Josette and Joseph Wiggan: All in the Family

Psychologists looking for signs of sibling rivalry in tap dancers Joseph and Josette Wiggan will be decidedly disappointed. The brother and sister phenoms, now 19 and 22, began tapping 10 years ago and have been, for most of their performing lives, metaphorically joined at the hip.


The two spent seven years dancing with Los Angeles-based Kennedy Tap Company, where they traveled throughout the U.S., as well as to Finland and Cuba, and are currently garnering attention in Lynn Dally’s Jazz Tap Ensemble (JTE). Last year The New York Times’ Jennifer Dunning wrote of their appearance at The Joyce Theater, “Josette and Joseph Wiggan bring a somewhat brassier tone to the mix in their solos and group numbers, dancing with a canny expertise and an explosive joy that suggest that tap lives on in all its purity in younger generations.”


More recently, though, college has split up the siblings. Josette is enrolled in UCLA’s department of World Arts and Culture, double majoring in dance and communication, while Joseph completed his first year studying business at Marymount Manhattan College in New York.


Reunited for the summer, the pair performed with JTE at the Hollywood Bowl last month as part of the Playboy Jazz Festival, and will participate in next month’s third annual L.A. Tap Festival at Debbie Allen Dance Academy. By all accounts, it’s been a productive and joyous decade for the siblings.


Josette recalls late nights spent honing their craft. “Our parents would send us to bed and we’d wait until they fell asleep, then practice barefoot in the kitchen for hours so we wouldn’t make too much noise. We’re each other’s best partners,” she adds, “because we started dancing together and we practiced together. We made mistakes together, too, and because of that we have this unique understanding of how to incorporate the movement into our bodies together.”


Joseph remembers people asking if they were twins. “Because we had this bond, we were constantly encouraging and pushing each other, and that’s what made our progression so strong.”


Their zealousness for the art form took hold immediately. In 1995, a friend of the seven-member Wiggan family (mother Valerie is a nurse, father Raymond was a construction worker who now owns apartment buildings) suggested 12-year-old Josette begin lessons at Paul and Arlene Kennedy’s Universal Dance Designs. Another brother-sister tap team, the Kennedys had trained countless dancers, with young Joseph following, literally, in his sister’s footsteps three months later.


Paul Kennedy, who died in 2002, had choreographed for the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, and Gladys Knight and the Pips. He won over Joseph, who was then involved in basketball and baseball, by telling him he could both play sports and tap dance.


“Mr. Kennedy gave me a step to practice and I didn’t like the fact I couldn’t do it,” recalls Joseph. “I went home and practiced and practiced, and the next day I showed him.  Then he gave me another step. Before I knew it, I was hooked.”


As tappers, both siblings possess an air of easy elegance, with dazzling pyrotechnic footwork always at the ready. Arlene Kennedy says she recognized their gifts from the start. “There’s something I see in kids’ eyes that dictates their love for the dance. I saw it in Savion [Glover] when he was 11, and I saw it in Joseph and Josette. I knew they were going to do wonderful things.”


While continuing to dance with Kennedy Tap, the duo also began performing in 1999 with JTE’s youth group, the Caravan Project. Two years later they became JTE apprentices, and last year were designated full company members. Separately, Josette became the first tapper to win the Los Angeles Music Center Spotlight Award in 2001, beating out 800  applicants, including her brother (he took second place two years later), and earning a $5,000 scholarship.


On a roll, Josette was recruited in 2002 for the first national touring production of 42nd Street, performing in the show for 14 months. In 2003, she was cast in a touring version of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, but an injury sidelined her from sharing the stage with the famed Rockettes.


Joseph’s resume is also peppered with superlatives. The youngest teacher at last year’s swing dance festival in Sweden, the tapmeister will again be instructing there this month. In August, his teaching duties include the L.A. Tap festival, directed by Emmy award-winning Jason Samuels Smith, in whose troupe, A.C.G.I. Tap Company, Joseph also hoofs.


“It’s an honor to be in the presence of those who created the things we do now—like Skip Cunningham and Chester Whitmore,” Joseph says of the festival’s roster. “It’s a mecca where you learn from legends who are still around.”


Joseph gives credit for his style to many greats. “I’ve learned to steal certain things that I like,” he quips, “and apply them to myself.  I love slides, I love turns, I love being as smooth as possible, watching classic acts like Coles and Atkins, who made the dance look effortless. They were a great inspiration.”


Adds Josette: “Tap incorporates a lot of different styles. The best tappers are the most well-rounded—they can hoof, do Broadway, anything. Diane Walker, Arthur Duncan, and Jimmy Slyde—watching them helps you grow as an individual.” Lynn Dally calls the Wiggans a potent pair. “They share family and fun when they dance. They’re also strong because they each bring their own nuance and vitality.”


While there’s no doubt these siblings can enjoy lasting careers in tap, they also envision broader horizons. After Josette graduates in 2007, she wants to help out in the Sudan or Sri Lanka. “I know I’ll continue to dance until I stop walking, but I’m also working with an abolitionist movement to end modern day slavery in countries across the globe. I’m thinking about using my communication studies to bring awareness to our country. On the larger scale, if I devote my life towards helping someone’s life change, I’ll die a happy person.”


And though Joseph says a business degree will prepare him to manage a company or even other dancers, he admits he doesn’t know what the future holds. “I have no clue. The tap dance career is an iffy one—there aren’t many shows and there isn’t that much work. But I’m sure that wherever I am, I will be dancing, no matter what.”


Victoria Looseleaf is a freelance arts journalist and regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times and Reuters.
The Conversation
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Sin #2: Misaligning the spine. Photo by Erin Baiano

Throughout your dancing life, you've heard the same corrections over and over. The reason for the repetition? Dancers tend to make the same errors, sometimes with catastrophic results. Dance Magazine spoke to eight teachers about what they perceive to be the worst habits—the ones that will destroy a dancer's technique—and what can be done to reverse the damage.


Rolling In

To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.

Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.

Misaligning the Spine

Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.

Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.

Clenching the Toes

Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.

Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.

Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension

Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.

But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."

Using Unnecessary Tension

“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.

Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."

Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.

Pinching Your Shoulder Blades

Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."

Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."

Getting Stuck in a Rut

While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.

Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."

Cover Story
Portner's embrace of the unexpected has led to unexpected opportunities. Photo by Quinn Wharton for Dance Magazine

Clad in her signature loose black T-shirt and baggy gym shorts, Emma Portner is standing in a cavernous industrial space in downtown Los Angeles. A glass box—big enough to fit five dancers with only a little room to maneuver inside—sits in the middle. The five performers, Portner included, are standing inside it, side by side, palms on the glass.

"Question," Portner asks. "Are we looking at our hands?"

She steps out to watch the others try the phrase, and adds a few more steps. Quick, staccato movement, legs kicking out, torsos swiveling around, fists hitting glass. "This is a puzzle," she says, almost to herself. "I'm not sure I'll like it." The statement, like so many, is punctured with a sweet, nervous laugh.

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Dance Training
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Dance History
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The Creative Process
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Health & Body
Leon Liu/Unsplash

Let's say that today you're having a terrible time following your class's choreography and are feeling ashamed—you're always stumbling a few beats behind. Do you:

1. Admit it's your fault because you didn't study the steps last night? Tonight you'll nail them down.
2. Feel worthless and alone? You slump your shoulders, avoid eye contact with your teacher and fellow dancers, and wish to disappear.

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My hypermobility used to cause me a lot of trouble, but I've gained confidence and strength after reading about it in one of your columns. I now have a Pilates instructor who's retraining my body and helping me dance in a consistent way. Thank you!

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