How India’s song-and-dance movie industry has hooked American college kids
By Gina McGalliard
If you’ve seen the movie Slumdog Millionaire, you’ve seen Bollywood, a popular form of song-and-dance that originated in India—but hasn’t stayed there. In the United States, Bollywood dance has a devoted and enthusiastic following, and the best of the best can be seen at the Bollywood America Filmi-Fusion Dance Championships.
Bollywood America is for dancers at the top of their game: teams are invited only if they have placed first in a previous national collegiate competition. Ten groups of dancers took the stage during the second annual championships on April 23, 2011, competing for the title of best collegiate Bollywood team nationwide.
The competition, held at San Diego’s Copley Symphony Hall, was part of a three-day festival that also included a dance workshop, fashion show, and comedy show, all celebrating the South Asian culture that has become increasingly popular since the 2008 release of Slumdog Millionaire.
What is Bollywood dance?
“Bollywood is the dance style that’s out of the Indian film industry,” says former collegiate competitor and Bollywood America judge Shivani Thakkar, whose credits include Step Up 3D and multiple Bollywood films in India. “Most Indian dance films follow the style of American musical theater—they have five or six song-and-dance numbers in each movie. The songs become really popular, and lots of times in India the music videos of the songs are released even before the film is released, to attract audiences. The dance style is based on Indian folk dance, Indian classical dance, and a strong influence of Western dance, both North and South American.”
The word “Bollywood” is a composite of “Hollywood” and “Bombay,” (now called Mumbai), the center of the Indian film industry. The form is a hybrid too, of indigenous dances of India, such as raas and bhangra (a Punjabi folk dance), and classical Indian dance. Bollywood is probably not a dance form for purists: it frequently borrows from Western genres such as salsa, jazz, samba, and tango. Characteristics of Bollywood dance include quick, percussive moves and footwork, turned-out and bent legs with flexed feet, and bouncing in time to recorded up-tempo music.
Although Bollywood is not codified the way Indian classical dances are, what the dance forms have in common is narrative. “Its root is definitely storytelling, but the good thing about Bollywood is that it’s not a genre,” says Rishi Jaiswal, one of Bollywood America’s judges. “So you can take from hip-hop, jazz, salsa, Indian classical—the mistake people tend to make is they think it’s Indian classical where it needs to be defined.”
“[Bollywood is] like a musical, an old-fashioned musical,” says competition judge Niraj Mehta, a former collegiate Bollywood dancer. Now a radiation and oncology resident, he still dances Bollywood professionally. “It’s nothing unfamiliar to the American culture.”
A spectator at Bollywood America would also likely notice a stark difference from most Western dance forms: the high number of male dancers. Unlike in the West, in India boys are not discouraged from dancing. “It’s very common for boys and men to be in the Bollywood scene,” says teacher Varun Gurunath. “There are a lot of all-male teams. You see more all-male teams than all-girl teams.”
Onto the world stage
The immense popularity of Slumdog Millionaire did for Bollywood dance what Riverdance did for Irish step dancing, bringing a previously little-known dance form to mass audiences. It has also made several appearances on the hit Fox TV show So You Think You Can Dance.
“Bollywood is starting to enter the mainstream in such a public fashion, [and] a lot of mainstream people know what the term refers to, know what the dance style is about,” says Thakkar. “They have a visual concept and picture and relate it to Indian culture and Indian rhythms and beat. I know when I started dancing professionally in 2005 or 2006, a lot of times people would confuse belly dancing with Bollywood. I don’t find that anymore. I find that people have a very distinct idea of what Bollywood is, and because of that [they] are ready to embrace it.”
Bollywood is probably not a dance form for purists: it frequently borrows from Western genres such as salsa, jazz, samba, and tango.
As a result, many non-Indians have become interested in Bollywood. Although most competitors at this year’s Bollywood America were Indian, many other nationalities were represented as well.
That means Bollywood has the potential to spread. “I think right now its movement has only begun,” says sponsorship chair Mitesh Solanki. “It’s not as widespread as it can be yet.”
Although the United States is home to many Bollywood competitions, Bollywood America was designed to have the best of the best battle it out. “There was never a competition that was created for all the first-place winners of these different competitions to come together and showcase and [for there] to be one final winner,” says Solanki. “So we wanted to allow for that one last competition, to show who truly is the best.”
Participants hailed from all over the United States, including the University of California–Berkeley, Boston University, UCLA, Penn State, Georgia Tech, and the University of California–San Diego. Performances, which typically lasted slightly longer than 10 minutes, began with an introductory video to give the context of the team’s plotline, and dialogue and pantomime often interrupted the dancing and music. As in musical theater, dancers were cast in leading and chorus roles, and performances often had multiple costume and set changes and lighting cues. Teams typically had 15 to 20 members.
At the end of the evening the title of 1st Overall—which included trophies as well as a bowl full of mangos—was awarded to team UC Berkeley Azaad. Their dance’s story followed a Bollywood background dancer named Nikhil, who has fallen for the famous and egotistical movie star Naina.
Prior to the competition, Bollywood America produced a dance workshop at San Diego’s Studio FX. One of the workshop’s teachers and choreographers was Gurunath, who started out as a hip-hop dancer and popper. When he met Nakul Dev Mahajan, the Bollywood choreographer for So You Think You Can Dance and America’s Best Dance Crew, he was asked to audition for Mahajan’s company.
“After auditioning I got infused into Bollywood, and he’s been training me ever since,” says Gurunath. “I learned all the ins and outs of becoming a Bollywood dancer, an instructor, [and] now I’m an assistant choreographer. He told me to use my style of hip-hop and blend it into the style he was teaching.” Gurunath has made appearances on NBC’s The Office and the 2010 show Superstars of Dance.
“The workshop [was] for the community,” says Gurunath, who taught a hip-hop-infused Bollywood dance for the event; two other choreographers taught a traditional style and a contemporary-infused style. “Bollywood America is all about community outreach.”
Forty people showed up, ranging in age from 9 to mid-40s. “I was very impressed with most of the kids because they were able to pick up the choreography well,” says Gurunath. “It was a great experience. They had fun, and that’s all it was meant for. It was meant to be fun, meant to educate, and meant to make people want to dance more. So essentially the workshop was a great success.”
If the popularity of Bollywood dance continues to grow, this could be only the beginning for Bollywood America. “Keep a lookout for it next year,” says Gurunath, adding that the organization hopes to expand its workshops at this year’s competition, which will be held in Philadelphia on April 21. “Tell people to look out for Bollywood America 2012—it’s going to be even bigger and better.”
Spreading the art and power of hip-hop
By Gina McGalliard
Off of Interstate 5 in the heart of San Diego sits a nondescript three-story building. A dance studio is on the second floor. Set foot inside and you’re hit with vibrantly colored, graffiti-style murals covering the floor, walls, and even benches. Milling around are people of every race, age, and background, coming out of class flushed and glowing. What brings them together? A love of hip-hop dance.
This is Culture Shock Dance Center, a Southern California studio dedicated to urban dance, and home of the dance troupe Culture Shock, which has sister companies in Los Angeles, Oakland, Las Vegas, Chicago, Atlanta, and Washington, DC, as well as in England, Switzerland, Portugal, France, Italy, and Canada. You might have already seen them: Culture Shock dancers from San Diego, Los Angeles, and Oakland in JabbaWockeeZ were the winners of America’s Best Dance Crew in its first season.
