Professional tapper Chloe Arnold on her fly foot work, tap dance in the 21st century and participating in Dallas’ first Rhythm in Fusion Festival (RIFF).
Dallas — Savion Glover. Debbie Allen. Desmond Richardson. Beyoncé. Only a handful of dancers can say they have worked with these incredibly talented artists. And even fewer can say they have impressed them with their poignant and zealous tap dancing. By 10 years old Chloe Arnold knew tap dance was her calling. From that moment on she did everything she could to hone her skill set with the hopes of one day becoming a professional tap dancer. She sought out the best in the tap world to train with, including Savion Glover, Gregory Hines, The Nicholas Brothers and Ted Levvy. She continued her training while in college at Columbia University in New York City at the Broadway Dance Center and at backstage jams with the cast of Bring In ‘da Noise, Bring In ‘da Funk.
Arnold knew in order to make it big in a field largely dominated by men she would need to bring something fresh to the table. Ironically enough it was Arnold’s all-female tap group, Syncopated Ladies, that would catapult her career and catch the attention of celebrities such as Beyoncé and hit T.V. shows like So You Think You Can Dance, America’s Got Talent and Dancing with The Stars.
Arnold is also committed to sharing her technique and professional experiences with other aspiring tap dancers. In addition to being seen on film, television and stages worldwide, Arnold is also the co-founder of DC Tap Festival and co-director of LA Tap Festival. She has taught at studios across the nation, including Broadway Dance Center, Ailey Extension and Debbie Allen Dance Academy and also tours with New York City Dance Alliance. It was at a Tap Festival in Houston a few years ago when she met Katelyn Harris, artistic director of the Dallas-based tap troupe Rhythmic Souls. Harris and Malana Murphy are the co-producers of Rhythm in Fusion Festival (RIFF), Dallas’ first tap festival, where Arnold will be teaching and performing. The event feature master classes, improv jams, tap battles and a performance showcase, and also features other percussive dance forms, such as Irish step dancing, flamenco and folklórico. RIFF takes place Jan. 16-19 at The Majestic Theater in downtown Dallas. You can see a full schedule below this interview.
TheaterJones asks Chloe Arnold about honing her skills, creating Syncopated Ladies and what she hopes tappers will take away from her classes at Dallas’ first Rhythm in Fusion Festival (RIFF). There’s also a faculty performance at 8 p.m. Sunday, for which tickets are $35.
TheaterJones: How did you hear about the Rhythm in Fusion Festival (RIFF)?
Chloe Arnold: I met Katelyn at a Soul to Soul Festival in Houston back when she was a part of Tapestry Dance Company. I heard she was moving to Dallas and teaches at a studio where I also teach master classes and attends New York City Dance Alliance (NYCDA). It was cool because I met her in the festival world and then I met her again in the convention world. I have seen a lot of her work on our stages at NYCDA and it’s always phenomenal. So, it was cool to meet someone who can transition between both worlds and has such a wonderful voice in dance and in tap.
What are the main differences between festival tapping and convention tapping?
The primary difference would be that in the world of festivals the focus is on musicality and technique and getting these to their ultimate proficiency. Improvisation is also a big part of the festival setup. In the convention world they focus more on the performance aspect of tap dance. But what I have seen is that there are now more dancers from the festival world entering into the convention world by way of teaching at a convention or a studio like Katelyn’s, which has increased the skill level of these studio and convention tap dancers. My hope and vision is that through events such as RIFF we can bridge the gap between these two worlds so the art form as a whole can be elevated.
What motivated you to pursue a professional tap career?
I have always loved tap dance and when I was 10 I had the incredible experience to meet and work with many of the masters of tap. So, I got to see firsthand people having a tap career and living as a tap dancer and for me that was enough just knowing it was possible. So at age 10 I started to assert this dream of becoming a tap dancer. I have studied other styles of dance, but I knew I wanted to be a tap dancer. I have a really strong sense of conviction that has been fostered by my parents who raised me to believe that I can achieve anything I put my mind to. I have encountered many challenges and tons of rejection, but I am a cup half full type of person and so what some people might consider a loss I consider an opportunity to learn.
