Miss Kim leads class at Kelli Wilkins' Club Dance studio in Phoenix."Whether I'm in a room of 40 or 400 kids, I'm going to find a way to make a difference in some way, shape, or form," says Kim McSwain about the inspirational, upbeat teaching style that's become her calling card with students and teachers alike. "Anyone who knows me knows how strongly I feel about changing kids' lives."
Funky jazz music fills the space as a trio of advanced contortionists twist in unison. Across the room, burgeoning trapeze artists are building core strength atop Pilates balls. And in another corner, a group of beginners attempts to master the proper foothold for shimmying up the smooth aerial silks.
It's a typical lively night at Cirque School, a circus-arts training studio set in an open warehouse-style space in Hollywood. The school attracts all types of enthusiasts—from amateurs looking for a unique fitness challenge to pre-professional Cirque du Soleil hopefuls. Celebrities like Reese Witherspoon and Christoph Waltz have trained at Cirque School, as well as cast members of productions like NBC's "The Cape" and CBS' "The Defenders."
And at the heart of it all is proverbial ringmaster Aloysia Gavre, who founded the school in 2009 on the heels of an illustrious career with Cirque du Soleil. Though she specializes in aerial hoop, Gavre is well-versed in all circus disciplines. Now she's spreading the love, one student at a time.
Tremaine Dance Conventions celebrates 35 years.
Faculty member Marty Dew leading Tremaine Performance Company Dancers
Whatever Joe Tremaine does, he does it big. And the 35th anniversary of his Tremaine Dance Conventions (TDC) follows suit—a documentary, a book and a gala are all set to fete one of dance’s favorite figures.
“Laissez les bons temps rouler—let the good times roll!” exclaims Tremaine from his office in Los Angeles. “I’m from the cotton fields of New Orleans, where we love a good party. It’s time to celebrate…and dance.”
The 2015–16 convention tour culminates in a massive gala dinner during the Orlando stop this month. Many of Tremaine’s former faculty members, protégés and “scholarship kids” from the last 35 years will gather to pay tribute, and for the first time, all former award honorees will also be invited (from Debbie Allen to Kenny Ortega to Paula Abdul).
Summer marks the release of the book Tremaine is co-authoring with tap dancer Laurie Johnson. It’s a primer on seizing the various opportunities in the dance world—both onstage and off. “The message is that regardless of how you dance, how you look or who you are, there is a place in the dance industry for you,” says Johnson, who has been teaching for TDC since 1998.
Also in the works is Behind the Curtain, a feature-length documentary that includes footage of Tremaine in 2015 and 2016—from the conventions’ national finals to his acceptance of the Gene Kelly Legacy Award from the Dizzy Feet Foundation.
Joe Tremaine (left) with faculty member Colby Shinn
A noted dancer, choreographer and educator, Tremaine founded the convention in 1981 with Julie Adler. At the time, he had taught for Dance Masters of America and Dance Educators of America, so he knew exactly how to differentiate his event. He was the first to employ a faculty of professionals actively working in the industry. Says Tremaine: “I wanted to bring real working dancers to the hinterlands across Middle America.”
To date, close to 2 million dancers have come through TDC, and the faculty roster has included notables like creative director Barry Lather, “So You Think You Can Dance” runner-up Tiffany Maher, Tony Award nominee Lisa Mordente and dancewear designer Marcea Lane.
Johnson says Tremaine’s longevity is due to a mixture of old-school values and modern finesse. Adds Tremaine, “We don’t teach kids to dance all in one weekend, but we inspire them to go work harder in their studios. People ask me what these weekends are like, and I say, ‘You just have to come and feel the energy.’” DT
For more: tremainedance.com
L.A.-based Jen Jones Donatelli is a frequent contributor to Dance Teacher.
Photos by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging, courtesy of Green Galactic
Kelly Dailey is breaking beats—and boundaries—with a new studio business model in Dayton, Ohio.