This network, with a mission to educate audiences about the art and power of hip-hop, started in the early 1990s with a group of dancers led by a woman most wouldn’t guess would become a powerhouse of the street-dance world.
Culture Shock founder Angie Bunch grew up doing ballet and jazz and danced professionally at Disneyland and Disney World and in musical theater. Later, she taught jazz and fitness classes, was discovered by Nike, and traveled the world teaching cardio-infused dance for the brand.
In the early ’90s, Bunch discovered hip-hop, a dance form just beginning to enter the general public’s awareness. Unable to find any structured hip-hop classes in San Diego, she began commuting to L.A. to take classes. “And then I realized there is hip-hop here; there are street dancers here—they’re just not in plain sight,” says Bunch. “I decided I was going to start a hip-hop company.”
But there were a couple of problems. One, Bunch wasn’t a typical hip-hop dancer. “Wrong gender, wrong skin color, wrong age,” says Bunch, who is white and was 33 at the time. “People who didn’t know hip-hop bought this image. [They] assumed that every hip-hop dancer was really a rapper, black, and from the streets of New York, because that’s how fresh [hip-hop] still was. It was still very young in terms of the public perception of it.” Since then, she says, hip-hop has come to be embraced by people from all walks of life.
Two, Bunch wasn’t a hip-hop dancer, according to the definition at the time. Rather than learning hip-hop in the streets, she was a technically trained dancer. “It took me a couple of years to relax enough to allow my center to shift,” she says, “but I found it and it fueled me. I felt empowered; I felt strong.”
Also, some street dancers, many of whom were self-taught, considered a dance company antithetical to hip-hop culture. “Truly, street dancers are independent and individual in nature—the dance company concept goes against the grain,” says Bunch. “And I just thought, ‘Well, we’re going to give it a go anyway.’ ”
What she discovered in her company’s early days was that as many dancers chose to leave as stay. “They could not wrap their heads around [the fact] that they had to dance the same movement with somebody else and look good, and they had to try somebody else’s style,” says Bunch. “A lot of them were like, ‘No, I’ve got my style; I don’t need your style.’ That goes against the culture.”
Culture Shock is born
In 1993 Bunch persuaded Nike to fund her fledging company with apparel and footwear, and she posted audition notices in local studios and recreation centers. Despite having no permanent home, within a year Bunch had established company class with rotating guest teachers, a tradition that continues today. The classes are open to the public.
In 1999, the 9,000-square-foot Culture Shock Training Academy opened in San Diego’s Point Loma neighborhood, which would serve as the company’s home base as well as offer hip-hop classes to the public. A year later it became the birthplace of Culture Shock International Choreographer’s Showcase, now an annual all–hip-hop performance. “What we discovered is that we could produce our own event. We’d never, ever created our own production, but we just simply booked out,” says Bunch. Troupes from the sister cities of L.A., Oakland, Las Vegas, and Atlanta performed, figuring the audience wouldn’t exceed 200. More than 800 people attended.
Culture Shock has performed at World of Dance, Las Vegas MGM, and NBA and WNBA games. For the past decade, Culture Shock San Diego has been in the directorial hands of Sherman Shoate, who has danced alongside Missy Elliott, Britney Spears, Mary J. Blige, TLC, and Destiny’s Child. Shoate, who had always aspired to teach, got his start dancing for Culture Shock San Diego. Now on faculty at Culture Shock Dance Center, Shoate says his greatest reward is seeing dancers blossom: “I’ve seen dancers who were really bad turn into amazing dancers.”
A hip-hop epicenter
In 2001, Culture Shock had to move from its Point Loma site when the city of San Diego took over the land, and Bunch realized the company needed a base. So Bunch partnered with Broadway musical theater veteran Joe Savant, a longtime friend from her Disneyland days, and opened Culture Shock Dance Center. The new studio would operate at a much larger size and scope than Culture Shock Training Academy, which had approximately 10 teachers and served several hundred students. With approximately 40 instructors, Culture Shock Dance Center offers a far broader range of classes, and thousands of students have come through its doors. Located in San Diego’s Old Town neighborhood, it’s a for-profit business that runs separately from the nonprofit Culture Shock organization.
“The first three years were kind of white-knuckling, hoping to get through. We really survived on the generosity of our teachers, because a lot of them taught for free for a long time.” —Joe Savant
Combining Bunch’s teaching background and Savant’s performance experience and business acumen, the two set about creating a hip-hop epicenter to be Culture Shock’s home and also make hip-hop accessible to the public. “The first three years were kind of white-knuckling, hoping to get through,” says Savant. “We really survived on the generosity of our teachers, because a lot of them taught for free for a long time.”
Artist Romali Licudan was commissioned to create the studio’s graffiti-inspired look. “I want you to open the door and step onto art,” says Bunch. “I want it to surround you and fuel you so that you are an artist. You step into the dance room and you belong; it’s yours.”
The studio offers hip-hop along with subgenres such as house, toprock, popping, and break dance. Several companies in residence call it home, including Unity Dance Ensemble, founded by Tessandra Chavez, who teaches at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles. The studio offers classes in salsa, Zumba, and jazz, among other non–hip-hop types of dance.
Culture Shock Dance Center attracts students from every walk of life. “You might see little boo-boos like 8 years old, and you’ve got somebody who’s 65,” says Trina Lyons, a faculty member and director of San Diego’s 25-and-up troupe, Afta Shock. “How beautiful is that? Every race, every creed, every color.”
“I think we bring something to San Diego that nobody else does,” says Savant. “I want to make sure that we stay where we’re at and stay cutting edge and relevant and that people like coming here, whether for recreation or to train and pursue a career in dance.”
Culture Shock has affiliate troupes of various ages in its sister cities. Future Shock, the 17-and-under apprentice company, is mentored by Culture Shock dancers, and many members later join the main company. The diversity of the dancers allows kids to meet peers from other backgrounds. “Not only in the Future Shock program, but in the places we go when we dance and on the stages we share, you’re meeting people from all over the place, not just your own backyard,” says Sherry Hill-Phillips, Future Shock’s director.
Two other affiliate troupes, Mighty Shock and Afta Shock, came about serendipitously. At a 2004 Future Shock audition, more than the usual number of younger siblings were present. Dance instructor Cheyenne Kibblewhite approached Bunch and offered to direct a 13-and-under team, and Mighty Shock was created. Later, another team for children 5 and under was created, called Mini Shock.
“For me, the goal of the Mighty Shock program goes beyond dancing,” says Kibblewhite, who has seen several kids graduate from Mighty to Future Shock. “We encourage the kids to do more than just dance. They are required to maintain a satisfactory GPA. We teach them leadership skills; encourage them to choreograph, teach their peers, and give back to the community; emphasize the importance of respect and teamwork, and build their self-esteem.”
Afta Shock, for ages 25 and up, originated in Oakland in 2007. “My friend Kim [Sims-Battiste], the director of [the] Oakland [branch], told me, ‘Angie, we’ve got a new team. It’s a bunch of parents, a bunch of moms. They got sick and tired of hanging out and watching their kids dance. There’s a free studio, and they talked me into stepping in and teaching them something,’ ” says Bunch. “She goes, ‘Angie, they’re good. Can I bring them to showcase?’ ” Although she was initially skeptical, Bunch says, they stole the show.
