Melinda Sullivan's Gone (photo by Steve Gunther Photography, courtesy Sullivan)
Five women in leather-soled boots sweep their feet across a sand-covered stage, accenting the music in maraca-like rhythms. With its chugs, brushes, heel drops and slides, their movement looks a lot like tap dancing, but the sound is different—scratchier and rougher. This is sand dance. The scene described is from tap dancer/choreographer Melinda Sullivan’s 2012 video entry to the Capezio A.C.E. Awards, Gone. (She went on to win first place at the competition.) “Experimenting with sand dancing really changed the way I tap,” Sullivan says. “It’s like playing a whole new instrument.” Interested in giving sand dance a try? Before turning your dance studio into a private beach, read on for the need-to-know on this sub-style.
What is it?
“Sand dancing is tapping on sand, but your approach to the floor is completely different,” Sullivan says. Whereas much of tap choreography emphasizes distinct, crisp hits, sand dancing is more about sweeping, rubbing motions; the feet tend to spend more time on the floor. “Shuffles, flaps, slides, chugs and pull-backs work really well with sand,” adds L.A. tapper Kenji Igus, who was featured in Cari Ann Shim Sham*’s 2011 documentary SAND.
Traditionally, sand dance is a soft-shoe style, which means it’s performed without tap shoes. “The term ‘soft-shoe’ can be somewhat misleading,” Sullivan says. “We’re actually dancing in hard-soled leather boots.” Even though it isn’t necessarily traditional, Igus will sometimes use his tap shoes on sand. “In a noisy theater, taps can amplify the sounds and keep them from getting lost or muffled,” he says.
Tapper Kenji Igus dancing on sand (photo by Visionarrie Photography, courtesy Igus)
Where did it come from?
If you’ve never heard of sand dancing before, you’re not alone. “I like to think of it as the forgotten sibling of tap,” Igus says. Like tap, sand dancing is a distinctly American style, tracing its roots back to African slave communication. But sand dancing was never really codified, and its lineage is much more difficult to trace. “Most people associate sand dancing with Howard ‘Sandman’ Sims, from the ’50s and ’60s,” Igus says. “He wasn’t the first sand dancer, but his regular performances at the Apollo Theater in Harlem really helped popularize the style.”
Who’s doing it today?
Sand dance has remained primarily a street style. Igus learned it from his father, Darrow Igus, who learned it from a New Jersey projects street performer named “T” back in the ’60s. “Melinda Sullivan is the only choreographer I’ve seen use sand onstage,” he says. “But I’ve seen it on the streets of New Orleans.” Sullivan was first exposed to the style in a class setting, with master sand dancer Guillem Alonso, of Barcelona, Spain. “I was hooked,” she says. “I started looking up YouTube videos of Guillem, and experimenting with the form.” She notes that other prominent tap choreographers are also using sand. “Michelle Dorrance has done some really cool stuff with it, and the Syncopated Ladies’ 2014 video to Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’ was all about sand dancing with a modern edge,” Sullivan says.
How do I get started?
It’s tough to find a class that specializes in sand dancing, for obvious reasons. “In the ideal world, I’d dump sand all over the studio,” Sullivan says. “But that isn’t exactly practical.”
But you can still try it on your own. Both Igus and Sullivan stress that the best way to learn is to experiment with your own body, using the tap vocabulary you already know. Sullivan likes to layer in elements from other techniques, like jazz, contemporary or hip hop. “The first step is just to take your toe and rub it in the sand,” Igus says. “Then start feeling it out and let your mind run wild.”
Because the sounds of sand dancing are much quieter than taps, picking the right music can be tough. But dancing a cappella is always an option. “Sand dancing is a sound that most audiences haven’t heard before,” says L.A. tapper Kenji Igus. “So hearing it on its own can be really captivating for them.” Tapper and choreographer Melinda Sullivan agrees: “A cappella sand dance can be complete magic,” she says. —MM
Here at DS, we're big believers in our Sunday #MomentofZen. It's important to take a day to recharge and prep for the week ahead, especially when it comes to setting goals. Which is why we thought it was the perfect time to introduce our Sunday Spotlight Roundup. Maybe you've been wanting to master a new leap in jazz class, or prep your pointe shoes differently—no matter the goal, we've got you covered with these in-depth, how-to articles, covering everything from convention tips to Balanchine technique.
New York City Ballet in George Balanchine's Serenade (by Paul Kolnik)
For the bunheads:
Did you start at a new studio that teaches Balanchine technique? Our "Dancing Balanchine" spotlight focuses on all the beautiful intricacies of his style and choreography.
