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January 2006
An Interview with Columbus Short

An Interview with Columbus Short
By Wilson Morales

January 10, 2007

Films involving dancing have been making the rounds lately at the box office. From “Save The Last Dance” to “You Got Severd” to more recently, “Step Up”, folks wants to see certain forms of expression. Coming to theaters is “Stomp The Yard”, Starring in the film is Columbus Short, who was recently in the college film, “Accepted”. He plays DJ, a troubled youth from Los Angeles, moves to Atlanta to attend Truth University. There he discovers "stepping," the age-old style of dance traditionally done in African-American Fraternities, where teams demonstrate complex moves and create rhythmic sounds by using their bodies. In speaking with blackfilm.com, Short talks about his role, the meaning of “stepping” and fraternities, and working with Meagan Good.

Had you done any step dancing before, this? Being a choreographer...

Columbus Short: Yeah I toured with the show STOMP!

But step is not STOMP!

CS: It’s the language that’s the same. It’s like, we did stuff with our bodies and the same, it just wasn’t as...it was more individual than it is...stepping....it’s more unified. It’s the same direct derivative from ancient African boot dancing that got brought over to the US in like 1906, so that’s when they kind of adopted and adapted the form....the dance form.

Is this your film debut?

CS: Nah, I done a couple films that probably none of y’all know about.

‘Save the Last Dance 2'?

CS: I did ‘Save the Last Dance 2', and I did, ‘Accepted’, the college comedy that came out.

So, whenever you are gonna meet someone who steps, were you concerned about ‘coming correct’?

CS: You know it’s funny you should ask that because I felt that since I understood the language that that would be the least of my concerns, because I was like I’m gonna take what I know from STOMP!, I’m gonna take what I know as a musician, and musicality and I’m going to apply it to stepping and I felt like I was gonna do some stuff people hadn’t seen before. My main concern was making sure the artistic credibility of the character was there, the authenticity of the project was there so I did a lot of character development and a lot of thought about who DJ was, I know he’s some guy anywhere USA, but I wanted to really delve into that, that was the most important thing because, at this point, dancing’s in my DNA.

When you were preparing for this, and you were doing the STOMP!, did you feel the weight of this being an art form that’s over 100 years old fall upon your shoulders?

CS: It didn’t hit me until I got there cause at first you know I had a little ignorance to the whole, fraternal order, and the stepping and what have you, um but once I got there and started understanding, I was like Oh my God, I’m gonna rep you guys, cause I met a lot of the ’Divine Nine’ from Alphas, Sigmas, Deltas, Kappas, AKAs, Qs. So I met all these guys and really got a chance to chop it up with them and get all their history.

What were there concerns?

CS: "Man, you gotta come correct." That's all they kept saying; "You gotta come correct, you gotta represent us." And I said, "Don't worry, I'm going to do it." And they saw; they were on set on the day we shot the finale number. After we came off stage, 'cause a lot of the extras were from HBCU's fraternities and sororities; they said, "Man, that was killing, you guys were killing it." So it meant a lot that we did them justice, and I hope that the people who weren't on set will get to see this film on the 12th or after feel the same way.


Do you think shooting in Atlanta, really helped, like not shooting it here (in LA)?

CS: Yeah, because L.A.'s a different beast; art reflected life in a big sense when I went to Atlanta from L.A. When I touched down, I was like, "wow"; Atlanta's a completely different moment, and a completely different culture out there. Especially on the campuses, we were on Spellman, Clark, Morehouse campus; so getting out there and being around that environment really put you in the mind set.

Which was the major campus that this was shot on?

CS: Morris Brown College which is shut down now; it's sad, it's sad - you've got this whole college campus that's empty, and you have a lot of kids who want to go to college, don't have the money to go to college, and there's a college campus that's shut down - so that's sad. But we shot there the majority of the time.

Is that where Heritage Hall is at?

