Here's a frustrating truth: While those of us who're involved in the world of dance competitions understand how awesome they are, the larger world's perception of them is pretty darn negative, thanks to reality TV's funhouse-mirror portrayals of the scene. And that's why Dance Network's new documentary, "Dance Family," is such a breath of fresh air.
Ovation’s “Battle of The Nutcrackers” begins tonight! Tune in each night this week to see five different versions of The Nutcracker. Nigel Lythgoe and Debbie Allen will host—introducing each production and providing insight and commentary.
At the end of the week, vote for your favorite interpretation on Ovation.com. The Viewer’s Choice winner will be revealed on Christmas Eve, December 24th.
Here’s the 411:
Monday, December 12th: Mariinsky Theatre’s (Kirov Ballet) The Nutcracker (US Television Premiere!)
Tuesday, December 13th: The Royal Ballet’s The Nutcracker
Wednesday, December 14th: Berlin State Opera Ballet’s The Nutcracker
Thursday, December 15th: Bolshoi Ballet’s The Nutcracker
Friday, December 16th: Matthew Bourne’s The Nutcracker
To celebrate Mother’s Day (May 12), we’re highlighting five well-known dancer moms and their dancing children. Their love of the art form makes these dynamic duos (and one quartet) very close. But like all families, they can still drive each other crazy!
Barbara Sandonato in Scotch Symphony (photo by Jack Mitchell)
Mom: Barbara Sandonato, teacher and former Pennsylvania Ballet prima: “I always understand what she’s feeling—the misery of having an injury or having to perform when she’s tired. But I also know the joy of it. We’re on the same wavelength. It’s a wonderful thing to share so deeply in someone else’s pleasures.”
Daughter: Gabriella Yudenich, Pennsylvania Ballet soloist: “She’s the best critic I have! She’s so knowledgeable about the art form and doesn’t sugarcoat things. I love that about her now. But as a student, I hated it. I couldn’t stand the fact that the teacher was my mom, and if I didn’t like a combination, I would let her know! She definitely threw me out of class a few times.”
Mom: Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, tapper extraordinaire: “Our connection is so special because we talk about everything. From when she was very small, I let her know the reality of a situation, be it good or bad. I think she respects me for keeping it real.”
Daughter: Eboni Edwards, Billy Elliot alum: “I was scared to audition for Billy Elliot. I freaked out when we got there and my mom took me to the bathroom and calmed me down. I wouldn’t have done so well if my mom hadn’t been there.”
The Jensen family in Paris; (L to R) Bryn, Whitney, Sarah Jayne and Lausanne
Mom: Lausanne Jensen, former dancer and teacher: “I’m a bit of a high-strung manager type. My sole purpose for opening a dance studio was to make sure my daughters were trained well enough in ballet, jazz and tap to make any of the high school dance teams.”
Daughter: Sarah Jayne Jensen, Broadway dancer and star of Center Stage: Turn It Up: “My mom constantly expressed her love for us and told us we could do and be anything. Nothing was impossible.”
Daughter: Whitney Jensen, Boston Ballet soloist: “I can talk to my mom about anything that happens at work. Any difficult ‘ballerina problem’ I face, she understands. And she definitely pushed all of us to our full potential.”
Daughter: Bryn Dowling, Broadway dancer: “Having a mother and sisters involved in dance is normal to me because it’s all I’ve ever known. I can’t imagine being the only performer in my family. That would be too weird.”
Travis and Denise Wall (photo courtesy NUVO)
Mom: Denise Wall, dance teacher: “Dance is every part of my being, and it’s hard to find anyone outside the dance world who understands everything I feel. It’s amazing to have a son and other children who are in the business, so we can share it all.”
Son: Travis Wall, choreographer and Shaping Sound co-founder: “After living in NYC for a while, I moved back home at age 14 when I got injured. My mom was the one who retrained me, who helped me get everything back. She knew exactly what I needed to do to get back on my feet.”
Debbie Allen with a very young (but already talented!) Vivian Nixon
Mom: Debbie Allen, Broadway legend and star of the TV show “Fame”: “Vivian is strong-willed, and I’m glad, because great artists are very opinionated. But when it comes to directing her, it’s like a battlefield! I get the, ‘No, Mom. I don’t want to do that’ a lot. Still, I would like Vivian even if she were not my daughter. I would love her. I admire her.”
