Heroes come in all shapes and sizes. They may fly through the air like Batman, have smooth moves like Michael Jackson or be a stranger lending a hand at just the right time. Walh Performing Arts Studio in Buffalo, New York, honored both famous and ordinary heroes with a recital theme of “Heroes and Legends.”
Co-owners Katie and David Walh, both successful musical theater performers and educators, opened their studio in 2002. Because they offer lessons in dancing, singing and acting, their production was sprinkled with vocal numbers and acting scenes, giving this performance a musical-review feel. “We wanted it to be entertaining for every age,” says David.
Students performed three shows—two on Saturday and a Sunday matinee—with as many as 50 numbers in each, all choreographed and arranged by the studio’s nine faculty members. To ensure that each class got its time in the spotlight, every performance was completely different, save for the opening, closing and “Big Hero” numbers.
The studio has a real-life hero of its own. Nine-year-old Gianna Pezzino was diagnosed with Type E leukemia just two months before the recital. Eventually, Gianna had to drop out of her recital numbers while undergoing daily chemotherapy.
But on recital day, she and her parents came to watch sister Alexia perform. “Her parents had to carry her to her chair,” says Katie. “I went backstage and told the kids about it before the show; it elevated the performance’s purpose.” Today, Gianna is a cancer survivor. She is dancing again and is also involved in acting and modeling.
The Walhs’ program note begins, “We need a Hero…Our show celebrates many of our favorite childhood superheroes, legends of theatre and song, but more importantly, the heroes and legends in our everyday lives... A Hero lies in you.”
Music: “Don’t Stop Believin’”—Journey
Level/Genre: Advanced—musical theater (audition-only class)
Costumes: Students wore their own nice dress.
Choreography: In this “stand and sing” number, à la television show “Glee,” basic stage movement and song brought the curtain up like a Broadway opener.
Big Hero Number (Closes Act 1)
Music: “Holding Out For A Hero”—Bonnie Tyler (mixed with themes from Superman, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Rocky and Austin Powers and finished with a revival of “Holding Out For A Hero”)
Level/Genre: Ages 13–18—musical theater/vocal
Costumes: Girls—short, red trench-coat-style dresses. Boys—black pants and black button-up shirts.
Choreography: In each 30- to 40-second vignette, groups of two to eight students dance to different superhero themes. The Austin Powers segment featured ’60s-style movement; the Indiana Jones group performed lots of running, jumping and thrilling leaps; in Star Wars, two boy dancers were silhouetted and used light-saber props with kung-fu acrobatics and stage combat.
Music: “Eye of the Tiger”—Survivor
Level/Genre: Ages 9–12—tap
Costumes: Red hoodies and red boxing gloves.
Choreography: Dancers mixed tap choreography with boxing moves. This number featured a face-off section in which half of the students went down, while the other half delivered the “knockout.”
Tip: Make sure the students know where their gloves are going so no one actually gets hurt.
Music: “On the Good Ship Lollipop”—Shirley Temple
Level/Genre: Ages 3–5—ballet
Costumes: Pink, sparkly leotards and tutus.
Choreography: The audience smiled and aww-ed as these baby dancers re-created the moves of iconic Shirley Temple.
We Are the World
Music: “We Are the World”—Michael Jackson (demo version)
Level/Genre: Ages 9–12—lyrical
Costumes: Blue, flowy dresses.
Choreography: This lyrical number, danced to the music of the legendary Michael Jackson, featured passionate and expressive movement meant to stir the audience.
Music: The original 1960s “Batman” TV show theme music
Level/Genre: Ages 9–12—jazz
Costumes: Girls—yellow turtlenecks with black dresses. Boy—Batman costume.
Choreography: “POW!” This theatrical number featured the class’ one male student in the role of Batman. The girls formed a clump and Batman exploded through it. A little stage combat mixed in with the jazz steps gave this a comical feel.
Music: “Smooth Criminal”—Michael Jackson
Level/Genre: Ages 13+—pointe
Costumes: White leotards with black stripes and long, black skirts; one white glove and one black glove.
Choreography: No hero would make their mark without an arch nemesis. These ballerinas modified the signature “Smooth Criminal” hat move by rolling over their pointe shoes, looking down, with a jazz hand over their head.
