Just for fun
Screenshot via YouTube

Tiffany & Co. primarily sell jewelry, but it's their new dance-filled commercials that we're really sold on! Elle Fanning stars in the luxury retailer's latest dancetastic ad and we must say, the starlet's got moves. Though she may not be a ballet dancer (a fact which was made painfully clear in a 2017 Vanity Fair video of Fanning supposedly demonstrating how to do a piqué turn on pointe) Fanning's high energy performance proves she can groove and freestyle with the best of them. In fact, Fanning does appear alongside all-star dancer Maddie Ziegler, who's also been featured in a previous dance inspired commercials by Tiffany & Co.

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Degree programs give commercial dancers a leg up.

Point Park invites agents and directors to concerts to help students book jobs.

The commercial dance world can be overwhelming for doe-eyed dancers who move to Los Angeles after high school. They have to get an agent, audition constantly and network, while also finding ways to support themselves financially. High school students may argue that college takes valuable years away from a commercial dancer’s career, but school can provide a stepping-stone for those who may not yet have the life skills for professional work. Many schools offer versatile commercial-minded curriculum and repertoire, networking opportunities and a safe environment for students to mature as artists.

Jim Keith, president of The Movement Talent Agency, says he often sees a difference in college dancers’ professionalism and training. “There’s nothing better than an educated dancer. They seem to be more organized and more likely to follow through. They’re also well-rounded, prepared and punctual.”

Making Connections

Beyond conventions, many young dancers haven’t had a chance to work intimately with dance professionals. Pace University commercial dance BFA director Rhonda Miller says building a network is essential to landing a job in the tight-knit industry. Though the New York City–based program is only in its second year, the faculty includes working artists like Al Blackstone and Joey Dowling, and the school invites top choreographers to teach workshops and stagers to set rep. Recent guests include Mandy Moore, Brian Friedman and Gregg Russell.

At Point Park University in Pittsburgh, dance department chair Susan Stowe invites agents and artistic directors to the school’s senior solo performance. Attendees receive students’ resumés and contact information and spend two days teaching repertory, interviewing students and giving technique classes. This gives dancers a better chance to be seen than at massive cattle-call auditions, and the agents see how a potential hire works in the studio and onstage. Regardless of job outcome, students get an opportunity to workshop material and receive feedback from people in the business. “The best thing I can do for my students is get them in front of people who can cast them or recommend them to other casting directors,” says Stowe. “Several students each year get job opportunities out of it.”

Training for the Biz

In college, students have time to solidify their training and become more versatile dancers. At Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, there is equal emphasis on ballet, jazz and modern. Chair Patrick Damon Rago says this offers students the rigorous study they need to transform them into complex movers. “What if someone asks you to improvise in an audition?” says Rago, whose students have danced with Cirque du Soleil and on Broadway tours and “Glee.” He says college dancers are better equipped to tackle the surprises thrown at them.

Rhonda Miller (center) with Pace dancers

Learning about the industry is as important as honing technique. Point Park has a class in which students learn how to join an artists’ union, read contracts and make dance reels. And Pace students take singing and acting—skills that give them an edge in commercial dance’s broad field. They are also required to take Dance Seminar, a class geared toward learning how to navigate a career in dance. “People usually don’t understand how to deal with casting directors or getting an agent,” says Miller. “The more dancers know, the more employable they are.”

Plus, there is always life outside of dance to consider. How can dancers support themselves financially while they look for the next gig? Pursuing a minor or building other skills gives graduates an edge—they can turn to less physically demanding, steady jobs like administration and marketing, and build skills that will help them succeed once their performance careers end. DT

Photo courtesy of Point Park

Photo courtesy of Pace

Sheryl Murakami’s bold moves

Murakami’s popular Saturday jazz funk class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in L.A.

Inside Hollywood’s EDGE Performing Arts Center, five industrial spotlights illuminate a dim room, making it seem more like a stage than a sweaty studio. At various points during the lively jazz funk class, instructor Sheryl Murakami picks up a light and shines it on an individual student, urging her to go full-out. It’s all part of Murakami’s master plan to make her students feel—and dance—like stars.

“I take these lights to class to make dancers feel like they’re performing,” she says. “Most classes have such sterile lighting, and I want them to feel like they’re onstage.”