Have your pointe shoes been dying faster than usual? "Shank Strategies" offers tons of super helpful advice on how to customize your shoes.
Are you constantly wondering when you'll be getting that first pair of pointe shoes? "Am I Ready for Pointe?" helps you determine if your strength and technique are solid enough.
For the competition and convention regulars:
Not feeling too hot about your competition routine? We broke down all the problems you
Olga Pericet in Pisadas (photo by Javier Fergo, courtesy Jerez Festival)
might have with your new piece (and the solutions).
Only dance on marley at home? Sometimes the floors at conventions can prove to be the biggest challenge. We rounded up the best tips on how to deal.
For dancers wanting to try a new style:
We explain how to execute a perfect Switch Firebird jazz leap.
Curious about finger-tutting in the hip hop scene? We asked the pros to walk us through a sequence.
Looking to spice up your dancing? Learn all about the passionate, musical world of Flamenco.
Choreographer Matthew Neenan, who danced in Pennsylvania Ballet’s corps, was eager to include plenty of dancers in his first work for the company back in 1998. “As a corps member, I’d always been around large groups, and it excited me to get everyone in there!” says Neenan, who ended up using 20 dancers in his ballet. But with a large cast come a lot of complications—complications that can sometimes overshadow the fun of having all those dancers to play with. What are the keys to clutter-free, universally flattering large-group choreo? Here are a few creative and practical ways to devise choreography that will help you highlight your cast’s strengths.
Define Your Concept
Joanne Chapman, director of Joanne Chapman School of Dance in Brampton, ON, mounts production numbers every year for 55 to 115 dancers aged 5 to 18. Her cardinal rule is to find a clear theme—and stick with it. “From the beginning, you have to have a well-defined concept,” she says. “Make a decision about what you’re going to say, and stay true to that. If you’re trying to tell a story, you have to be very explicit—otherwise, it can end up looking like a highway at rush hour.” Her piece Drove All Night, for example, had a 35-
member cast, for which she constructed pure-jazz choreography, avoiding aerials and acrobatics because they would have confused the overall look. “With a large group, you can’t afford to get sidetracked,” she says.
One of Suzi Taylor's numbers for this year's New York City Dance Alliance Nationals featured a cast of 145 (!) (Photo by Eduardo Patino, courtesy New York City Dance Alliance)
Even with a clearly defined concept, it’s easy for choreography to get muddy with a lot of dancers onstage. When teaching the steps, it’s important to be very specific about body alignment, arms, focus and direction changes. Chapman holds pre-planning sessions with her assistants to make sure everyone’s on the same page about the details. Then she rehearses her dancers in small groups, looking for inconsistencies and tightening up unison work.
Even if that kind of intense organization isn’t your style, it’s still smart to go into the studio with a battle plan. Though Neenan likes “to allow for some messes to happen, some bump-ins and such,” he still brainstorms big ideas and traffic patterns before beginning rehearsals. Mistakes, he says, are part of the journey. Just make sure that you take an active role in correcting and reshaping them.
Be Sensitive to Technical Levels
Inevitably, the range of abilities within a big cast will vary. Subdividing the piece into sections based on technical level can help you show each group’s strengths. But when the whole ensemble comes together, it can be helpful to keep the level of difficulty relatively low.
That doesn’t mean choreography for the whole group can’t be interesting. Chapman makes even simple phrases exciting by inserting featured moments for her strongest dancers. “One dancer doing turns or acrobatic tricks while everyone else is on the floor, for example, can really spice things up,” she says. “We also do a lot of canons, with each line starting the same phrase on a different count. That creates a very cool wave effect.”
Anticipate Logistical Hurdles
Getting groups of dancers on and off the stage is one of the toughest challenges of large pieces. Chapman makes transitions between sections seamless by using a consistent movement (like a jazz walk) for all entrances and exits, and slightly overlaps their timing to ensure a smooth flow. Neenan sometimes likes to have dancers in his larger pieces exit with structured improv, so they still hold visual interest even while others are entering—a pleasingly layered effect.
The most glaring logistical issue when working with a large cast is how to fit everyone onstage. Standard tricks like staggered lines are useful, but sometimes you’ll need to think more creatively. For this year’s New York City Dance Alliance Nationals Senior Outstanding Dancer number, Suzi Taylor literally couldn’t get all 145 of her dancers to move onstage at once without colliding—but she ended up turning that to her advantage. “I used the space on the floor in front of the stage, working level changes with unison and creating ripples of movement,” she says. “It turned out to be pretty stunning!”
