Chloé Arnold: The Star Choreographer Amplifying Tap in Hollywood
Chloé Arnold’s modern home is nearly inconspicuous on a sleepy street in Los Angeles. But behind the gate, Megan Thee Stallion’s smash hit “Savage” and the thunderous sounds of metal on wood fill its garage-turned-dance studio.
Situated on a property the Emmy-nominated choreographer shares with her business partner and younger sister, Maud Arnold, the home—more specifically, the converted garage—is also the new rehearsal site for the Syncopated Ladies, the all-women tap band Arnold created in 2003. It’s early February, and the company is rehearsing numbers from its touring production, “Syncopated Ladies Live!” A celebration of sisterhood, female empowerment and Black-girl magic, the high-energy multimedia show toured through 12 U.S. cities in early 2022 and will continue touring this fall.
Just days before their first show, five dancers, including Arnold and Maud, are running through the top of the second act . Arnold’s choreography for “Savage” incorporates tap, hip hop and moves from the viral TikTok dance challenge created by Keara Wilson. In another piece, danced to rapper O.T. Genasis’ “Everybody Mad,” the group’s hard-hitting steps match the energy of the song. After the eight-hour rehearsal, the dancers pack up, sanitize their black-and-white tap shoes—designed by the Arnold sisters with Bloch—and head home while Arnold, perched on a plush couch in the studio, takes time to reflect on this incredible moment in her life.
“It starts with this idea of having a dream, and then all that it takes to get to that dream,” she says. “The adversities you face, the obstacles you face, the necessity of building a team and the unity and the community it takes to realize something that is so challenging. Then ultimately how, as a collective, we have found our freedom—the ability to express ourselves and to make sure our voices are heard.”
Arnold is thriving in that freedom. Even during the pandemic, she continued to perform, and she appeared in the 2021 movie musical In the Heights, mentored young tap dancers around the world and has grown an even bigger audience online with Maud. She also found ways to build her Hollywood resumé, which already included choreography for numerous live events and TV shows, like “So You Think You Can Dance” and “The Late Late Show with James Corden.” Her choreography will appear on film for the first time in the upcoming Apple TV+ Christmas musical Spirited, starring Will Ferrell, Ryan Reynolds and Octavia Spencer.
Last year, Arnold and Maud purchased their property, which includes two houses, one for each sister. For years, the two shared an apartment in Los Angeles as they worked tirelessly to carve out their own lane and create space for tap in the entertainment industry. So their dual homes, where they not only live but also store costumes, rehearse and hold production meetings, symbolize their hard work and faith in themselves.
“The thing I’m most proud of in my career is that regardless of how much people didn’t believe in us—people doubted the vision, judged the vision, whatever it may have been—we were really clear about our purpose and who we are, and we just were steadfast in being committed to that,” Arnold says.
Raised by a single mother in Washington, DC, Arnold began dancing at 6 years old, taking ballet, jazz and tap. After auditioning for the National Tap Ensemble’s youth company at 9, she had the opportunity to train with tap legends, including the Nicholas Brothers, Gregory Hines, Eddie Brown, Dianne Walker and Savion Glover. Arnold’s passion for tap inspired Maud to follow a similar path.
At 16, Arnold earned a role in Debbie Allen’s production Brothers of the Knight, a children’s musical presented at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. “She auditioned for me one time, and she wasn’t quite ready for me that first time, but when she came back, she was a ball of fire,” Allen says of Arnold, who acted, sang and danced tap, jazz and swing in the show. “And so I respond to that. I respond to people who go and get the skill and craft, and go and do the work. She was always beautiful and spirited. She just came back and she was everything. And so before I knew it, she was in almost every show that I was doing.” Maud later became a scholarship student at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Los Angeles, where Arnold taught, and the sisters blossomed. Under Allen’s mentorship, they came to understand that, like Allen, they needed to become fluent in all styles of dance—and to learn filmmaking, directing, singing and acting. They needed to be versatile, fearless and ever-expansive in pursuit of their dreams.
