With her dynamic, no-holds-barred teaching style and powerful brand of “Combat Jazz,” Sonya Tayeh is a dance force to be reckoned with.
One look at Sonya Tayeh and any casual observer would know that this choreographer is far from ordinary. Not only do her jet-black Mohawk and punk-inspired style make an indelible statement, but she’s also instantly recognizable as a staple on “So You Think You Can Dance.” Having designed memorable pieces like Season 4’s “The Garden” and Season 7’s “Hallelujah,” Tayeh has swiftly become a fan favorite. “People stop me everywhere I go—from the airport to 7-Eleven,” she says, “because they love the show.”
It’s not hard to see why she attracts so much attention. Her essence is pure Detroit-edge-meets-arty-San-Francisco. But more than Tayeh’s personal flair, it’s her style of movement—along with a compelling empathy for dancers and selfless passion—that puts her in demand everywhere from the convention floor to off-Broadway to the “SYTYCD” stage.
Finding Her Voice
Though Tayeh always considered herself a choreographer, she didn’t receive any formal training until college. “I took a ballet class or two as a kid, but it didn’t stick,” she says. Instead, she immersed herself in Detroit’s eclectic art and music scene while growing up, and she read books about legends like Isadora Duncan and Alvin Ailey. At 15, she started regularly attending underground parties her sister would bring her to, a surrounding she found compatible with her unique dance sensibilities. “That was when it was all about the music,” she says. “The scene was insane; I remember watching people dancing and getting so inspired.”
As a student at Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn, Michigan, 17-year-old Tayeh connected with department head Diane Mancinelli, who introduced her to classical modern dance and ballet. “We would sit in her office and talk about dance. She always gave me anatomy books,” says Tayeh. “She was so one-on-one with me, and that was when I started falling in love with movement.”
Later, at Wayne State University, Tayeh found another mentor in Professor Erica Wilson-Perkins, whose independent dance company, Counter Groove, Tayeh joined. “Erica had her own jazz technique; it was so inventive and so grounded, super avant-garde,” says Tayeh, who recalls choreography set to underground Detroit techno and Chicago house music, and movement that was fierce rather than feminine.
It was the Counter Groove experience that planted the seed for Tayeh’s own distinctive dance style, which she calls “combat jazz.” Characterized by forceful, “warrior-like” movement, Tayeh says it’s about “demanding your own voice and being an aggressive woman.” What she most admired about her mentors was that each paid attention to classical form yet retained their own individuality. “That’s why I’m so adamant about having my own voice,” she says. “It’s the root and the regimen of the way I teach class and the way I choreograph.”
After graduating from Wayne State at 25, Tayeh settled briefly in Los Angeles before ultimately putting down roots in San Francisco, where she began working with close friend Chris Jacobsen and The Dance Company of San Francisco (which prophetically enough included future “SYTYCD” contestants Melody Lacayanga and Nick Lazzarini). While co-directing the company, Tayeh was able to further shape and define her emerging idea of combat jazz.
“It was such an experimental time for me; Chris gave me the space to create and explore,” she says. “I’d lock myself in the studio, and classical movements mixed with Detroit house 3 a.m. club [dancing] would come out of my body. I kept thinking, ‘Why can’t I put these two together?’ It was forceful, undulating, usually to really bass-y music—very sharp and asymmetrical.”
Four years later, when Jacobsen shuttered the company in 2007, Tayeh decided to make the leap to Los Angeles. Though the first 10 months were rocky, the turning point came when she decided to put up her production, “The Root of Me,” at El Portal Theater in North Hollywood. Using her own money, Tayeh flew dancers out (many of whom stayed on her living room floor) and held rehearsals nearly every day for eight weeks. She debuted part of the show at Choreographers’ Carnival, an influential dance showcase. “Andrew Jacobs from MSA [talent agency] happened to be there, saw the piece and loved it,” says Tayeh. “He called me in for a meeting the next day, and the day after the show, they signed me.”
Three months later, her agent successfully submitted her for the “SYTYCD” gig. “My whole life changed,” says Tayeh. “I knew it would be a ladder for me to do other things, and I want the world to know me.”
