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Viral Stars, The 'Syncopated Ladies,' Shake Up Tap Dancing

Apr 13, 2019
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally today, let's talk about tap dance. And we're not talking about politicians trying to get out of answering hard questions. And we're not even talking about another image you might have of old guys in tuxedos from the 1940s. No, we're talking about the Syncopated Ladies, an all-female tap squad that has become an Internet sensation for their tight moves set to popular music, think Prince and Beyonce.

(SOUNDBITE OF SYNCOPATED LADIES PERFORMANCE)

MARTIN: You might have caught them on the TV show "So You Think You Can Dance" or featured on Beyonce's home page. Two sisters, Maud and Chloe Arnold, founded the group. They're here in Washington, D.C., this weekend for their annual concert and showcase. So we thought this was a good time to hear more about the group and how they're changing the look of tap.

And Chloe Arnold is with us now to represent both sisters. And she's with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

CHLOE ARNOLD: Thank you Michel. I'm so, so happy to be here. And I'm really excited to talk about tap dancing.

MARTIN: And thanks for taking time out of a really busy schedule of master classes and all the things that you're doing. As I mentioned, this is your hometown. How did you get started in tap dancing? Was it, like, the usual you had too much energy, so mom put you in a class?

ARNOLD: Well, my mom did dance for fun when she was growing up. And so it was something that she wanted to just share with her kids. And then she saw that we were really loving it. And so she started to seek out more opportunities.

MARTIN: What is it that you think you love about tap?

ARNOLD: I think that, for me, when you're tap dancing, you are a musician and a dancer. And what I love about tap is you can, you know, it's percussive, so you can do it to any kind of music. And I have a broad taste of music. So it allows me to lock into any pocket and to really express myself.

And there's an element of improvisation within tap that fits my personality well because I love to improvise and freestyle and make things up in the moment.

MARTIN: And I noticed that after college, you formed a dance company with your sister, Maud. And I wondered what made you think this could be a career because, you know, frankly, tap isn't something that - well, when you were kind of developing the form, it isn't something that you saw a lot of except on - say, on period pieces, on Broadway...

ARNOLD: Correct.

MARTIN: ...You know like - you know, or, you know, or The Rockettes, which is just, you know, not everybody's cup of tea. So what made you think that you could kind of take this someplace?

ARNOLD: So when we were growing up here in D.C., an incredible woman, Debbie Allen, came and we got to be in a play of hers at the Kennedy Center. And so that was my first initial thing of seeing a black woman of excellence be able to shape her own way. And it gave me the confidence that I could do the same.

And so then I actually went to Columbia University. And I studied film. And I thought to myself you know how I'm going to do this? I'm going to put tap dance in TV, music videos and film. And so the way that Syncopated Ladies started to make our imprint was to show people the way that I imagined our art, meaning full of black girl magic, full of rhythm, syncopation, body, curves. We say fierce footwork with a female force.

And so when we're creating, you know, what I was seeing when I was in college in New York was there were just not really any roles for African-American women in tap dance. If you were going to be on Broadway, it's all chorus girls, which means a line of women, and you really have to - at that time - fit into that line, right? And my body type with curves and - there's just not a lot of black women, and they're definitely not curvy women.

MARTIN: There's just so many - a couple things I wanted to dig into. Like, first of all, one of the things that I saw at your shows is exactly the point that you just made. One of the things that really struck me is there was every kind of person in it. There was young people. There were kids. There were older. They were every race. And they were all different kinds of body types...

ARNOLD: Yes.

MARTIN: ...And one of the biggest applauses went to a larger-sized woman - frankly, not the type of body type that I think most people associate with professional dance. And it was just, you know, it was just kind of eye opening. And I was wondering how your philosophy around this came about, that not just that anybody could take your classes, but that people with all these different body types can perform?

ARNOLD: Yes, the woman that you're speaking of, she was our student from when she was 10-years-old. And when she came first to us, she did have self-doubt and was under the lens and microscope of not fitting in. And we literally have worked with her over the past 10 years to get her to a place where she can walk on that stage in that bright yellow shirt shining whereas before as a kid, she would been hiding. And so it takes time. And it takes effort. And it takes, like, a vision that you see - again, the deeper excellence in a human. And that is the part that makes artists amazing. It's not being cookie cutter.

MARTIN: Well, also, your work is being recognized. I mean, you earned an Emmy nomination for your work on "The Late Late Show With James Corden." Congratulations for that.

ARNOLD: Thank you. Thank you so much.

MARTIN: But I also - tell us about the episode that you choreographed. It just sounds crazy.

ARNOLD: Oh, my God. So first of all, I love James Corden. I love "The Late Late Show" because it is literally unlimited adventure. You know, this particular one is called Crosswalk Musical. And this one was with Hugh Jackman, Zendaya and Zac Efron and James Corden in the crosswalk on Broadway in New York City with a cast of 16 dancers. And we put on basically 40 second musicals in the crosswalk.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE LATE SHOW WITH JAMES CORDEN")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) The people ride in a hole in the ground. New York, New York, it's a hell of a town. Cars, cars, cars. Wow. Wow.

ARNOLD: And it is absolutely hysterical. And people ask me all the time, is that real? And it is totally real. We are literally in the street during the time that the light is red. We put on a musical. And when they are running, they are running because the light is going to change.

MARTIN: That is crazy. That sounded crazy.

ARNOLD: It is absolutely nuts. And it's so fun. And it's really been great for dance and for art to just again, expand the creativity and create more opportunity.

MARTIN: Well, you certainly are expanding, I think, people's vision of what tap can be. Finally, before I let you go, what do you think it is that we still like about tap? As I said that for people whose only vision of it is like, you know, The Rockettes - no disrespect to The Rockettes - you know, or the Hines brothers back in the day, I mean, Savion Glover, of course. So I mean, maybe people will have seen him. But what is it that you think we still like about it because one of the things, again, that was fascinating about your showcase is that all kinds of people were there. There was every kind of person there - all ages, all races, all, you know, what is it that you think we still like about it?

ARNOLD: Well, artistically speaking, you know, percussion is mesmerizing. I mean, the drum is the essence, honestly, of the heartbeat. It is from - it is the origin - original African expression and music. So the drum and that idea that our feet are, you know, we are the drum in our physicality our oral and visual presentation. And I think that that is just honestly an innate human connection that people have.

So I think that rhythm is what draws everyone together. And I think, though, then the part that keeps you is style because then the style is reflective of the individual person's journey and experience and culture and where they come from. And then that, again, captivates different people based around their own life experience.

MARTIN: That is the Emmy nominated choreographer and dancer Chloe Arnold. She's the co-founder with her sister of Syncopated Ladies. And she's teaching and performing this weekend in Washington, D.C., at the D.C. Tap Festival. And Chloe Arnold, thank you so much for talking with us.

ARNOLD: Thank you for having me. I love NPR. And I really, really appreciate being here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.