They are dancing at the Arthur R. Sypek Center: in the kitchen as they bake cakes, in the garage as they repair automobiles, in the hallways arm in arm Rockettes style. Even the robots are dancing at the Mercer County Technical Schools.
You can see it all happen in a fun, engaging video that students and staff dreamed up, choreographed, acted in and photographed in two days this fall with an eye toward promoting the school district’s many programs. Published on Dec. 20, the video had around 3,500 views as of mid-January—far short of the 300,000-view goal the students have set. They are hoping prospective students will see the video and get perhaps a different perspective on vocational school than the one they might have had. The name of the video, and its theme, is: Magic Happens.
MCTS community liaison Nick Sakowski says the video was his idea. To set things in motion, Sakowski got in touch with Jody Gazenbeek-Person, a theater and dance coordinator at Mercer County Community College, and asked him to choreograph a video and work with students on their moves.
Gazenbeek-Person, Sakowski and the students then mapped a path they could take through the campus of the Sypek Center for the shoot. When the time came Sakowski, recorded the video using iPhone XS Max.
“Everyone really bought into it, it was really fun,” says Sakowski, 29, a Hamilton native. “They were able to contribute in ways they probably didn’t think they could. They’re not trained dancers or anything. They all had fun with it.”
The video magic starts with a brief segment starring cosmetology teacher Christine Cardinale as “Madame C,” a fortune teller looking into a crystal ball and predicting a bright future for student, played by Ashombre Ortiz. When she’s finished, students Emily “Chip” Frascella and Kacper Zajdel burst out from under the table and sprinkle magic dust in the air before leading Ortiz on a journey through the Sypek Center on Bull Run Road in Hopewell.
As a magic-themed pop music soundtrack plays, Ortiz, Frascella and Zajdel dance their way from classroom to classroom, starting in culinary arts where students at their stations stop what they are doing to break spontaneously into dance. The camera follows them from one building to another as automotive collision technology students push a Corvette across the parking lot, horticulture and turf care management students blow fallen leaves in the path of the dancing trio, and students from the criminology program march up.
In the next building, STEM students and teachers do a variety of dances as the trio flits through a chemistry lab and a biology class into the cosmetology class, where students dance and spin in chairs. Then it’s back outside and to another building, though not without another encounter with the criminology marchers. Ortiz, Frascella and Zajdel enter a workshop through a garage door where a whiteboard reads,” MCTS STEM Academy—Our Future Starts Here.” Dancing along with the students are a collection of robots. From there it’s through the wood shop, through a pair of automotive garages and some more classrooms, each time with students dancing as the camera zooms past.
All of this happens on a continuous, 7-minute camera shot. The shot is full of swish pans, 360s and sped-up transitions, but it’s only after 7 minutes that the the video cuts to a scene of Zajdel and Frascella dancing toward the camera with Ortiz pausing to say, “Wow, I love this,” followed by another cut to a shot of dancing in concentric circles in a nearby field at the end. The entire video is a little over 8 minutes long.
In October, Gazenbeek-Person would visit the school once or twice a week to meet with students and put a plan together. He says they used Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller Rope as inspiration for the video’s single-take cinematography.
“It was a total collaboration. It was really all hands on deck, from students to staff to administrative assistants,” Gazenbeek-Person says. “We created a map to figure out how to move around the campus. And then when it came to actually choreography, I would go from program to program to program working with [the students]. Not one student had more than 25 minutes [to work on their dance routines].”
The single-take approach was practical as well as stylistic. Though it meant that students from MCTS’ other campuses—Assunpink Center in West Windsor and the Health Careers Center in Hamilton—had to go to the Sypek campus in Hopewell to take part, it also meant they could start and finish the shoot in one day, or in fact, in a little more than the video’s run time.
After three weeks of preparation, everyone was ready to make a video. On the day of the shoot, teachers got their students into position while Sakowski shot the static intro with Ortiz, Cardinale, Zajdel and Frascella. Once they started moving, it was a matter of Sakowski following the students around while Gazenbeek-Person shouted out instructions. Using a gimbal to minimize shake and motion blur, he could see where he was walking.
Though the video was shot in one take, it did take two tries to get it right. The first time through, the entire sequence took just four minutes to shoot. Sakowski and Gazenbeek-Person felt that it would be worthwhile to slow everything down, let it breathe. They also reworked the sequence through the buildings to make things flow better.
“It was great collaboration with all the teachers, being able to shoot it again,” Sakowski says. “Our staff was really into it.”
Sakowski is a graduate of Hamilton High School West and the Art Institute of Philadelphia. He also attended MCTS as a graphic arts student. “It’s a hands-on school, it’s all about being hands on and doing stuff that’s outside the norm,” Sakowski says. “You have to be able to challenge yourself that way. I wouldn’t be where I’m at if I didn’t go to vocational school. You’re engulfed in what you love to do whatever class you go to you pick to go there, so you should be interested and loving what you’re doing.”
Ashombre Ortiz, who played the student who goes to see the fortune teller, is a senior at Hamilton High West. He’s in the architecture and engineering program at MCTS.
“One day I was in class and the cosmetology teacher, Ms. Cardinale, she ran into the classroom and she pointed me out and she was like she wants me to come to her room,” he says. “She auditioned me in her classroom she felt I did a real good job and she gave me the job.”
Ortiz had acted in plays in middle school, so he had some experience as a performer. “I just kind of knew what to do, I’ve been in situations like this before,” he says. “The first time through, I was trying to see how everything would go. The second time I was like, now I have it straight.”
Frascella, a full-time student at MCTS who lives in Hightstown, says the students are proud of the “smile-worthy” video and hope that as many people as possible will see it.
“At MCTS nothing we do here is normal, it is nothing like your average high school,” Frascella says. “So there was no reason a promo video should’ve been any different.”