Music: The original 1970s “Wonder Woman” TV show theme music
Level/Genre: Ages 6–8—jazz
Costumes: Red-white-and-blue sequin dresses and gold sparkle bracelets.
Choreography: These Wonder Women performed basic jazz movements with lots of crossing fists to show their power and strength.
Music: “Will You Be There”—Michael Jackson (Free Willy soundtrack)
Level/Genre: All—musical theater
Costumes: The students each wore the costumes from their last piece.
Choreography: The curtain opened on the youngest dancers. They moved forward as the rest of the students danced in. Everybody sang; sign language and “arm-ography” brought the house down in an inspiring full-cast closer.
Make It Flow
With approximately 175 students in each show (and 10 to 25 dancers per piece), transitioning quickly between numbers was important. The Walhs didn’t use blackouts and each number flowed into the next, so that the show could be done in two and a half hours.
Rehearsals for the mid-June show began in January, so that the numbers were clean and well-rehearsed when they got to the theater five months later.
Save Some Dough
The Walh Studio set the stage with a scrim, enabling them to make lighting the primary mood-setter and cutting the cost of having a set. The Walhs estimate that their budget was $10,000, including the cost of space rental, audio and sound equipment and a few professional staff. They relied heavily on the support of volunteers.
Other Songs Used
* Dance Numbers
Little Red Riding Hood—medley of “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf”
“Mr. Bojangles”—Jerry Jeff Walker
“Everything I Know”—In the Heights
“Men in Black”—M.I.B. theme song
* Vocal Numbers
“The Greatest American Hero”—theme song from 1980s TV series
Walh Performing Arts Studio’s Past Recital Ideas
“Work and Play the American Way”—Dances focused on school, sports and vocational themes.
“Smile”—Dances were comical and lighthearted.
Photo by John Umlauf, courtesy of Walh Performing Arts Studio
Pop–Slide–Groove–Lunge! Get ready, here comes the King of Pop! Lisa Pillow, director of Lisa’s Dance Spot in Austell, Georgia, created a tribute to Michael Jackson for the studio’s 2010 recital. To mark the one-year anniversary of his tragic death, 110 students bobbed and moon-walked to the pop star’s memorable hits, making “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” an unforgettable matinee recital for 350 family members and friends.
-Intermediate jazz students in "Thriller"
-Studio director Lisa Pillow in "Smooth Criminal"
-"Ease on Down the Road" for the beginner level
-"Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" for intermediate/advanced dancers
Lisa’s Dance Spot specializes in recreational jazz, hip hop, ballet and tap dance. In a two-and-a-half-hour show, Pillow and staff mixed Jackson’s hit songs and moves with the students’ class work. With the many Top 10 hits and decades of recordings, there was a lot to choose from, and Pillow felt the show would appeal to audiences of all ages. “The great thing about Michael’s music,” she says, “is that it’s still fresh and still grabs you now in 2010.”
The recital took place in a local theater. With a show budget of less than $5,000, Pillow kept the set simple—a black backdrop was lit with the studio’s logo—and let the dancers be the focus of the production. The director herself and two assistants, clad in spats and pinstripe Zoot suits, kicked off the show with a rendition of “Smooth Criminal.” In the spirit of a Jackson concert, she had a friend serve as emcee to keep the energy high between numbers. The full ensemble closed the show by boogying to the title piece, “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough,” and took their final bow to roaring applause.
Lisa’s Dance Spot’s MJ-inspired numbers:
Song: “Can You Feel It” by The Jacksons
Level: All dancers
Costume: Black attire with white gloves
Choreography: The full cast opened the show with Jackson’s signature head-bob moves.
Song: “Ease On Down the Road” from The Wiz
Genre: Musical theater
Costume: Yellow halter dresses fringed with silver sequins and a silver headband
Props: Silver canes
Choreography: Two dancers spun onto the stage, as if just out of Dorothy’s house. More dancers boogied onstage tapping their canes and swishing their hips. The dancers formed a pyramid at the end to bounce the piece to a Broadway finish.
Song: “I’ll Be There” by Jackson 5
Costume: Pink and black leotard and tutu with a feather headpiece
Choreography: The precious ballet babies showed off their port de bras, chassés and tendus for an adoring audience.
