An old Phil Collins song poses the idea of “two hearts, living in just one mind.” For Tabitha and Napoleon D’umo, this idea is very much reality. The solidarity they share translates not only to their marriage of 10 years, but also to their work as two of today’s most renowned choreographers and instructors. From finishing each other’s sentences to wearing matching outfits to class (“in the early days!” insists Napoleon), the pair is truly in sync. The unique vision that arises from their collaboration gives each of their projects—including “So You Think You Can Dance,” “America’s Best Dance Crew” and Celine Dion’s “Taking Chances” concert tour—double the impact. Find out what makes this terrific twosome tick in this exclusive DT interview.



The Genesis

While growing up on opposite coasts, Tabitha and Napoleon had vastly different dance upbringings. As a B-boy, Napoleon often made the trek from his hometown of Apple Valley, California, to Los Angeles, where the ’80s breakdancing scene was in full effect. “There was a parking lot on Hollywood Boulevard by Grauman’s Chinese Theatre where people would break every week,” recalls Napoleon, who was cast as an extra in the 1984 breakdancing movie Breakin’ 2: Electric Bugaloo. “I got to watch the best in the business, like Popin’ Pete and Mr. Wiggles. Freestyling was how it all started for me.”

Tabitha’s dance training was slightly more traditional. Born Tabitha Cortopassi, she studied jazz dance while growing up in southern New Jersey. In high school, she joined the dance and cheer teams—yet maintains that she learned the most from MTV. “There were no hip-hop classes, so the only training I got in that area was by watching music videos,” explains Tabitha. “You had to be self-taught. I was inspired by Paula Abdul, Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson.”

It was at University of Nevada–Las Vegas that the dancing duo met for the first time. Although he was a pre-med student and she was majoring in communications, the two got to know each other in—where else?—dance class. “I was a buff bodybuilder at the time, about 210 pounds,” says Napoleon. “I had some fine arts requirements, so rather than taking history of rock ’n’ roll, I thought I’d take some jazz and modern classes. Tabitha and her dance team friends walked by the dance room and saw me doing leaps across the floor.” Of their fateful encounter, Tabitha remembers thinking, “‘Is that Napoleon?’ We had always run in the same circles, and he’d always pretended he couldn’t dance. He was so busted!”

After discovering Napoleon’s dance chops, Tabitha convinced him and his bodybuilder friends to practice stunts with the cheer and dance team. The coach’s resulting offer of a full scholarship convinced a reluctant Napoleon to join the squad, and Tabitha and Napoleon became fast friends—and, a few years later, a couple.

Together, they auditioned for a local dance company, Culture Shock, which soon led to numerous choreography and performance opportunities. The two began choreographing industrials for such companies as Nike, Matrix and Levi’s, as well as teaching at conventions and working with pop stars like Jody Watley and Kristine W.

All of a sudden, despite the fact that Napoleon was poised to attend medical school in Reno and Tabitha had a job in public relations at the Rio Casino in Vegas, the pair began to consider pursuing dance professionally full-time. “All through college, we’d been part of this company and made money doing it, but not enough to think of it as a career,” explains Tabitha. Napoleon adds, “That was the start of us saying, ‘Maybe we should go to Los Angeles and do this.’”

In 1999, a year after getting married, the D’umos did just that. “We went from being the choreographers in Las Vegas to having to start over in L.A.,” says Napoleon. “It’s been an amazing road.”


The Gamble Pays Off

In the 10 years since they left Las Vegas, the D’umos have amassed a hefty resumé of credits that includes assistant direction on concert tours for Christina Aguilera, Ricky Martin and Kanye West, as well as choreography for artists like Solange and Missy Elliott. The couple has also choreographed for “Zoey 101,” the Grammys and the Billboard Music Awards, as well as several NFL and NBA dance teams.

Earlier this year, Tabitha and Napoleon made their debut as choreographers and judges on Fox’s hit show “So You Think You Can Dance.” Working alongside top names like Mia Michaels, Tyce Diorio and Wade Robson, Tabitha and Napoleon suddenly earned national name recognition from millions of viewers. “We’ve choreographed in a lot of different areas, but this show has raised our profile more than any other project,” acknowledges Tabitha.

Along with creating the contestants’ routines, the pair also coached the dancers on how to win over the audience and play to the camera. “Viewers don’t know anything about the steps—it’s about seeing things through a non-dancer’s eyes,” says Napoleon. “Sure, they love the big tricks, but in general, the audience just wants you to make them feel something. Dancers often get so caught up in steps that they forget about the most important things—body language, facial expressions. There should be an emotion for each song, or else why play the music?”

This approach also comes into play in their work on the MTV show “America’s Best Dance Crew.” As artistic directors for “ABDC,” Tabitha and Napoleon work behind the scenes with each hip-hop crew to perfect and polish routines—as well as create an overall vibe for the show. Also raising the couple’s on-air profile is “Rock the Reception,” a TLC show on which they create “first dance” numbers for newlyweds.

