We've all been stubbing our toes and whacking our elbows dancing in less-than-roomy indoor spots lately (hello, 5' x 8' patch of bathroom tile). If you're lucky enough to have access to a backyard or other big green space right now, you're probably itching to take your grand allegro outside, especially as the weather gets warmer. But how can you dance safely and productively in the great outdoors? We got pro tips from Mike Tyus of Jacob Jonas The Company and Xin Ying of Martha Graham Dance Company, both of whom were dancing outside long before COVID-19 hit.
Make Smart Footwear Choices<p>What you put on your feet can make or break your outdoor dance experience—and, if you're not wise, your ankles, too. Your footwear should reflect the style of dance you're doing and the purpose of the outing. "If I'm just posing, like for a photo shoot, I might take my shoes off for the shot," Ying says. "But if I'm really dancing, that's not a good idea. I stick to sneakers that protect my feet." Tyus looks for a combination of flexibility and support. "I like to wear shoes that I can feel my feet in, yet still have a sole for protection," he says. "I like canvas shoes, like Converse or Vans." </p>
Find the Right Location<p>If you're dancing in public outdoor spaces, choosing a safe location is crucial, especially in this era of social distancing. "You want to avoid as many people as possible," Tyus says. "With restaurants and grocery stores closed, many parking lots are completely empty, leaving some great open spaces." Tyus also likes to dance in empty parking garages. "The smooth concrete floors are ideal for turning," he says. </p><p>Beyond practicality, choose a location that inspires you. "The greatest thing about dancing outdoors is what the location itself adds to your dancing," Tyus says. Ying likes outside spots with a view. "Go up on your roof or out to the park," she says. "Use the sensation of the wind through your hair, or the way the birds are singing, to dance in a way you never have before." </p>
Jacob Jonas The Company's Mike Tyus (Jacob Jonas, courtesy Jonas)
Manage Unpredictable Surfaces<p>The natural world doesn't come equipped with sprung Marley floors, so you're going to have to troubleshoot for less-than-ideal dance surfaces. "Concrete is nice and smooth for turns, but you don't want to do huge tricks or jumps on it, because it's super hard," Tyus says. "Soft grass, on the other hand, absorbs shock, so it's great for big jumps and acrobatics. And sand can be really fun because you can fall without hurting yourself, and the resistance of the sand will strengthen your muscles." </p><p>If your outdoor space is problematic, Ying recommends not pushing yourself too hard. "You don't necessarily have to do turns or jumps," she says. "You can avoid the things that might injure you by focusing on more lyrical, stretchy movement. Alter your dancing depending on the surface."</p>
Plan for the Weather<p>Weather conditions like glare, wind, and rain can throw a wrench in your outdoor dance plans. Establish your own weather-related boundaries. "I don't like to dance in the rain, so I simply don't go out on bad weather days," Ying says. "Some people enjoy it, but I would rather watch the forecast, and go out on a day that's nicer." </p><p>Tyus, on the other hand, often embraces unexpected weather. "The glare of the sun can look great in a lot of photos, and the wind looks really cool moving through loose clothing. Even rain can produce some really fun stuff," he says. "You just need to adjust your perspective." That said, you should never dance outdoors if you hear thunder or see lightning, or if winds are strong or unpredictable.</p>
Ying dancing outside (James Jin, courtesy Ying)
Enjoy It!<p>"I've always danced outdoors," Ying says. "I'm glad other dancers are using this time to explore the joy that can come from it. Beyond the inherent inspiration, it's a great way to get over any fears of dancing in public."</p><p>Tyus agrees. "Dance isn't something that was made to be inside," he says. "It was made as a reflection of, and connection to, nature itself. Right now we get to go back to where we started. Dancing outdoors has changed the way I see dance, and I hope it changes the way other people see it, too."</p>
Whether you first watched it in a theater two decades ago or on Netflix last week, odds are you feel a deep connection to Center Stage. The cult classic, which premiered May 12, 2000, is arguably the greatest dance film ever made. (Dance obsessives might take issue with the "cult" before "classic," not to mention the "dance" before "film.") Jody Sawyer's ballet journey—which combines oh-wow-I've-had-those-blisters realism with wait-does-she-have-magic-color-changing-pointe-shoes fantasy—stands the test of time, early-aughts fashion be darned. We've memorized its highly quotable lines, laughed with (and, gently, at) its heroes, and been inspired by its sincere love of dance and dancers.
To celebrate Center Stage's 20th anniversary, we asked five of its dance stars to talk through their memories of the filming process. Here are their stories of on-set bonding, post-puke kissing scenes, and life imitating art imitating life.
