly of him. Alan played in The Tap Dance Kid on Broadway and he was in The Wiz and he was in the original Shaft.

[Savion Glover] also said: "Make sure that when you go into the dance studio wherever it is and to teach, that you bring Mr. Weeks in there with you and he'll carry you the rest of the way."

So Savion Glover said, "The key to what you're doing is going be consistency -- really just making sure that you're always available for the children who wanna learn." But he also said: "Make sure that when you go into the dance studio wherever it is and to teach, that you bring Mr. Weeks in there with you and he'll carry you the rest of the way."

Really, that's where I get the energy to keep going. I really try to channel it, you know -- from Mr. Weeks and any of the mentors that I can pay a nod to who kind of helped me guide me along the way. Savion Glover, he told me that when he was too tired and felt like he couldn't go on, he remembers his teachers -- like Gregory Hines and Sammy Davis -- you know he was blessed to really study under the greats.

He was like, "You have to bring him in there with you. Because he taught you when he was probably too tired to teach. Just remember that."

Everything changes

+ Alicia Lea

Comments

Mr. Lajas is a gift to our community.

Say Something!

We'd really like you to take part in the conversation here at All Over Albany. But we do have a few rules here. Don't worry, they're easy. The first: be kind. The second: treat everyone else with the same respect you'd like to see in return. Cool? Great, post away. Comments are moderated so it might take a little while for your comment to show up. Thanks for being patient.

What's All Over Albany?

All Over Albany is for interested and interesting people in New York's Capital Region. In other words, it's for you. It's kind of like having a smart, savvy friend who can help you find out what's up. Oh, and our friends call us AOA.

Search

Recently on All Over Albany

Thank you!

When we started AOA a decade ago we had no idea what was going to happen. And it turned out better than we could have... (more)

Let's stay in touch

This all feels like the last day of camp or something. And we're going to miss you all so much. But we'd like to stay... (more)

A few things I think about this place

Working on AOA over the past decade has been a life-changing experience for me and it's shaped the way I think about so many things.... (more)

Albany tightened its rules for shoveling snowy sidewalks last winter -- so how'd that work out?

If winter ever gets its act together and drops more snow on us, there will be sidewalks to shovel. And shortly after that, Albany will... (more)

Tea with Jack McEneny

Last week we were fortunate enough to spend a few minutes with Jack McEneny -- former state Assemblyman, unofficial Albany historian, and genuinely nice guy.... (more)

Recent Comments

My three year old son absolutely loving riding the train around Huck Finn's (Hoffman's) Playland this summer.

Thank you!

...has 27 comments, most recently from Ashley

Let's stay in touch

...has 4 comments, most recently from mg

A look inside 2 Judson Street

...has 3 comments, most recently from Diane (Agans) Boyle

Everything changes: Alicia Lea

...has 2 comments, most recently from Chaz Boyark

A few things I think about this place

...has 13 comments, most recently from Katherine