At just 20 years old, Sienna Lalau is the living definition of "dynamite dancer": bold, confident, almost addicting to watch, and, at her core, overflowing with pure passion. From her work with The Lab Studios to Video Music Award–winning choreography for BTS, there's no stopping this starlet from bringing her love of dance to the global stage.
"Dance is something that can truly connect people," Sienna tells Dance Spirit. "It's a universal language. We may not speak the same language physically, but when we dance, there's a connection where we understand each other on another level."
Photo by Joe Toreno
All for the Love of K-Pop
That sense of a universal language is a large part of the reason Sienna has felt so deeply moved by K-pop and its influence on the dance world. A longtime fan of the genre—a love so deeply rooted that Korean dramas have become her obsession throughout the pandemic—Sienna's first experience choreographing for a K-pop group was with Exo. With one day to put together the full routine ("I was up until about 5 am," she recalls), it was a stressful experience, but one that showed her the possibilities that could arise ahead.
That moment eventually led to her work with global superstars BTS, with whom she's developed a close relationship over the years. "Being in the same room with them is just so amazing to witness, because you instantly feel their passion and their energy, and you feel how much they care about their fans and their work," Sienna says. And as she talks about BTS, her voice lights up with clear admiration for what the group has accomplished, and for how proud she feels about the work she's created with them, as she rightfully should.
"It was so amazing to see her work with BTS and help bring them to life through her choreography," says Valerie Ramirez, founder and creative director of The Lab. "Even with a language barrier, it was pretty amazing to watch her work with them and see what she could do with their art form."
Sienna clearly has great synergy with the boys, given her similar sense of love and passion for dance and the art community as a whole. "Just seeing people that have never even heard about it before starting to listen to it now and starting to appreciate these different groups and the music itself, even if they don't speak the same language as us, is so wholesome to me," Sienna says. "And I think K-pop has literally just taken over the world."
Growing Roots at The Lab
Sienna's work with BTS largely stems from her roots at The Lab, a training studio for world-class dancers. She began working with The Lab back in November of 2016, while still living in her home state of Hawaii. Traveling back and forth between the island and California, Sienna began to grow her reputation with the organization before officially making the move to the West Coast in late 2017, after helping The Lab win Hip Hop International's Varsity Division.
"She's always been special and brilliant," says Ramirez. "Her ability to create with a team of peers at The Lab has allowed her creativity to fully bloom."
Making the move was far from an easy decision, though. Sienna's mom deeply wanted her to finish high school in Hawaii, but didn't want to discourage any opportunities that could come her way. And while moving to L.A.—or New York City—is often a young dancer's dream, it comes with an unspoken level of anxiety that Sienna experienced firsthand.
"I came up here by myself at first, and the first month alone was pretty tragic," she remembers.
Photo by Joe Toreno
Thankfully, Sienna's mom went out to L.A. a month later, but that time period—stripped from her family, home and everything that felt so natural to her—was an immense challenge in and of itself. In that moment, she turned to God for comfort.
"I knew that if I kept having faith, and I knew that if I just put my trust in God and really leaned on Him, I knew that he was going to provide for me, and he was going to take care of me, and I didn't have to worry about it," she says. And looking back now, that couldn't have been truer.
Sienna's work with The Lab quickly picked up steam, with headline-making moments popping up what felt like every couple of months. And still, it's impossible for her to pick a favorite. When pushed, though, she reveals that there's nothing as special as preparing for a competition with her fellow dancers.
"When we're preparing for a competition, it's so, so, so stressful, but it's helped me grow the most. The one thing that we really cherish at The Lab is our chemistry with each other," Sienna says, "There's days where we're literally just cleaning the same eight-count for hours, and still, the energy that you feel in the room is so amazing because everybody has each other's back. It really feels like a family."
She adds, "It feels like it's been a long ride, but I look back now, and it hasn't even been five years. But with the number of things that we've been able and blessed to do, it feels like the best crazy long ride."
And that ride is only getting started. Ramirez only sees success in Sienna's future, saying, "I think a world tour would be something that she is so ready to create for. She's ready to express herself on a higher level and a bigger magnitude of creativity."
The Future Couldn't Be Brighter
Despite the ways 2020 has thrown the dance industry into a spiral, Sienna is staying positive and hopeful, knowing that the universal language of dance will never fade. Through the pandemic, she's been able to choreograph for Black Pink, Treasure, and for a visual album for "Changes" by Justin Bieber. And as if that wasn't spectacular enough, she also found the time to choreograph a special promo for March Madness to Selena Gomez's "Dance Again." Clearly, not even a global shutdown can stop Sienna's star from rising.