Bunch wanted to establish an Afta Shock San Diego but didn’t have time to direct it herself. So she kept an eye out for the perfect director and found it in Lyons, whom she had taught years earlier at community college and ran into again while judging a local dance competition.
For Lyons, Afta Shock represents not only an opportunity to refute the ageism prevalent in dance, but to instill in youngsters respect for hip-hop’s creators. “I am hip-hop. I’m from the street. That’s where hip-hop came from,” says Lyons, whose introduction to dance was battling with her brother in the streets. “So for [younger dancers] to try to duplicate what we did and try to shun us at the same time, I dare you! We’re history. You need to embrace your history, not shun your history.”
She says she gets upset when kids say she’s “old school.” “They’re saying it like it’s an insult, when actually it’s a compliment. You’re damn right I’m old school, and proud of it!”
Educating the community
Beyond training dancers, educating the community about hip-hop is integral to Culture Shock’s mission. The troupe performs at school assemblies, teaches in D.A.R.E. anti-drug programs, and gives numerous free community performances. “We’ll talk about the diversity of the dance, the dance styles, and then [audiences] want to know about the dancers themselves,” says Bunch. “And that gives them a little personal connection.”
Eventually, Bunch would like to establish a comprehensive educational program modeled after the Alvin Ailey Arts in Education & Community Programs. She would also like to see the company do more theatrical hip-hop, such as this year’s production of Graffiti Life, which, unlike a traditional musical, had no singing but contained dance and a storyline. On the docket for the 2011 holiday season is a Nutcracker with a hip-hop theme, an idea Bunch first had in Culture Shock’s early days.
But plans for the future aside, with troupes across the United States and the globe, Culture Shock has proved it has staying power.
“I’m happy to see Culture Shock still around after all these years,” says Shoate. “People come, people go, but ultimately you see an evolution every year. It may not be a big one, but it’s always something changing, something coming new to the table. It’s good to see that Culture Shock is persevering though all that.”
Becca Retter helps keep the master tap teacher’s legacy alive
By Gina McGalliard
For one day, Retter’s Academy of Dance in Agoura Hills, California, became a film set, complete with bright lights, film equipment, and a silver curtain backdrop. Three young studio dancers tapped away, guided from behind the camera by Becca Retter, who had taught them the routine only days earlier. The day’s filming will end up on a DVD that dance instructors will use to become better teachers, an idea conceived and developed by tap master Al Gilbert.
For Retter, 36, this video shoot is just one way she keeps Gilbert’s legacy alive. As a youngster, she learned to tap by following his graded tap syllabus. In her 20s she assisted Gilbert as he developed training aids for dance instructors. Since Gilbert’s death in 2003, Retter has continued to create teaching materials for his company, now called MusicWorks, and to pass on the knowledge of his graded tap syllabus to her fellow dance teachers.
A system for teaching
Gilbert, who appeared in the chorus of the 1946 film The Jolson Story, opened his first dance school in 1947 in Hollywood during the postwar boom. Among his students who went on to entertainment careers are members of the Jackson 5 and Annette Funicello, whom Walt Disney first spotted during one of Gilbert’s dance recitals.
Early in his teaching career, Gilbert realized that few materials for teaching small children existed, so he began creating his own songs and dances. After he sold some of his work to a teachers’ magazine in 1949, the growing interest in it spurred him to create more. In the 1950s he developed the product that brought him fame: records of tap sounds with his voice giving detailed instructions to guide students.
Gilbert created a comprehensive tap dictionary, as well as a jazz syllabus for beginner to advanced levels. But he’s best known for his tap syllabus for grades one through eight. (A ninth level was added later.) Each level contains technique that becomes progressively more challenging, with related teacher-training aids, recordings, and videos.
“The great thing about [the tap syllabus] is that it’s progressive,” Retter says. “It makes sense. You’re not having the kids doing wings and pullbacks before they can do a Maxie Ford or buffalo. And it’s just so complete. Each level has barre work, center floor work, across the floor, and so many different exercises.”
Gilbert’s experience as a studio owner helped him realize the need for a codified tap syllabus, says Retter. “I think that’s why he could relate to teachers all around the world, because he wasn’t just a master teacher who teaches at conventions and choreographs for movie stars and all that. He knew what it was like to deal with kids and their parents and teachers in a studio. And different teachers want to teach their way, which is fine, but sometimes you need to have a syllabus so that your studio can run smoothly.”
Influenced by the tap master
Becca Retter began dancing at age 3 in her home state of Tennessee and hasn’t stopped since. The first studio she danced at used Gilbert’s tap syllabus, and whenever the family moved, her mother would find a studio that used it because she liked the consistency. At age 12, the young tapper began attending Retter’s Dance Studio in Grand Rapids, Michigan, owned by Betty Retter. A year later, Becca began assistant teaching. There she met Thommie Retter, Betty’s son (now performing on Broadway in Billy Elliot), whom she later married.
Betty’s studio worked closely with Gilbert, who often came to town to give master classes, and Becca Retter soon met the man whose syllabus she had been studying under for years. “It was a really special moment,” she says about meeting Gilbert at a convention in Grand Rapids, where he signed her tap shoes. She says Gilbert noticed that she excelled at his syllabus, and he often chose her for a class assistant. Later he gave her private lessons, which she describes as intimidating. “He was very kind,” she says. “But he would tell you if you were doing something wrong. He would always help you fix it and have you do it again.”
Keeping the legacy alive
Several years later Retter moved to Los Angeles, where Gilbert lived, to pursue a professional dance career. She began working with the tap master on his training aids and teaching materials. “Working with him was great because he was just nonstop thinking of songs and nonstop thinking of new steps,” she says.
“I [also] worked in the warehouse, but I always brought my tap shoes because I was hoping that there would be a day when he would want to work on something,” she says. “And so I’d be lucky enough to be working in his little office, tap dancing, and sometimes I would drive him to the recording studio so he could [add] his vocal instruction onto his new routines.” When Gilbert wanted female vocal instruction on some of his training aids, he chose Retter.
“He [Al Gilbert] wasn’t just a master teacher who teaches at conventions and choreographs for movie stars and all that. He knew what it was like to deal with kids and their parents and teachers in a studio.” —Becca Retter
Now, with Retter continuing Gilbert’s work, she finds herself in the position once held by her mentor. “Now all these kids are coming and dancing for me. I did that too when I moved to L.A. I assisted him and I did his DVDs, and I used to be out there in front of the camera and he’d be telling me what to do. And now I’m doing the same thing for these kids. So it’s a great experience.”
After her move to L.A., Retter began teaching at Retter’s Academy of Dance (owned by her brother-in-law Darryl and his wife, Linda) and on the competition and convention circuit. Although she had enjoyed a performance career that took her to Canada, Denmark, Guatemala, and Russia, teaching was where she felt her calling.
She is particularly drawn to teaching preschoolers. “You never know what they’re going to say or do,” she says. “You have to have a lot of patience. I think some people think it’s really easy, but it’s actually very hard. You really have to be on it.”
From 1997 to 2008, Retter also served as co-artistic director of Starlet Academy, a division of Retter’s Academy of Dance for 2- to 7-year-olds. She now teaches at Stars of Tomorrow Dance Academy in Huntington, Long Island.