Hip-hop classes have long been a viable means of attracting boys to dance studios, but what happens when the entire studio is devoted to hip hop? Forty percent male enrollment may sound like a pipe dream, but it’s a fact for Kelly Dailey’s Dayton, Ohio–based Funk Lab—and her numbers are going up. Funk Lab is one of a handful of pioneering studios around the country that specialize in hip hop. And with the successful wave of hip hop–centric competitions such as Monsters of Hip Hop, VIBE Dance Competition and World of Dance, more studios seem destined to follow.
“I would say it’s not a growing trend—it’s a growing culture,” says Shaun Evaristo, who founded the touring urban dance convention, Movement Lifestyle, in 2009. “The form of hip hop has been around for a long time, but it’s starting to flourish and grow more than ever before. People want it, so there are more companies looking to fill that demand.”
Dailey can certainly attest to the demand. Since she first opened Funk Lab in 2011, enrollment has more than tripled, growing from 80 to 260 students. Though jazz funk and contemporary are offered, the focus is almost exclusively on hip hop. Styles like breaking, popping, locking and krump are the name of the game, and the syllabus includes viral street moves like the “Nae Nae” and education on hip-hop history. “Right now, hip-hop studios are few and far between, but there are enough styles of hip hop where you can operate a hip hop–only studio and succeed,” says Dailey.
She opened the studio because she herself had experienced limited resources as a street dancer growing up in Dayton. She moved to Chicago after college to train at Lou Conte Dance Studio, then returned to Dayton to teach at Howard School of Dance, where she created an advanced hip-hop program. “The program at Howard became very successful, and Funk Lab grew out of that,” she says. “I told the owner shortly after my last recital that I wanted to open my own space and just do hip hop, and that I didn’t consider myself a competitor.” The two reached an understanding that Dailey was free to solicit students from her competitive program at Howard as long as she did not reach out to the recreational hip-hop students.
Starting from scratch, Dailey worked closely with her husband (and studio co-owner) Andrew to develop a science-centric branding theme. “My husband suggested we call it a lab, since that’s where you make and invent things,” she says. That concept is incorporated throughout the studio—from the wall graffiti art (mad scientists stirring up musical notes) to the competitive crew names (like Electronz and Lab Werk). “I try to make sure the marketing is gender-neutral and that the studio space is inviting for everyone,” she adds.
Performance opportunities are a big part of the draw. Funk Lab competitive crews attend Monsters of Hip Hop, Star Systems and Legacy Dance Championships. The annual May recital has featured themes ranging from Charlie Chaplin to Super Mario Brothers. The studio also stages flash mobs for everything from a marriage proposal to arts festivals in Dayton.
One of the most popular classes is Advanced Urban Choreography, taught by crew co-director Toni Denee. “We learn music video–style choreography, clean and perfect it, and then record a video at the end of every month; the kids seem to really enjoy that structure,” says Denee, adding that one of her favorite routines was a Super Bowl–themed homage to Missy Elliott (for which all of the dancers wore football jerseys). Many of the videos are posted to the studio’s YouTube channel, “FunkLabDCAC.”
Like all studio owners, Dailey faces certain challenges—for instance, there is what she calls “revolving door syndrome.” “People come in expecting to look like tWitch [from ‘So You Think You Can Dance’] in one class, and then they realize that it takes a lot of work,” she says. To reduce turnover, she implemented a costume fee for the spring recital that’s paid in the fall; that strategy has helped to lower turnover from 40 to 8 percent. “People stick around since they’ve invested,” she says.
Part of Dailey’s charge is to change certain perceptions about hip hop. “I’m constantly defending myself that we play clean music and that our moves are appropriate,” she says. “We’re a more modest studio—we don’t wear anything that shows midriffs—but it’s sometimes hard for people to get past that initial stereotype.”