Daughter: Vivian Nixon, Broadway dancer: “It’s kind of like having your own specialty dance doctor who knows what to prescribe for you. My mom knew when I needed to move away and get intense ballet training. She knew when it was time for me to come home because my attitude had gotten a little hot. She’s always offered me the best tools and had all the knowledge at her fingertips.”
It seems like Fame really is gonna live forever. First there was the iconic 1980 film. Then there was the spin-off TV series, which starred none other than Debbie Allen. Next came the (not so hot, frankly) 2009 remake of the movie. And now, thanks to Nigel Lythgoe, we're about to get a remake of the small-screen show.
With the blessing of Ms. Allen herself, Nigel's revamping the '80s TV hit, which followed a bunch of students at the New York City High School for the Performing Arts. Apparently the new series will also feature a group of artsy students. (But if you're getting all giddy imagining your favorite dancers dolled up in '80s-style scrunchies and off-the-shoulder sweatshirts, you're in for a disappointment: It's getting a modern makeover, and will be "set against the backdrop of present-day obsession with celebrity and fame.")
Will Allen appear on the new show? She's not sure yet. But man, oh man, do we hope she at least makes a cameo—preferably doing something like this (RIP, Gwen Verdon!!):
This 11-year-old tapper was born for the spotlight. (by Marc Lecureuil)
Give Alaman Diadhiou a seemingly impossible challenge and he’ll not only prove it’s possible, he’ll make it look simple. When Debbie Allen cast him in the title role of her show Twist: An American Musical in 2010, the then–9-year-old had never sung anything but his audition number, had never spoken lines onstage and had only been tapping for two and a half years—and he certainly hadn’t done all three at once. But after only 10 private vocal sessions and a month of intense rehearsals, he was stage-ready for the show’s run in Atlanta during the summer of 2010. He did eight shows a week and didn’t miss a performance. He continued to shine during the show’s second run last summer at the Pasadena Playhouse near L.A., and by fall, the pint-sized prodigy had been nominated for an Ovation Award for best lead actor in a musical.
Alaman has been a quick study from the start. When he was 6, his mom enrolled him in the “early bird” program at Debbie Allen Dance Academy in L.A., where he studied African dance, hip hop and ballet. Allen quickly noticed his potential and cast him as Tom Thumb in her show Alex in Wonderland—which meant he had to learn to tap, and fast. But with the help of hoofer Chloé Arnold, Alaman mastered more than just tap basics: He caught on so quickly that he ended up front and center in the show’s big tap number. The next year, he shared the stage with dancers twice his age (and height!) in Arnold’s opening number for the Jerry Lewis Telethon. This scene would become very familiar to him: dancing alongside much older and more experienced performers, and matching them step for step.
Alaman’s extraordinary talents go beyond the stage. In L.A., he attends The Mirman School for highly gifted children, where he loves studying chemistry and botany. He also won a gold medal for the National Mythology Exam last year, and had his poetry published in a children’s anthology. With so much talent, not to mention strong supporters (Debbie Allen herself and a new agent with Clear Talent Group), the only question is how he’ll amaze us next.
Alaman at Dave Scott's L.A. Hip Hop Intensive (by Bonny Diadhiou)
Alaman currently dances six days a week as a scholarship student at Allen’s studio, performs with Sara Reich’s company Tap Con Sabor and just taught his first tap class at Reich’s Monday Night Tap Experience. But when he talks about his future, the 11-year-old is amazingly grounded. “I’d like to perform a lot—maybe do film—and have a happy life, a nice family and a lot of friends,” Alaman says. “I’d also maybe like to be a doctor and cure a major disease. That would be really cool, and I could save a lot of people.”
Birthday: May 31, 2000
Quirky talent: He can solve a Rubik’s Cube in under a minute!