Clad in a tiger-striped purple unitard and metallic Dodgers baseball cap, Murakami herself is no stranger to the spotlight: The sultry Japanese-American choreographer snagged an MTV Video Music Award in 2011 for her work on Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls)” video and has danced for Lady Gaga. And now, after 13 years choreographing and dancing in New York, Murakami has moved back to Los Angeles to set her sights on elevating her commercial career and directing the music video stars she’s helped make famous.

She’s also transitioned from teaching at NYC’s Broadway Dance Center to L.A.’s EDGE, where students are eager for a chance to learn from the pint-sized powerhouse. As one watches her lead class, it’s evident why artists like Beyoncé and Gaga have been drawn to her sensibility. The students come alive as they perform a combination to Kelly Rowland’s “Down for Whatever” that shows off the choreographer’s feline-like signature movement style.

The 8-counts have the dancers writhing on the floor, hitting come-hither poses and traveling across the room, while Murakami yells out animated directives in her raspy voice. (There’s humor, too: She ad-libs, “Cleanup in aisle two!” after one of the dancers accidentally breaks a spotlight.) “My choreography is simple to understand—classy, sexy and strong,” she says. “I believe females should be powerful and still have sexuality.”

To draw out this side of dancers, Murakami’s philosophy is straightforward. “It’s about getting comfortable and being confident, so I accomplish that with positive reinforcement,” she says. “I like to emphasize good energy throughout the room—it’s easy to get stressed out with a teacher who’s hard on you. Dance is supposed to be fun.”

The Road to New York City

Though dance is now her livelihood, Murakami very easily could have gone down a different road. The charismatic California native grew up in Huntington Beach, where she studied classical ballet at the Huntington Academy of Dance until age 15. In high school, she joined Marina High School’s well-known dance program, and she competed frequently at Showstopper with two Orange County studios, Jimmie DeFore Dance Center and Pace Dance & Performing Arts Center. “I choreographed all of my own pieces,” she says.

At 16, she signed with famed agent Julie McDonald, who got her hired on “Star Search” and for an L.A. Gear commercial. But just as the dancer appeared poised to launch a successful career, life intervened. Family finances were precarious, and a part-time job kept her from auditioning—and that got her dropped from McDonald’s agency list. Around age 18, Murakami “got involved in a lot of bad circles” and stopped dancing completely. “I rebelled against my family and those who loved me,” she says. “I was young and mad at the world.”

Luckily, dance drew her in again in her early 20s, when, after a two-year hiatus, she booked a two-week job at the Tropicana hotel in Atlantic City. When it concluded, she decided to try for a fresh start in New York City. “I needed a new life and to change, to grow up,” she says.

Not long after her arrival, she met choreographer Jermaine Browne, who invited her to attend his class at Broadway Dance Center. “It was there that I reconnected and found my passion again,” she says. “I look at him as my angel.”

She started teaching dance at local gyms and found an in at Broadway Dance Center when she subbed for Salim “Slam” Gauwloos. Soon she joined the faculty teaching jazz funk. Browne says her BDC classes really took off, thanks to her uninhibited approach.

“What makes Sheryl’s class stand out is her raw feminine sexuality, ” he says. “It was so different because, at the time, no one was doing movement like that in New York. She’s always been willing to buck the trends, and it’s a great testament to her tenacity and confidence.”

Around the same time, she also signed with Clear Talent Group and started booking dance and choreography gigs. “New York City was fascinating to me, and the big city became small and tightly knit with so much culture, art and unexplainable energy on every corner,” she says. “I was beyond inspired.”

Pop Life

After teaching for about five years, Murakami realized the work she’d made for class could be performed onstage. In 2006, she formed her own company, naming it T(H)RASH in homage to the sexy hair-thrashing movements that often appeared in her choreography. With an in-your-face style she calls “jazz funk/rock/twisted cabaret,” the all-female company performed in rock clubs around the city. “We performed at every event we could, paid or unpaid,” she says.

After 13 years in NYC, Murakami is back in
L.A., building on the
success of her music video career.

And then she landed the gig that would ultimately open a new career path. A then-unknown artist, Lady Gaga, needed backup dancers for the intimate club performances she was doing in Manhattan to promote her forthcoming single, “Just Dance.” Murakami was one of just two hired. “Gaga is amazing—she’s a star. I learned to just be wild and be myself,” she says. “Little did we know she would become so huge.”

