Dance History Show Proves Those Who Kick Together Stay Together

The Legacy Dancers performing in New York. Photo courtesy of Legacy 36

"Not only do Rockettes move together while physically attached, we are also forever linked through a long tradition of precision dance," says Mary Six Rupert, a former Rockette who produced, directed, and choreographed "Forever Linked: The Early History of Precision Dance Troupes."

Rupert's educational performance is this weekend in New York City and stars Legacy 36, LLC, her troup of former Rockettes, who have presented similar history programs since 2013. Novelty acts include stilt and three-legged dancers, a duet with her five-year-old nephew, and toe tap–all sandwiched between narration. Photos and videos honor all precision dancers, including the Tiller Girls, an iconic English troop that preceded the Rockettes.

As the most famous precision group, the Rockettes have resided at Radio City Music Hall since the early 1930s, but at the time, dozens of American movie palaces had their own kicklines, similar to the team in Manhattan. Before films, beautiful women dazzled onstage and became part of each cinema's year-round brand.

Today, the Rockettes are known for their annual Radio City Christmas Spectacular. Unlike other precision troops, they're still going, Rupert says.

With an eye for "eye-high" kicks, "Forever Linked" reflects Rupert's own experience with the Rockettes from 1982 to 1995, when the troop favored tap and glamorous headpieces. Styles in choreography and costumes have ebbed and flowed at Radio City, she says, but the sense of teamwork remains a constant. So does the thrill of performing for 6,000 audience members with women from various backgrounds.

Mary Six Rupert. Photo courtesy of Rupert.

"I'm connected to all Rockettes of the past and present," she muses. "There are numbers all Rockettes have done, like the 'Dance of the Wooden Soldiers,' that binds us to Radio City Music Hall and a legacy of nearly 90 years. I'm lucky and privileged to be part of that. Whatever happens going forward, I'm connected to the future as well."

Rupert grew up in a dancing family in Dallas, Texas. Her mother was a dance teacher. Her brother would later dance with the American Ballet Theatre and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. While she studied ballet and voice and had a musical theater career, tap was her base. To her, it was a serious dance form that landed her a dream job at Radio City. "I never would have imagined that for myself growing up in Texas," she says. She would later go on to perform a duet at the London Palladium with Harold Nicholas of the beloved Nicholas Brothers. They became friends. "Harold was in his 70s," she remembers. "My legacy touched the end of his."

Rupert and the Legacy Dancers performing "42nd Street." Photo courtesy Legacy 36

As a tap professor at Wagner College in Staten Island, Rupert leads classes and grades academic papers on the American dance form that continues to guide her. She also developed Tap Dancing Hands Down, a form of tapping with the hands designed for students with mobility issues.

Inspired by her own background, Rupert hopes dance teachers continue to teach tap in high heels in addition to the more fashionable flat rhythm tap shoes. Also, synchronicity requires discipline and spatial awareness, the ability to guide "two chests to the right" in order to maintain formations.

"You can't stand out in precision dance," she explains. "There's nothing wrong with dancing as an individual, but precision means that a large group of different women come together to dance as one person. I love that."

If you're in Manhattan Saturday, June 9, learn more about kickline history at "Forever Linked" at 6 pm at Schimmel Center, 3 Spruce Street. Tickets are $15 for students and children and $30 for adults. To take classes with Rupert, visit her at Bridge for Dance in Manhattan.

Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.

"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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