Favorite Movie: The Dark Knight
Favorite food: Pizza
Dance idols: Chloé Arnold, Sarah Reich, Jason Samuels Smith and Jared Grimes
No dancer is perfect. Maybe you’re more flexible on your right side than on your left, or perhaps you just can’t seem to nail all four sounds in your double pullbacks. Don’t despair—even the pros have weaknesses and off days. The key is finding new tactics to help you continue to improve. We got 16 of the most talented people we know to dish about exactly what you need to do—from daily tricks to life lessons—to become the best dancer you can be.
- As dancers, we put our bodies through a lot of stress, so it’s important to get enough sleep. Your body needs to replenish and recharge itself. When I get enough sleep, my body and mind are rested and are more able to learn new information.
- Don’t hide under bulky dance clothes. It’s important for you and your teachers to see what’s going on underneath them. Once your body is warm, ditch the warm-ups and stop covering up.
- Learn what you’re good at and work to make that even better. Don’t stop when you’ve reached the same level as everyone else. If my feet aren’t good enough, if I’m not flexible enough or if I’m too short, I know that I’d better make up for it with something else!
- Stay hydrated. I like Zico coconut water. It replaces your lost electrolytes quicker than regular water and has more potassium than a bunch of bananas!
- Eat well. Make sure you’re eating enough proteins and lean meats and not eating too much sugar. When my body is at its best, I’m at my best.
- Watch other dancers. Instead of staring at yourself in the mirror, take a look around. See what things your peers are doing and copy what you love. You don’t just learn from your teachers—you learn from your classmates, too.
- Learn how to follow directions. You can get a job just by listening to a director in an audition and simply doing what he or she asks you to do.
- Be realistic about what you look like, how you eat and how much you exercise. If you want to get into a ballet company, the reality is that you need the right body type. As you grow up, your body will go through changes and you may not even notice. Put in the work to stay in shape. You don’t want to get cut at auditions because of your body.
- Be different!
- Be intellectually curious. Read, go to museums and attend live performances as often as you can. These experiences will expand your imagination and thereby your artistic taste and dimension as an individual and dancer.
- Figure out what makes you happy when you’re performing. Then keep doing it.
- Perform—whether it’s singing, acting or dancing—as much as you possibly can, wherever you can, so you can get over your nerves. You don’t want to be shocked or nervous when you’re called upon to perform.
- Try cross-training. As dancers it often feels like we have no time to do anything extra, but participating in different activities has done wonders for my dancing.
- It’s OK to step down a level in order to go back to basics. If you notice you’re not turning out your leg all the way, don’t be afraid to lower it in order to strengthen your turnout.
- Create scenarios in your mind as you’re dancing. What are you moving through? Pudding? Water? Sand? What are you surrounded by? Thinking these things through will give your dancing more depth.
- Respect your body’s pain. I see young dancers who feel like they have to push through their pain. Don’t mistreat your body—this career requires longevity. In a funny way, injury is your best teacher because it’s your body’s way of telling you something is wrong. Pay attention to your injury instead of getting angry about it. Learn what you’re doing wrong to your body so that you can prevent it in the future.
- Strengthen your core muscles so you’re able to engage your legs for fast footwork while keeping your upper body free and lyrical.
- You don’t want your pointe shoes to be louder than the music. I bang the bottom of my shoes before every show so when I jump, the shoe is softer and doesn’t make as much noise.
- Find certain moments in the choreography to flourish in. You can’t dance a ballet at the same energy level throughout the whole piece or you’ll get tired. Find moments that you can put all your energy into to highlight the steps.
- Keep nutrition bars in your dance bag. Lärabars are my favorite.
- Be a good person. Choreographers may hire people based on their talent, but they re-hire them because of the type of person they are. There are thousands of talented dancers out there—it’s who you are that makes you stand out.
- Introduce new types of exercise to your routine. Yoga and Pilates have helped correct injuries and alignment issues I’ve had with my body.
- Be ambidextrous. If you’re only exercising one side of your body, your muscles will build unevenly.
- Make your own trail mix. Raisins and almonds are great sources of energy. I also include M&Ms!
- Put your whole self into practicing. Work on the rudiments of technique, but don’t practice mechanically.
- Learn a variety of time steps. It will help you choreograph and compose in different time signatures and improve your improvisation.
- The best tips for becoming a great dancer might be things you don’t learn in the studio. Watch people’s body language on the street. Watch how fearless children are. Watch how people interact. Those are the kinds of real life things that we should aspire to capture in our dancing.