Taking Allen’s guidance to heart, Arnold decided to major in film at Columbia University. She took film classes during the day, and at night brought her portable tap floor to jams around the city, where she was often one of the only female dancers. In New York City, Arnold was on track to pursue a traditional path in theater, but quickly realized its limitations: While there are very few opportunities for tap dancers on Broadway stages, there are even fewer for women of color. “It’s a very critic-driven experience,” she says. “If I had stayed in that paradigm, I would never have succeeded, because that paradigm did not celebrate the Black woman’s voice at all.
It was Allen who encouraged the Arnold sisters to chart their own path in Los Angeles. Arnold shadowed her on TV and film sets as she directed, acted and choreographed in Hollywood. In 2003, during a tap improv jam at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy, Arnold noticed something rare—the makeup of the room was primarily women. That evening inspired Arnold to create the Syncopated Ladies.
The Syncopated Ladies started out by staging free shows, simply for the love of tap. Then, in 2012, the sisters harnessed the power of the internet to reach new audiences by creating highly stylized tap videos set to popular music. The videos were self-funded and sometimes cost thousands of dollars to produce, but they paid off. The troupe’s 2016 YouTube video tribute to Beyoncé’s women’s-empowerment anthem “Formation” was shared by Queen Bey herself, which catapulted the Syncopated Ladies into the stratosphere. Since then, they’ve racked up more than 100 million views online and attracted a diverse fan base around the world. The sisters also co-direct and produce the annual DC Tap Fest and run a foundation that offers scholarships and mentoring to ensure children around the world have access to dance.
“Brilliant, fearless, relentless, hardworking and kind” is how Maud describes her older sister. “She has always given back as she has climbed the ladder of success,” Maud says. “She also isn’t afraid of hard work, all-nighters and learning skills on the internet. She has vision and she executes.”
In the last decade, Arnold began choreographing for the small screen. Allen helped Arnold land her first audition to choreograph for the HBO dramedy “The Comeback,” starring Lisa Kudrow. After choreographing for the sitcom in 2014, a producer recommended Arnold to choreograph a series of commercials, springboarding her onto yet another new path. A student of all styles of dance, Arnold estimates that 80 percent of her TV choreography is in genres other than tap. “Being able to speak other languages of dance and express those on TV and film has been so incredible,” she says.
Arnold is both creative and savvy, Allen says. “She has a pulse on what is working, what’s happening in the industry, what young people are doing, what they need. That is something that everybody doesn’t have.” Arnold has contributed her unique style to more than 50 episodes for “The Late Late Show with James Corden,” and in 2018 scored an Emmy nomination for her work on the show’s wacky dance-sketch segment, “Crosswalk: The Musical.”
Recently, Arnold fulfilled another goal. As a child, she was enamored with the 1989 dance drama Tap, starring Gregory Hines, and has made it her mission to bring tap back to film. She got that opportunity in 2021, when she was up for the choreographer job on Spirited—despite never having choreographed a film. Co-director Sean Anders, though a newcomer to dance, knew he wanted to work with someone who had a “distinct flavor.” “I was watching some of Chloé’s videos on YouTube with Syncopated Ladies,” he says. “My mind was completely blown. I thought, Oh, my god, this is the thing. This is the special sauce that I was looking for.”
After getting the gig, Arnold brought on Ava Bernstine-Mitchell and Martha Nichols as associate choreographers and hired 90 dancers to perform in the film. Arnold is thrilled that tap dance is back on the big screen in a big way, some 30 years after Tap. “And this time led by a Black woman, and featuring the voices of so many tap dancers, including Syncopated Ladies—it was like the fulfillment of this grand dream that I had for us,” she says.
A classic overachiever with colossal dreams, Arnold still doesn’t quite feel like she’s made it, even as the accolades continue to stack up. “But I can say that for the first time in my life, I do feel accomplished,” she says. “I feel like all of the work and the sacrifice and financial investment, and the time investment, and the blood, sweat and tears, and honestly the sexism we endured, the racism we endured—this moment that we’re sitting in feels so rewarding because we are making these magical things happen on our terms and from a place of true authenticity.”
She’s quick to add that there’s more work to be done. The Arnold sisters are currently pitching tap-centered TV shows and films that they would executive produce. They’re working on a Syncopated Ladies album. They hope the tour will become a mainstay, like Blue Man Group or STOMP—an example that young girls in tap can aspire to.But for now, at this moment, she says, “I can sit in the sunshine in my front yard and feel really good about what we’ve accomplished.”