Real-life besties Sascha Radetsky (left) and Ethan Stiefel—aka Charlie and Cooper—reminiscing on Center Stage, 20 years later (Photo by Joe Carrotta)
On the Audition Process<p><strong>Ethan Stiefel (Cooper Nielson): </strong>I walked into the American Ballet Theatre studios at 890 Broadway one day, and I had one of those yellow slips in my mail cubbyhole that just said, "Laurence Mark. Columbia Pictures. Please call." Out of nowhere. And I called, and Larry—one of the film's producers—answered directly. He was super-knowledgeable about dance, and had seen me perform a couple of times. He was a fan. He said Columbia was working on a dance film, and he thought I'd be a good fit for it. I was a little taken aback—there aren't that many dance movies made, period—but of course I was interested. I mean, what an opportunity.</p><p><strong>Sascha Radetsky (Charlie):</strong> Ethan and I were buddies from way back. We met when we were kids at a summer intensive—I was 11 and he was 15, I think? But we ended up in ABT together. And I remember in maybe January of 1999, Ethan saying, "Oh, yeah, I'm doing this movie." It sounded like it was written for him.</p><p><strong>Erin Baiano (American Ballet Academy student):</strong> Yeah, I heard the whole thing was a star vehicle for Ethan.</p><p><strong>Stiefel:</strong> I didn't hear that!</p><p><strong>Julie Kent (Kathleen Donahue):</strong> I remember Ethan mentioning to me, when we were doing a guest appearance in Japan, that he had just been to California to meet with a director about a possible film. It all sounded exciting, but kind of vague. And then, some months later, he said that they wanted me to read for a part.</p><p><strong>Amanda Schull (Jody Sawyer):</strong> For me, it was a bit of a life-imitating-art situation. I was in my last year at San Francisco Ballet School, and we were rehearsing for our end-of-year showcase, which was an opportunity for Helgi [Tomasson, SFB's artistic director] and other company directors to see us perform. Helgi's assistant came into a rehearsal and whispered something to the choreographer of the piece, who had a very dry sense of humor—she said something like, "We're going to have a fancy Hollywood producer watching us today." I immediately perked up. I happened to have one of the leads in this ballet, and I turned it ON. At the end, Helgi's assistant gave me a script—my hamming it up had caught the producer's attention. The next day, I read my scenes for the producer between rehearsals, while I was beet-red and sweaty. I was reading for Jody and Maureen, but I said to the producer, "You know, I actually like the Jody role more." How totally embarrassing, in hindsight! But I found out later that afterward, the producer had called the casting director and said, "I found Jody Sawyer."</p>
Amanda Schull with director Nicholas Hytner (courtesy Schull)
Schull (center) in the now-iconic Center Stage foutté sequence (courtesy Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
On the First Days On Set, and Adjusting to Acting<p><strong>Schull:</strong> Before filming began, we rehearsed the jazz number in New York with [choreographer] Susan Stroman and her wonderful assistants, and the ballet numbers. They put me up in an apartment near Lincoln Center. I felt very glamorous.</p><p><strong>Stiefel:</strong> Stroman was directing [Tony-award–winning musical] <em>Contact</em> at that point, at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, and so we had some of our rehearsals there.</p><p><strong>Schull:</strong> The guys were still in season at ABT at the beginning of the rehearsal period, so I started on my own at first. And thank goodness, because I was nowhere near as quick a learner or strong a dancer as Ethan and Sascha. Once they joined the rehearsals, I remember being shocked at how fast they learned everything. It was <em>nothing</em> to them to pick up these ballets. Also, seeing Ethan's feet up close for the first time—I was totally gobsmacked.</p><p><strong>Stiefel:</strong> Stroman was brilliant, choreographing the Cooper Nielson ballet. She'd never really worked with ballet dancers before, but she had a great handle on the structure and a sense of the feeling she wanted for each passage. Then she'd allow us the freedom to suggest things—"Is there something specific you can think of for this spot?" I'm also pretty sure the motorcycle didn't exist in the Cooper ballet until I was cast. [Stiefel is, famously, a motorcycle enthusiast.]</p>
Schull and Stiefel filming the motorcycle scene (courtesy Schull)
Schull and Radetsky (left) with Shakiem Evans and Victoria Born (aka Erik and Emily) in a scene from the film (courtesy Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
On the Dance Scenes<p><strong>Schull: </strong>Since I didn't have an acting background, scenes with heavy emotional dialogue made me nervous. But the dance sequences were super-fun to film.</p><p><strong>Stiefel:</strong> I loved that they chose such sophisticated rep for the movie. How great is [Sir Kenneth] MacMillan's <em>Romeo and Juliet</em> balcony pas? And then George Balanchine's <em>Stars and Stripes</em> has a different sensibility in terms of its virtuosity and accessibility. You had everything from Shakespeare to a motorcycle coming onstage. It was diverse, and it wasn't watered down at all.</p><p><strong>Kent:</strong> We really didn't adjust the MacMillan choreography at all for the camera. That's one of the things I'm most proud of in that film: how they captured the excerpts from the balcony pas. They got it so well—the choreography and the sense of performance, the set design.