By Carrie Stetler, Courtesy of Rutgers Today
Dancers Christina and Eric Samson mean it when they tell their students: “Dance like you’re trying to save a life.’’
Since Christina Rak Samson graduated from Rutgers in 2004, the couple, both professional dancers, have used their art to overcome emotional trauma and hopelessness and to inspire others do the same.
Dance was also the reason they fell in love in 1999 after meeting in a Rutgers Recreation dance class – both were Rutgers first-year students – taught by hip-hop dancer Tom McKie.
Although Eric was shy about approaching Christina, he shared an unspoken bond with her. “I guess you could say he spoke to me through dance,’’ recalls Christina, who majored in psychology.
The couple wed in the fall of 2004 and opened The FUNKtion Dance Complex in Monmouth Junction in 2010, where students have gone on to dance with stars like Nicki Minaj and Carly Rae Jepson and appear on shows likeAmerica’s Got Talent.
When the couple met their dance styles were different but complementary. Christina , who grew up in East Brunswick, was trained in jazz, modern and ballet and had danced professionally. Eric, of East Hanover, liked hip-hop but hadn’t pursued a career in dance until he met McKie, who became his mentor.
“We balance each other out,” she says, which allows them to run a business together.This semester the couple is also returning to their roots, co-teaching a dance class at Rutgers. Recreation.
“We have each other’s backs and can share in the process of growing a studio and helping students grow. You know you’re not alone and when things get tough, the other is always there.” More important, she adds, “We work without getting on each other’s nerves too much.’’
The Samsons know from experience that dance has the power to heal and transform.
“I was the kind of kid who always got in trouble,’’ says Eric, who has a degree in computer science from Chubb Institute. “I guess I was looking for something and dance straightened me out. It gave me a way to express myself.”
Christina relied on dance to help her recover from grief and anxiety. Her family has a history of substance abuse – two of her brothers died of drug overdoses within three years of each other – but her devotion to dance, she believes, helped her avoid addiction. “It was my escape, something positive I had every night that kept me focused,’’ she says.
In 2006, Christina won the title of Mrs. New Jersey. She used substance abuse prevention and awareness as her platform and now works part time as a prevention specialist for the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Inc. of Middlesex County.
At their school, the Samsons avoid the increasingly prevalent dance competitions for young students and instead focus on charity and community-based performances. They teach that dance can be a coping mechanism and form of self-expression.
“When students walk into your dance room, you never know what kind of a day they just came from or whether they have to deal with self-esteem issues or something else. If you can make them feel good about themselves, even if it’s just for an hour, you’ve made a difference,’’ Christina says.
“That’s why the studio is called FUNKtion,’’ adds Eric. “It’s symbolic of being able to function as a positive, healthy person whether it’s through dance or just in general.’’
FUNKTION also prepares students for a career in dance with courses like “Dancing in Heels,’’ for dancers hoping to book video shoots. Other classes include urban styles such as B-boying, a form of break dancing, and club dances like, “vogueing,’’ which originated as gay performance art and was popularized by Madonna in her 1990 video “Vogue.’’ The school also holds traditional classes in jazz, tap and ballet.
Although the Samsons stress non-competitiveness, they have a dance group called Beat Club which often performs at industry exhibitions and conventions.
At a recent event attended by top choreographers, they won raves for a dance they performed to spoken word poem called “Strive.’’ There was no music, only the voices of the poets, named Strivers Row. Through motion, the Beat Club dancers dramatized the lines of the poem, about surviving bitterness and hardships.
“I wanted to strip away the beats and instruments so there was nothing but the message,’’ Eric says. “When they performed, they weren’t just dancing, they were becoming artists. There was raw emotion behind it and that hit home. I wanted to let them know they were doing something powerful, that they were special.’’