Chloé Arnold Takes Us For A Walk In Her (Tap) Shoes

Chloé Arnold at Steps on Broadway, New York City. Photo by Rachel Papo

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."

Click here to watch Chloé Arnold's advanced tap class at Steps on Broadway in NYC.

Also in "Five Teachers, Five Venues":

Daniel Lewis: Innovator

Linda Kent: Pioneer

Sue Sampson-Dalena: Builder

Ronald Alexander: Nurturer


Music
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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