Tabitha and Napoleon are thrilled to be part of television shows that are bringing dance to the pop-culture forefront—making the 16-hour days well worth it. “This trend is bringing dancers into the limelight and showing America that they can entertain without being the supporting act,” says Napoleon. Adds Tabitha, “This is the first time in a long time that choreographers are being celebrated as well as dancers. Yet, bottom line, we do what we do because we love it—not because of the recognition.”

Looking back, the D’umos believe that it was their time in Las Vegas that gave them the unique perspective to stand out. “[Audiences] want you to tell them a story that either makes them laugh or cry,” says Napoleon. “Starting out doing industrials in Vegas was where we learned how to do that. All the conventions wanted to see skin or people flying through the air. We had to learn how to entertain them with hip hop without having ‘T&A’ or Cirque du Soleil. As a result, our work is largely centered on storytelling and physical comedy.”


Teaching in Tandem

Although Tabitha and Napoleon’s schedule is jam-packed with jobs, they still consider it crucial to find time to teach, which they do—“always together,” says Napoleon—at EDGE Performing Arts Center and Millennium Dance Complex in Los Angeles, as well as for conventions like JUMP and Monsters of HipHop. (They also directed this year’s Monsters of HipHop Show in August.) “Teaching forces us to continue to push ourselves so we don’t get rusty or stale,” says Tabitha. “Kids nowadays are so talented and amazing, and they’ll tell you when your stuff is wack.” Napoleon agrees: “It keeps you on your game as far as what’s new and hip. If you just stay in the choreography world, you can really get lost on how hip-hop style is evolving.”

Tabitha adds that students today don’t suffer from the dearth of training opportunities in hip hop that existed when she was growing up. “I mimicked the music videos because that’s all I was exposed to,” she says. “My career in hip hop started much later; kids today at 10 years old are where I was when I was 19. I think it’s a great thing, but it does make me nervous because they can burn out quickly. You just hope that they still have time to enjoy what they love.”

Though many might think teaching and choreography go hand-in-hand, Tabitha and Napoleon are adamant that their approach to each couldn’t be more different. Teaching class allows them to focus more on technique, while their choreography is centered on storyline and staging. “When teaching, you’re giving specific instruction on steps, whereas in choreography, you’re just providing a skeleton for the dancers to look good and tell a story,” explains Napoleon.

Of course, the couple’s strong belief in storytelling translates to the classroom as well. “Any dancer’s job is to tell a story through his or her body,” says Tabitha. “That’s what we always preach in our classes: ‘Figure out exactly what this song says to you.’ It doesn’t always have to be serious; it can be funny, angry, silly, sad—but I should be able to watch you and get it.”

Whether at a convention or in the studio, one trademark of their classes is the element of fun. The pair maintains a high-energy and nurturing hip-hop environment. Says Napoleon, “The dancers should feel so comfortable that they’re ready to let loose. If they go overboard, we can calm them down—but I’d rather have that than them not be willing to go for it and try.”

Their approach is a natural extension of their friendly personalities, but Napoleon also recalls a teacher from his early days who was particularly influential. “Tony Stone would high-five me every time he saw me and say, ‘So good to see you,’” he recalls. “In my heart, I knew there was no way he knew who I was, but I felt so good every time I was done with class and couldn’t wait to take another one.”


Off the Clock

With so many different projects, how do Tabitha and Napoleon keep their personal and professional life separate? “We don’t,” says Tabitha, laughing. “Even when we go to the movies or to dinner, we’ll talk about, ‘What if?’ When we hear songs on the radio, we’ll say, ‘That would make a great ‘So You Think’ number.’”

Working as a team, Tabitha and Napoleon collaborate on all of the creative duties, but split up the behind-the-scenes work. Tabitha calls herself the “dorky, nerdy organizer,” coordinating schedules and paperwork, while Napoleon handles music mixing and the financial side of things. “We look at it as a hobby, so it doesn’t feel like work,” he says. “We have a studio in our house, and when we feel like dancing, we just jump up and do it!”

Of course, they don’t see eye-to-eye all of the time. Tabitha prefers to sit down together for brainstorming sessions, whereas Napoleon likes to come up with ideas while jogging or driving. Yet even when they disagree on how choreography should look, they always hear each other out with respect. “I really take his opinion seriously and vice versa,” says Tabitha. “We try to stay patient, listen and let go of our egos. Maybe because we’re husband and wife, we know at the end of the day we’re going home together and all of our decisions will help both of us prosper.”

Looking ahead, Tabitha and Napoleon have no plans to slow down. Riding the momentum of their newfound fame, they hope to executive produce and direct a hip hop–oriented Broadway musical, as well as take on more large-scale gigs as artistic directors. “Assistant directing Celine’s last tour really opened the door for us,” says Napoleon. “Now we’re artistic directing the live tour of ‘America’s Best Dance Crew,’ and that’s really the direction we want to go.”