Gilbert is remembered at Retter’s Academy, where an annual scholarship has been set up in his name. “Darryl and Linda have this philosophy at this studio: that it’s a safe haven,” says Retter. “Nobody’s going to laugh at you while you’re here; any troubles you have, you leave at the doorstep. And anywhere I go, I try to make that philosophy happen, even if I’m teaching at a dance convention and it’s in a big ballroom. Everybody’s there to have fun with each other and learn something.”
Only the name has changed
After Gilbert’s death, Darryl Retter and Doug Schaffer took over his company, Stepping Tones, renaming it MusicWorks Unlimited. The company continues to release new instructional CDs and DVDs of routines corresponding to the graded syllabus. In addition to preschool and tap materials, the company produces teaching materials for jazz dance, ballet, lyrical, modern dance, musical theater, and hip-hop.
“It’s kind of a surreal experience for me because kids growing up would hear his voice,” says Retter. “And when they met him it was, ‘Oh, my gosh, that’s the man on the record.’ And now I’m getting that when I go to conventions. I see little kids and the teacher will say, ‘That’s Miss Becca; she’s the voice on the CD.’ And they’re like, ‘Wow!’ ”
Darryl Retter and Schaffer run a teacher convention, Dance Teachers’ Toolbox (formerly Al Gilbert Dance Seminars), started in 1987 by Gilbert when the company was still called Stepping Tones. The convention visits six cities annually and includes technique classes, business seminars, classes for teaching assistants (open to teenagers), and a social get-together.
“It’s good networking for teachers, too,” Becca Retter says. “When teachers are in the same city, sometimes it’s hard for them to get to know each other because there’s competition. But our idea is that everybody can learn from each other.”
Teaching how to teach can be more challenging than teaching technique. “I break it down,” says Retter. “I show them how, when you teach a preschooler a shuffle, [to] hold their foot. You’re constantly giving them teaching tips. So it may take longer sometimes, but I just keep adding in little teaching tips that I’ve gotten through the years, either that I’ve figured out on my own or through my own teachers, from Al Gilbert to my brother-in-law or my husband. Because I’m a teacher too, I know what they’re dealing with—different types of children, how children learn differently.”
Retter would like to see MusicWorks continue to grow but stay true to the roots of Gilbert’s technique. She says many people who have used her mentor’s syllabus aren’t aware that it has survived his death.
But she has no intention of abandoning her mission of following in Gilbert’s footsteps. “I’m going to keep doing this,” Retter says. “I mean, Al did it until he was in his 80s, until he passed away. And I have no reason to stop. I’ll teach forever.”
Dorothy Kloss, the world’s oldest showgirl, beats the odds and the expectations
By Gina McGalliard
In a world in which complaining about their age seems to be a favorite pastime for even the youngest dancers, Dorothy Dale Kloss refutes every stereotype about being too old to dance. She’s 86 and still dancing.
Kloss, a dancer in the Fabulous Palm Springs Follies, a show featuring performers over age 55, is even in the Guinness World Records as the world’s oldest active showgirl (see “FYI,” Dance Studio Life, September 2009). “I think it’s a real honor,” says Kloss. “I’ve had so much publicity, and it’s been just like the good old days, in 1940. So I’ve loved every minute.”
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1923, Kloss started dancing at age 3 as the first pupil of Ford Dancing School. Shortly afterward her family moved to Chicago, which Kloss counts as a blessing because she was able to continue her dance training with some of the best teachers available. There, around age 10, she trained alongside a young Bob Fosse, who lived only a few streets away from her. Fosse learned dance from Kloss alongside Charlie Grass and the two eventually formed The Riff Brothers. Kloss and The Riff Brothers would perform together around town. “I guess it was preparing us for where we really wanted to go,” says Kloss. “Little did I know Bobby was going to go as far as he went.”
Ambitious from the beginning, by age 14 Kloss had saved enough money to enroll for three months at one of the best local dance schools, Merriel Abbott’s. Luckily, just as her money ran out, she won a tap contest and was cast in a number at the Empire Room in the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago. In two weeks she was promoted to what she calls “the big show” (Ships Ahoy! she thinks it was), and soon afterward she went on tour with bandleader Eddy Duchin.
But then World War II hit. Kloss performed at numerous bases around the country with the USO, although she was never sent overseas because she had two brothers serving in the armed forces in Europe. “Everybody was very patriotic in those years,” she says.
She also performed with Duchin in his last show at Great Lakes, a Michigan navy base. “[The director] got up to make an announcement, and said, ‘Listen, all you guys and gals out there, this is the last time Eddy Duchin will be directing his band because he will be inducted into the service tonight.’ And the band broke up that night, until after the war,” says Kloss. “And it never really came back. The big bands were gone and television started to come in. That was a great era. I was in it at a great time. We’ll never see it again, I don’t think.”
To her knowledge, Kloss also has the distinction of being the first person to tap dance on TV, on WBKB Chicago in the late 1940s, although it didn’t feel notable because most people didn’t own TV sets then. “She was told that broadcasting on TV had never been done because of the limitations of camera equipment, but WBKB said they were going to try it with a new camera that could pan the studio,” says the Follies’ senior communications manager, Greg Purdy.
“It wasn’t too exciting at the time because they only had one camera and they didn’t know what to do with it,” says Kloss. “I mean, we’re talking about early television. It’s not The Jackie Gleason Show.”
For Kloss, performing has been richly rewarding, and she recommends it as a career to aspiring dancers. “Show business is just a great career. It’s wonderful, if you take it for what it’s worth,” she says. “But the first day in show business is the first day of rejection. And if you can’t take that rejection, don’t get in the business, because it’ll tear you apart. And don’t let anyone tell you that you’re not going to make it, because you know what they said about Fred Astaire: ‘Oh, he can’t dance and he can’t sing.’ ”
When she reached middle age and moved to California, Kloss decided it was time for a career outside of dance. She first worked in an art gallery, being familiar with that world because of her artist father. She later worked at a local chamber of commerce, and following that she worked in guest services for the Queen Mary.
But her return to the stage came 15 years ago when her son Craig transferred to Philadelphia from Los Angeles, where Kloss was living. Kloss had been caring for her grandchild, and his departure left her feeling empty. At the time, she had been teaching dance at the Pasadena Senior Center for six years, and she remembered a student telling her about the Follies and suggesting she audition. So the 71-year-old former dancer sent in a video of herself tap dancing, and an audition followed.
“It’s a great show for people who thought their careers were gone forever,” says Kloss, who performs up to eight shows weekly. It’s quite a workload: rehearsals can last from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. with an hour for lunch. In a December performance Kloss appeared in 16 dances, including all the production numbers.
The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies is performed in the historic 1930s Plaza Theatre, which was renovated in the early ’90s when the show was getting started. It runs for 10 months each year and has been seen by more than 3 million people. Its cast of performers ages 56 to 86 performs up to nine shows a week, which include tap and musical theater dancing, plus a showgirl number.
Kloss also makes a special appearance during a monologue by Follies host Riff Markowitz, in which he honors her as the world’s oldest showgirl and she shows off a few tap steps. “Last year we had a great joke in the monologue, because Riff used to say to me, ‘So what do you do? I mean, you’re on all that health food, right?’ ” Kloss says. She would respond, “Don’t be silly. I’m not on health food—I need all the preservatives I can get.”