CS: Yeah, actually that's my favorite scene in the movie. I didn't go in to see it; they wanted to show me the set before. I said, "let's not rehearse it, let's just shoot it, Sylvain." I wanted to go in and experience it with DJ, I wanted to experience it at that moment right there on the spot. So I said, "I don't want to go in there; let me go in there when I go in there as DJ." That whole scene was really genuine; I was really surprised. I didn't know Martin Luther King was in a fraternity, I didn't know Betty Shabazz, I didn't know these people, Coretta Scott King, I didn't know these people were it - and that's how far back it's dated. It blew me away, Michael Jordan was a Q. I didn't know that so it was a compelling scene for me.

In that vein, what did you take away from the whole thing? Did you learn anything personal as part of the process?

CS: As an actor I learned at some point you have to stop acting. At some point you just let it possess you; whatever that being, let it possess you, and you want to become what you're representing 'cause it's such a fragile and delicate group of an organization we're trying to emulate and depict. It was really important to me that we represented that to the utmost and fullest; so when I came off that, it took my acting to the next level, 'cause it's not about what's written on the lines, it's about what you deliver. Coming off that and going into "Studio 60," it helped me a lot of just trusting what the writer wrote, you can live it, not just say it and have anyone believe you.

So is South Harmon more true to who you are?

CS: Whoo, it's funny because I'm a mix of a lot of different things. I went to Orange County High School for the Arts, which is a predominantly white high school. I was one of a few African Americans who attended, so I have that and I love that and that's what South Harmon was, so I was comfortable there. But I think Truth, something about your roots, there's nothing like it; when I went to Atlanta, that's what that was. There are affluent African Americans, there's a lot of wealthy African Americans in Atlanta, and well to do, and educated; it's different than LA cause everyone lives here, but a lot of people aren't - they moved here from there. And they're educated, and they own businesses, and they're running corporations, and they're CEO's, and it blew me away. There's something about that just really touched my heart and really put me in touch with my African American - so I'd have to say Truth.

Are you going to pledge a chapter now?

CS: I wanna pledge, Alpha Phi Alpha

Really? Why that one?

CS: Hanging out with all of them, not only the producers (Rob Hardy and Will Packer) - the producers were Alpha - but hanging out with all of them, I kind of got the feel of where you would fit, where one would fit. The Q's are big guys, they're football players, huge; the Kappa's are the pretty boys, with the canes. But the Kappa's are smooth, but the Alphas man, I feel like I would fit right there.

Can you speak a little bit more about the significance of the tradition? How you educated yourself and how you tried to incorporate that into what you did?

CS: The significance, for those who don't know, we don't really hit on it in the movie, and I'm kind of irritated that we didn't. It's a pertinent part of what fraternities and sororities do. They do so much community service, they do a lot in the community; they do a lot of stuff for the youth, and outreaching and community betterment. I wish we touched on that a little in the movie, but those are huge important things about the tradition. And then for example, the things that long live after you graduate - let's say I graduate and I move to L.A., I'm a Kappa and I go to get a job at Pacific BMW and the manager of Pacific BMW is a Kappa - out of five applicants and I'm the only Kappa, I'm probably going to get that job. That's the type of loyalty and brotherhood. My mom's in AKA, and I moved to San Francisco when I was 17, I had no place to live yet. I moved there to do "Stomp," and they didn't pay for our room and board. It was a sit down company. She called her friend who was a sorority sister. I had never met her and didn't know who the woman was, and she took me in like her son. That's the long term brotherhood and sisterhood that these fraternities hold, so it's huge.

Can you talk about also the stepping tradition?

CS: The stepping, what that rivalry is, it comes from the African Boot Dance; but when they step, they're representing their fraternity, and they're rivaling they're rivalry. So they're battling the opposing fraternity. The Kappa's are battling the Q's, the Q's are going after the Alpha's. And you start to see, each fraternity has different styles - the Q's stomp hard, they're like "Hu, Ha"; they're not as intricate, but they're... The Sigma's are fast and swifty, and the Alpha's,‘swish swish swish swish’; the Kappa's have tricks, they're throwing their canes, they're twirling their canes, so you get to see that each fraternity has taken their own style and adapted it. And what was a daunting task doing the movie, and Dave Scott did a phenomenal job, the choreographer. We saw all these and we couldn't emulate any of them; we had to come up with our own signs. I actually came up with this snake sign for the Theta's because we're the pythons - "What can we do?" 'Cause pretty much all the signs were taken, and the Mu Gamma's held up the 'M.' So we had to find, even though these were fictitious fraternities. We couldn't emulate the Alpha's; we're not trying to pretend to be the Alpha's, we're not pretending to be the Kappa's or the Q's. We're our own fraternities at that point in the film.