Both passionate and protective over the unique environment at Funk Lab, Dailey says, “I feel like we’re inventing something here.” For that reason, she tends to hire former students or trusted colleagues she’s known for years. That’s how Denee came onboard as co-director: The two met nine years ago when they were both members of a street dance group. “In terms of the syllabus, I want my teachers doing what I created rather than what they learned from someone else,” Dailey says. “It keeps us true to the Funk Lab form.” DT
Jen Jones Donatelli is a Los Angeles–based freelance journalist who regularly contributes to Dance Teacher, Dance Spirit and Dance Magazine.
Photos by Bill Franz, courtesy of Funk Lab
Megan Lawson is on a mission: finish choreographing the senior piece for Dance Impressions studio in just three days. Typically, she likes to take four days for such a project, but this piece spotlights star senior Mattie Love—alongside 15 other dancers—and Love needs to head out on tour with New York City Dance Alliance within 72 hours. There’s also much at stake: The Utah-based studio travels to NYCDA Nationals as a team only once every four years, and a lot is riding on this piece.
Though Lawson is admittedly stressed out by the time crunch, you wouldn’t know it. The dynamic, quirky guest choreographer, known for her two-time stint on MTV’s “America’s Best Dance Crew” with her crew Fanny Pak, is more than up for the challenge. The work begins right after school on a wintry December day, goes late, resumes at 3 pm the next day and doesn’t stop until 9:30 pm. Clad in a bold flowered onesie and armed with Starbucks, Lawson provides high energy that’s contagious—and much needed considering the task at hand.
“When Megan comes, the kids tap into their colorful side; there’s a great energy, and she really brings out their personalities,” says studio director Kandee Allen.
The process of selecting the other 15 dancers has been relatively simple; this isn’t Lawson’s first visit to Dance Impressions. (Allen and Lawson originally met through a referral from Allen’s sister, who owns The Dance Zone in Las Vegas.) “Generally, most choreographers can figure out who they want really quickly; Megan usually uses a short improv session or four counts of eight,” says Allen. “She can nail what kids have to offer really well.”
Though the to-do list is long, Lawson’s guest residency isn’t all work and no play—amid the master classes and choreography, Allen makes time to take Lawson on a drive into the mountains of Park City, UT, and to get her favorite mango pistachio wild rice pudding at a local deli. And, of course, Lawson can’t leave without signing the signature wall that displays the John Hancocks of all of the prominent choreographers who’ve visited the studio—from Joey Dowling to Travis Wall to Cedar Lake dancer Matthew Rich.
The piece, set to Sade’s “Morning Bird,” debuts just a few months later at NUVO, and it goes on to win “Critics’ Choice” at NYCDA Nationals. “It was really magical and simple,” says Allen. “It was all about flying free—with one bird setting the others free.”
As Dance Impressions’ experience with Lawson demonstrates, bringing in a guest choreographer can be a rewarding growth experience. “Outside choreographers see the kids differently than their regular teachers, so they challenge them in new ways and give them something fresh,” says Allen, who brings in as many as six guest artists every year.
At Chesterfield, Michigan–based Spotlight Dance Works, owner Liz Schmidt has developed ongoing relationships with choreographers such as Lauren Adams (who has visited for the last 15 years), Sonya Tayeh and Brooke Pierotti—and continues to bring in new talent every year as well.
“It gives our students the chance to have a special piece choreographed by someone who is a hero to them,” says Schmidt. “By getting to know them and their work on a more personal level, it makes the kids feel more confident at conventions; plus, it’s a huge growth experience because they’re working on choreography that’s out of their comfort zones.”
But as Allen and Schmidt will tell you, it takes planning and commitment to pull off a successful collaboration. Here’s how they do it.
Planning ahead. Doing ample legwork ahead of time will ensure a smooth experience for both company director and choreographer. Step one typically involves nailing down the logistics—cost, length of stay, what the visit will entail and accommodations/travel. It’s important to provide ample lead time; Allen says she has booked choreographers with anywhere from three days’ to six months’ notice.
