(This is the first installment in a five-week series about choreographer Diego Funes' work on a NYC revival of the musical Subways Are For Sleeping. Stay tuned for more!)
Diego Funes discovers his best choreographic ideas riding the New York subways. With his i-Pod earbuds in his ears, he observes commuters as they bump, push, grind and sway to the syncopated rhythms of the city's underground trains. It's a natural laboratory for kinetic magic, and the inspiration for his urban contemporary style of making dance. Storytelling and emotion, he says, are at the core of his work. It's no surprise, then, that he's choreographing the first revival of the 1961 musical comedy Subways Are For Sleeping. It's a love story about a reporter who is assigned to write about a care-free group of people who live and work in the subway—and who ends up learning that there are many more ways to experience the world than she realized.
Diego has been experiencing the world from various perspectives all his life. Born in Argentina, he has also called Spain, Brazil, Tanzania, Israel, London and Rome home, and has lived intermittently in New York. A competitive gymnast until he was 15, his flexibility, athleticism and natural stage presence made him a natural when he tried his first ballet class in college at NYU. Hard work and determination won him a spot at the School of American Ballet and eventually contracts with the Cincinnati Ballet and Teatro dell' Opera di Roma. Worried that he may have started dancing too late in life to become a principal ballet dancer, he moved on to Broadway and musical theater tours, and then to television, music videos and concert tours with Aretha Franklin, Gloria Estefan and Geri Halliwell, among others.
For the past three years Diego has concentrated on teaching, directing his own dance company and choreographing in New York. His class has been a favorite among teenage students. "They tell me about their college plans and auditions, and ask me for advice," he says, "As their mentor, I feel I'm returning the favor for all the great mentors I had."
The first thing I notice about Diego as he teaches one of his open studio classes is that, clad in cargo pants and a t-shirt, he looks like a normal guy. But then he starts demonstrating. His powerful physicality plus his intense connection to the class converge in a unique combination that's fun to dance as well as watch. Elements of classical, modern, contemporary, hip hop, jazz and Limon sparkle through. "I love ballet. I admire technique," he says, "But I don't want to see it when you're dancing. You should have it but you shouldn't show it to me."
As for the choreography he is creating for Subways Are For Sleeping--"I'll have to be very minimalist, conceptual," he explains, "It's a tiny theater, and I'll have to tell the story with limited movement." Oh, yeah, kind of like dancing in the subway!
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Even if you've never been to L.A., you probably have a solid idea of what class at Millennium Dance Complex in North Hollywood is like. You can picture the vibrant red walls; you can feel the waves of dancers feeding off one another's explosive energy. Why? Because you—and millions of other dance fans—have watched countless class videos filmed at the center.
Class videos are a VIP pass, taking dancers and non-dancers alike inside the commercial world's hottest studios. And people are watching them obsessively, sharing them on platforms across the web, helping them rack up tens of millions of views. We turned to some of the industry's key players to find out more about what makes the class video format uniquely appealing.
Photo by Evolve Photo, courtesy Matt SteffaninaMatt Steffanina teaching at The Pulse
The viral class video is a pretty recent phenomenon. It's been almost a decade since choreographer Matt Steffanina began posting videos on YouTube, but it was only five years ago that he started to have his class videos go viral. "And I was one of the first dancers to get real recognition on YouTube," he says. "It's really blown up outside the dance world in the last two years." He attributes that explosion to the rising popularity of reality entertainment. "People are looking for that raw, authentic, unedited feel," he says. "They're more endeared to real people than production effects."
These days, choreographer Jojo Gomez likes to think of YouTube class vids as the new MTV for commercial dancers. "Tons of people started dancing in the '80s after watching Michael Jackson's music videos on TV," she says. "Now, class videos are doing the same thing, online."
Courtesy Jojo GomezJojo Gomez leading a class at Millennium in Salt Lake City, UT
In fact, Gomez says class videos inspired her to move to L.A. to pursue a career in commercial dance. While she received excellent training through a competition studio in her Massachusetts hometown, she felt like something was missing: "I'd procrastinate from homework by watching YouTube videos of Tricia Miranda, Kyle Hanagami, Janelle Ginestra and WilldaBeast Adams' classes in L.A.," she says. "There was something raw about their style, and I craved that energy in the studio."
Building a Brand
Starring in a class video is a potent—and relatively simple—way for dancers to earn major recognition. In 2013, Gomez appeared as a featured dancer in Adams' vid to Beyoncé's "Upgrade U," filmed by Brazil-Lionheart. Within a few days, the class video had more hits on YouTube than the official music video. "Everyone knew who I was after that," she says. "I was the blonde in the 'Upgrade U' video."
But class videos are even greater assets to the choreographers behind the steps, giving them an inexpensive way to develop a large following. When Gomez discovered her passion for teaching and choreography, she knew to turn to YouTube: "I began teaching in smaller schools in Orange County and posting 30-second clips of my choreo," she says. Eventually, she developed enough of a reputation to land a full-time teaching slot at Millennium, where she regularly puts out videos with popular producer Tim Milgram.