No special diet or elixir is the secret to her longevity, Kloss says. “I think it’s all attitude and keeping yourself moving.” People often ask if she has good and bad days, and she responds, “Of course I do. I’m normal. I’m like anyone else, only I don’t let my bad days get me down, and I look forward to the next day that’s going to be a good day.”
When she’s not rehearsing or performing, Kloss keeps busy with lunch dates, shopping, theatergoing, and her computer. She also regularly commutes to Los Angeles to take class. “Everybody loves me because I’m 86 and still doing it,” says Kloss. “They went, ‘Oh, my God.’ And I said, ‘Oh, just knock it off.’ ”
She also credits her positive attitude with helping her survive a bout with cancer more than 20 years ago. When the doctor started to describe the worst-case scenario, she stopped him. “I said to him, ‘I don’t want to hear it,’ ” recalls Kloss. “I’m going to be here a long time. You did a good job—I hope you did, I think you did—and so let’s just take it from there. And whatever time I have, I’m going to make the most of it.’ ” Although she was supposed to receive chemotherapy for six weeks, she was declared cancer free after only four.
“People are more worried about dying than living,” says Kloss. “That’s all they talk about, dying. You don’t need that for elderly people. Older people need happiness around them and happy people. There are so many [who are] 70, 80 years old and a lot of them are still doing pretty doggone good.”
As she graces the stage in high heels, fishnet stockings, and full sequined showgirl regalia, anyone watching her would have to say that Kloss is still doing pretty doggone good.
Software that lets you dabble without dancers
By Gina McGalliard
Studio owners everywhere can relate to a common struggle: how to remember and record choreography. But Dance Designer, an innovative new multimedia computer program, seeks to help document every aspect of the choreographic process.
Dance Designer was developed by Sean Glen, an entertainment producer and resident of Orange County in California. The idea for it was born a few years ago when Glen’s wife, Carri Burbank, was asked by the producer of The Fabulous Palm Spring Follies to re-create a dance she had choreographed four years earlier.
“She was saying, ‘There’s got to be a better way to do this,’ ” says Glen, who is not a dancer but has worked with choreographers and dancers for years. “And being a producer, I said, ‘Why don’t you get the software?’ She said, ‘There isn’t anything like that.’ I said, ‘Well, I hire lighting designers; they’ve got software. Scenic designers have software. Composers have software. Everybody has software—how could that be?’ ”
Glen conducted an online search and found that while there was an abundance of software for the business end of running studios, there was nothing for the creative side of teaching. Seeing a niche, he created Dance Designer, which comes in basic and pro versions. His wife was his primary advisor, and the couple held several roundtable discussions with dance instructors, college professors, and choreographers from various areas of the dance industry, including industrials, television, and concert dance.
Licenses for the program, which runs on both Macs and PCs, are available at $240 for one year and $400 for two years for basic; for the pro version, those rates jump to $360 and $600, respectively. Tech support by phone or email is also provided free of charge by Curtis Anderson, former head of the sound department for live entertainment at Disneyland Resort and a former technical director at Buena Vista Pictures Distribution. Although it includes technology such as audio and video editing, the program (with video tutorials) is designed for easy use by studio owners who might not be computer savvy.
Upon starting a piece, choreographers first import their music, be it from a CD or downloaded from iTunes. They then click on “add counts,” which allows them to set choreography to specific counts in the music and call the counts whatever they wish. They can also work in a nonlinear fashion, working on any section of the dance they choose. Next, they select a stage from several templates, or create their own to their performance venue’s specifications using the stage wizard, and then add the number of dancers in the piece, naming them if they wish.
Next comes one of the program’s most exciting elements: ChoreoMotion, which allows the user to animate the paths dancers travel in. Choreographers can see in real time, synchronized to music, where the dancers will go, and they can save studio time by working out traffic jams or other issues beforehand. All they have to do is drag and drop each computerized dancer and hit the playback button. Dancers can also be grouped, which is ideal for numbers in which not everyone does the same steps. And the Choreo Cards feature helps the user keep track of those dancers, storing their contact and personal information and even their costume sizes.
Also, choreographers can choose from ballet, jazz, tap, modern, hip-hop, lyrical, figure skating, and cheer palettes, which include specific terms for the genre to use in writing notes. For instance, the ballet palette includes French terminology, while the tap palette includes steps such as shuffles, riffs, and stomps. Palettes can be combined, and users can customize their own with original terminology. Tap dancers are in for a treat: The TAPlayer will play back rhythms of selected tap steps, and up to three counter-rhythms can be created.
If choreographers are hitting a creative block, the formations library has several options available. In the pro version, video can also be added and synchronized with the music; it can even be recorded directly into the program.
Another useful tool is avatars, which come in generic, hip-hop, or ballet styles. Avatars can be given colors, allowing the user to see how costume color schemes would work onstage.
Choreographers can see in real time, synchronized to music, where the dancers will go, and they can save studio time by working out traffic jams or other issues beforehand.
The reports feature enables studio owners to provide detailed information to others, such as tech notes for the lighting or scenic people, thus decreasing expensive rehearsal time.
Students can also benefit from Dance Designer: It allows teachers to write notes for students (on the entire dance, specific portions, or for specific dancers). For instance, if Suzy is in Group 1, all the notes written for Group 1 will self-populate to Suzy’s column in the program, which the teacher can then print out and give to her.
Dani Everts, a dance teacher at Wilson Classical High School in Long Beach, California, has found the program especially helpful because she often has up to 45 students in one class. “I thought I was pretty organized, but then when I discovered this program, everything is within my laptop. My music, my notes, my formations—it’s all in one place,” she says.
Everts finds that her students are benefiting from her use of the program as well. “What’s really cool for the high school students is that they’re old enough to start doing their own choreography, so I’ve been sharing the program with them,” she says. “I think this is so valuable for them because technology is in their everyday life.”
“When you put it all together, what you basically have is a multimedia dance score,” Glen says. “And it gives [anyone who looks at the score] enough information to understand what the choreographer is trying to get across.”
Glen has further plans to keep improving the program. For example, he wants the avatars, which currently don’t move, to execute the choreography so teachers would have “a pre-visualization of what [the piece] might look like.” He would also like to add more palettes, such as ballroom, Polynesian, and belly dance.
“Everybody responds to different portions of it,” Glen says of his program, “but there seems to be something for [choreographers] at every level, whether you’re teaching a class of 5-year-olds or taking a Broadway show on tour.”
For more information, visit choreopro.com.
Native American dance takes flight in San Diego
By Gina McGalliard
Reasons to dance may be as numerous as dancers themselves, but for the Soaring Eagles, it’s a way to connect with long-lost Native American ancestral roots.
Founded in June 2008, in only a year and a half this San Diego-based children’s Native American powwow dance performance group has more than doubled its starting enrollment, performed at various functions throughout San Diego County, participated in powwows at nearby reservations such as Barona, Sycuan, and Soboba, received requests from reservations to teach powwow dancing, and even traveled outside California to perform. And best of all, according to project coordinator Vickie Gambala, the kids have had such a great experience that the group has yet to lose even one student.
Blossoming from the start
Soaring Eagles was conceived in April 2008, when local parents felt there was a need to pass on to their children the Native American traditions of song and dance. They went to Gambala, director of the American Indian Education Title VII program for almost three decades, who then approached Southern California American Indian Resource (SCAIR) about starting a dance program. The organization agreed to provide funding and asked Chuck Cadotte, who had been holding Native American arts and crafts classes for kids and whose grandchildren are professional powwow dancers, to be the dance instructor. The program is jointly funded by SCAIR and the San Diego Indian Center but exists largely by donations, enabling all students to take class for free.
