How Beyoncé’s Choreographer Knows She’s Found the Perfect Song

Courtesy Alsop

For choreographer and teacher James Alsop to choose a piece of music for class, it has to make her groove.

"You're sitting down and your body can't help but to move," she says. A heel tap or a subtle sway of the hips—any organic movement that manifests from her gut—is the sign of a stellar, dance-worthy song.

This visceral reaction to music can be unpredictable, says Alsop, who's choreographed for artists like J. Lo and Beyoncé, for the Netflix series "The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" and "Soundtrack," and for The Devil Wears Prada, set to open on Broadway in 2021. "It can happen with Kimbra or something real hood. It just depends on what moves me. Right now, it's Afrobeats," she says.

Compared to Alsop's music-choosing process, her path to becoming a sought-after choreographer was more foreseeable. Though she realized early on in her career that she wanted to be a choreographer, she knew that she had to work as a dancer first. A major break arrived in 2010: While acting in a supporting role in the musical indie film Leave It on the Floor, Alsop was put on the spot to choreograph a scene in an hour by the film's co-producer, Frank Gatson Jr., who also happened to be Beyoncé's creative director.

Gatson was impressed. Not long after, Alsop was introducing her signature style—a mix of jazz, ballet and contemporary technique, with accents of hip hop and funk—to Beyoncé in person. The star immediately fell in love with Alsop's interpretation of her music. This meeting resulted in the iconic music video "Run the World (Girls)."

Working with Beyoncé was like a dream, says Alsop. "She's an out-of-this-world creative force. A lot of my firsts were with Beyoncé. I learned to work under pressure as a teacher and come up with choreography in an instant."

Whether she's working with pop stars or young dancers, music has always been the motivating force behind Alsop's work, especially as a teacher. She loves challenging students' musicality: When teaching syncopation or a complicated rhythm, she'll "say the song" (for example, "boom tap tap, boom tap tap") with no music, and have the class repeat the sounds back to her four or five times. Then, she'll incorporate the movement. "This makes it easier for dancers to retain because they've instilled the rhythm into their entire bodies," she says. "Repetition is really important to get the beat."

Alsop strives to mix up her music selection to energize her classes. "Dance teachers were always the ones who introduced me to new music," she says. "I always fell in love with new sounds in class that inspired creativity that you might not get from what everyone else is playing."

Her current hunt for new artists and genres includes asking friends from all over the world for recommendations before spending hours of falling down YouTube rabbit holes. "I'll type in 'West African dance' and find this incredible song with dancers from Nigeria or Ghana, and then I'll type in 'Afro-Cuban' and find amazing Brazilian songs," says Alsop.

Alsop made Dance Teacher a playlist of her favorite songs to use for class, and shared some of the artists and songs that inspire her:

Janet Jackson's entire collection

"Any song from any album. I love her forever. She's always been a reason you wake up and go in the morning. Everything about her musical composition to her production to her lyrics to her background vocals are otherworldly."

Master KG's "Jerusalema"

"This is just a global feel-good song. It is literally about spreading love across the world and it comes with its own line dance. How could you not love it?"

Mariah Carey's Emancipation of Mimi

"This album is a vocal masterpiece. It's also a reminder to never count yourself out. Mariah had been through a lot, and much doubt had been cast on her career. Then she clobbered everyone over the head with the mastery."

Beyoncé's "Freakum Dress"

"This is a go-to dance song for me. From the loud drum and bass of Rich Harrison's production to the meaning, all the way down to the incredible choreography of Jonte' & Ramon. This song and video solidify Beyoncé as one of the best to ever do it. I can't hear this song and not do the original choreo."

Jessie Ware's What's Your Pleasure?

"In my personal opinion, this is the best pop album, and I may even dare to say the best album to be released this year. Talk about the most perfect pick-me-up from beginning to end during a year full of quarantine. There's something for everyone on this album and it's all based in dance."

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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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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."

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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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