How The Syncopated Ladies Found The Formula For Viral Success
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
Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.
So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?
As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.
So where can companies find the money?
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.
A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.
But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."
One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.
This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.
The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.
When George Balanchine's full-length Don Quixote premiered in 1965, critics and audiences alike viewed the ballet as a failure. Elaborate scenery and costumes framed mawkish mime passages, like one in which the ballerina washed the Don's feet and dried them with her hair. Its revival in 2005 by Suzanne Farrell, the ballerina on whom it was made and to whom Balanchine left the work, did little to alter its reputation.
Yet at New York City Center's Balanchine festival last fall, some regretted its absence.
"I'd want to see Balanchine's Don Quixote," says Apollinaire Scherr, dance critic for the Financial Times. "It was a labor of love on his part, and a love letter as well. And you want to know what that looks like in his work."
Even great choreographers make mistakes. Sometimes they fail on a grand scale, like Don Quixote; other times it may be a minor misstep. Experiment and risk help choreographers grow, but what happens when a choreographer of stature misfires? Should the work remain in the repertory? And what about a work that fails on some levels but not others?
After the horrific March 15 terrorist attacks at two New Zealand mosques, the music and arts community sprang into action to plan a way to help victims and their families. A series of resulting concerts, titled "You Are Us/Aroha Nui," will take place in New Zealand (April 13 and 17), Jersey City, New Jersey (April 17) and Los Angeles (April 18). Proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the Our People, Our City Fund, which was established by the Christchurch Foundation to aid those affected by the attacks.
Throughout 2019, the Merce Cunningham Trust continues a global celebration that will be one of the largest tributes to a dance artist ever. Under the umbrella of the Merce Cunningham Centennial are classes and workshops, film screenings and festivals, art exhibitions and symposia, and revivals and premieres of original works inspired by the dancemaker's ideas. The fever peaks on April 16, which would have been the pioneering choreographer's 100th birthday, with Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event, featuring a total of 75 dancers in three performances live-streamed from London, Los Angeles and New York City.
Cloud & Victory gets dancers. The dancewear brand's social media drools over Roberto Bolle's abs, sets classical variations to Beyoncé and moans over Mondays and long adagios. And it all comes from the mind of founder Tan Li Min, the boss lady who takes on everything from designs to inventory to shipping orders.
Known simply (and affectionately) to the brand's 41K Instagram followers as Min, she's used her wry, winking sense of humor to give the Singapore-based C&V international cachet.
She recently spoke with Dance Magazine about building the brand, overcoming insecurity and using pizza as inspiration.
The Ballet Memphis New American Dance Residency, which welcomes selected choreographers for its inaugural iteration next week, goes a step beyond granting space, time and dancers for the development of new work.
This is huge news, so we'll get straight to it:
We now (finally!) know who'll be appearing onscreen alongside Ariana DeBose and the other previously announced leads in Steven Spielberg's remake of West Side Story, choreographed by Justin Peck. Unsurprisingly, the Sharks/Jets cast list includes some of the best dancers in the industry.
The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?
Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
At six feet tall, Jesse Obremski dances as though he's investigating each movement for the first time. His quiet transitional moments are as astounding as his long lines, bounding jumps and seamless floorwork. Add in his versatility and work ethic, and it's clear why he's an invaluable asset to New York City choreographers. Currently a freelance artist with multiple contemporary groups, including Gibney Dance Company and Limón Dance Company, Obremski also choreographs for his recently formed troupe, Obremski/Works.
Last night at Parsons Dance's 2019 gala, the company celebrated one of our own: DanceMedia owner Frederic M. Seegal.
In a speech, artistic director David Parsons said that he wanted to honor Seegal for the way he devotes his energy to supporting premier art organizations, "making sure that the arts are part of who we are," he said.
It's a bit of an understatement to say that Bob Fosse was challenging to work with. He was irritable, inappropriate and often clashed with his collaborators in front of all his dancers. Fosse/Verdon, which premieres on FX tonight, doesn't sugarcoat any of this.
But for Sasha Hutchings, who danced in the first episode's rendition of "Big Spender," the mood on set was quite opposite from the one that Fosse created. Hutchings had already worked with choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, who she calls "a dancer's dream," director Tommy Kail and music director Alex Lacamoire as a original cast member in Hamilton, and she says the collaborators' calm energy made the experience a pleasant one for the dancers.
"Television can be really stressful," she says. "There's so many moving parts and everyone has to work in sync. With Tommy, Andy and Lac I never felt the stress of that as a performer."