Sometimes asymmetry can be the most arresting way to arrange a large group of dancers. Neenan encourages thinking about the possibilities beyond traditional lines. “I like to put dancers in ‘communities’, sharing the stage in more of a normal, ‘street’ fashion, rather than symmetrical patterns,” he says. Those kinds of groupings have the extra benefit of allowing more dancers to share a small space. “And using space creatively can be part of how you develop your original voice as a choreographer,” he says. “There’s only so much vocabulary—this is another way put your stamp on something.”
From Chicago to Kinky Boots, heels are a necessity for musical theater dancers. But lots of factors go into choosing the right character shoes, especially when it comes to heel height. Ultimately, it’s all about figuring out how to feel confident, so you can rock every step—from high kicks to leaps.
Higher heels can be ideal for elongating your line and showing off your legs. (courtesy Shai Yammanee)
Know Your Show
The most common character shoe heel height is 2 1/2 inches, according to Kenya Gibson, a sales representative at Capezio in NYC. It’s an ideal height for many dancers because it strikes a balance between elongating your line and still allowing you to relevé. When wearing a 3-inch heel, your foot is already in a high relevé position, and unless you’re a strong dancer, it can be hard to relevé further.
But you should also consider the show’s choreography. “If I’m doing leaps and turns I’m going to be wearing 2 1/2-inch heels, but if the choreography is just walking and a kick line, I’ll wear 3 inches,” says Meredith Therrien, a dancer who’s worked on Oceania Cruises. Think about time period, too. “The women in Fiddler on the Roof don’t need to be in 3-inch LaDucas—it wouldn’t make sense for the period,” says Jessi Selig, a dresser for the show on Broadway. If you’re auditioning for a similar show, choose boots that have a shorter, wider heel, which is a more authentic costuming choice.
Technique Is Key
If you’re working on a show where a more standard character shoe is appropriate, you may feel like going for that high 3-inch heel—the extra height can help your legs look miles long. But another half-inch isn’t always a good thing. “The trend now is for higher and higher heels, but the higher the heel, the higher the chance of rolling an ankle,” says Broadway veteran Michelle Bruckner. If you’re going to wear those 3-inch heels, make sure you have the technique and strength necessary to stay safe.
Bruckner also tells young dancers to make sure they have several years of good ballet and jazz training before they try sky-high heels. As for getting more comfortable, Therrien has simple advice: “Keep wearing them.” To break in new character shoes, she tries them out in basic dance classes and rehearses blocking in them before busting out the triple turns.
Factor In Your Height
If you’re a tall dancer, you may think you need to wear shorter heels to fit into the chorus, and if you’re short you may think you need a height boost from your heels. But that’s not necessarily the case. Sonya Higgins, a former showgirl in Jubilee! in Las Vegas, NV, is already tall at 5' 8", but she wears 3-inch heels anyway. “It’s more about line,” she says. “As a tall dancer, the kinds of shows I’m going out for are things like The Producers, or Spamalot, where it’s all about the legs,” making higher heels a better bet. And, if you’re shorter, don’t feel like you have to dance in the tallest shoe possible; go with the shoe that lets you showcase your strengths. Shorter dancers tend to be powerful turners or jumpers, and lower heels will allow you to show off those skills.
Find Your Style
Most dancers choose character heels with flexible arches. Therrien loves that soft-soled character shoes allow her to point her feet easily and land jumps properly. One reason to stick with hard-soled shoes? “Support,” Higgins says—which you’ll definitely need if you’re dancing with a heavy costume. “If you’re wearing a 20-pound headpiece, you want as much support as possible from your shoes.”
The Bottom Line
One word: comfort. In the end, “you want a shoe that you’re not going to have to think about while dancing,” Selig says. “You want to be able to focus on the choreography.” Comfort fosters confidence, and that’s especially important during auditions. Properly fitted, comfortable shoes will get you further than an extra half-inch ever will.
Ballet Academy East student Marisa Trapani demonstrating grand rond de jambe (photo by Nathan Sayers)
Few things are as beautiful as a seamlessly executed grand rond de jambe: There’s something majestic about the high arc of the leg from front to side to back (or vice versa). But many pitfalls line the road to effortless grands ronds, especially in the tricky side-to-back and back-to-side transitions. How can you make this difficult step feel as free as it looks?