Like most of us, her go-to form of self-care during this troublesome time has been a Netflix binge. She's resting a lot more, as well, an uncommon thing for a dancer normally constantly on the move.
When it comes to the album she has on repeat, Ariana Grande's Positions instantly comes to mind. And when she's in the mood for some more K-pop, "Dynamite," by BTS, is the first to come on shuffle.
Photo by Joe Toreno
Looking ahead with so much up in the air, one thing is clear in Sienna's mind: Dance has never been so important. "Dancing in general is more important now than ever before, because it's something that makes people feel good at the end of the day and brings a lot of joy. And we all need that right now."
For Tanishq Joshi (aka Taneesky), becoming a dancer was as unexpected as your music cutting off mid-performance. An unfortunate injury in his hometown of Indore, Madhya Pradesh, India, led to the more fortunate discovery of a new passion and a flourishing career.
Joshi's had the opportunity to choreograph and compete at "World of Dance" events, perform at the JaQuel Knight Showdown, and grace the stage at Pharrell Williams' "Something in the Water" concert. And that's all on top of work and training with dancers and choreographers like Devin Solomon, Denzel Chisolm, Josh Killacky, Samantha Caudle, and Jake Kodish.
Joshi shared his story with Dance Spirit, and broke down how his unique approach to choreography is helping him diminish stereotypes, open doors for South Asian dancers, and inspire the dance community at large.
The Come Up
At the age of 16, Joshi's happy accident caused him to break his left tibia, leading to a pretty intense surgery that left two screws and three metal rods in his leg. That's tough news for anyone, and especially for Joshi since he was a soccer player at the time. But when it came to deciding what to do for physical therapy—and without a clue of where his journey would lead—he chose dance.
In the beginning—and in a super-beginners'-level dance class—Joshi says, "there was one step that took me three or four days to get." So, when you see his intricate, textured movement today, just know it took plenty of hard work to get there.
Adapting to New Environments
After eventually regaining strength in his leg, Joshi continued to do exactly what healed him. With the urge to dip his toes deeper into the dance world, he decided to apply for a college dance scholarship. That decision got him a full ride to Drexel University, where he studied finance while casually balancing a job as a barista and traveling by bus from Philadelphia to NYC for dance classes. "I started by looking for Matt Steffanina's classes because I used to watch his videos all the time back in India," Joshi says.
His dance style began to evolve when he started training more heavily in hip hop, and receiving mentorship from Dinita "Queen Dinita" Clark and Kyle "JustSole" Clark, who helped him tap into even more foundational styles, like popping, house and Afro.
But Joshi's journey as a South Asian in the U.S. still came with a lot of pressure. This was the first time anyone from his family had been to the U.S. "Fortunately, I was able to get past the culture shock, make some friends, and have dance as my source of support," he says.
A Sequence of Epiphanies
As his passion and hunger for dance continued to grow, Joshi not only got recruited as a team member for Creative Reaction, he got the opportunity to choreograph for the company. "I think that's the best decision I ever made," he says. That's because, beyond the success they experienced as a team onstage, they were a constant source of encouragement for Joshi offstage. "When I came to the U.S., I wanted to fit in," he says. But his teammates helped him realize "there's nothing wrong with me or my voice. That's what makes me me, and I've got to own it."
Shortly after graduating, Joshi landed a job as a financial analyst, and it gave him a glimpse of the work life he didn't want. "I'd find myself taking bathroom dance breaks," he says. Things definitely got a little weird when the CEO would enter to find Joshi dancing full-out in front of an audience of stalls.
"Every time I'd go back to my desk, I was reminded that I wasn't made for this. I'm supposed to dance," he says. That's when Joshi quit his finance job and created his own dance business.
From Playing the Game to Changing the Game
Much like his start in dance, Joshi's approach to choreography today is, well...unpredictable. "All these years, I kept listening to Bollywood music, but never really thought to choreograph to it," he says. "I kept using all the popular 'Hollywood' songs."
Having more time to reflect during the pandemic, Joshi thought about the dance connections he's made in the U.S. in comparison to his lack of connections to the dance community within his home country. This imbalance didn't feel right to him, so he took action by connecting with the dancers he knew—both here and back home—and saying "Let's choreograph to a bunch of Bollywood music!"
"What I'm trying to do now is put all of my hip-hop dance training to Bollywood music," Joshi says. Although uncommon, this style of dance paired with this genre of music creates a surprisingly refreshing dance experience. Now, whenever given the opportunity to choreograph, Joshi will pick a Bollywood song over anything else.
Zara Alina, courtesy Joshi
Stomping on Stereotypes
Embarking on his dance journey, Joshi did a lot of research looking for role models in dance who looked like him, but the results were scarce. "I'm definitely inspired by so many dancers, but I would love it if there were more South Asian representation in the dance industry."
