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
In the middle of one of New York City Center's cavernous studios, Misty Copeland takes a measured step backwards. The suggestion of a swan arm ripples before she turns downstage, chest and shoulders unfurling as her legs stretch into an open lunge. She piqués onto pointe, arms echoing the sinuous curve of her back attitude, then walks out of it, pausing to warily look over her shoulder. As the droning of Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto's mysterious "Attack/Transition" grows more insistent, her feet start to fly with a rapidity that seems to almost startle her.
And then she stops mid-phrase. Copeland's hands fall to her hips as she apologizes. Choreographer Kyle Abraham slides to the sound system to pause the music, giving Copeland a moment to remind herself of a recent change to the sequence.
"It's different when the sound's on!" he reassures her. "And it's a lot of changes."
The day before was the first time Abraham had seen Copeland dance the solo in its entirety, and the first moment they were in the studio together in a month. This is their last rehearsal, save for tech, before the premiere of Ash exactly one week later, as part of the opening night of City Center's Fall for Dance festival.
Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.
"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."
Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.
Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:
Dancers are understandably obsessed with food. In both an aesthetic and athletic profession, you know you're judged on your body shape, but you need proper fuel to perform your best. Meanwhile, you're inundated with questionable diet advice.
"My 'favorite' was the ABC diet," says registered dietitian nutritionist Kristin Koskinen, who trained in dance seriously but was convinced her body type wouldn't allow her to pursue it professionally. "On the first day you eat only foods starting with the letter A, on the second day only B, and so on."
"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.