No matter what, Tabitha and Napoleon plan to navigate the path together—while loving every minute of it. “We just have fun,” says Napoleon. “I could have gone to med school, and she could have been in the advertising world. But we’re dancing! It doesn’t get any better than that.” DT


Jen Jones is a freelance writer and certified
BalleCore instructor in Los Angeles. Her website is www.creative-groove.com.




















































Photo by Tim Trumble, courtesy of Arizona State University

Many parents discourage their teenagers from majoring in dance because of fear that their child will become a struggling artist in an unforgiving city, only to end their career in injury. But a dance degree can lead to other corners of the profession, such as marketing, physical therapy and arts administration. "Parents always say their children need something to fall back on," says Daniel Lewis, former dean of the dance division at New World School of the Arts. "They only see the stage time, applause and flowers. But there's choreographing, teaching, PR—the careers are endless."

Others are more concerned with disappointment. "Your daughter doesn't have to be a major ballerina with ABT to be successful," says Lewis. "If she wants to be a dancer, she'll find the work. There's a certain amount of training you have to achieve before you even get accepted into a good college, so if you have the talent, and the drive, you can make it."

As mentors, teachers can be monumentally influential on students' college decision processes. Read on to hear from three dance majors who feel grateful they chose this path—and share their words with your students!

Keep reading... Show less
To show her support for local studios, Kelly Berick requires all her students to be enrolled in an after-school program. Photo by Stephanie Csejtey, courtesy of Akron School of the Arts

When Kelly Berick began teaching high school students at Ohio's Firestone Community Learning Center within Akron Public Schools 21 years ago, she was newly engaged, newly licensed to teach K–12 dance and thrilled to land what she considered the perfect job. Her enthusiasm quickly soured, however, when after two weeks of teaching she called a local studio to introduce herself. "The owner told me her students didn't like me, didn't like what I was doing and were going to quit my program," she says. Her class of seven became a class of three.

Keep reading... Show less
Photo by Matthew Murphy

Jacqulyn Buglisi has a flair for drama. To encourage the students in her intermediate and advanced Graham classes at The Ailey School to open their sternums in a high release, she tells them to stretch “like a flower came out of your heart." When attempting to convey the weight of a hand gesture, she explains that they must “pull the hem of heaven from the sky." During the extensive warm-up sequence, she reminds them that this is no time for complacency: “We don't do positions. We dance the series." Despite her penchant for the Graham dramatics, Buglisi is equally quick to curb any excess of melodrama in her students. “No Swan Lake with the arms," she admonishes one whose wrists are limply crossed.

Keep reading... Show less
Teachers & Role Models
Robert Roldan and partner Taylor Sieve (courtesy of FOX)

Robert Roldan may have stolen our hearts on Season 7 of "So You Think You Can Dance"—but it seems his heart was stolen long before that by none other than Emmy Award winning choreographer, Mandy Moore.

As his first jazz teacher at Bobby's School of Performing Arts in Thousand Oaks California, Roldan says Moore taught him everything he knows about dancing. Now, as an All-Star on this season of "So You Think You Can Dance," he's applying those invaluable lessons with partner Taylor Sieve.

"What Mandy has always taught me, is that you need to feel the emotion and intention of the pieces you perform as a human before you can apply it to your dancing. Because of this, the week that Taylor and I performed Mandy's piece, I used the entire two hours of private rehearsal time we had to talk about what the piece was about and how we could connect to it as humans. I believe that doing this was ultimately more valuable than any time we could have spent cleaning details and making the piece perfect. Mandy taught me this at a young age, and I try to apply it to Taylor as much as I possibly can when I teach her. People won't connect to how high your leg is or what crazy tricks you can do. They want to feel something. And when you feel it, they feel it."

Watch Roldan on "So You Think You Can Dance" tonight on FOX.

Teachers & Role Models
Camille Rommett, left, with her mother Zena, who founded the floor-barre method. Photo courtesy of Rommett.

In 1965, Zena Rommett was asked to teach her unique Floor-Barre method at the American Ballet Center by ballet legend Robert Joffrey. Her gentle-yet-effective technique inspired countless professional dancers over the years, who became faithful followers as a supplement to their dance training. From choreographer Lar Lubovitch to Tommy Tune, Patrick Swayze and Judith Jamison, many swear by the benefits of the technique. Rommett taught it until she was 90.

The summer after Rommett's death, her daughter Camille made her debut on the faculty of our Dance Teacher Summit. She describes teaching to a packed convention room as "a very humbling experience." Despite students often telling her she sounds similar to her mother, she's learned it's not about filling her mother's shoes, but keeping her mother's legacy—and the integrity of the technique—alive.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Thinkstock

I have heard you say that tight hamstrings prevent full extension of the knees and that you prefer hamstring stretches in a standing position, rather than on the floor. Can you explain why?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Buzz
Photo by Julieta Cervantes

In February 2016, we featured the women of Ragamala Dance, the Minneapolis-based bharatanatyam company founded by mother-and-daughter team Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy. (Daughter Ashwini is a dancer in the company and the troupe's publicist.) Since they appeared on our cover, they've had a busy year and a half, full of performances and exciting news. This weekend, they're featuring their mentor, Alarmél Valli, in a special performance at The Cowles Center for Dance & the Performing Arts in Minneapolis.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox

Win It!

Sponsored