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Arts & Culture

'I've always been a mover': Dance instructor Camille Armstrong talks new music, book

Camille Armstrong
Camille Armstrong is a singer and dance instructor based in the Lehigh Valley.

Editors note: This story is part of a series in February exploring the contributions of local Black poets, singers and other artists.

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — Camille Armstrong is a dancer, singer, percussionist and soon-to-be author.

A graduate of the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in New York City, she toured with the off-Broadway production of "Stomp" for 10 years and as a choreographer/composer on Harry Connick Jr.'s show, "The Happy Elf."

Always moving

Among all of her creative endeavors, Armstrong, otherwise known as CAMILLE WHO?, said it was dancing that she fell into first.

"I've just always been a mover. I can remember, every time at family get-togethers and they'd play really good music, as soon as the music started I was on the dance floor," she said. "I just love everything about movement."

In high school, at the prestigious arts institution on which the 1980 musical "Fame" is based, that Armstrong received professional training in vocal music.

“When I was younger, my parents couldn’t afford dance lessons for me, which kind of worked to my advantage when you think of it, because I became more of a creative dancer than a very trained one. I was always a creative dancer. I first feel what the music is telling me and I follow that,” she said.

“Later, I was taught techniques for the sake of body health, posture, presentation and performance. And then I came to learn certain techniques and while I was teaching classes I became exposed to other styles.”

Locally, Armstrong has taught students from DeSales University, Liberty High School and for the past 14 years as a hip-hop and drama teacher at the Pennsylvania Youth Theatre.

Some of those dance tutorials are featured on her YouTube channel including a rhythm education assembly class she taught at River Valley Waldorf School in Upper Black Eddy.

Additionally, Armstrong posts videos from her hip-hop classes on YouTube.

Even the clumsiest students can learn how to dance with the proper guidance, she said.

“I like to break things down in a way that people can actually get it. I think in the past I had some difficulties learning ... dyslexia, funky stuff like that, so naturally I gravitated towards breaking things down to the simplest form and then translating it to people," Armstrong said.

"As a teacher, that is also a passion of mine. Being able to go, 'Okay, you may think that you don't know how to do this, but if I explain this to you in a way that makes sense in your everyday life, I think you'd be able to get it.'”

Emmy nominee, new album

Armstrong, who is of Jamaican descent, performed with the late Natalie Cole, daughter of Nat King Cole, and toured with Grammy-winning reggae band Morgan Heritage.

A percussionist and singer, she released "First Comes Love," record with her group, SoulRagga in 2015 and is currently working on a lullaby album.

Her plan is launch a new series on her YouTube channel that will not only showcase her work, but offer tips on choreography, hip-hop dancing, speech and music.

The online series is part of her mission to inspiring artists, people of color, women of color, first-generation born of immigrants, and low-income backgrounds, she said.

In 2021, Armstrong was among a group nominated for a regional Emmy award in the “Arts/Entertainment — Short Form Content (single story)" category for her work with the Lehigh Valley Be Free, which debuted online in July 2020 during the pandemic.

The Lehigh Valley Song Project, in partnership with Touchstone Theatre in 2020, featured some of the Lehigh Valley's most known musicians including bassist Bakithi Kumalo, who performed on Paul Simon’s celebrated “Graceland” album, drummer Kevin Soffera, who’s toured and recorded with rock bands Seether and Breaking Benjamin; arts educator Dave Fry; and award-winning jam band leader Dana Gaynor.

The group also participated in Touchstone's virtual Festival UnBound's virtual "Songs of Hope and Resilience" series.

Armstrong's performance, a cover of Sweet Honey in the Rock's "Everybody Ought to Know," featured lyrics such as "Everybody ought to know — what Freedom is. Everybody wanna know what justice is," and came during the intersection of the Black Lives Matter Movement and the pandemic.

Teacher of speech

Among her latest project is the publishing of speech correction book, slated to be released later this year.

Armstrong also tutors speech coaching part-time, mostly through word of mouth referrals.

"When I studied vocal music in high school, we learned music in German, French and English. English was our was our last language because that was the hardest. It has so many diphthongs, and that's like having two or three different [syllables] per word. Perfection was a big thing in high school when learning vocal music," she said.

"While in high school, I started recording. You know, doing studio recording sessions and that was a whole other element of perfection in speech. And then eventually started teaching theater and realized how important it is for your audience to understand what you're saying and I came across many students that had a hard time with speech. There were kids that had lisps and don't have lisps anymore, after working with them."

"My approach in speech coaching is taking a movement approach. By teaching the student new movements with their mouths, they can practice, as if learning a new dance/movement step and attain new muscle-memory to make the right sound," Armstrong explained.

For more info on Armstrong's work, click here.