With 'Stomp the Yard,' actor regains his footing

Published: Thursday, January 18, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 17, 2007 at 3:12 p.m.
Columbus Short says he always intended to go to college.
But the actor, who grew up in Southern California, says he ''took a detour,'' when, at 17, he joined the cast of the dance-percussion show ''Stomp'' in San Francisco and toured with the group for two years.
Nevertheless, in the new film ''Stomp the Yard,'' Short, 24, was confident he could play DJ, a young man transformed by his experiences in higher education after he travels to Atlanta to attend the fictional Truth University and joins a fraternity and its underdog step team.
DJ's dance moves win him the respect of his school chums, just as Short's skills earned him a spot as a backup dancer for Britney Spears in 2002; the next year he became her choreographer. But the actor says that growing up, ''I didn't know how to dance.'' With ''Stomp,'' he says, ''I kind of adapted to the movement because I had to. ... I just wasn't a trained dancer.'' The show's found-object percussion came naturally to Short, who had played keyboard and drums ''since I was 3 or 4 years old,'' so ''because I was a musician, I understood the language.'' But his dance training came later, out of necessity.
In more ways than one, Short says, '''Stomp' was my college.'' Though he'd seen stepping before - at Juneteenth celebrations while visiting his grandmother in Arizona - it was during his time on tour that he began to ''understand the rhythmic language of stepping. ... Dancing is the visual personification of music, but stepping is the rhythmic personification of music and dance.''
''When I came back (to Los Angeles) from 'Stomp' at 19 ... I wasn't booking any work theatrically. So I ... went headfirst into dance lessons. I mean three classes a day, seven days a week. Any kind of classes going on, I was there.'' That work paid off - by early 2004, Short was on the road as creative director for Spears's ''Onyx Hotel'' tour.
That's also when he danced his way into the tabloids, during a period he calls ''the Britney fiasco'': His brief dalliance with the pop star broke up his marriage and eventually cost him his job. At the time, he says, ''I was so young and so green and just so eager. I was just eager to work.'' But his time dodging flashbulbs offstage with Spears taught him tough lessons: ''Just trust me, getting chased around by cameras and paparazzi is not fun at all. I really saw that. I saw the glitz and glamour that to other people might look like it's fun, and it's cool, and it's all that, but it's really hellish.''
And so it was back to L.A. ''I said, 'You know what? I have to go back to my roots, I have to start on my grind again.' ... I called my (former acting) agent back, and I said, 'I wanna come back, and I'm 100 percent focused. You give me six months, and I'll show you what's up.' '' And he did: ''On my first audition out of the gate, I booked ... a corny Disney show, 'That's So Raven,' '' and the guest spots snowballed from there, including ''ER'' and ''Judging Amy,'' as well as roles in ''War of the Worlds,'' ''Accepted'' and ''Save the Last Dance 2.''
Short's dance connections paid off when he heard about a movie being cast: ''A buddy of mine who'd trained me a lot - hard-core - happened to be the choreographer (of 'Stomp the Yard'), Dave Scott. He called the head of Sony, and he told him, 'Look, I have the kid for you.' '' Boom - Short got the job.
Filmed in Atlanta at Morris Brown College, ''Stomp the Yard'' is filled with a reverence for learning and the experiences that higher education can offer, especially at historically black colleges. For Short, it was a reminder of an experience he never had: ''Going to do 'Stomp the Yard' and being on a college campus, being around these people that are bettering themselves scholastically ... I really got a perspective of what it's all about and what the college life is like.
''Even though I missed out - can't cry over spilled milk - I think that everybody's path is chosen, pre-chosen, and I just walked in my path, and here we are.''

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