Ever wondered what it would be like to walk in a colleague’s shoes? There might be few professions where the basic job description varies as greatly as that of dance teacher. The tasks and objectives can be as different as the settings where they are practiced: studio, high school, university, conservatory, company, festival, summer intensive, community rec center. Here, five educators talk about the challenges and rewards of their particular career paths.
When Chloé Arnold was 10 years old, Savion Glover visited her hometown of Washington, DC, to audition dancers for a local crew. Arnold made the group and spent four hours every day for the next month rehearsing with the tap heavyweight. She studied with Glover again the following year. And shortly after that, Savion took his DC dancers to New York City to perform in Frank Hatchett’s Broadway showcase. The trip was pivotal. “I was like, ‘Wow, you can really tap dance; this is a lifestyle. This isn’t just something I’m doing; this is what I want to do,’” says Arnold.
Today, Arnold is a tap luminary in her own right. She’s performed in stage shows such as Imagine Tap, Thank You, Gregory and Charlie’s Angels: A Tribute to Charlie Parker. She was Beyoncé’s dance double in the video “Upgrade U” and danced in the movie Idlewild.
But Arnold makes perhaps her biggest impact at tap festivals. Annually, she performs or teaches in at least a dozen international festivals. She’s been the co-director of the L.A. Tap Festival since its launch in 2003, and in 2008, she and her sister Maud founded the DC Tap Festival. Each fest lasts only a few days, but Arnold knows the power of brief encounters—like those she had early on with Glover and also with Debbie Allen, who became her mentor. “Savion and Debbie were able to come to DC, change my life and go on about their business,” she says. “That’s the thing that makes me the most excited about what we do. I can look at the students who come to the L.A. or DC festivals and see the potential and then see the growth.”
Though Arnold’s now a staple on the festival scene, she never attended one as a student. She says L.A. Tap Festival director Jason Samuels Smith also had limited fest experience. So how did they know where to begin? “I researched every festival around,” Arnold says. “When you’re creating any business, the smartest thing to do is find out what’s out there, what exists already, what people enjoy about that.”
In the tap field, where careers are patched together job by job, this entrepreneurial spirit has served Arnold well. “The reality of it is that when you’re a tap dancer, you have to create opportunities and venues that aren’t going to be created for you,” she says. (Her one-woman show, My Life, My Diary, My Dance, debuts this month at La MaMa in New York.)
Arnold has an innate ambition, but Debbie Allen also nurtured this trait. At 16, Arnold was cast in Allen’s dance musical Brothers of the Knight. Since then, the two have worked together in various capacities. Arnold has been Allen’s associate choreographer and has shadowed her mentor when Allen has directed TV projects. Allen is also the founder of the L.A. Tap Festival. “In each instance, I learn something different,” Arnold says. “Debbie’s not just a dancer: She’s a director, a choreographer, a visionary. So much of what I know comes from her.”
Arnold encourages an enterprising attitude in her festival students. In addition to classes, student showcases and jam sessions, the L.A. Tap Festival has included a panel discussion called “The Business of Show Business.” In DC, they’ve held seminars on how to build interest in tap. She also shares knowledge informally; talking at length with students about everything from training techniques to resumés and headshots.
When her students do create their own work, Arnold happily lends her name and time to help ensure their success. For instance, when Emilie Koenig, a former assistant, premiered the Space City Tap Fest in Houston last February, Jason Samuels Smith and both Chloé and Maud Arnold were there to support her; they’re all on the faculty roster again this year.
Indeed, in the tight-knit tap community, making connections is almost as valuable as the dancing itself. Arnold first met tap dancer Baakari Wilder when they were both part of Glover’s DC crew. Later, she was his student, and last year, he taught at her DC Tap Festival. At the L.A. Tap Festival, everyone—dancers and faculty—eats lunch together, a setup specifically intended to foster these types of relationships.
“I tell my students, ‘All you have to do is reach out,’” Arnold says. “You’re going to end up working together and helping each other put on shows. It’s so incredible to see that happening.” DT
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Photo by Rachel Papo