Sheryl Murakami’s bold moves
Inside Hollywood’s EDGE Performing Arts Center, five industrial spotlights illuminate a dim room, making it seem more like a stage than a sweaty studio. At various points during the lively jazz funk class, instructor Sheryl Murakami picks up a light and shines it on an individual student, urging her to go full-out. It’s all part of Murakami’s master plan to make her students feel—and dance—like stars.
“I take these lights to class to make dancers feel like they’re performing,” she says. “Most classes have such sterile lighting, and I want them to feel like they’re onstage.”
Clad in a tiger-striped purple unitard and metallic Dodgers baseball cap, Murakami herself is no stranger to the spotlight: The sultry Japanese-American choreographer snagged an MTV Video Music Award in 2011 for her work on Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls)” video and has danced for Lady Gaga. And now, after 13 years choreographing and dancing in New York, Murakami has moved back to Los Angeles to set her sights on elevating her commercial career and directing the music video stars she’s helped make famous.
She’s also transitioned from teaching at NYC’s Broadway Dance Center to L.A.’s EDGE, where students are eager for a chance to learn from the pint-sized powerhouse. As one watches her lead class, it’s evident why artists like Beyoncé and Gaga have been drawn to her sensibility. The students come alive as they perform a combination to Kelly Rowland’s “Down for Whatever” that shows off the choreographer’s feline-like signature movement style.
The 8-counts have the dancers writhing on the floor, hitting come-hither poses and traveling across the room, while Murakami yells out animated directives in her raspy voice. (There’s humor, too: She ad-libs, “Cleanup in aisle two!” after one of the dancers accidentally breaks a spotlight.) “My choreography is simple to understand—classy, sexy and strong,” she says. “I believe females should be powerful and still have sexuality.”
To draw out this side of dancers, Murakami’s philosophy is straightforward. “It’s about getting comfortable and being confident, so I accomplish that with positive reinforcement,” she says. “I like to emphasize good energy throughout the room—it’s easy to get stressed out with a teacher who’s hard on you. Dance is supposed to be fun.”
The Road to New York City
Though dance is now her livelihood, Murakami very easily could have gone down a different road. The charismatic California native grew up in Huntington Beach, where she studied classical ballet at the Huntington Academy of Dance until age 15. In high school, she joined Marina High School’s well-known dance program, and she competed frequently at Showstopper with two Orange County studios, Jimmie DeFore Dance Center and Pace Dance & Performing Arts Center. “I choreographed all of my own pieces,” she says.
At 16, she signed with famed agent Julie McDonald, who got her hired on “Star Search” and for an L.A. Gear commercial. But just as the dancer appeared poised to launch a successful career, life intervened. Family finances were precarious, and a part-time job kept her from auditioning—and that got her dropped from McDonald’s agency list. Around age 18, Murakami “got involved in a lot of bad circles” and stopped dancing completely. “I rebelled against my family and those who loved me,” she says. “I was young and mad at the world.”
Luckily, dance drew her in again in her early 20s, when, after a two-year hiatus, she booked a two-week job at the Tropicana hotel in Atlantic City. When it concluded, she decided to try for a fresh start in New York City. “I needed a new life and to change, to grow up,” she says.
Not long after her arrival, she met choreographer Jermaine Browne, who invited her to attend his class at Broadway Dance Center. “It was there that I reconnected and found my passion again,” she says. “I look at him as my angel.”
She started teaching dance at local gyms and found an in at Broadway Dance Center when she subbed for Salim “Slam” Gauwloos. Soon she joined the faculty teaching jazz funk. Browne says her BDC classes really took off, thanks to her uninhibited approach.
“What makes Sheryl’s class stand out is her raw feminine sexuality, ” he says. “It was so different because, at the time, no one was doing movement like that in New York. She’s always been willing to buck the trends, and it’s a great testament to her tenacity and confidence.”
Around the same time, she also signed with Clear Talent Group and started booking dance and choreography gigs. “New York City was fascinating to me, and the big city became small and tightly knit with so much culture, art and unexplainable energy on every corner,” she says. “I was beyond inspired.”
After teaching for about five years, Murakami realized the work she’d made for class could be performed onstage. In 2006, she formed her own company, naming it T(H)RASH in homage to the sexy hair-thrashing movements that often appeared in her choreography. With an in-your-face style she calls “jazz funk/rock/twisted cabaret,” the all-female company performed in rock clubs around the city. “We performed at every event we could, paid or unpaid,” she says.
And then she landed the gig that would ultimately open a new career path. A then-unknown artist, Lady Gaga, needed backup dancers for the intimate club performances she was doing in Manhattan to promote her forthcoming single, “Just Dance.” Murakami was one of just two hired. “Gaga is amazing—she’s a star. I learned to just be wild and be myself,” she says. “Little did we know she would become so huge.”
With the help of her company dancers, Murakami began filming sample music video demos “just for fun.” When her agent got word that Beyoncé’s creative director was seeking new choreographers, Murakami knew she wanted to submit something. “I shot a demo in a studio with full hair and wardrobe. We sent it in and they loved it,” she says. She was called in to perform her work for Beyoncé herself.
That demo ended up as the template for the video, “Ego”—and landed Murakami a directing credit. “Beyoncé said she fell in love with the song again when she saw my work,” she says. “That’s when you know you’ve done your job.”
Murakami loves video for its permanence and the creative freedom she has in making it. “With videos, you can capture the viewer in a more personal way through the camera with close-ups, powerful cuts and location changes,” she says. “Videos are forever and really put the ‘stamp’ visually on the song that people can watch over and over and remember.”
Coming Full Circle
After 13 years in NYC, Murakami took another leap of faith in January by moving back to Los Angeles. Her work had been largely bicoastal for a while, with periodic travel to L.A. to choreograph various music videos and teach at EDGE. “I felt I’d come full circle as a choreographer and done everything I could do in New York,” she says. Intrigued by the film and television opportunities the West Coast had to offer, she also wanted to be closer to her family. Last year, after finishing work on Kat Graham’s “Put Your Graffiti On Me” video, she posed the idea of a permanent move to her fiancé, a guitarist. “We’d been talking about it for a couple years,” she says, “and he was open to doing it with me.”
In addition to teaching at EDGE three days a week, Murakami plans to revive T(H)RASH (which dissolved in 2010) in Los Angeles. But her big plan is moving from choreographing into directing future music video projects. “I’m fascinated by directors,” she says. “I don’t even mind the 24-hour shoots—you’re dying while you’re on set, but then when it’s all edited and you see it come together, it’s just magic.”
Browne, for one, has no doubt that Murakami can pull off such an ambitious goal. “As someone who has seen Sheryl from her first week in NYC to where she is now, I’ve seen what can happen when you believe in yourself and you have something to share,” he says. “She is proof that no matter how hard it gets, things happen when you’re true to yourself.” DT
Los Angeles–based, Jen Jones Donatelli is a frequent contributor to Dance Teacher, Dance Spirit, Dance Magazine, Pointe, and Dance Retailer News.
Photos by Hao zeng