Song: “Man in the Mirror” by Michael Jackson
Costume: White and silver flowing dresses with white headscarves
Props: Silver mirror
Choreography: Dancers decorated their own mirrors and used them in the port de bras of this more classical ballet piece.
Song: “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” by Michael Jackson
Genre: Jazz/hip hop
Costume: Black leotards, silver shorts and silver twine laced up one leg
Choreography: The Dancing Divas mixed in classic moves like the lawnmower and railroad arms into this toe-tapping rhythm. They formed a giant dancing caterpillar marching to the beat.
Song: “You Can’t Win” from The Wiz
Level: Beginner (ages 3–5)
Costume: Pink and black leotard and tutu with a feather headpiece
Choreography: Like Jackson’s Scarecrow character in The Wiz, these tiny tappers used scarecrow walks with their marches and toe touches.
Song: “Scream” by Janet and Michael Jackson
Genre: Hip hop
Costume: Black sneakers, black leggings, yellow and pink baggy dresses, fingerless gloves and a tilted black hat
Choreography: This funky hit mixed hip-hop moves with robotic popping and locking movements.
Song: “Stranger in Moscow” by Michael Jackson
Costume: Yellow and orange flowing dresses
Choreography: With dramatic gestures and floor work, this lyrical piece told the story of a stranger searching for something and finding it at the end in a loving embrace from her friends.
Song: “Thriller” by Michael Jackson (pictured)
Roles: Jackson and Zombies
Jackson: Red sequin Members-Only jacket and red jazz pants
Zombies: Dad’s old white button-up dress shirt cut up and torn, black pants or bottoms, teased hair and lots of dark eye makeup
Choreography: Incorporating moves and phrases from the original “Thriller” video, these jazzers brought down the house with the “funk of 40,000 years.”
Tips, Tricks & Tracks
Jackson’s music has inspired studio director Lisa Pillow all her life. At age 16 she won a beauty pageant after performing the “Thriller” dance, and as a teacher and studio owner, she lives by Jackson’s example. “He’s the kind of person who inspires people to be better than what they are,” she says.
Set the Mood
Pillow and her teachers played Jackson songs all year in the studio to build excitement for the show.
State-wide flooding in September 2009 destroyed Lisa’s Dance Spot. Though initially devastated, Pillow was able to rebuild in two months’ time, with the help of her supportive network of family and friends. “That’s what Michael would have done. He faced adversity and got through it,” says Pillow. “Now our studio is bigger and better. The flood didn’t stop me.” In June 2010, “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” burst onto the Mable House Barnes Amphitheatre.
More Music Ideas:
—“The Way You Make Me Feel”
—“They Don’t Care About Us”
—“You Are Not Alone”
—“Black or White”
—“Will You Be There” (Free Willy soundtrack)
—“I Want You Back”
—Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)
Photo courtesy of Lisa’s Dance Spot
Last month, we wrote about Florida International University Dance Department Chair Tom Hagood’s efforts to save his program. Despite a nationwide appeal to keep it alive, the department was eliminated, along with 22 others, on June 12. “One of the shining lights in sequential, quality dance education in the nation is going to just go out,” Hagood said
The response to Hagood’s plight was tremendous. Educators from all over the country wrote letters in support of the vitality of FIU’s program and its importance to the South Florida cultural community.
But FIU’s $37 million deficit proved too much to overcome. And although the faculty senate voted 30 to 15 to save the dance program, the school provost ultimately sided with the board of trustees in a vote to cut it. The FIU administration will provide three years of funding to allow current students to finish their degrees, with no new majors accepted.
Most graduates of the program find dance education jobs within the community and within the Miami Dade School District, Hagood says. “They were going out there being able to dance in relation to their community,” he adds. “These were prepared dance educators, and now it’s gone.”
The university’s other education programs were also hit hard, with K–12 education in English, math, science, music, social studies and exercise science slated for elimination. Half of the new teachers hired in the Miami-Dade Public School system graduate from FIU. In addition, 38 FIU faculty members are now unemployed, and six research centers will close. “[The vote] seemed to say, ‘Florida International University is no longer interested in education,’” Hagood said.
The current economic downturn has left state universities scrambling to support only its highest enrollment programs. The state of Florida, which relies heavily upon the real estate market, has been particularly hard hit. In a trickling down of financial melt-water, state-funded dance and other arts departments are red-flag victims.
