Ephraim Sykes in Ain't Too Proud as David Ruffin, one of The Temptations' lead singers. Photo by Matthew Murphy, Courtesy DKC/O&M

Every Little Thing Ephraim Sykes Does to Pull Off Ain't Too Proud's Electric Vocals and Dance Moves

Ephraim Sykes has repeatedly proven that he's a standout dancer in Broadway shows like Hamilton, Motown and Newsies. But, boy, can he also sing.

As David Ruffin in Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations, he does both with such vigor that we had to know how he pulls off this famous Temptations frontman. "It requires everything," says Sykes, who was nominated today for outstanding male dancer in a Broadway show by the Chita Rivera Awards.




Sykes broke down his routine from pre- to post-show—and how he wound up learning what he calls "the key to life" along the way.

During the Day:

"I try to stay as still and quiet as possible to truly conserve my energy. I take a lot of voice lessons in the day and do things for my body, like acupuncture and massage therapy once a week."

Two Hours Before Curtain:

"I eat really healthy, substantial meals to make sure that I have enough fuel to get through the show: something like steak and potatoes and vegetables, or chicken and vegetables and rice. I have a very fast metabolism, so I eat things like red meat and heavy proteins like chicken that can stick to my body. If I eat too light, something like fish, I'll feel depleted by the time I get to the second act."

Once He Gets to the Theater:

"I get a good vocal warm-up in, as well as a body warm-up. I just do enough to get my body loose and warm."

Act I:

"I focus on being smart about gauging my energy and how I can use the show itself, especially the first act, to continue to warm up and ramp up into the big, high climatic moment."

Sykes (front) and the cast dancing Sergio Trujillo's energetic choreography for Ain't Too ProudMatthew Murphy, Courtesy DKC/O&M

Intermission:

"A physical therapist comes to my dressing room and does therapy on my throat all the way down to my diaphragm. Literally every show, just because my first act is so strenuous. It's the almost-screaming and dancing and harsh singing that make my diaphragm and throat almost want to clench up. They literally peel me apart—my throat, my jaw, even my diaphragm—to help me breath again. I'm finding out that if my breathing is clutch, the better I'm able to breath, the easier I can get through this monstrous show."

Backstage Snacking:

"I have a lot of protein snacks, like almonds and trail mixes, and fruit like bananas. Of course I have coconut water and a big canteen of Throat Coat tea with me."

The Sneaky Thing He Does During the Show:

"Any time I get a break and I'm facing upstage, I'm stretching my tongue out of my mouth really far and doing things to relieve tongue tension."

Matthew Murphy, Courtesy DKC/O&M

Whenever He Has a Moment Offstage:

"I've learned throughout this show that the key to life [laughs], as cliché as it sounds, is breath. When I'm doing something this hard, anytime I'm offstage I'm taking big, deep breaths in different positions that my voice teachers taught me that help reboot my adrenal glands. I'm hanging over, grabbing my feet or touching my toes and taking full breaths to get the air into my back, deep down into my lower abdominal spaces and releasing my neck tension.

"I was primarily a dancer before this show, and dancers are taught to breathe very high up and shallow and singers need the air to be down low and deep. I have to bridge the gap: How do I keep my core tight so I can do all my spins and splits but be able to sustain my notes and have the power behind my voice?"

Immediately After Curtain Call:

"I have a 10-minute cool-down process: a vocal warm-down and a breathing cool-down so I don't sound like James Brown when I'm talking. And my muscles respond to what my mind and breath are doing. If I leave the stage and go straight to talking to friends or family, my voice and body don't recuperate the way that they should because they're still at a heightened place. The cool-down is just as essential to my show as my warm-up."

Matthew Murphy, Courtesy DKC/O&M

Post-Show:

"I'll eat a smaller portion of the same sort of protein, starch and vegetables that I had pre-show, and hydration is key—coconut water is my best friend.

"I've been taking a hot Epsom salt bath pretty much every night to relax my muscles. A lot of times, I'm sitting in my bathtub, stuffing my face and watching 'Game of Thrones.' "

On His Day Off:

"My days off are full of nothing if I can manage it. I have a standing acupuncture appointment to recuperate, and a fat dog that I take to the park so we can both have peace of mind. From there, I'm just chilling out. I watch TV and let my mind go blank for a little bit, so I can be prepared for the next week."

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Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021