As a primarily self-taught dancer from a small town in Virginia, Steffanina also paved his way to teaching jobs by posting choreo clips. "I started getting contacted by East Coast schools that wanted me to teach," he says. "That's when the light bulb really went off." He continued building his brand through YouTube, and began to get commercial as well as teaching work thanks to his online presence. Singer Natalie LaRose and Taboo, from the Black Eyed Peas, are among the artists who've hired Steffanina after seeing his class videos.
Energy Is Everything
What is it about class videos that makes them so universally addictive? Dancer Allison Buczkowski, who frequently appears in choreographer Tricia Miranda's vids, chalks it up to energy. "The videos capture the vibe of the last 10 minutes of class, when we're done stressing over the steps, and we're just having a blast celebrating dance," she says.
Courtesy Allison Buczkowski Allison Buczkowski in class
Buczkowski admits that the energy in the class isn't always as explosive as it appears on screen. "But you learn to turn it on for camera," she says. Choreographers like Miranda, Adams and Gomez often have the dancers form an "energy circle," occasionally featured in the videos, before the final run-throughs of a combo. "It really helps hype everyone up," Buczkowski says. Fellow class-video favorite Kaelynn "KK" Harris agrees: "A good inspirational pep talk pre-filming helps us enter the choreographer's world and really vibe off one another," she says.
Keepin' It Real
The other key to a real, raw class video is maintaining the integrity of the class, even though cameras are present. "Filming can compromise the class experience if dancers come to be seen rather than to learn," Harris says. "YouTube fame shouldn't get in the way of the dancers' pure love of dancing."
For that reason, choreographer Eden Shabtai tries to get a two-hour slot when she's planning to film, so that filming doesn't eat into class time. "It's important to remember that it's not about the video," she says. She relies on Milgram's vision so that she can focus her efforts on teaching. "If people are truly learning and having fun, it'll make a good video."
Combos for the Camera
How do choreographers craft class combinations that read on film? Shabtai, who first blew up on YouTube with her combo "Needed Me" and has also worked on music videos, live tours and TV shows, says the formula is similar to choreographing for music videos—both require eye-popping steps and lots of energy—but there are a few adjustments. "In music videos, people are looking for signature moves and repetition," she says. A repeated sequence can visually correspond to the song's chorus, for example. In class videos, there's less of an emphasis on recurring moves. Instead, the focus is on creativity and abundance. "I try to put more choreography into class videos, without compromising moments of stillness," she says.
How do you land the center spot in a viral class video? The key is to master the basics before you add personal flair. "For the first hour and 15 minutes of class, I do the combo cut-and-dry to get the choreo the way the choreographer intends," says dancer Allison Buczkowski. "When it comes time to film, then I may add extra hair flips, and more of my own personality. But you can't train that way the whole class. You don't want to alter the choreography just to be seen."
Dancer Kaelynn "KK" Harris agrees that going over the top all of the time isn't the best approach. She recommends focusing on the combo's musicality instead. "People gravitate to dancers who make them feel the music coming to life," she says. "It's what makes them want to get up and dance too!"
We've talked before about how obsessed we are with "SYTYCD" Season 2 champ Benji Schwimmer's beautiful choreography for ice skaters. But how does a guy from the dance world come up with movement that reads on ice?
By dancing it out in a skating rink:
A post shared by Benji Schwimmer (@benjischwimmer) on Apr 23, 2017 at 7:59pm PDT
Schwimmer posted the clips of his chilly improv session yesterday. (He's developing a new routine for gorgeous figure skating champion Yuka Sato.) It's a fascinating peek at his creative process. And surprised as the Zamboni guy must have been, the idea makes a lot of sense. What better way to figure out ice-friendly choreography than to step onto the ice yourself?
(Is it just us, or do you guys have an urge to find a skating rink and dance around on it in sneakers now, too?)
It's not surprising that The Movement series by Elle magazine turned out to be really, really cool—I mean, how could a concept centered around dancers ever be bad? Especially when those dancers include Isabella Boylston and Sara Mearns?
A contemporary sighting of Moore is a rare occurrence these days. (She's been gracing the stage in Broadway show after Broadway show, and is currently strutting her stuff with Bette Midler in the revival of Hello Dolly! that opened on the Great White Way this past weekend.) Which is why Moore's video for The Movement is so great. In it, she pulls out her signature, dreamy contemporary moves, and captivates with her breathtaking fluidity and effortless grace. It's simply magical. ✨✨✨
Trust us, you're going to want to watch this one over and over and over...
If you're a dancer with a bust, you know the struggle all too well. Wear a sports bra, and ruin the elegant lines of your leotard? Or go without support, and risk tons of pain and discomfort? The sad truth is, even when dancewear has a built-in shelf bra, that's often not enough support for the full range of ladies who dance.