Pre-communication is key. For instance, choreographer Lauren Adams says that there have been numerous times where she’s arrived at a studio and realized that the planned schedule won’t work for her needs. “Make sure that the choreographer gets full breaks, and be sure to consult him or her before finalizing the schedule,” she says.
Yet, even with the best planning, be prepared to handle last-minute requests. It comes with the territory, says Allen, who recalls instances where she had to find a pinball machine on wheels for Joey Dowling and a portable grand piano for Travis Wall. “Most choreographers are so busy with shows and jobs that they end up planning last minute,” she says. “We try to get a checklist ahead of time, but that doesn’t always happen.”
Length of stay. At Spotlight Dance Works, Schmidt invites choreographers to stay for a long weekend, starting with master classes on Friday (90 minutes for each of the three age groups: junior, teen and senior), followed by morning classes on Saturday and two days of choreography with the seniors. “Most choreographers feel comfortable with two days—it gives them a good headstart the first day, and then they can come back with fresh eyes and finish up,” she says.
Holding master classes can play an important role in maximizing the choreographer’s contributions, says Allen. “Some choreographers know exactly what they want to do and set it beforehand, but others want to take a few days and create in the moment,” she says, adding that visiting artists spend anywhere from one day to one week at the studio. “Starting with a master class allows the choreographer to get to know the kids and see how they move, and that directs the piece and who they want to use.”
It’s helpful to prime your dancers ahead of time to make the most of the opportunity. “One thing I always coach kids on is to do their research ahead of time on who’s coming in,” says Adams, urging that they consult YouTube or the choreographer’s website to get a feel for what to expect. She also advises company directors to instruct dancers to treat the experience like an audition: “Choreographers are always looking to build relationships for future collaborations and jobs.”
Time and expenses. Some choreographers charge per dancer, while others will charge a flat fee per small or large group (around $1,200–$1,600, in Schmidt’s experience). According to Allen, typical “per dancer” quotes fall between $80 and $200 (with the average around $125/dancer), and that’s before any expenses such as hotel, flights and food are figured in. “We often try to coordinate visits for when they’ll already be in town for convention, which helps to drive down the cost,” says Allen.
When Schmidt enlists choreographers like Nick Lazzarini and Travis Wall to visit Spotlight Dance Works, she uses the master classes to help offset costs. “We always open up the master classes to people outside the studio with a base price of $25/class,” says Schmidt, who splits the choreography fee evenly among the dancers who are selected for pieces.
Housing. Logistics must be agreed on and arranged ahead of time. Both Schmidt and Allen take care of making all arrangements for visiting choreographers. Lawson and other choreographers visiting Dance Impressions usually stay at the nearby Country Inn & Suites, while Schmidt offers her spare room to choreographers who come on a recurrent basis. “I’ve become friendly with choreographers like Lauren, Sonya and Brooke, so they’ll usually just stay with me,” she says, adding that she still always provides the option of staying at a hotel.
Holding auditions. Once a guest artist has arrived safely on site, he or she is often ready to dive right in and start creating. Adams visits approximately 20 studios every year, and she prefers to select students for pieces via audition. “At the majority of places I visit, I’ll do a master class that serves as the audition,” she says. “It gives the dancers a chance to get used to my style and how demanding I am, so that it’s not a shock.”
Schmidt adds that holding auditions can help choreographers better pinpoint who’s up for the challenge. “Of course, there are those same six kids whom every choreographer will pick because they are the strongest and most exceptional,” she says. “It does get competitive, but usually the ones who aren’t picked aren’t ready yet or can’t pick up style as quickly. If they’re not ready, I would rather they not be in the piece.”
Social activities. Creating a welcoming, comfortable environment is integral to a smooth visit. Over the years, Schmidt has found that each guest has different needs and wants. “Some choreographers want to hang out and go to dinner; others just want to relax alone at the hotel,” she says. “Some want to start choreography bright and early; others want to sleep in. We try to feel out their idea of the perfect weekend and make that happen for them.”