- Learn about music. Know the difference between a quarter note and a sixteenth note, and know what a crescendo is. Learn the terminology and then see how it applies to your dancing. Music is your roadmap.
- Real life is about many different emotions—frustration, relief, impatience, joy. Strive to show all of these in your dancing. Don’t just dance performances about angst and anger. That’s limiting and unoriginal. Audiences are moved by new interpretations of things they recognize from their own lives. To be great dancers and great performers, we need to be great analysts of life.
- Dancing isn’t a hobby, it’s a way of life. Being a dancer defines how you spend your time and your money. To dance is to be disciplined.
- Don’t skimp on meals. Develop good eating habits now and they will last you your whole life.
- The most interesting part of your dancing is you! You need technique in order to express yourself, but it is not the end goal. Use your own personality in your dancing, and it will be more rewarding for you and more enjoyable for everyone to watch.
- Develop good networking skills. Some choreographers don’t like to hold auditions, so make a point of getting to know choreographers by taking their classes. You’ll create long-lasting professional relationships.
- Stay aware of the quality of your dancing. Don’t get wrapped up in booking jobs and building your resumé—you have to keep training, taking class and building your dance skills.
At the beginning of Broadway’s Memphis, the curtain opens on a soulful shindig at an underground nightclub. With grooving dancers in jewel-toned costumes everywhere, it’s hard to know where to look. That is, until Vivian Nixon appears. With her gorgeous legs and movement that alternates between fluid and explosive, whenever Vivian’s onstage it’s hard not to watch her.
Vivian’s fiery stage presence is uncannily similar to that of Debbie Allen—her mother. Allen has encouraged and inspired Vivian, both as a parent and as a fellow dancer. But despite industry connections most dancers only dream of, Vivian has encountered her own challenges. Now, performing in a smash hit that matches her talent, Vivian’s making her mark on the dance world in a work that’s reenergized her artistic fire—and she’s doing it her way.
Growing Up Vivian
Offstage, 25-year-old Vivian is bubbly and youthful, but grounded, a product of her strict upbringing by Allen and basketball superstar Norm Nixon. “I was with my mom everywhere,” Vivian says. “I grew up on set, in the theater, watching her. So I was drawn to the arts.”
While Vivian had artistic abilities, she didn’t immediately commit solely to dance. As a child growing up in L.A., she acted in television shows including Polly (a TV movie) and “That’s So Raven,” and took on hobbies including horseback riding, diving and gymnastics. But when, at age 12, she saw a fellow gymnast get injured, Vivian switched her focus solely to dancing. “I needed to catch up!” she says. And catch up she did, at a summer program at the Kirov Academy in Washington, D.C. After two summers there, she enrolled in the school’s rigorous year-long program.
“For the first year, ballet was boring to me,” Vivian says. “And I had no turnout! But the Kirov helped me.” Soon, Vivian developed the technical skills that now underpin her versatility. “My parents taught me to have a good work ethic. I have the best role models in them, not just because of what they’ve become, but because of where they came from and how hard they’ve worked.”
Vivian’s own perseverance hasn’t gone unnoticed. Sergio Trujillo, choreographer of Memphis, has known Vivian since she was a little girl. “Vivian’s a chameleon,” he says. “She’s a virtuosic classical dancer, but can also mold to any type of dance. In Memphis, here’s this gorgeous girl with her leg up high in à la seconde with a perfectly pointed foot. But she fits it in the scene without making it look too balletic.”
After three years at the Kirov, Vivian returned home and danced at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy. There she trained in several styles and benefited from seeing talent all around her. But it wasn’t all perks. “At 16, I was loving dance and performance. But going to class every day after school felt monotonous. I had my first boyfriend,” Vivian says. “I was missing basketball games and parties and that did bother me.”
Despite an internal struggle, Vivian kept training. “My mom had me right where she wanted me: in class,” Vivian says, with a laugh. Allen knew firsthand the importance of a well-rounded dance education and she instilled that in Vivian. But having an accomplished mom was tough at times. “There were always—and still are—preconceived notions about me because of who my mother is. I was sensitive, and I had a hard time being judged,” Vivian admits.