Today, an average Soaring Eagles class contains 30 to 40 children, all from a variety of tribal backgrounds, from Cherokee to Sioux to Navajo, and from every corner of San Diego, home to more Native American reservations than any other U.S. county.
Every Wednesday the group, ranging from toddlers to teenagers, gathers for dance instruction accompanied by live drumming and singing, a potluck dinner, and Native American storytelling, history, and prayer. Although girls outnumber boys, fathers often encourage their sons to dance.
Some kids, though, had to warm to the idea. “When I first brought him here, he was reluctant to even come in,” says David Gloria of his 12-year-old-son, Danny. “He actually likes hip-hop a little bit. And then, after about six weeks or so, when he finally got to feel the music and the beat and how he was able to express himself, he really opened up to dance and loved it. And he doesn’t want to stop.”
The kids aren’t the only ones who found a new interest; parents joined the classes as of last spring. “The parents are so enthused about it that they want to learn how to dance too,” says Cadotte.
Roots of powwow
Of great importance to Native American culture is the powwow, an outdoor celebration of song and dance that Cadotte describes as “a showcase of life.” At the center of the action is the arena where traditional dances are performed, usually in a circle. For many tribes, the summer months are the peak of the powwow season due to warm weather. However, in sunny Southern California, powwows are held year-round, providing an abundance of performance opportunities. Soaring Eagles dancers attend powwows about once a month in addition to other scheduled performances, mostly at elementary schools but also in parades, on college campuses, and at cultural events.
Although performing outside the ritual celebrations is acceptable, Cadotte always adds a prayer before the dancing “so that people will see that we do this with a spiritual aspect to it,” he says. Prayer and dance go hand-in-hand in Native American culture, says Cadotte, and powwows always include prayer. Because performances outside of the powwows typically include non-Native American audiences, Cadotte also presents a short lecture on the history of the dances.
The graceful movements of grass dancing are meant to mimic grass swaying with the wind, while the northern traditional dance, conveying a story of tracking prey or a battle, goes with the beat of the drum.
Dance styles, with their corresponding regalia, range from the northern traditional, southern straight, and grass dances for males and the fancy shawl and jingle dances for females. The graceful movements of grass dancing are meant to mimic grass swaying with the wind, while the northern traditional dance, conveying a story of tracking prey or a battle, goes with the beat of the drum. The fancy shawl dance is characterized by jumping and twirling and swaying arms, and the feet hit the floor in time with the drum beats. According to Cadotte, the dance was originally known as the butterfly dance because the shawls open in a way that resembles a butterfly spreading its wings. The origin of the dance, he says, is a love story in which a young woman was sitting on a rock, waiting for her friend to return. Upon seeing him, she jumped off the rock and began dancing about, opening the blanket she had wrapped around her. The jingle dress dance, to a lesser extent, is also a jumping dance, with less complex footwork.
Dressing the part
An integral part of powwow dancing is the dancers’ elaborate, colorful regalia, often embellished with intricate geometric designs chosen by each dancer. In order to outfit the Soaring Eagles dancers, parents participate in sewing classes held concurrently with their children’s dance classes. Most of the material is donated, including custom-made moccasins. “Once they have [the costumes], they just want to get out there and dance harder than they do in class,” says Cadotte.
In the jingle dance, the women wear dresses adorned with numerous small tin cones, which make noise as the dancer moves. Both the dance and the dress emerged from a dream in which a man whose daughter was ill was told that if he wanted his daughter to be healed, the jingle dress must be made and certain dance steps performed. When the dance was done in real life, the daughter recovered, and the jingle dance is now known as a healing dance.
Soaring far and high
Soaring Eagles was so named because, in Gambala’s words, “[The children are] going to grow; they’re going to fly; they’re going to prosper.” So far the group has been to Arizona, where the dancers were warmly received at the Haualapai reservation; the trip included a visit to the Grand Canyon. “Some of our kids had never traveled that far, never been outside of California,” says Gambala, “so it was really exciting for them.” Plans are in the works to perform in Panama, a trip Gambala hopes will lead to more international travel.
Discovering their roots
Soaring Eagles offers far more than learning to dance: For many children, it’s the first opportunity they’ve had to learn Native American culture and to take pride in their heritage. For many of these families, their culture was lost when their ancestors were assimilated into European-American society. Many of them were placed in missions, which forced Christianity on them and split families apart.
“They didn’t really have that family connection, and they learned the European ways,” says Cadotte. “Also, on other reservations the children were taken from their homes and placed into boarding schools, so they weren’t close to the tribal dances and the everyday teachings of the families.” In addition, many Native Americans move to urban areas, away from their tribes.
Randy Edmonds, the Soaring Eagles’ prayer leader and a senior advisor to SCAIR, feels that his role is “to bring the spirituality of our people to the Soaring Eagles, because they are very young and they haven’t learned the spiritual part of our people. They’re learning how to dance; they’re learning the songs as they dance. So I provide that to them every week—to make sure they get that part of our culture, our traditions of prayer, to thank the Great Spirit for everything He’s given us.”
Sewing instructor Carla Trouville, whose grandchildren dance in the program, hopes Soaring Eagles provides a sense of ethnic pride she missed out on in her own childhood. “I hope they’re getting the knowledge of their culture, because I never had that growing up,” says Trouville, adding that her grandmother had been ashamed to be Native American. “I grew up here in San Diego thinking I was an Anglo surfer chick, and I tell my grandkids, ‘Be happy. Be proud of who you are, even though you’ve got a little bit of Native American in you—be proud you even have that little piece.’ ”
Soaring Eagles is also a place to be with other Native Americans, a precious opportunity for those who do not live on reservations. “You get to dance a lot, and you’re around so many other people like you,” says 10-year-old Alfreda Clemnons, whose aunt first brought her to class.
A sense of family
For Soaring Eagles, dance is the vehicle to a sense of unity and belonging in a world where once close-knit extended families and communities are increasingly fragmented and disconnected.
“We’re urban Indians,” says Gambala. “Most of us here do not have extended family. Just like me and my daughter and granddaughter—we’re the only ones here from our family. And to me, the urban community—it’s a family at home. We’ve hung onto each other for support, for everything. That’s why the kids, I think, feel so bonded with each other—because it’s one big family.”
Where to go if hip-hop is your dream
By Gina McGalliard
Studio owners may be at a loss as to how to guide their professionally minded students into a dance career—especially one in hip-hop. The answer may well lie in Monsters of Hip-Hop, the first all-hip-hop touring convention. It not only features some of the biggest names in the dance industry but also provides key information and opportunities for aspiring dancers to break into show business.
Monsters of Hip-Hop tours to the continental United States, Mexico, New Zealand, and England, and the convention has developed such a following that it attracts participants from Asia, Europe, North America, and Australia. At the tour’s end, dancers selected by the convention’s faculty from thousands of Monsters participants perform in an annual show in Los Angeles.