Allen suggests going out of your way to make it a memorable experience for the choreographer. “If they’re up for it, we can do some fun things like hiking or snowboarding,” she says. Schmidt also goes the extra mile, offering personal touches such as asking the choreographer’s preferred airline/hotel chain and dietary needs.
Rehearsing. The work continues long after the choreographer leaves the studio and the director and dancers are left to continue perfecting the piece(s). One of the challenges can be keeping the integrity of the piece intact, as well as refraining from “over-cleaning” to where the original piece is no longer recognizable.
“A lot can get lost in translation to the point where it loses the desired dynamic and performance quality,” says Adams, who asks studios to send her videos for review throughout the season. “If it gets too rehearsed, it doesn’t look fresh—I want it to stay vibrant.”
Though a “stickler for things being clean,” Schmidt avoids this tendency by observing while the choreographer is teaching and taking detailed notes and videos. “I’ll also ask the choreographer, ‘Who is my go-to person if there are differences? Who’s picking it up the best?’ They’ll give me a few people to look for,” she says.
Keeping an open line of communication is beneficial on both ends of the spectrum, says Adams. She likes to be in the loop on everything from hair to makeup to costuming to how well the piece is progressing. “Once I set a piece, I’m always happy to continue to give feedback,” she says. “I welcome the request and I want to do so—after all, it’s the studio’s name on the piece, but it’s also mine.” DT
Jen Jones Donatelli is a Los Angeles–based freelance journalist who regularly contributes to Dance Teacher, Dance Spirit and Dance Magazine.
Questions to Ask
- What does the choreographer charge, and how does she determine those rates?
- What are her upcoming dates of availability?
- How much time will she need for choreography, and is she willing to conduct master classes while on site?
- How does she plan to select dancers, and how many pieces is she willing to create during the residency?
- What’s her ideal schedule, including total hours per day, and how many breaks are needed?
- Are there any props or other considerations that can be organized ahead of time?
- How much support is the choreographer willing to give after the visit in terms of feedback? —JJD
Photos (from top) by Natalia Harvey Sanchez, courtesy of Lauren Adams; ProPix, courtesy of Dance Impressions; courtesy of VIP Dance Competition
2014 started out in a highly meaningful way for Christy Wolverton—surrounded by dance, good intentions and the tight-knit community she's created via her Plano, Texas–based studio, Dance Industry Performing Arts Center. The first weekend of January marked the inaugural Dancers Give Back Dallas event that studio alum Ida Saki (now with Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet) helped organize to honor fellow former competition company member, Micaela White, who died of leukemia in 2011. The two-day fundraiser raised more than $27,000 for cancer research and support, and Dance Industry was an active participant in the effort, which included master classes; a silent auction; and performances by the Houston Metropolitan Dance Company, Spirit of Uganda and Dark Circles Contemporary Dance, as well as Dance Industry's performing company.
“Micaela had been with me since I started the studio, and Dancers Give Back was such an awesome event," says Wolverton, who opened Dance Industry in 2000. “Seeing everyone come together really put things in perspective; you start to realize this whole dance thing is a lot bigger than we give it credit for."
Indeed, and the big picture is one Dance Industry students are intimately familiar with. Wolverton has designed Dance Industry to be a competition studio with a strong focus on pre-professional training, a launching pad for dancers to find their professional niche. And the approach seems to be working: Studio alumni are now with companies like Cedar Lake and Thodos Dance Chicago; college dance programs (including NYU, Pace University, Cal Arts and Point Park University); and commercial jobs like “Glee," the Shaping Sound tour, Broadway's Soul Doctor and various awards shows.