In 2002, Vivian was accepted to the Ailey/Fordham program in NYC, which offered her both the academic and the dance education she wanted. Vivian was challenged to learn styles new to her, including the Graham and Horton techniques. When she dug in, Vivian says she finally felt like she was moving into a personal form of artistry. “Sylvia Waters, Ailey II’s artistic director, taught me how to think about my dancing more. Choreographers like Karole Armitage pulled something out of me that I’d never felt before. The program refined me and renewed my passion. I was hungry again.”
At the end of her junior year, Vivian was asked to tour with Ailey II. “When I walked into the rehearsal studio and they unloaded the material on me—Revelations, Blues Suite, Isba!—I really felt like a professional,” she says. But she wasn’t set on Ailey, or on concert work. “I was testing out the waters,” she says. “My goals were constantly evolving.”
So in 2006, when Vivian was offered the starring role in the Broadway show Hot Feet (DS July/August 2006), she seized the opportunity. Her individual performance was praised and put Vivian on the musical theater map. But the experience also taught her about the heartbreaking side of show business: She had finally received her breakout role, but fatigue and disappointment accompanied negative show reviews. Injuries sidelined her for a month of the run. “It was exhausting,” she says. “I never knew how I’d get through another show.”
When the show closed, Vivian went home to regroup. “I was burnt out,” she says. “For years I was always hitting the books or dancing. I forgot to live.”
Vivian’s hiatus didn’t last long. A month later, she auditioned for the role of Anita—a role her mother famously performed—in a Texas-based production of West Side Story. She nabbed the gig and was thrilled to be back onstage. “Doing the same role as my mother was horrible and wonderful at the same time because she was so iconic in that part,” says Vivian, who reprised the role a year later on a European tour. “She set the bar high for me, and that was intimidating. But she also taught me to approach dance with the mind as well as the body. This helped me make the role my own. She gave me the space to be an artist—in my own way.”
In 2007, Vivian returned to L.A. to perform in Bayou Legend, a show her mother was directing. “It’s so great to work with her because she really understands dancers,” Vivian says. “She knows how to translate acting vocabulary so we can understand what she wants.” But working together also had its challenges. Vivian recalls her mother taking her to rehearsal two hours earlier than the other actors! Allen explains: “When you know you’re working with the ‘next great one,’ you don’t go easy on her. I know with Vivian, I’ll get more than I expect. She’s my muse.”
Trujillo feels the same way: “Bob Fosse had Ann Reinking. I have Vivian.” Wildly enough, Vivian almost didn’t audition for Memphis. “I was teaching dance in L.A., but I was kind of lost,” she says. “I hadn’t been performing in dance shows for a year and a half, and I had lost my passion.”
Luckily, Vivian decided to audition anyway, and it turned out to be a pivotal point in her career—and life. “I hadn’t had so much fun dancing in so long,” Vivian says of the audition. “The choreography was amazing. It reminded me how much I love to dance.” A month later, Vivian landed the role. “This job is the best thing that’s happened to me so far,” she says.
Now, in her Memphis home, Vivian struts and soars within an ensemble that spends tons of time onstage in scenes overflowing with complicated choreography. “There’s such a wide range of styles in the show, and I adore that,” she says. “We do lifts, sugar steps and funky hip hop!”
Not only is Vivian utilizing her diverse skills, but she’s also coming into her own as an artist. Trujillo knew that Vivian would fit in as both an ensemble member and as a leader. “I call upon dancers who have a sense of who they are and what their abilities are,” he says. “Dancers who are present, intelligent and aren’t afraid of taking chances. True artists.” With support every step of the way and a sassy spirit of her own, a true artist is exactly what Vivian has become.
Fave Ice Cream: Edy’s Cookies ’N Cream
Fave TV shows: “Glee” and “Three’s Company”
Fave Movies: Lord of the Rings, Braveheart and 500 Days of Summer
Non-dance hobby: “People-watching in Columbus Circle in NYC.”
Special skills: “I do a great Russian accent from my days at the Kirov Academy.”
True Story: Vivian was born two months prematurely: The nurse practitioner told her mom she might never walk!