Understand the Fundamentals
If you’re having trouble with grand rond de jambe, step back from the barre and think about the step abstractly. Darla Hoover of NYC’s Ballet Academy East and Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet has her students try a grand rond with their arms—a much simpler prospect than supporting the heavy weight of their legs in the air. She asks them to carry an extended arm from front to side, with their palms facing the ceiling, and then from side to back, keeping their palms up. “Your arm doesn’t ‘turn over’ as you go from the side to the back, and that’s exactly the feeling you want to achieve with your leg,” Hoover says. Next, try a rond de jambe with your leg at 45 degrees. At that lower height, it’s easier to preserve your turnout and push through the “hitch” that sometimes happens between à la seconde and arabesque. Imagine the underside of your foot as the equivalent of your palm in the arm exercise. “Think about leading with your heel and pointed foot,” says Houston Ballet soloist Allison Miller.
In fact, you can prepare for grand rond de jambe from the very beginning of barre. Dmitri Kulev’s students at the Dmitri Kulev Classical Ballet Academy in Laguna Hills, CA, first learn the feeling of preserving turnout without “turning over” during tendu exercises. “I tell dancers to think of creating opposing spirals from both hips, so they’re rotating the legs evenly, especially from side to back,” Kulev says. “And we stress avoiding pronation in the supporting foot, which makes the entire supporting leg turn in.”
Ballet Academy East's Mary Watters mid-grand rond (photo by Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy BAE)
It’s Hip to Be Square
As you work up to grand rond de jambe at 90 degrees and above, resist the urge to go for your maximum height immediately. To create a beautiful sweeping arc, your leg should rise slightly with each change of direction—but not if that requires distorting your hips and shoulders. As Miller says, “If your body isn’t in a classical shape, the leg’s height doesn’t matter.” Avoid tipping your pelvis forward or back, lifting the working hip or twisting the standing leg to achieve height.
It’s counterintuitive, but the key to staying square as your working leg gets above 90 degrees is actually your standing leg. Try this: Put your weight well over the ball of your foot as you do a grand rond de jambe. As your leg goes from front to side, strongly engage the supporting leg’s turnout muscles. Keep rotating both legs away from each other as you move towards arabesque. You’ll find your working leg feels freer when your supporting side is well grounded.
A strong core—the secret to so much of ballet technique—is also critical to properly supporting your leg in grand rond de jambe. Bracing your stomach muscles will keep you from gripping your hip flexors, which will allow your leg to move more smoothly from one position to the next and your pelvis to remain square.
You Can Do More Than You Think
Everyone’s hip joints are different, but many dancers who think they’re too stiff in the hips to execute an effortless grand rond de jambe actually have plenty of range. Most of the time, hitching through transitions happens not because of a lack of flexibility but because of a lack of strength. Hoover likes to get hands-on to show her students just how much range they have: She’ll have them stand up perfectly straight, hold their leg in her hands and guide it around in grand rond de jambe. “When I’m supporting the whole weight of their leg, they can feel it traveling correctly and see the potential in their body,” she says. “They’ll say, ‘Wow, my leg really can do that!’ ”
Ask a teacher or friend to try Hoover’s experiment with you. If you find that your leg glides around easily when someone else is supporting it, focus on strengthening your inner thighs and hamstrings. Once your leg is well supported from underneath, rather than restricted by the gripping of your quads and hip flexors, a seamless grand rond de jambe will become much more attainable.
Chances are you’ve heard of Sleep No More, the blockbuster production loosely based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. But Sleep No More is more than just a performance: It takes place throughout a five-story building in NYC, with audience members exploring the space on their own terms. If you attend the show, you’re part of it—and that’s what sets immersive performances apart.
Immersive productions can be incredibly rewarding for dancers. But how do you prepare when all of your stage experience has probably been in a theater, with the audience planted firmly in their seats? Dance Spirit spoke to artistic directors and performers to find out what to expect when you book your first immersive gig.
Set Your Sites
Rachel I. Berman as Alice in Then She Fell. (Photo by Darial Sneed, courtesy Third Rail Projects)
There’s a rich history of site-specific choreography—dance pieces made with a particular, non-theater space in mind—that set the stage for immersive shows. Iconic postmodern choreographers like Trisha Brown and Yvonne Rainer made site-specific work to challenge people’s preconceived ideas about what dance could be, and helped inspire today’s immersive choreographers to let their imaginations run wild.