To add to the lack of representation, some of his early audition experiences—like dealing with choreographers making stereotypical remarks after he'd already been cut—left him feeling like he'd been placed in a "Bollywood box," in which everyone assumed he wasn't capable of dancing any other styles.
"Whatever I'm doing now, it's to get past that, and let my skills speak for themselves," Joshi says. "And if I can't find representation, I'm gonna give them representation."
A Bright Future for South Asian Dancers
Having taught countless workshops and mentored dancers from India, Joshi is naturally pushing South Asian dancers and Indian culture to the forefront of the dance industry—all while becoming the role model he wishes he had on his journey.
Serving as inspiration for so many back home—and having accomplished so many firsts—Joshi certainly won't be the last South Asian of Indian descent to banish stereotypes in such a unique way.
"I intend to continue mentoring and opening doors for Indian dancers, and I know for a fact that, in the future, there will be higher numbers of South Asians represented within the dance field."
When it comes to in-studio dancewear, the pros know that the right look, piece, or material can mean the difference between a day feeling confident and comfortable, or just plain out of sorts. With so much time spent honing their craft in dance clothes, choosing those items takes equal parts strategy, creativity and a healthy dose of fun.
Ian Eastwood, freelance dancer, choreographer, and teacher
On his favorite footwear: "Eventually I realized I was burning through my shoes too fast. I needed to find something classic and simple that would always hold me down, so I switched to the low-top authentic Vans. These days my go-to dance shoes are Vans Old Skool. They're a little fatter and more supportive. What's nice about a classic shoe is you can grab a new pair everywhere."
On creating a signature look: "I like mixing and matching new stuff with old stuff. Classic stuff with edgy stuff. I hone into a certain look and change it from time to time. I have my vintage tee for the day, crazy sweats, and Vans. It's a formula."
Comfort is key: "I like things that have been worn a lot. I like feeling that the piece that I'm wearing has life to it. I feel like a mannequin if I'm just given a brand-new T-shirt."
Favorite pieces: "I have a big collection of vintage tees. I have a Where's Waldo? T-shirt. I collect Simpsons vintage tees, Loony Tunes vintage tees, Batman vintage tees, etc. I also have this one denim jacket that has 60 pins on it. It's a conversation starter everywhere I go."
Karilyn Ashley Surratt, musical theatre dancer and former Radio City Rockette
Faren Brooke Collins, courtesy Karilyn Ashley Surratt
For versatility: "I love a unitard. They are so easy but so edgy. You can wear them for anything. You can put a lot of things over them. I also love American Apparel body suits. They have a high-cut leg, and for me, a long leg line is so great. You see the line and the musculature."
To make the most of old dancewear: "I love repurposing an old leotard. Maybe it's your favorite leotard and you don't want to throw it away. I cut the bottom off and turn it into a crop top—I think it's a cool way to reuse something."
For self-care: "For rehearsals, it's a lot about quick and easy muscle recovery. I wear CW-X compression pants with Stabilyx compression webbing. The webbing matches how your tendons crisscross over your joints. Wearing the compression tights for rehearsals helps me to have faster recovery in the evening. As I've gotten older, that's very important to me, especially as a Rockette."
On what she looks for in dancewear: "I consider the fabric quality. Dance clothes are not cheap. They are an investment. If you buy good quality things up front, they will last you years. I love Grishko, Yumiko, American Apparel, Farever Art, and Art Stone."
Natalie Varnum, Demi Soloist with Houston Ballet
On her go-to dancewear for class: "For class, I start with a Bloch or Yumiko leo with Zarely tights (our company's pick). I wear Bloch stretch flat shoes and usually start with a hot pink RubiaWear jumpsuit for my warm-ups. By center, I put on a cute skirt, which changes to match my leo of the day."
For rehearsals: "It depends on what we are rehearsing. I always have a certain rehearsal garment to mimic the costume (romantic tutu, long skirt for contemporary, etc.). When we start doing in-studio runs, I try to match the character I'm playing color-wise: all black for Carabosse or a high-neck leo for Mayerling. It makes it fun and helps me get into character."
For confidence and comfort: "I go for the high-neck, long-sleeve, low-back leotard—In the middle, somewhat elevated/Sylvie Guillem–style. Sylvie always gets you through! Maybe in a good green for me. I also love Bloch leotards for confidence and comfort, and I'm a huge fan of Maldire Dancewear, as well."
On what goes into her fashion choices: "I love funky patterns. I have so many wild leos with hamburgers or Sailor Moon on them. It makes it fun. I also love my friend's company, Rezonance Athletics, because they make all of their dancewear out of recycled fabrics!"