Photo by Lauren Guy Summersett
The Business of Making Stars
Though Saki is now in her second season with Cedar Lake, the writing wasn't always on the wall that she'd take the stage professionally. Dance Industry instructor Jess Hendricks remembers meeting with the promising young dancer when she was just 14. “Ida said that she wanted to dance but didn't want to be a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader," says Hendricks, who ran Dance Industry for six months during Wolverton's maternity leave and has become an integral part of the studio in the eight years since. “Coming from the concert dance world, I started showing her footage of Batsheva and Cedar Lake and said, 'What if I told you that you could do this for the rest of your life?' She replied, 'Wait a minute…this is out there?'"
Saki's experience is typical of many dancers who come through Dance Industry. The studio is designed to inform and prepare them for the many opportunities that exist beyond the popular cheerleading culture that prevails in Texas. Company members are encouraged to attend summer intensives everywhere from Juilliard to Hubbard Street Dance Chicago to San Francisco Conservatory of Dance, and Wolverton stages her own annual master intensive with four or five guest teachers (such as Jen Hamilton, Brooke Pierotti and Francisco Gella). Guest artists also visit throughout the year, which Wolverton funds by adding a set amount onto yearly tuition. “We try to find a balance by bringing choreographers who aren't necessarily associated with just the convention circuit," says Hendricks.
The audition-only company is structured to mimic the stringent requirements of a professional dance job. The 90 dancers who participate must take classes across the board, including lyrical, jazz, ballet, contemporary, technique (a choreography-free class focused on concepts like center barre and balancing), hip hop and tap, and rehearsals are 100 percent mandatory. A big believer in cross-training, Wolverton also sets up group classes on an as-needed basis in everything from boxing to Pilates to strength work.
“I'm a little hardcore," says Wolverton. “You don't miss rehearsals; we've worked through Christmas and spring break. I have people ask me all the time how I get dancers to commit, and I tell them, 'That's the only thing I accept—no exceptions.' When you do that, you start attracting people who want the same things you do."
Photo by Lauren Guy Summersett
Paving the Way for Success
Hard work is something Wolverton has always modeled by example. For several years after she first opened Dance Industry in 2000, she taught everything herself (except ballet and hip hop) and set all of the choreography, as well. “I opened it really young at 24 years old and just hit the ground running," says Wolverton, who now employs 15 faculty members (seven of them full-time). “I spent all my time at the studio rehearsing and creating."
However, the returns on her time investment took a while to come to fruition. She distinctly remembers taking her competition dancers to New York City Dance Alliance Nationals in 2002 before they were ready to compete at that level. “We'd been doing well in Dallas, so I thought, 'Why not jump feet first?' We got our rear ends kicked, but it was so great for the kids to see that kind of talent," she says. “It can take a long time to reap the rewards of training your company dancers; it took us at least seven years to really flourish."
The company certainly has found its competitive groove—now attending three conventions and six competitions annually (including West Coast Dance Explosion, JUMP, NUVO and 24 Seven). One of the most rewarding wins was at NYCDA Nationals in 2009 (their first time since that eye-opening initial trip), where they won two titles and the honor of “National Teen Critics Choice." Says Wolverton, “It was the moment when I could breathe and say, 'We are good now.' We've seen our kids come up through mini all the way to senior company, and they're killing it."
Yet striking a balance between competition and pre-professional training can be tricky at times, as Wolverton is careful to point out. “We're a competition studio, but that's not what's important to me," she says. “The more important thing is training dancers who are versatile and know what's up professionally. It's crucial to learn the ins and outs of the business, and it's our job as teachers to put them in situations where they can identify what they want to do."
Another precarious balancing act has been finding harmony with the prestigious Dallas, TX–based Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, where many of the Dance Industry students are enrolled. Wolverton admits it can be difficult at times, between scheduling snafus and overextended dancers, but she absolutely supports her students doing double-duty. “Booker T. can do a lot of things that we don't have the money or manpower to do, like bringing in colleges and doing audition scholarships," she says. “It's a great school, and we'd be silly to deprive our kids of it. They do a lot of stuff there that pulls kids away from the studio, but we make sacrifices and adjust accordingly."
