Face to Face: Shane Sparks

In January 2008, Shane Sparks told Dance Teacher that he was going to “blow everyone’s minds” as a choreographer. And since then, he has done just that. In addition to teaching at The Pulse, Star Systems and Millennium Dance Complex, he continues to be a judge on MTV’s “America’s Best Dance Crew” and a choreographer for Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance.” His Season 3 Transformers routine earned him a 2008 Emmy nomination. Recently, he made the jump from Hollywood to Broadway, co-choreographing the 2009 revival of the 1981 Tony Award–winning musical hit (and 2006 Academy Award–winning film) Dreamgirls. The show, which won rave reviews during its run in South Korea this spring, opens November 22 at New York City’s Apollo Theater. (Oh, and did we mention that he’s completely untrained as a dancer? It’s true!) Here, Sparks opens up about his successes.

Dance Teacher: How did you get involved with Dreamgirls, since you’re mainly known for hip hop?
Shane Sparks: Brooke Lavin from Clear Talent Group had to convince me. Broadway was such a different world to me—I didn’t know if I could handle it. And on top of that, I was supposed to go to Korea to create the show. I was intimidated, but she said it could change my career. I realized that it’s nothing but dancing, which is what I do every day. So I took the challenge and now it’s the number one show in Korea.

DT: Did you change Michael Bennett and Michael Peters’ choreography?
SS: I changed almost everything! And anything that looks similar is because there are only so many moves you can do. The people behind the show didn’t want me to look at the Dreamgirls movie, and I didn’t want to outdo what was originally done; I wanted to make it current. I looked at old Bob Fosse videos and drew inspiration from those. Once I had the music, I played around with it and listened to the lyrics. I choreographed based on this, and what the dancers could do, pushing them as far as I could.

DT: How is choreographing for Broadway different than for TV?
SS: It’s two different worlds. For the Dreamgirls show, the dancers rotate around the stage, so I had to choreograph as if the stage was rotating, since the dancers move around it. For example, there would be three scenes going on at once: the Dreamgirls in the front singing and acting, while two silent scenes are going on at the left and right sides of the stage. Then one of the side scenes would seamlessly become the main scene. The timing had to be perfect. For TV, if you’re not on camera then you’re frozen.

DT: Will we be able to see your style in the choreography?
SS: You will see a lot of my style in “Steppin’ to the Bad Side” because it’s so dark. A lot of my stuff is Matrix-y and I use props. For this number, I was able to put them in black three-piece suits and the movement is really militant. There’s a lot of choreography using briefcases—throwing them around with a kaleidoscope-type vibe (if viewed from above). “One Night Only” has a lot of my style in it, too. We killed it with house, disco and jazz. We brought in some of the best NYC dancers, so I had the kind of talent on my hands that would allow me to do what I wanted.

DT: Would you like to work on Broadway again?
SS: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes! I have a few concepts I would love to turn into Broadway shows or TV movies. One is an African piece I did for a benefit called Rock For Change. I saw a documentary on Darfur and couldn’t believe the situation there. I created a number about it called Rise of the Crown, where the military comes and snatches a family apart. People were crying because it’s very brutal, but the dance scenes are incredible. After it was performed, Debbie Allen came up and said, “If you turn that into a play, you’d better call me.”

DT: Is there one teacher you respect the most?
SS: Wade Robson. Even though Wade is a bit younger than me, he inspires me to think outside the box and be more inventive. He actually used to take my class when he was 10, and I remember thinking: This kid doesn’t need to take my class, he needs to be teaching. Then, a few months later he had his own class. But I didn’t take it because I don’t take classes.

DT: You don’t take classes?
SS: I don’t want to adapt to other styles outside of my own. There are too many clones in this industry. I’ve only taken a few hip-hop classes with Kevin Columbus and a ballet class. Ballet was literally the hardest thing I’ve ever done. After, I was like, “Y’all can have ballet.” Ballet dancers move in a totally different way than street dancers. I realized how weak my body is compared to ballet dancers.

DT: So, how would you describe your teaching method?
SS: Come to my class and you’ll get anything from booty shaking to gutter hip hop to lyrical hip hop to futuristic stuff. My style is unpredictable, and that’s what keeps the kids coming back. With other teachers, dancers can pick up the teacher’s style after a few classes so there is nowhere to grow. I pride myself on being able to mix in three to four different dance styles in a few eight-counts. But usually if you have a little rhythm and sense of dance, you can do my choreography. I don’t try to show off at all. It’s about the students when I’m in there. DT

Lauren Levinson is an associate editor at Dance Spirit.

Click here for a behind-the-scenes interview with Shane Sparks on Dreamgirls!

Photo by Chris Polk, courtesy of Polk Imaging

Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.


Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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