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By Emily Macel Theys
The girl who brought tap to SYTYCD is also a B’way baby.
When Melinda Sullivan leapt into the TV spotlight as the leggy tap dancing beauty on Season 7 of So You Think You Can Dance, it was clear that she could, indeed, dance. She excelled in a multitude of styles, not just her hoofing routines—though she showed the judges and America that tap belongs on the TV stage as much as any other genre. Born on Long Island, New York, and raised in Southern California, she’s performed in national Broadway tours, on hit TV shows like Glee and Dancing with the Stars, and in the company of some of the best tappers on the scene, including Jason Samuels Smith and Chloe Arnold. While her commercial work keeps her busy in Los Angeles, she was a hit at the Career Transition For Dancers gala in NYC last fall, and she’s been involved in developing The Jack Cole Project, a musical that opens this month at Queens Theatre. Emily Macel Theys spoke with Sullivan in February about tap, musical theater, and the illustrious Ann Miller.
How did your tap career start? My parents put me in a local dance studio when I was 4. I had great teachers, particularly Betsy Melber. At a tap festival she took me to, I saw Lynn Dally’s Jazz Tap Ensemble. That was the first time I was exposed to rhythm tap and I auditioned as soon as I could for the Caravan Project with Jazz Tap Ensemble. That’s where I learned the history of where the art form came from.
Who have your mentors been? Jason Samuels Smith and Chloe Arnold—they’ve taught me to never get comfortable as a tap dancer, always be pushing yourself and reaching. I went to Jason’s Monday night tap classes at Debbie Allen’s studio. Laura Klein pushed me towards musical theater. She told me you have to learn how to sing and act and be a storyteller, you can’t just be a technician. [Although he wasn’t a mentor,] I really look up to the way Gregory Hines made his mark in TV and film and live theater.
What did you learn about yourself as a dancer from being on SYTYCD? The experience was very challenging, especially physically. I’ve never rehearsed so much, been pushed so hard. I was proud to be there as a tapper—you’re already unique because it’s a contemporary-heavy show. I love doing TV, theater, and film, but I love saying I’m a tap dancer.
Are you doing more commercial work as a result of being on the show? It’s helped me get teaching gigs, but being on that show is not a golden ticket. I still audition all the time, still get rejected all the time, still knock on doors and send e-mail after e-mail to get myself out there.
How did your involvement in The Jack Cole Project come about? Ray Hesselink is a consultant on the show and was asked by [creator] Chet Walker to put together one of the Ann Miller numbers, “I’m Gonna See My Baby.” Ray asked me to help him re-create that scene.
Were you familiar with Ann Miller’s work before? This past year I worked on a film project with Dante Russo called Shakin’ the Blues Away that pays homage to Ann Miller. It’s very similar to that Ann Miller style but has some of the Jack flavor to it too—the pressed arms and the pictures he would make with the angular body. There’s a fantastic tap scene and turn sequence. No Ann Miller dance ever happened without a turn sequence! In the beginning it’s sort of like a wartime song and then it goes into this rapid-fire, machine-gun tap number.
Sullivan paying homage to Ann Miller in the short film Shakin’ the Blues Away. Photo courtesy Imagiland Productions.
How did you research Ann’s work? For my own project, I watched a lot of Ann’s stuff on YouTube. She was fiery, confident, showy, over-the-top—the epitome of a Hollywood diva.
Are you still doing other dance work besides tap? This week I’ve been doing hip hop on a show for Nickelodeon. I don’t like being pigeon-holed, I like having options and being able to work a lot, so I’ve always kept up with different styles of dance. I still take jazz and tap and ballet classes. I still cross-train and do Pilates. I keep up with my acting classes. You never know what to expect, so I like to be as prepared as possible.
At top: Melinda Sullivan. Photo by Galen Hooks, Courtesy Sullivan.