Ultimately, Wolverton's secret weapon for sustaining a thriving studio has been finding students who have the same values and passion for dance as she does. “There are people who have the talent, people who have the passion and love for movement and people who have both," she says. “Ideally, we want both, but it's more important that they want to be here. When you surround yourself with like-minded people, you're setting yourself up for success."
Photo by Lauren Guy Summersett
Bridging the Gap
“Going from a competitive background to a conservative college dance program can be like night and day," says Dance Industry instructor Jess Hendricks. “When dancers hit college, it's totally foreign to them; the goal is to bridge the gap a bit so it's not two different worlds."
To this end, Dance Industry has offered a dedicated pre-professional program to an intimate group of up to 15 students (all older company members) for the last several years. To be admitted, dancers were required to audition with a self-choreographed piece and do personal interviews with staff. Those accepted took one extra class per week with Hendricks on topics such as composition, improvisation, nutrition, anatomy and choreography. Outside research assignments were also given on high-profile companies like Alonzo King LINES Ballet and Complexions Contemporary Ballet to help them better pinpoint their path.
Though the program is currently on hiatus due to heavy demands of the dancers who attend Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas, Dance Industry owner Christy Wolverton hopes to bring it back in the future. “The program focused on things dancers would probably never learn in a dance studio setting, like how to make a resumé, pose for a headshot," she says. “Unless you go to a performing arts high school, you typically don't get that education."
“Every year our curriculum changes at the studio, depending on the kids," she says. “We look at what direction we're going and conform accordingly. I would bring it back right now, if I felt our dancers had the time."
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.
After 13 years in NYC, Murakami is back in
L.A., building on the
success of her music video career.
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
When Artistic Fusion Dance Academy's company won “Critics' Choice" at New York City Dance Alliance Nationals in 2010, it was an especially meaningful moment for co-owners—and sisters—Julie Jarnot and Jennifer Owens. Featuring an inventive male-driven storyline and unusual lighting, the piece, “Baggage," had been masterminded by the studio's star alumnus Tony Testa.
Owens remembers that “Baggage" sparked a lot of conversation at the event. “It was something no one had ever seen before, because it was done in darkness with headlamps," she says. “Not only was it a huge honor to win, but we were so gratified that the piece was choreographed by one of our own students."
Full-circle moments like these seem to be par for the course. Like the time Sonya Tayeh told Jarnot that she dreamt of joining “So You Think You Can Dance," then got hired for the show six weeks later. Or the time the sisters' first dance teacher and mentor, Diana Lynn Rielage, traveled from Ohio to Colorado to support the studio's first recital—a milestone Rielage had predicted years before. “At my graduation recital, I was a crying mess," recalls Jarnot. “I'll never forget [Rielage] grabbing my shoulders and telling me she would come to our first recital one day…and she did."
Now in its 13th year, Artistic Fusion has more than 300 students and annual revenues approaching the $1 million mark. Students from the suburban Denver location have gone on to perform with Michael and Janet Jackson, while others are on dance scholarships at colleges like Marymount Manhattan College, University of Michigan and California Institute of the Arts. Jarnot and Owens bring in as many as 15 visiting choreographers annually and have forged long-term relationships with notables like Tayeh and Travis Wall.
“We get amazing choreography for competition, and our dancers get connections with people they can use as resources after graduation," says Jarnot. “It shows the kids that a career is possible—same as our dance teacher did for us. There was no doubt that she believed we would make it."
Photo by Heather Gray
A Shoestring Start
Though Artistic Fusion is now one of Denver's top studios, it had a humble start. The two women had been teaching at a studio in another part of the city when one day they decided it was time to set out on their own. Putting the idea in motion was an exercise in resourcefulness and youthful optimism. Owens purchased studio mirrors using a credit card with a $5,000 limit, and the sisters scoured a scrap yard to find a front desk. They borrowed a marley floor and purchased barres from studios that were no longer in business. While the space they were set to rent was being built, they operated temporarily out of the Knights of Columbus before officially opening in late 2000. “We were so young—the idea of 'ignorance is bliss' was really on our side," says Jarnot. “We just kept putting one foot in front of the other until we did it."