What was your first big professional gig?
When I was in college I did a musical in Atlanta with Debbie Allen called Soul Possessed. It was an eight shows a week production and the cast included Desmond Richardson, Carmen De Lavallade and Patti Labelle. That was certainly life changing because I got to experience what it’s like to live as a dancer. When the show was done I went back to school, and I just had a greater sense of mission and what direction I wanted to take with my career.
Why did you choose to attend college over starting your professional career?
It wasn’t even an option to not go to college. When I went to New York to see some friends who were in Bring In Da Noise Bring In Da Funk they told me I should go visit Columbia University. Actually, Savion Glover’s brother took me to Columbia for my college visit when I was 15 and I made up my mind right then that this was the place for me. I went back to my home in Washington, D.C. and did everything I needed to do to make that a reality.
How did your all-female tap troupe, Syncopated Ladies, originate?
After college I move to L.A. and I would go to this tap jam on Monday nights and one night it was all ladies and I was blown away. I remember looking around the room and thinking these are amazing women who need to be in a group. So, I set a work on them that they did at an annual tap festival. That was back in 2003 and we all were so young and so green in terms of cultivating the whole package. But it was the foundation for what would one day become Syncopated Ladies. They were women that could improvise, learn choreography and were also learning other styles of dance. We have maintained a very close friendship over the years. And then one day while we were having girl time we decided we just wanted to rock out and that’s when we started creating videos and I started to expand my vision. It was time for me to go for it instead of just waiting for our once a year thing. The five stunning ladies I started with are still here plus two more that used to be my students. It’s truly a sisterhood and when we dance together its really cohesive because we know each other so well.
Syncopated Ladies is known for its girl power mentality. How did you develop this fierce and feminine style of tapping?
I’ve always had a girl power mentality from childhood. I was always the girl who was doing whatever the boys were doing. I was not afraid to dive into “a man’s world” and tap is a man’s world even though more women are now doing it. So, when I moved to New York it was really a boy’s club and I knew I wanted in. Once I got my skills and taps together and was starting to be heard I realized that instead of fighting to prove myself it was time for me to be true to who I am. And that includes the feminine aspect which Syncopated Ladies touches on in our dancing. It’s centered on this idea that we can still be taken serious as tappers even if we are wearing a cute outfit and our heels. This is where the feminine style came from and it was really influenced by Debbie Allen and Beyoncé. I have worked with both and they really brought out the woman in me.
Where you surprised by the vast support the Syncopated Ladies received during the dance crew battle portion of Season 11 of So You Think You Can Dance?
There are far more tap dancers now connecting because of social media, but largely because there are more tap festivals than ever around the world. We are really a global community and I think that is our greatest strength. When Syncopated Ladies was on Season 11 of So You Think You Can Dance the producers were surprised by the number of votes we received from countries all over the world. We had people tweeting from Brazil, Japan and Europe. People don’t know this, but the world of tap is vast and united. And sometimes when you are marginalized it makes for a stronger fight. We still have a long way to go, but I think it was great that this past season SYTYCD had two tap dancers in the final. I also think it’s great that Dallas will know have its own tap festival because it’s only going to increase the appreciation and the visibility for the art form and that’s the key. The more people feel welcomed to the field and feel like they can do it the greater the visibility.
What would you like the young dancers at RIFF to take away from their time with you?
I am aware of what my colleagues are doing and teaching so I think about that when I am preparing to teach a class. If the other teachers are covering x, y and z then I am going to focus on a different aspect of tap. I like to inspire people to go beyond what they have learned already so it’s very much in line with my life and my career. I want to make people believe in themselves. For me, it’s more about challenging your fears and finding inspiration and I do that through technique, choreography and improvisation. Tap is huge in Dallas and this festival is going to be the perfect timing to, like I said, bridge the gap in the tap world. It’s a place where everyone who thinks they are different can come together and realize how similar they are and how they all share the same love for tap.
This Q&A was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.