Indeed, Tayeh is now firmly ensconced among the ranks of established “SYTYCD” choreographers like Mia Michaels, Tyce Diorio and Mandy Moore. Her pieces have received consistently positive feedback from the judges. Executive producer Nigel Lythgoe called Tayeh’s “Tore My Heart” his favorite of Season 6, deeming it “brilliance of a different class.” Yet she remains down-to-earth in the midst of it all. “Everyone else drives onto the lot with their Bentleys and Range Rovers, and I pull up with my Honda and am like, ‘Hi!’” she laughs.
Also distinguishing her from other choreographers is her can’t-miss appearance. Tayeh’s sense of style is uniquely her own. “I never even knew I had a ‘look’ until people said I did; I’ve been cutting my own hair since I was 15,” she says. She was completely bald in college and has been sporting her signature Mohawk since 2003.
Reflecting on her time with the show, Tayeh is most grateful for its role in her evolution as an artist. “I’ve never been one to do super-conceptual or storyboard-style pieces, but this has changed me,” she says. “The show has made me realize I have an emotional drive to my choreography.”
Creating Her Legacy
Though increasingly busy thanks to “SYTYCD” and her work in both commercial and concert dance, Tayeh still finds time for her first love: teaching. In Los Angeles, she’s on the faculty of EDGE Performing Arts Center and also teaches part-time and sets pieces at Loyola Marymount University. She teaches master classes nationwide and for conventions like NUVO and Hall of Fame. “To me, instruction is key—I always think that these are the students who will teach my children,” she says. “I really believe in the work of it.”
It shows, says Liz Schmidt, artistic director of Chesterfield, MI–based Spotlight Dance Works. A former WSU classmate, Schmidt has enlisted Tayeh annually since 2006 to guest teach and choreograph competition pieces for the studio. “She’s a motivator, with extreme creativity, control and power,” says Schmidt. “Put that together with her energy, spirit and warmth, and people just respond. They do things they never thought they could do.”
So what’s Tayeh’s secret to inspiring dancers? According to her, it’s her words and the intention in her voice. “It’s how loud I get, how passionate I am,” she says. “I’m always really forceful and engaged. They then emulate that with their bodies.” She adds that her choreography is intentionally grounded and sharp, designed to help dancers develop power and strength. To that end, she begins classes with a lengthy, athletic warm-up filled with yoga-esque moves like side plank poses and chaturanga pushups, set to 8-counts and designed to lead directly into the choreography portion. “My warm-up is always a reflection of the combination; my classes are completely cohesive,” she says.
Tayeh also uses the warm-up to set a challenging pace for the class to follow, encouraging dancers to channel their energy and using phrases like “Embrace the burn.” The movement she teaches requires power and is replete with drops, punctuated movements, floorwork and athletic turns. Once students learn the combinations, they perform them at their own pace within groups—feeling the music rather than being confined to counts. Many students improvise additional partner-work and layer their own emotions onto Tayeh’s already “angst-filled” choreography.
Not to say that there’s no levity in Tayeh’s classes—she often jumps around spastically when students get it right, commenting with “yummy” or “lovely” and nodding emphatically. “I have a streetwise way of explaining things because I know how difficult it was for me at first,” she says. “When I didn’t have understanding teachers, I would crumble and resist them. I will be with students until they get it.”
And she won’t settle for less than full commitment. “I say, ‘We’re all in this together, and this is what I demand—if you’re not accepting of it, take a seat.’ I won’t budge, and I won’t take laziness; it’s going to be difficult.”
It’s the same philosophy she applies to herself, constantly striving for new challenges. This summer, she choreographed The Last Goodbye, a Romeo and Juliet–inspired rock musical featuring the music of Jeff Buckley. The production got rave reviews at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. “We received standing ovations every day for two weeks,” she says. “Coming home, I felt like a completely different choreographer. I’d like to venture into more theater—I’m really enjoying where this path is going.”
Not surprisingly, Tayeh finds inspiration in two choreographers who have taken their talents to Broadway: Twyla Tharp and Bill T. Jones. Of Jones, she says, “He is an utter genius, and when I met him, I cried my eyes out. That’s the life I dream of—creating quality choreography both commercially and concert-based, staying true to myself and doing amazing, timeless work.” DT
Jen Jones is based in Los Angeles.
Photos by Rose Eichenbaum