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
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On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.
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.
Memorial Day is notoriously one of Chicago's bloodiest weekends. Last year, 36 people were shot and seven died that weekend. In 2017 and 2016, the number of shootings was even higher.
When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.
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A recent trip I took to Nashville coincided with the NFL draft. As we drove into town, my Uber driver was a fount of information on the subject.
I learned that there are 32 NFL teams and that the draft takes place over seven rounds. That the team that did the poorest during the previous season gets first pick. That during an earlier event called the scouting combine, the teams assess college football players and figure out who they want.
There is also the veteran combine for "free agents"—players who have been released from their contracts or whose contracts have expired. They might be very good players, but their team needs younger members or ones with a certain skill set. All year round, experienced NFL scouts scan games across the country, checking out players and feeding that information back to the teams. Players' agents keep their eyes on opportunities for their clients which might be more rewarding.
While I sat in the traffic of 600,000 NFL fans I got thinking, is there something ballet could learn from football? Could a draft system improve young dancers' prospects and overall company caliber and contentment?
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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Despite what you might think, there's no reason for dancers to be afraid of bread.
"It's looked at as this evil food," says New York State–certified dietitian and former dancer Tiffany Mendell. But the truth is, unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, bread can be a healthy source of carbohydrates—our body's preferred fuel—plus fiber and vitamins.
The key is choosing your loaf wisely.
It can be hard to imagine life without—or just after—dance. Perhaps that's why we find it so fascinating to hear what our favorite dancers think they'd be doing if they weren't performing for a living.
We've been asking stars about the alternate career they'd like to try in our "Spotlight" Q&A series, and their answers—from the unexpected to the predictable—do not disappoint:
"New York City Ballet star appears in a Keanu Reeves action movie" is not a sentence we ever thought we'd write. But moviegoers seeing John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum will be treated to two scenes featuring soloist Unity Phelan dancing choreography by colleague Tiler Peck. The guns-blazing popcorn flick cast Phelan as a ballerina who also happens to be training to become an elite assassin. Opens in theaters May 17.
The Brooklyn-based choreographer Gillian Walsh is both obsessed with and deeply conflicted about dance. With her latest work, Fame Notions, May 17–19 at Performance Space New York, she seeks to understand what she calls the "fundamentally pessimistic or alienating pursuit" of being a dancer. Noting that the piece is "quiet and introverted," like much of her other work, she sees Fame Notions as one step in a larger project examining why dancers dance.
What does Mikhail Baryshnikov have to say to dancers starting their careers today? On Friday, he gave the keynote speech during the graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.
The heart of his message: Be generous.
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But turning your brand into the next Yumiko is more challenging than some budding designers may realize.
When I first came to dance criticism in the 1970s, the professional critics were predominantly much older than me. I didn't know them personally and, as the wide-eyed new kid on the block, I assumed most had little or no physical training in the art.
As slightly intimidated as I felt at the time—you try sitting around a conference room table with Dance Magazine heavy hitters like Tobi Tobias and David Vaughan—I smugly gave myself props for at least having had recent brushes with ballet, Graham, Duncan and Ailey and more substantial engagement with jazz and belly dance. Watching dancers onstage, I enjoyed memories of steps and moves I knew in my own bones. If the music was right, my shoulders would wriggle. I wasn't just coolly judging things from my neck up.