In an unassuming industrial neighborhood east of downtown Los Angeles, five tap dancers are huddled in a bunker-turned-tap-studio. With concrete floors and a windowless, tunnel-like interior reminiscent of old London Tube stations, it feels like a place far below the earth.
Ciara's "Like a Boy" blasts through the speakers, and the dancers, dressed in camo and golden tap shoes, saunter into their positions facing the lights and camera, eyes focused forward, bodies vibrating with energy. "Wish we could switch up the roles," Ciara sings, and the Syncopated Ladies, led by choreographer Chloe Arnold, hit it—hard, again and again, as the cinematographer glides the camera along a track across the room, capturing their every move.
The Ladies are filming their latest video, the 15th in a series that have, by and large, gone viral. "The song is talking about switching roles," Arnold explains. "Walk a day in my shoes, and you'll have compassion and understanding for what it is to be a woman, battling oppressions on a daily basis. It's about breaking free, about not letting conditioning stop you."
It is the perfect song for this moment in history and for a company built on sisterhood, a philosophy that is not only articulated and danced about, but felt: Before filming begins, Arnold makes a point of warmly welcoming everyone to set (recalling everybody's name and role); the dancers get ready by chanting "Team work, dream work!" Despite the fact that the women perform the piece upwards of three dozen times full-out while shots are captured from various angles, nary a peep of complaint is heard. The joy and power they feel when they dance is infectious.
From left: Orialis Ashley, Assata Madison, Chloe Arnold, Anissa Lee, Maud Arnold. Photo by Cassandra Plavoukos
The Syncopated Ladies have been together for almost 15 years, but the company expanded its vision in 2012 after Arnold had saved money to invest in the group. Its formation, in fact, was born out of the realization that virtually all the celebrated tap dancers—Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Gregory Hines, Savion Glover—were men.
"The irony," Arnold says, "is that I grew up dancing with women." It wasn't until she was 16 and studying with Debbie Allen—who has been her mentor ever since—that Arnold realized she, too, could be an artist. "She awakened my awareness that I could do this art form however I imagined. I didn't have to fit into a box to be successful."
In 2012, in collaboration with the other dancers—including her sister and company producer, Maud Arnold—the Ladies launched their first video, to Rihanna's "Where Have You Been." It garnered 70,000 views, which shocked them.
But it was a little nod from Beyoncé the following year that sent them into the stratosphere. The star shared their "End of Time" video on her Facebook page, with one simple declaration: "They killed it!" Much followed: appearances on "So You Think You Can Dance," a hair campaign for Cantu Beauty, an international tour and an invitation to perform at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
Syncopated Ladies' videos celebrate strong and supremely talented women. Photo by Cassandra Plavoukos
It was the ideal helping hand for a company that is built on the principals of collaboration and support, but it didn't end there. When Beyoncé's "Formation" came out in 2016, Arnold knew that she had to choreograph to it. The end product not only features the company, but integrates footage of women from all over the world performing Arnold's steps. This time, Beyoncé showcased the dance on her website's homepage and her social media channels, and invited the Ladies to perform at a launch event for her clothing line, Ivy Park, at Topshop in London. "With the stroke of a button she provided a lane for women in tap to be heard," Arnold says.
Part of why these videos resonate so strongly is their message: "You, my sister, matter," Arnold explains. "Don't let anyone intimidate you." The Ciara piece, in particular, explores the complexity of gender roles—something most women can connect to. "We aren't limited to being girly. We are tough, but our toughness is not something that has to turn people off and doesn't have to be stigmatized as bad."
But the other appeal is purely aesthetic: These women can really dance. They've all been trained in multiple genres, and that comes through in their tapping.
Passion, vigor, energy. Photo by Cassandra Plavoukos
"Their passion and vigor and energy is undeniable," says video director Becca Nelson, who has been collaborating with the company on visual content for the past couple of years. "They're able to get it into the lens and out to people." She also emphasizes that they're working an untapped market incredibly skillfully—tapping to popular, recognizable music. It feels familiar to audiences, while introducing an art form they might not otherwise be drawn to.
The Ladies are currently in the studio composing original music and collaborating with other artists. And later this year, they plan to take their concert, Syncopated Ladies: Live, back on the road for U.S. and international tours.
But Arnold has an even grander vision for the company. She is determined to provide opportunities for girls around the world to tap, to lift up women the way others, like Debbie Allen and Beyoncé, have done for her. "We want to be leaders in how tap is seen and received. We want to teach girls to have their own voices. To be themselves. To not be afraid."
Coming up next: Original music, international tour and inspiration for girls around the world. Photo by Cassandra Plavoukos