How it began
Ten years ago, Monsters co-founders Andy Funk, his wife, Becky, and Becky’s sister, Angie Worley, started a dance studio in their hometown of Baltimore. When Funk quit his day job to manage the studio full-time, they began brainstorming how Andy could put his event-planning background to use to make up for his lost income. Becky and Angie had both grown up on the convention and competition circuit and loved hip-hop; they thought a dance convention that featured more than only a few hip-hop classes was needed.
Funk quickly discovered that top-name choreographers (many of whom don’t usually teach) were enthusiastic about the prospect of an exclusively hip-hop convention. “Once we presented our mission and what we were trying to do, [which] was so unique, they gravitated toward it,” says Funk. “They were intrigued and wanted to try it out.”
Today, Monsters is flooded with submissions from choreographers seeking to be on the convention’s faculty. And recently, the company expanded to include an all-contemporary dance tour, Monsters of Contemporary.
Best in the business
Monsters’ faculty list reads like a who’s who of the hip-hop world: Tabitha and Napoleon D’Umo from So You Think You Can Dance; Jamal Sims, choreographer of Hairspray, Step Up, and Step Up 2: The Streets; Justin Timberlake’s choreographer, Marty Kudelka; Rhapsody James; Kevin Maher; Dave Scott; Poppin Pete; Mr. Wiggles; Flomaster; the Jabbawockeez; and Teresa Espinosa.
“They’re so passionate about sharing their knowledge with the kids,” says Funk. “Some of them are well-known celebrities because you see them on TV, and others are not on TV but they’re some of the most popular choreographers we have. Once the kids get to see them and experience their style and their teaching ability, they’re hooked.”
Sometimes former Monsters show cast members come back to teach, such as JaQuel Knight, who co-choreographed Beyoncé’s famous “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” video. Tony Testa, who as a teenager was cast in the first Monsters show, is now not only on the faculty but he co-directed and wrote this year’s show with Rhapsody James. He counts the experience of directing as invaluable in his career and considers the Monsters staff to be family.
“Andy’s a family man, so whenever we’re [at Monsters] it doesn’t feel like this corporate job,” says Testa. “It’s really nice to be with somebody who’s on a level playing field in terms of fairness and equality for everybody and just about people having a great experience.”
A different kind of convention
The convention includes junior, intermediate, advanced, and teacher levels. In order to create an optimal learning environment, Funk limits the number of participants to 600. “We don’t have a thousand or 1,200 people at the event, so people can move and not get bloody noses or crazy things that you hear from some of the huge, huge conventions,” he says.
Although the convention draws hard-core hip-hop devotees, the popularity of the style sometimes attracts those who may not feel so comfortable doing it. Tabitha D’Umo, who has been teaching at Monsters from the start, calls the convention a place to go for kids who think they’re not funky. “What I love to see now, with the success of So You Think You Can Dance and America’s Best Dance Crew, is that a lot of studio kids who typically get embarrassed or shy about doing hip-hop now have somewhere to go,” she says. “[They can] do a strong intensive and inundate themselves with that style so they can start feeling more comfortable.”
Also setting Monsters apart are its seminars about the business of being a professional dancer. The sessions cover everything aspiring dancers need to entice choreographers to hire them: professional etiquette, auditions, headshots and resumes, financial planning, and fashion.
Tabitha D’Umo calls the convention a place to go for kids who think they’re not funky. “. . . A lot of studio kids who typically get embarrassed or shy about doing hip-hop now have somewhere to go,” she says.
“There are so many pitfalls they can run into when they pick up and move to L.A., if they don’t know how to handle their business,” says Funk. “They’re going to end up back at home and not dancing or drop their dream and not go for it.”
In each city on the tour, the convention’s faculty chooses four finalists, contenders for a chance to perform in the annual show that follows a weeklong intensive in L.A. The finalists receive VIP tour passes that allow them to attend unlimited Monsters workshops free of charge for one year. This year the chosen dancers came to L.A. to rehearse for the show in North Hollywood’s El Portal Theatre, which Funk describes as “the most intense training they’ll ever have.” It’s not unusual for rehearsals to run from 9:00 in the morning until past midnight.
The experience is a training ground for dancing professionally, because dancers must learn to conform to each choreographer’s demands. “Each choreographer works differently, so you have to adapt at the drop of a hat,” says Chicagoan Katie Leone, a cast member. “So that’s what I think was the biggest learning experience for me—learning how to change your mind-set as each choreographer comes in.”
The show isn’t simply a bunch of strung-together numbers; it’s a full-on production with a concept and story, and it comes together in less than two weeks. This year’s show, conceived and produced by Tabitha and Napoleon D’Umo, had a futuristic theme involving concepts such as teleportation, telekinesis, and time manipulation.
“This show is almost like boot camp for dancers who want to become professional dancers,” says Tabitha D’Umo, who, along with her husband, has hired numerous Monsters participants for gigs. “They see what it’s like to put a show together in a week and a half, under pressure, working with a handful of different choreographers who all have different personalities, different work ethics, different intensities. And they have to adjust to all those circumstances and be able to deliver an amazing show.”
The instructors themselves often offer career opportunities to Monsters participants; many choreographers have booked dancers they found on the tour. Three Monsters alumni toured with Britney Spears; Jamal Sims booked several dancers for Hannah Montana: The Movie; and Chuck Maldonado booked others for the new Nickelodeon show The JumpArounds.
Monsters can also be a prime spot for dancers to find agents, since representatives from MSA, Clear Talent Group, DDO, and BLOC routinely scout for talent there. The convention also features auditions in which scholarships are given to top studios in L.A. and New York.
“The list of professional dancers coming through, being signed by agents, who are going on to work in the industry is really phenomenal,” says Funk. “And that’s not just coming from me—the agencies and choreographers all talk about Monsters kids.”
Brooklyn Lavin, the director of choreography and dance agent for Clear Talent Group, has signed 10 Monsters alumni to her agency. She enjoys working with Monsters dancers because of their dedication and professionalism. “I travel to a few [Monsters conventions] a year because the [dancers] have amazing talent,” says Lavin. Plus, she adds, they are “truly focused.”
First-time Monsters participant Sohey Sugihara, a native of Hokkaido, Japan, can attest to the opportunities found at Monsters. Last year, after hearing that many great dancers came out of the convention, he sat in the audience during the show and vowed he would be on that stage the following year. His wish came true: He attended the convention—his first ever—this year, in Santa Clara, California, and was cast. And his good fortune didn’t end there; he recently signed with MSA.
“It was a really great experience and I actually cried at the end of the show,” says Sugihara.
Funk, who lost his brother to leukemia, feels it is important to give back to the community. So every tour stop includes Club Stylz, a freestyle dance contest that raises money for the American Cancer Society; during the 2008–09 convention season, it raised more than $12,000, according to Funk. After the classes on Saturday, 10 or 12 groups showcase their dance numbers in the competition and receive feedback. Also included are a free parents’ class, a battle, and an individual freestyle dance contest.
“It’s really an opportunity for [students] to get familiar with being onstage and performing individually and freestyling. It’s so important as a commercial dancer to be able to freestyle,” says Funk.
Funk hopes all who come to Monsters having grown from the experience and with cherished memories, whether or not they seek a professional career. “I would want the average kid to come and feel like a million bucks when they leave—that they had a blast, that [they] got a chance to see celebrity choreographers and realize that they’re down-to-earth and humble and that they appreciate where they’ve come from,” says Funk. “That’s one of the stipulations of being on the Monsters faculty. They can be the biggest celebrities, but they always take time with the kids and are approachable.