Hard times are upon us,” Hagood warns. “This family has got to come together and recognize that if we don’t circle the wagons here, we’re going to watch ourselves one by one fall off the edge.” As other state university dance departments start to feel Uncle Sam’s finger pointed their way, we must consider what the performing arts can bring to the table, and how to make lawmakers aware of the social and cultural implications of their actions.
On a recent weekday, in the midst of the New York City lunch-hour bustle, The DOORKNOB COMPANY created a small miracle in Bowling Green, a park in Lower Manhattan. Dancers turned heads as they playfully mocked the serious attitude of the NYC business class. “This day is so sad!” they exclaimed. The work, appropriately titled “Death of OPTIMISM,” was staged as a funeral.
In black dresses, sneakers and cone hats with yellow smiley faces, the dancers used movement, gesture, vocalization, music, over-the-top expression and sound to create a work that brought a smile to passersby and, for just a moment, a little joy to the lives of hundreds.
This performance was part of Sitelines 2008, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s site-specific performance series. The 20-minute performance began with static marching and contracted hopping. The movement became more frantic, mirroring the busy street beyond. It then turned calm, as the dancers united in a Tai Chi movement formation. Showstopper dance sequences to the tune “Get Happy” provided a rousing dynamic change.
DOORKNOB co-directors Shannon Gillen and Elisabeth Motley, both BFA graduates from Juilliard, seek to “connect to the audience in a real way… [to] create something true, relatable to people of all kinds.” With this performance, Motley and Gillen hoped to “get New Yorkers to be optimistic in a heightened time in the world, to [open them up to] the possibility of thinking optimistically.”
If changing the world one dance step at a time sounds like something you could get into, look for more events as part of the LMCC’s outdoor Sitelines series. Coming up in July, Risa Jaroslow & Dancers will perform their work “311” at the Municipal Building, and the 360° Dance Company will perform “Maktub” at South Street Seaport, Pier 17.
Cebu Detention and Rehabilitation Center in the Philippines, once considered the most dangerous prison on the island, is now an inspiration to institutions--and dance teachers--around the world.
Overseer Byron Garcia, who had no previous prison management experience, began experimenting with dance as part of the morning exercise routine. Inmates facing life sentences for drug dealing, rape and mass murder now find themselves united in a communal dance experience. And, over 20 million YouTube hits later, the prisoners are globally famous to boot. “Deep within us there is a will to change,” says inmate Leo Suico, who is accused of mass murder. “[Dance is] the biggest thing that changed us, because it occupied our time. We have no time to think of the problems of our case.”
Amidst a sea of orange uniforms, choreographer Gwen Lador, standing less than five feet tall, is the mastermind behind the dance moves. “I didn’t want to do it, because I was scared,” she says. “And then one of [the prisoners] said, ‘Madam, I’ll help you with whatever you need.’ So my fear vanished.”
Lador teaches the 1,500 inmates everyday, sometimes for five hours a day, starting at 6 am. (The challenge, she states, is not teaching them dance, but teaching them musical coordination.) Introducing dance to these men has turned their heads from the numbing power of drugs to the unifying, endorphin-enhancing power of dance. It seems as if all they needed was someone to believe they could do something, and slowly they danced their way into a second chance at life. “They no longer feel like lowly criminals; they feel like celebrity criminals,” Garcia says.
The inmates have learned popular dance combinations like “YMCA,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Sister Act” and “Soulja Boy,” but their most famous, with over 16 million YouTube hits to date, is “Thriller.” Crisanto Niere, the star of the video, says his son used to be ashamed of him, but, “now when he goes to school, he tells everyone the dancer on the internet is his father. It makes me proud that my son is proud of me."
Garcia and Lador shrug their shoulders at the United States prison officials who said that dance couldn’t work in prisons. Not only was it an effective exercise routine, it also unified the men, rehabilitated addictions, lifted animosity and produced friendships. When filming “Thriller,” Michael Jackson probably never imagined what kind of an impact the work could have. It’s truly a modern-day rain dance, with the power to renew and heal, and when the clouds come rolling in, wash away the destruction of lives distorted by aggression.
Check out Byron Garcia’s YouTube page with all of the original Cebu inmate video postings. For more information about how dance changed the lives of these prisoners, view the Journeyman Pictures’ documentary.