Man on a Mission: Spencer Liff is taking Broadway by storm
Spencer Liff explodes onto the stage in Cry-Baby as the quintessential ’50s “bad boy.” Biceps decorated with a broken-heart tattoo. Grinding hips. A curled-lip sneer worthy of Elvis. But in the show’s final number, when he’s no longer playing a member of the Drape gang or an escaped convict, Spencer’s face relaxes into an easy, joyful smile that lets you know he isn’t really a bad guy—he just plays one on Broadway.
Spencer’s dancing is a mix of raw athleticism, spot-on technique and heartfelt emotion. He lives his character, and clearly loves his work. And for good reason: Not only is Spencer a featured dancer in what is an unusually well-rounded ensemble, but he’s also Cry-Baby’s dance captain and an assistant choreographer.
How did this 23-year-old land such an amazing gig? To start with, Spencer’s been in the biz since he was 6, when he got a part in the first national tour of The Will Rogers Follies. He went on to live and work in L.A. and NYC, studying at Steps and Broadway Dance Center as well as the EDGE. He even studied at the School of American Ballet for two years.
After graduating from high school at 15 (he was home-schooled his entire life), Spencer studied at NYC’s New School University and danced on cruise ships before scoring featured roles in the film Across the Universe and the Broadway musical The Wedding Singer. During his stint in The Wedding Singer, he landed another hot movie role, as one of the council kids in Hairspray. He took a break from Broadway for filming, returning for Wedding Singer’s final month.
It was on The Wedding Singer that Spencer made a vital professional contact: choreographer Rob Ashford. “We worked well together,” Spencer says, “so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask if I could assist him in Cry-Baby]’s auditions, and for the workshop.” He’s been a pivotal part of Cry-Baby ever since.
“Rob sees the big picture, so it’s up to the assistants to think about how to fix problems before they happen,” Spencer explains. “We’d have a step and Rob would say, ‘Okay, I want to reverse every other line.’ So instantly I had to think of a ‘cheat,’ of a way to get everyone apart and back together. I know there’s a lot of me in the show.” Among Spencer’s favorite moments is a trio of sexy duets meant to cover the scene change from Turkey Point into the Glade. “I remember very clearly the day I had the idea of doing a handstand down behind the rocks,” he says. (You’ll know this standout sequence when you see it!)
Now that the choreography is set, Spencer’s job as dance captain is to make sure it stays set. It’s not easy: “If there’s a dance number, I’m in it! I spend a good portion of the show taking mental notes while I’m performing,” he says.
Spencer’s skills, both onstage and behind-the-scenes, have impressed his mentor since day one. “As a dancer, he can do anything you dream up,” Ashford says. “The other thing that sets him above the rest is the way he acts through his dancing—not just performance energy, but storytelling through every move. In Cry-Baby, he embodies the Drapes in his physicality. Also, he’s a genuine creator; he has a very choreographic mind. I thought it’d be nice to give him a chance to express that.”
There’s no doubt that Spencer is most at home onstage. “I dance and perform because it’s the only time that I feel like I can be myself,” he says. “It’s ironic, because when you’re onstage you aren’t being yourself, but the world completely shuts out and you can just live for what’s going on right then. When I step on a stage, it’s like finding true peace. Every moment that I’m offstage is just waiting to get back on to perform.”
Harper Watters is a ballet dancer for today's generation. A social media maestro and a charismatic performer, the Houston Ballet soloist is equally at home in front of the camera hosting his hit YouTube series, "The Pre Show"; interacting with fans on his crazy-popular Instagram account; or showing off his beautiful classical technique onstage. It's a multifaceted identity that's proven to be invaluable to his career—and it's taking him to places he never even dreamed of.
The dancers who take our breath away are the risk-takers, the ones who appear completely fearless onstage. "When you see somebody trying to travel more, go farther, push the limits of their physical abilities, that's always going to be inspiring," says Ballet BC dancer Alexis Fletcher.
But dance training can feel like it's in conflict with that idea. We spend thousands of hours in the studio trying to do steps perfectly, and that pursuit of perfection can make us anxious about taking risks. What if we fail? What if we fall?
Luckily, fearlessness is a mental skill that you can work on, just as you work on your technique. Here's how you can learn to push yourself past your limits.
Getting corrections from our dance instructors is how we grow, and as students, it's important that we do our best to apply every correction right away. But sometimes—whether it's because we're in physical pain, or have a lot on our minds, or are just not paying attention—those corrections don't sink in. And from a teacher's standpoint, giving the same corrections time and time again gets old very fast. Here are 10 important corrections dance teachers are tired of giving. Take them to heart!
There are zillions of things to think about when choosing a summer program, but here's one you might not have considered: using an intensive as an opportunity to focus on a new style. Maybe you're a tap dancer who's ready to see where else your rhythm and quick feet can serve you, or a contemporary dancer curious about the more traditional roots of your genre. A summer program can be the perfect place to broaden your horizons, giving you the opportunity to make technical and artistic changes that stick throughout the year.
Happy birthday, George Balanchine! The great choreographer and founder of New York City Ballet would have been 114 years old today. Balanchine revolutionized ballet, especially American ballet—and he also had quite a way with words. To celebrate Mr. B's birthday, we rounded up some of our favorite iconic Balanchine quotes.
There's a common misconception that a dancer's body has to be thin. But the truth is that talent knows no body type, and the number on the scale never determines an artist's capabilities. Here are some extraordinary dancers fighting the stereotype of what a dancer "should" look like.
When we think of a dancer who's broken barriers, American Ballet Theatre principal Misty Copeland tends to be the name that comes to mind. And though Copeland has been a crucial advocate for equality in the world of ballet, Raven Wilkinson—a mentor of Copeland's—is considered one of the original pioneers of the movement.
In 1955, Wilkinson became the first African American to dance with the renowned Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Her fortitude in the face of bigotry and hate cemented her legacy. Now, with the release of the new children's book Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson, a new generation of dancers will be inspired by her tale of overcoming obstacles to achieve a dream.
The book details Wilkinson's life, from her experience as a young dancer training in Harlem, to her run-ins with the Ku Klux Klan while on tour with Ballet Russe, to her later ballet career in Europe. "There were times where my heart really hurt because of the situations I had to deal with," she says. "But I always had faith that I was made to be a dancer and that I was gonna dance."
Dance Spirit spoke with Wilkinson to discuss the new book and get her take on racial equality within the ballet world.
Postmodern pioneer Trisha Brown redefined how dance is seen and felt. A founding member of Judson Dance Theater, Brown frequently collaborated with other experimental artists like Yvonne Rainer, Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, and Steve Paxton.
She embraced pedestrian movement, pairing everyday gesture with rhythm and fluidity. "It's liquid," says Wendy Perron, who danced with Brown in the '60s and '70s. "Like a river with many tributaries, water coming out of a faucet, or being on a raft and seeing the water move away in different directions." Brown also pushed beyond stages with choreography in fields, museums—even on the sides of buildings.