How was working with Megan (Good)?

CS: Meagan is one of my closest friends, we grew up together, I’ve known Meagan since I was 8 years old, our families are close, her mother is my aunt, I call her Aunt Tyra, I remember now, we were riding our bikes and we had a little crew in Canyon country and you know we were all like, ‘We’re gonna do a movie together one day!’ You know, little kids, so but when I was the first one signed onto this project and I called Meagan and I said, “Please, here is the opportunity, they approved it, they agreed, they want you to do the movie’ and was like “Will you please do the movie?’ and at first she was like, “I don’t know”, and I was like, “Megan, please” and she signed on to do the movie, and I knew it would be the perfect fit, I knew that our chemistry would be natural, it wouldn’t be forced. She’s one of my best friends and not to mention she’s freaking gorgeous and beautiful. (Laughter) That wasn’t hard at all.

Why was she a little apprehensive to sign on?

CS: Just like I was apprehensive because when you read anything about a dance movie, you're like "oh no, oh no, here we go again." And I didn't want to be a part of that. Since I've been acting, I stopped doing the choreography for the past three or four years. I didn't want to do anything dance. I was refusing to do anything dance. I read the script and I was like, 'Hmm, this has the potential to have some depth to it." And the script of the movie you saw wasn't the script I read initially; there was a lot of creative that even I got to put in to making it more authentic. I felt this was the chance for me to be on a much smaller scale. I felt this could be the movie for me so I thought maybe I should do it and long meetings with my team and we decided I should do it.

Did you and Darren (Henson) get together being that you guys are both choreographers?

CS: Man, me and Darrin; that was rough me and Darrin on set. Let me give you guys a little juicy juice. Even though we're acting, there's a lot of pride on the line. Nobody wants to lose, nobody wants to look bad, nobody wants to get out-danced, and so he had that. And he's a method actor, he's very much like that, off camera, off set, he's still Grant; he's still like, 'I'm the man, I'm the man around here.' And I'm still very much my own individual, and so we butt heads; and I like to improv in scenes. I feel if you do a take nine times, by the eighth time it's becoming a little contrived. So you want to shake it up a bit, so I liked to shake him up; I did it with Meagan, I did it with everybody. I did it to Darrin one day and he was pissed. The director said cut and he said, "Columbus, come over here; I'm not getting what I need from Darren. I want you to call him a fa**ot. That's something a fa**ot would say" or something like that. And I was like, "I can't do that Sylvain." And he was like, "Do it." So I did it, and Darrin's reaction; I think they cut it out of the movie, but his reaction was me saying that, that's in the film. It was the club scene where he came up to me and Meagan, and was like, "Stop talking to my girl." And I said that to him, and he was furious; and he was like, "If he said that to me in real life, it wouldn't be like that." It was a battle, but it made for competitive construction to us, so it was cool.

How about having Ne-Yo and Chris Brown on set, another musical background around?

CS: Ne-Yo is a close friend of mine. I do music as well so being in the studio together - we did "Save the Last Dance 2" together; that was his first role. So I was with Ne-Yo before he turned into this superstar. We've kind of been coming up together so he was a close friend. I begged him to be in the movie as well. And then Chris Brown. He's just a talent. He's such a raw talent. We want to be the new Rat Pack. My inspirations are Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Donald O'Connor, Burt Lahr. Gene Kelly is the most movie star icon to me in the world to me. He could do it all. He could sing, he was charming, he could dance, he could act, he had it all. We're trying to bring that back to Hollywood. People with a pretty face aren't people with just a pretty face, they can act, they can dance, they can sing, and they can do it all; and that's what made Hollywood so special back then.

What kind of music was playing on set during film?

CS: They played a lot of music, but we stepped a lot, and stepping is music, it’s a rhythmic personification of music and dance, and so it was a lot of our own stuff....but then they played a lot of Jay-Z, Roots, Tribe Called Quest, they had a lot of good historic hip hop.