With the help of her company dancers, Murakami began filming sample music video demos “just for fun.” When her agent got word that Beyoncé’s creative director was seeking new choreographers, Murakami knew she wanted to submit something. “I shot a demo in a studio with full hair and wardrobe. We sent it in and they loved it,” she says. She was called in to perform her work for Beyoncé herself.

That demo ended up as the template for the video, “Ego”—and landed Murakami a directing credit. “Beyoncé said she fell in love with the song again when she saw my work,” she says. “That’s when you know you’ve done your job.”

Murakami loves video for its permanence and the creative freedom she has in making it. “With videos, you can capture the viewer in a more personal way through the camera with close-ups, powerful cuts and location changes,” she says. “Videos are forever and really put the ‘stamp’ visually on the song that people can watch over and over and remember.”

Coming Full Circle

After 13 years in NYC, Murakami took another leap of faith in January by moving back to Los Angeles. Her work had been largely bicoastal for a while, with periodic travel to L.A. to choreograph various music videos and teach at EDGE. “I felt I’d come full circle as a choreographer and done everything I could do in New York,” she says. Intrigued by the film and television opportunities the West Coast had to offer, she also wanted to be closer to her family. Last year, after finishing work on Kat Graham’s “Put Your Graffiti On Me” video, she posed the idea of a permanent move to her fiancé, a guitarist. “We’d been talking about it for a couple years,” she says, “and he was open to doing it with me.”

In addition to teaching at EDGE three days a week, Murakami plans to revive T(H)RASH (which dissolved in 2010) in Los Angeles. But her big plan is moving from choreographing into directing future music video projects. “I’m fascinated by directors,” she says. “I don’t even mind the 24-hour shoots—you’re dying while you’re on set, but then when it’s all edited and you see it come together, it’s just magic.”

Browne, for one, has no doubt that Murakami can pull off such an ambitious goal. “As someone who has seen Sheryl from her first week in NYC to where she is now, I’ve seen what can happen when you believe in yourself and you have something to share,” he says. “She is proof that no matter how hard it gets, things happen when you’re true to yourself.” DT

Los Angeles–based, Jen Jones Donatelli is a frequent contributor to Dance Teacher, Dance Spirit, Dance Magazine, Pointe, and Dance Retailer News.

Photos by Hao zeng

Girouard makes sure his dancers’ last run-through
is their best.

Congratulations to Brandon Girouard, the Editors’ Choice winner for Dance Teacher’s Video of the Month! His video, featured in DT September, captures one of the best parts of a convention class, when students who have been dancing all day perform the combination for the last time, pouring all their energy into the choreography.

A commercial dancer and teacher at international conventions, universities and studios, Girouard created the routine for an intermediate jazz/funk class at Encore Dance Competitions. Notably devoid of fouettés, tilts and high kicks, the upbeat combination to “I Found You” by boy band The Wanted is less about tricks and more intended to show off dancers’ personalities, he says. “I base my teaching philosophy on the quote ‘Dare to be you.’ When you strip away those technical elements, it comes down to your connection to the movement.” He adds, “I encourage my dancers to experiment, to attack the movement and get into the style. Really let your inhibitions go and be yourself.”

Girouard ends each class by bringing dancers into a circle for a motivating talk. “It’s a moment of understanding that we share this love of art. And it’s so important, particularly on the competition circuit, to remember we’re all on this journey together,” he says. “Coming together in a circle is a way to bring that energy in as a group and celebrate the dancing we just did.”

Watch the winning video:

Want to build buzz about your studio, workshop or class? Posting videos to the Dance Teacher Video of the Month Contest is quick, easy and free—and it’s a great way to get noticed. If your video is selected as Editors’ Choice, you’ll be featured on this page, and you’ll win a free one-year subscription to DT! Don’t miss out on a great opportunity—visit dancemedia.com, share your videos and vote for your favorites. Any and all kinds of dance are welcome.

Photo by Mike Farella/Exulting Images, courtesy of Brandon Girouard

The dance world may not be Nissan's target audience, but they certainly have our attention! Check out the latest TV spot for the Altima, featuring commercial dancers Emily Williams and Robert Prescott Lee. With Lee as the car and Williams as the driver, the pair demonstrates the safety features and agility of the new model through movement. It's really cool! And whether you care about "moving object detection" or not, you'll definitely enjoy watching these two move down the road more than a boring ol' automobile. Props to the advertisers behind this one:

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