NYC–based choreographer Noémie Lafrance has created a number of experimental works based in audience participation. “I feel that a controlled environment (like a theater) isn’t reflective of how we live. It’s isolating. In the same way, I don’t want to isolate the audience from my work,” she says. One of her most notable works, Agora II, took place in an abandoned swimming pool in Brooklyn, NY, and featured dozens of dancers. Certain audience members received text message cues about when to join the performance. In this site-specifc and immersive work, Lafrance made sure the audience had opportunites to change the direction of the piece.
Former Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet member Vânia Doutel Vaz debuted in Sleep No More last summer. She has extensive experience performing in immersive theater, and she says that no two shows are the same.
Nicholas Bruder as Macbeth and Sophie Borolussi as Lady Macbeth in Sleep No More. (Photo by Yaniv Schulman, courtesy O+M Co.)
For one memorable performance, Vaz danced in Laura Perez-Harris’ Belly of the Beast at Tomato House in Brooklyn. “Audience members crawled down a pitch-black velvet-lined maze and eventually fell into the ‘belly,’ where I and two other dancers performed,” Vaz says. “I think Laura was trying to get people way, way outside their comfort zones.”
“We call it ‘world-making,’ ” says Tom Pearson, co-artistic director of Third Rail Projects and one of the creators behind immersive productions like The Grand Paradise and Then She Fell, which was inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. “The edges of the real world are invisible.”
It might seem pointless to prepare for a performance where anything can happen, but it’s not. Vaz suggests attending immersive performances whenever possible, to build your familiarity. She also credits Ohad Naharin’s Gaga technique for teaching performers how to develop their awareness. “All your senses need to be enhanced,” she says. “You have to be able to see in 360 degrees.” And if you’re successful, she says, you’ll be so “in it” that you can practically predict audience members’ movements.
Vaz’s ultimate rule for performing in an immersive show? Don’t break character! She cautions that your worst-case scenario might happen, but you have to trust your fellow performers to help you—and that comes from rehearsing and performing together. “No matter what, never apologize for anything,” she says. “Everything that happens is supposed to. Don’t let the audience feel guilty, in your way, or uncomfortable. As a performer, you become the audience’s guiding eyes, so it’s all about being confident and secure in what you’re doing.”
If there’s one thing that separates ballroom dancers from everyone else, it’s their swinging, sassy hips. Hip action—the rotation of the hips created by the alternate bending and straightening of the knees—is a hallmark of Latin ballroom dance styles, but it’s surprisingly tricky to do correctly. Mastering it will make you look like a pro, even if you’re taking your first ballroom steps.
Dance Spirit spoke with Ryan Di Lello, a Season 6 finalist and Seasons 9 and 11 All-Star on “So You Think You Can Dance,” and one of the team directors for the ballroom company of Utah Valley University in Orem, UT, for advice to help get you movin’ and shakin’.
(Modeled by Samantha Abaya-Campos. Photos by Nathan Sayers)
Tip: Start from the Bottom
“Many people don’t know that the movement of the hips actually begins with the proper foot pressure into the floor,” Di Lello says. Connect to the floor by pushing through your foot muscles—the energy will travel up through your leg into the hip, creating proper hip action.
Tip: Put the Pedal to the Metal
When performing moves that travel front to back, “your back foot should serve as the engine, propelling you forward and creating hip action,” Di Lello says. This is also when it’s most important to connect to the floor with your foot muscles and push into a straight leg. That will raise your hip and send it in the proper direction.
Tip: Prepare for Landing
When you transition between your two feet, especially during samba movements where your legs cross, be sure to “cushion” your landing. When you release your hip and move onto your opposite leg, transfer your weight in an even way that allows your hip to naturally swing from one side to the other. This will make the movement look seamless, not sloppy.
Tip: Show that Opposites Attract
“The hips and ribs should move in opposition to one another to make hip movement more noticeable,” Di Lello says. It’s super-important to practice isolating the two, as unnatural as it may feel.
Get a Handle on Hip Action
Kosta Karakashyan, a member of the Columbia University ballroom team, suggests this simple exercise to help you discover proper hip action.
1. Stand in second position with your feet shoulder-distance apart, keeping both heels on the ground.
2. Move your hips in a figure-8 shape by going diagonally forward with your right hip, then rotating back until your left hip is facing diagonally forward—you should feel your hip bones drawing the “8.”
3. After a few repetitions, begin bending and straightening your knees as you rotate your hips diagonally—bending the left knee and straightening the right as you swing your hips right, and vice versa. With practice, you’ll begin to feel when to “cushion” into the step and when to rise. Think of the hips like a swinging pendulum.