Teachers & Role Models

Jody Sperling Brings the Magic of Loie Fuller to La Danseuse

Sperling in her Time-Lapse Fantasy (2013). Photo courtesy of Time Lapse Dance
When French director Stéphanie Di Giusto set out to create a film about Loie Fuller, the modern dancer (1862–1928) known for her groundbreaking work with fabric and lighting design, Di Giusto came to Jody Sperling for advice. For the past 17 years, Sperling has made a name for herself as an expert on "La Loïe" by breathing new life into Fuller's work via Sperling's small company, Time Lapse Dance. She and her dancers masterfully re-create Fuller's serpentine, otherworldly style—a process that requires considerable upper-body strength to manipulate voluminous, cape-like costumes.

La Danseuse, which premiered at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival last May, explores Fuller's bon vivant expatriate life in Paris. Granted, says Sperling, the film “takes a lot of license with history," but Di Giusto wasn't interested in a strict retelling. “She didn't want to do a museum piece," says Sperling. “She wanted to tell Loie's story in a way that would speak to a contemporary audience."


Training: BA in dance and Italian from Wesleyan University; MA in performance studies from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts

Performance: Founded Time Lapse Dance in 2000; served as choreographer and consultant for the 2016 film La Danseuse

On training French singer-songwriter/actress SoKo to dance “I worked with SoKo [as Loie] every day but Sunday, between five and six hours a day, for five weeks. She'd never had any dance training before. I'd do my own practice in the morning, and then she'd come in, and I would give her a dance class. She had this spontaneous energy but not the balance or control. She was a fantastic student, very focused and motivated."

Seeing her research on Loie Fuller come to life “I gave a broad range of input for the costuming and the lighting. There's a scene in the movie with charts on the wall, which are basically copied from my notebook—for example, how to draw the costume. And in the movie Loie [the character] tells the costume woman, 'I don't want it to be like number 77. I want it to be like 79.'"

The biggest training surprise “The feet were so important. You think it's all in the arms—the director wanted me to work on SoKo's arm strength—but what's going to make the difference is the mobility in your ankles and the depth of your plié. How you're transferring weight is amplified by the fabric."

PC Break the Floor

Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.

"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."



The Boy Factor doesn't just have to do with competition scores: It's how we treat boys throughout their dance education. "We idolize the boys," says Ashley Harnish, a teacher at a competition studio. "We build entire dances around one boy, and we teach them that we need them more than we need the girls."

On the surface, The Boy Factor is flagrant sexism. But what's really behind the phenomenon? "So often, young male dancers are bullied because our culture says that dance is for girls," says a second national competition adjudicator. "This stigma pushes some judges to reward boys by scoring them higher than their female competitors." The Boy Factor also stems from a simple fact: There are far more girls than boys in the dance world.

"Judges see boys as valuable commodities," says Marissa Jean, a staff member at Broadway Dance Center's new building for children and teens and a teacher at several competition studios. "To encourage their career in dance, judges will throw a little extra their way. It could be placing them in the top ten or giving them a special award. They nurture them a bit more than the girls."



But by trying to retain more male talent, are we suggesting to girls that they are less valuable to the dance world than boys? "There's so much about this getting into these kids' psyches," says Childress. "Like, 'Oh the boy will beat me no matter what.' How do we teach self-worth knowing that you're going up against a boy, so what's the point?"

The Boy Factor is a product of and a contributor to the culture that sends the few men in dance up the glass escalator: "Many boys growing up in the dance world are not told the word 'no' often, so they tend to climb the professional ranks more quickly than the women," says Jean. We often bemoan the absence of female leadership in dance, but the damage is already done if we've taught young women that their gender determines their value to our community.

So what can be done about The Boy Factor? First, we could change how we encourage boys to continue dancing. Instead of empowering young men by devaluing young women, we could work as a community to dispel the culture of toxic masculinity that discourages boys from pursuing dance in the first place.

But it also falls in the hands of judges and teachers. "We need to increase awareness," says the second adjudicator. "A lot of us judges don't realize what we are promoting and the messages we send through our scoring and awards. If enough of us band together, I think we can make a difference so that this part of our field is less toxic."

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