Is that something you aspire to, to change the way a man dancing is seen?

CS: Yeah, you think about it, back in the day you had if you look at some of the old musical movies, you had Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra in Guys and Dolls, Gene Kelly in New York, New York. These guys danced like men, but they were graceful. Gene Kelly is so graceful, it's ridiculous. Singin' in the Rain, Donald O'Connor - these men were so graceful, but they were men, and they kept that prestige. They weren't ballerinas, they had that class and that grace about them; sure I want to bring that back, but I don't know if I'm going to be doing anymore dance, though, anytime soon. If I could do a Nicholas Brothers movie, I'd love to do that, something a little more period to go back. Or maybe go back to Broadway cause that's what I went to school for.

Would you go behind the scenes and choreograph?

CS: Nah man, I kinda just hung up the choreography thing, the next thing I wanna do, later down the line is direct, because you know, I creative directed Brittney’s tour, and I love being creative, so and visual work, and doing these last few movies has been my film school. I’ve studied with Tom Shadyac showing me the ropes. Steve Pink showing me the ropes, talking to Speilberg when I did ‘War of the Worlds’ and then really hands on with ‘Stomp the Yard’ they were really giving me a crash course with the cinematographer, Scott Kevan, so that’s really what I want to eventually end up doing.

And what about this name Columbus? Explain the name?

CS: It’s my dad’s name, its my grandpa’s name, I’m a junior, but my grandfather, his middle name was Columbus, his middle name wasn’t Keith, my dad is Colombus Keith Short, and I am Columbus Keith Short Jr. So it’s just been passed down.

Nobody calls you Columbus?

CS: No! Except that Megan, she calls me Ohio, but that’s different.

‘The move’ the backfly into the handstand, the one that plays at the end of the film, .do you have a name for that?

CS: It was named in the script 'The D Blaze' and in the script. Chris does this phenomenal move in the opening and they're going to do this whole flashback sequence and at the end I do that move. At that point when we do that scene, we were almost done with the movie, I said, "We don't need to live and die by this move; if you take the dance out of this movie, I think we still have a movie." So I practiced the move for about two weeks, and then I didn't do it for two weeks and the studio came to rehearsal,and they said, "You're not doing that, the insurance, if you get hurt, no way." So I got to set, and we came up with a few other moves that were watered down and so I said, "We gotta do it." And so Sylvain was like, "If you get it on this take, we're going to go, they'll buy it." First take out the gate, I hit it, and everybody went crazy, and the studio was like, "Yes!" So that move was trying; I hurt myself a lot, but it paid off.

Are you going to see Dreamgirls?

CS: Oh yes, Dreamgirls, I love Dreamgirls, I love musicals, I think Jennifer Hudson is a breakout, without a doubt. I would have loved to have been in ‘Dreamgirls’, I tested for Keith Robinson’s role, C.C, and you know, everybody has their time, I think Keith did a great job, Jamie. Eddie is freaking amazing, he is out of this world. And I think Beyonce is underrated, because I think she did a great job. I think she’s in the public eye a lot so her public persona kind of follows her into the movie, so you almost can’t see her as Deena. But she really was Diana Ross, if you look, she lost her weight and the way she danced, was right on, and Beyonce hasn’t always been the greatest dancer, from back in Destiny’s Child days, and she just embodied her, she did her homework and you can’t get rid if that,

Producer Rob Hardy mentioned that you and Keith will be in his next film, “This Christmas”?

CS: Yes. Keith plays my sister’s boyfriend, which is being played by Lauren London.
It’s an outstanding cast, and we did the table read here last night. We have Delroy Lindo, Loretta Devine, Regina King, Idris Elba, Nia Long, Mekhi Phifer, Chris Brown, and Laz Alonzo. It’s like “Family Stone” meets “Waiting to Exhale”. Loretta Divine is our mother, and all her kids come home for Christmas, you know I’m a marine, my sister….all the kids have different occupations, but we come home every Christmas, and all the drama that arises.

STOMP THE YARD opens on January 12, 2006




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