Professional dancer Caterina Mercante has created a bra that promises to fix all of those issues. She calls it the ONE Bra, and it's designed specifically for dancers, with all kinds of features that could prove to be life-changing:
1. Underwire to lift and separate
2. Compression mesh in multiple shades to match skin color
3. Side attachments, so no bulging hooks in the back
4. Convertible straps
5. Removable pads
6. Available in B-D cups
But don't take our word for it. Watch this video to see the ONE Bra in action.
It's an amazing feeling when everything in class just clicks—everyone's dancing full-out, the energy's high and the choreo just flows. It's even more amazing when a camera captures it all, and your favorite #BoySquad's slaying the choreo, AND the class is Tricia Miranda's.
That's exactly what happened the other day at Millennium Dance Complex, where Sean Lew, Gabe De Guzman, Will Simmons, Josh Price and TreVontae Leggins shut. it. down. Lucky for us, Gabe and Will shared the insanely ridiculous results on Instagram. You can't fake this kind of energy—it was some kind of #lit over at MDC. #BoySquad, we bow down to you.
if u did not show up to @1triciamiranda class that night, u missed out on one of the most mind blowing classes ever 💯🙌🏼 the energy in class blew the roof off the place 🔥🔥 love dancing with these insane aliens 👏🏼 @bigwillsimmons @seanlew @officialjoshprice @treydakiddbomb20 #OGBobbyJohnson 😈
A post shared by Gabe De Guzman (@gabedofficial) on Apr 21, 2017 at 1:56pm PDT
So this is what you missed in @1triciamiranda amazing class the other day!!!!!!!🙌🏾😭 The energy in the room was so insane and free!!!!💥🔥 We do this cause we love it!!!❤️ Dancing with my brothers @gabedofficial @seanlew @officialjoshprice 🤙🏾😜#ogbobbyjonhson #bigwillsimmons #dance #freestyle #triciamiranda
A post shared by Will Simmons (@bigwillsimmons) on Apr 21, 2017 at 1:16pm PDT
We're the dance dads. And we're here to help you in your pursuit of greatness.
We're happy to do it, for we—like so many other dance parents, and teachers, and choreographers, and extended family members—have found our purpose in helping you reach your dreams. We drive you to lessons until you can drive yourself. We teach you the steps until you can learn them on your own. We create your dances until you find your voice hidden in the lines. We buy you shoes. A lot of shoes.
We see you give your all at dance school and rehearsals and master classes and conventions and choreo camps. And sometimes you giggle with friends or do cartwheels in the back or don't pay attention. We remind ourselves that you are children while we guide you back on path. Because we are here to get you to the next place you were always going.
We watch you dance at competitions, your hearts as much on your sleeves as the four hundred sequins that needed to be hot glued last night. We help you with quick changes, we guard dream duffels, we pretend potato chips have nutritional value when the venue is sold out of everything else. We listen as every song we've ever loved gets remixed, remastered, and turned into a contemporary routine featuring, we think, eagles that have flown into an oil spill.
We watch you dance.
Oh, how we watch. As much as those brief minutes on stage are what you train for all season, it is what we live for. You may never understand that until you become a dance dad (or mom) yourself.
We see you sit on the stage waiting for awards, singing out loud to Moana and Beyoncé. We see you gather pins and plaques, ribbons and signs. We share your elation at placing, we share the surprise when a routine does worse than expected or the even bigger surprise when it does better than we imagined. We celebrate after competitions, or we console.
Through it all, we admire you more than you know. Dancers do not push through conventions to become rich. You do not give up sleepovers with friends and birthday parties and countless other social functions to become famous. Our celebrities have brief public moments on TV competitions or talk shows. The most successful dancers do not typically become household names like the best singers or actors. Dance is not about fame (although it's a bit about Fame, but that's different). Dance is art, and you are passionate artists becoming your true selves. We, the dance dads, are proud to help lift you up. (Not literally, though. Dance dads have bad backs.)
We don't tell you this to make you thank us. We tell you this so when you feel like the journey of your dance life is a difficult burden to bear, you know that you aren't alone. There are so many people helping you, teaching you, showing you where to go. Dance dads are here to help you separate dance from the rest of your world, or bring it together, whatever is needed.
You dance, we watch. Good deal. Keep going.
What does dance mean to you? That's the question Boston Ballet principal John Lam asks his fellow company members in a moving new short film. The dancers' responses, which we hear as we see them performing fluid choreography by Lam, are lovely: "Joy." "Change." "Truth." "Love." "Freedom."
It'd be a meaningful watch even if it were released in a vacuum. But its message hits with special force because Lam created the video to show support for the embattled National Endowment for the Arts, which faces elimination under President Trump's proposed budget.
Watch and share. Because, as Lam says, life is dance. #SavetheNEA #ArtMatters