“We want [the kids] to have an experience where they made friends,” he continues, “and where they were challenged and had opportunities as well.”
Reclaiming the art of improvisation in tap dance
By Gina McGalliard
Back in the golden age of tap dancing, the tap masters used to challenge each other through improvisation. Along with choreography, improvisation was integral to the art form, a vehicle through which it grew and progressed. Flash forward to the early 21st century, and tap is still alive and well—but improvisation as a key element of training has fallen away. In the typical American dance studio, tap classes consist of learning choreography for the recital, learning choreography for the competition—but learning improvisation skills as a fundamental part of tap dancing is nowhere to be found.
So what happened? According to Lane Alexander, co-founder of the Chicago Human Rhythm Project, along with tap not being the largest discipline at many studios, “there was a real change of course in the ’50s, when music changed and become much more balletic and jazz oriented as opposed to the ’30s and ’40s, when almost every show was tap-centric. Everybody tapped, and that was a holdover from vaudeville.”
As dance in America became more ballet centered and tap dance retreated from stage and film and into jazz clubs, dance studios around the country began to reflect the structured, choreography-based ballet culture—even in tap classes. Eventually, improvisation in tap receded from dance training almost completely.
Improvisation can be taught
There is a misconception that spontaneously making up your own dance steps is an inherent gift or talent that cannot be taught. Therefore, tap teachers who desire to bring improvisation into their classes must first recognize that it can be taught and practiced.
“It is possible to teach children, young children, from the beginning, how to improvise, because that’s how I learned,” says Michela Marino-Lerman, a protégé of Gregory Hines who is now a teacher and performer. “It was always a part of class, no matter what.”
Although some students may come by improvisation naturally, many students are intimidated by the idea of having to make up steps on the spot. Often it is best to begin students with structured exercises that allow them to build confidence in their creativity before moving on to less-structured improvisation.
Claudia Gomez Vorce, a freelance San Diego tap instructor, often has beginning improvisers tap out the rhythms of nursery rhymes, using any steps they desire. This is beneficial because it allows students to practice hearing rhythms in their head and translating them to the feet, Gomez Vorce says.
Another technique she uses is having students improvise using only a limited amount of steps, such as only heels, toes, heels and toes, or shuffles. This not only allows them to get used to their own creativity but also produces cleaner sounds because the students are using basic steps. Eventually, they are able to transition to more intricate improvisation that sounds rhythmic and clear and keeps the tempo, with both the music and other improvisers.
Alexander uses a similar exercise. “One of the most basic exercises is to duplicate a song, for instance, ‘Happy Birthday,’ a rhythm everybody knows. And regardless of the steps—even if you do it all with shuffle ball change, or toe heel—it takes a little bit of the pressure off about being hyper-creative or hyper-complex,” says Alexander. “Because a lot of times that’s what makes people freeze. They think they have to do knee-breaking, extraordinarily complex rhythm structures or else it’s not good improv. And that’s not necessarily true, especially when you’re just beginning. Keep it simple, keep it simple.”
“Somebody could be doing crazy steps but it sounds like gibberish,” says Marino-Lerman. “And then the person who goes after them, who’s just stomping their feet, but in rhythm—that is where my heart goes way faster than when somebody is doing some wild trick.”
Before introducing her students to improvisation, Marino-Lerman has her students get in a circle and clap in time with the music, and she teaches them to count four bars. This way, students learn the invaluable skills of keeping the tempo and how to get in and out on the four bars when they’re supposed to be improvising.
Pam Thompson-Spinner, who owned a dance studio for 14 years and studied with tap master Eddie Brown, would often teach students a simple combination. After becoming proficient at the combination, students would take turns doing their own variation on it. “It goes back to the old joke: Make a mistake, repeat it three times, and it’s jazz,” she says.
The fear factor
Intimidation and fear are frequent obstacles to learning improvisation. Those feelings can be perfectly natural after a lifetime of choreography-based training, so it’s important to let your students know that it’s OK to not be perfect or technically correct.
“I pretty much just say, ‘Just keep your feet moving,’ ” says Rod Howell, a teacher at Pam Rossi’s Dance Ten and at The Talent Factory (in Moorpark and Chino, California, respectively). He says not stopping “is the biggest thing, because when they stop and start thinking, then it all goes south. Just get them moving; stuff will come out, don’t worry about it. Try not to let your brain rule everything and think everything through. Just let your feet move.”
Howell has also taught at Edge Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles and numerous dance conventions, and in his experience, about 99 percent of students eventually become comfortable with improvisation, given time and encouragement.
“I say this to my students all the time: Don’t stop when it’s not perfect, because it’s never perfect,” says Alexander. “You let it come out as whatever it is, and if you want to think about it after the fact, that’s fine.”
“If it becomes more like a game, then it’s not scary,” says Thompson-Spinner. “And if you have musicians and other dancers around you who are nurturing and they treat it like that, then it doesn’t become ‘You have to have some special gift.’ And guess what—you might find you have one.”
Listen to the music
Training one’s ear is always an important part of tap training, and it’s even more important in improvisation. In most improvisation circles, students will be dancing by themselves, which means they won’t be able to “hide” behind the sound of their classmates’ taps. Plus, improvisation requires students to hear and translate overall rhythmic patterns rather than individual steps, even more so than when doing choreographed steps.
For Denise Scheerer, a tap instructor at The Colburn School of Performing Arts in Los Angeles and Loyola Marymount University, teaching students to read music notation is the key to opening up the world of tap improvisation. Tap dancing is a form of percussive music, and her students learn to create rhythms through understanding and mixing up quarter, eighth, and sixteenth notes. Like Marino-Lerman, Scheerer teaches her students how to count four bars of tempo before they start improvising.
“It makes improvisation so much more viable, because you can then just do an easy rudiment, like a cramp roll or a step-heel, and you can change it up by, ‘OK, now I’m going to do triplets; now I’m going to do some sixteenth notes.’ And pretty soon you’re making a nice little rhythm and you’re improvising,” says Scheerer. “And you’re just doing simple things. But it’s all about the time. If you aren’t thinking about the time, you’re just making noise.”
Another technique Gomez Vorce and Marino-Lerman use is having students focus on the rhythm of a particular instrument in a song while improvising. This teaches students how to listen to music critically as well as how to complement the music with the sound of their taps.
Keep it positive
Teachers may find that some students approach improvisation with the attitude that it’s a contest to out-do each other on a particular step or prove they are the best dancer. Ideally, teachers should strive to keep an atmosphere of nurturing and encouragement, because the heart of improvisation is self-expression and communication with other dancers.
“It’s not about a platinum,” says Alexander. “It’s not about winning. It’s about expressing yourself. And everybody’s capable of doing that.”
And once tap students are over the initial hump of fear and have some basic improvisation skills under their belts, they may find that it’s one of the most fulfilling and satisfying aspects of being a tap dancer.
“Once you get the hang of it, it’s a lot of fun,” says Gomez Vorce. “I’m not perfect at it, and I have good days and bad days when I’m onstage doing improvisation, but it just feels really good to express yourself and not be told what to do. It feels so good when you’re not in your head. It really, really does.”
Inside Tap by Anita Feldman
The Souls of Your Feet by Acia Gray
No Maps on My Taps (documentary)
Tap (feature film; includes famous “challenge” improvisation scene)