That first year proved to be formative in more ways than one. With just five students in their fledgling company, Artistic Fusion won the “Critics' Choice" award at NYCDA in Denver. Two of the company's original members went on to find considerable success—Testa and Britt Stewart.
The buzz around the company helped kickstart the studio, and in year two, the company grew from 5 to 40. Today the studio boasts 109 company members and 200 recreational students. Along with Stewart and Testa, a number of alumni are thriving in the industry—Ross Lynch is on the Disney show “Austin & Ally," and Mason Cutler is currently touring with Taylor Swift.
Despite the commercial success, Owens and Jarnot are quick to point out that their mission is to cultivate a well-rounded studio environment where students follow diverse paths, including to college and conservatory. They also spearhead community outreach, from the studio's A-OK (Acts of Kindness) club to a yearly show that has benefited charities, such as Legos for Leukemia and the Matthew Shepard Foundation.
“I don't think they're a competition studio—they've evolved to something more complex than that," says Jason Parsons, who has been doing twice-yearly residencies at Artistic Fusion for more than a decade. “Their program is multidisciplinary; they are producing such great dancers, and it's really elevated dance in Denver. I've seen other studios in the area be so inspired and energized by them."
Photo by Heather Gray
Jarnot and Owens attribute much of their success to their airtight bond as sisters—one that was sealed tightly after losing their mother when they were young (Owens was 8 and Jarnot was 3). “We have a unique relationship where there is no question that we can count on each other," says Owens. Jarnot agrees, saying, “I don't know if I'd want to run a studio by myself. Even if there are periods where we don't agree or are fighting, we have to work it out. I'm not going to go down the street and open another studio. There isn't going to be drama like that, because we're sisters."
They employ what Jarnot calls a “yin and yang" approach, balancing areas of focus. She teaches hip hop, while Owens teaches tap. (Both also teach jazz and contemporary.) “Jen handles costume ordering and business matters—we call her 'Job Done Jenny,'" jokes Jarnot. “I tend to be more front-of-house in the classroom, at rehearsals and in parent meetings."
Being family also drives them to place more emphasis on work/life balance—but that hasn't always been the case. Five years ago, they hired a business/life coach to help them take a step back from the exhausting seven-day weeks they'd been putting in. The coach guided them toward working fewer hours, hiring a second office person, finding others to teach recreational classes and doing trades with studio families for cleaning and maintenance.
“A big challenge we had was wanting to do everything," says Owens, whose two daughters are currently enrolled. “Our coach showed us how to let go of some responsibility and trust that other people can take it on. It was a hard year of decision making—I highly recommend working with a coach to studio owners who feel stuck."
The new mindset led to tangible results. Currently, the biggest problem is having outgrown their space. “There are times when you can't walk down the hallways because it's packed," says Jarnot. “People do complain, but I see it as a good problem to have." Finding a new building is on the short-term to-do list, after which the pair hopes to double enrollment. “We're having good growing pains," she adds.
Visiting choreographer Billy Bell attributes the sisters' mounting success to their palpable passion and rapport with students. “Jen and Julie have a sense of honesty with their kids," says Bell. During his first visit to the studio in 2010, he was struck by the dedication they elicited from the dancers: “Everyone was super-committed to the process and the choreography. I've never been in a work environment like that where everyone wants to be there."
It all comes back to the sisters' shared philosophy: nurturing dancers that excel both on and off the stage. They present dancers with gratitude rocks and urge them to be thankful for their gifts. A studio “wish jar" is filled with secret hopes and dreams. “I look at us as more than a dance school—we're a life school," says Owens. “For us, it's about creating good, successful people."