</p><p><strong>Stiefel:</strong> They also filmed the finale from Balanchine's <em>Theme and Variations</em>, with ABT dancers, and me and Julie. And it was never used. I don't think I've ever seen it. Must be in the vault somewhere.</p><p><strong>Baiano:</strong> They were really smart about scheduling the dance stuff. For the classroom scenes, a lot of the [New York] City Ballet dancers had more time during that period of filming, so you'll see them in the background there. But then they brought in ABT dancers to do "Little Swans," since that was in ABT's rep.</p><p><strong>Kent:</strong> Filming dance requires a different level of intensity—not just the old "Hurry up and wait," but "Hurry up, wait, and then dance your heart out." It's hard on your body, to produce a high physical level of energy repeatedly, without being warm. But it always seemed like a good mood on set, a lot of really excited young dancers.</p><p><strong>Radetsky:</strong> We were so psyched just to be there. There was a bit of a learning curve for the crew in terms of filming dance, so I remember some takes where we'd give our best run, and the turns were great, but it'd turn out they were focusing on…the piano. [<em>Laughs</em>.] It didn't matter! We'd go again.</p><p><strong>Kent:</strong> Filming "She's a heartbeat away from tattooing your name on her…" —well, you can fill in the blank. That scene was funny, partly just because people didn't expect to hear those words coming out of my mouth. That's not really my personality! But you really do secretly talk onstage like that sometimes while you're dancing, so that was fun to shoot. Also, I kept thinking that at the end of <em>Dancers</em> [the 1987 film Kent starred in with Mikhail Baryshnikov], you see me getting a daisy tattoo on my butt cheek. What is it with these ballet movies that tattoos on the bottom is a theme?</p>
Stiefel and Schull dancing in "Cooper's ballet" (courtesy Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
Schull and Stiefel with the cast in the jazz class scene (courtesy Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
On the Dynamic Behind the Scenes<p><strong>Schull: </strong>We were all quite close. It was like summer camp. The younger kids spent every weekend together, going over to one person's house or another. I filmed every single day for three months, and I still couldn't get enough of the people I was working with. I turned 21 on the set of the film, and they decorated my trailer with streamers and flowers and gave me a cake, all of it. I don't have anything scandalous or wild to share about that. [<em>Laughs.</em>] I just had the time of my life.</p><p><strong>Baiano: </strong>The dancers playing students and extras, most of the time, we were really just hanging out in the New York State Theater [now the David H. Koch Theater], which was where a lot of us worked anyway. So there was a weird, unfamiliar moviemaking element, but it was also our home turf, which helped us all get more comfortable.</p><p><strong>Schull:</strong> The more experienced dancers were incredibly gracious. At the very beginning, Ethan left me a voicemail saying what a good job he thought I was doing. I kept that for a long time. And I became close with Sascha and Stella [Abrera, now an ABT principal and Radetsky's wife].</p><p><strong>Baiano:</strong> The crew was super-great. All the dancers would work long hours and not be divas about it. We're just used to that, but I think the crew really respected that work ethic, since that's not always the case on films.</p><p><strong>Stiefel:</strong> The general feeling was that everybody involved really loved dance and wanted us to be successful.</p>
Schull backstage with the camera crew (courtesy Schull)
Schull and Stiefel filming the dance finale (courtesy Schull)
On Working With Famous—or Soon-to-Be-Famous—Actors<p><strong>Schull: </strong>The nondancers were all lovely to me, and I definitely didn't deserve it, naïve little squirt that I was. Zoe [Saldana, who plays Eva] had some dance training—her port de bras is gorgeous, actually—but she and Susan [May Pratt, who plays Maureen] had absolutely no ego about taking suggestions from the dancers in the cast when it came to making the dance scenes more realistic. Everyone was invested in making it as real as possible, not some Hollywood interpretation of what ballet is.</p><p><strong>Kent:</strong> Peter Gallagher had clearly done a lot of homework so he could look like he knew what he was doing while leading a ballet class—the mannerisms, that very specific physicality.</p><p><strong>Stiefel:</strong> Peter was great to work with because he's excellent at what he does, of course, but he was also very supportive and generous. I learned a lot from him, just watching how he went about it, how he would read a scene, the questions he would ask, the craft of it all.</p><p><strong>Baiano:</strong> What I remember about Peter Gallagher is that he would bum cigarettes from me all the time. Which made me feel really cool. [<em>Laughs.</em>]</p>
Schull on set with dancers (courtesy Schull)
On the Movie's Initial, and Ongoing, Impact<p><strong>Schull: </strong>I did <em>not</em> expect the attention that the film got right off the bat. That was really weird. We wrapped, and I went back to San Francisco Ballet as an apprentice—I wasn't living some glamorous, attention-seeking life. But I remember flying to visit my sister after the film premiered, and getting really motion-sick on the plane, and seeing these teenage girls taking pictures of me throwing up. The guy sitting next to me said, "Are you some kind of a rock star?" And I was like, "No…I'm the girl from that dance movie." [<em>Laughs.</em>]</p><p><strong>Baiano:</strong> All my friends were in love with Sascha. They were like, "Do you know Charlie?" And I was like, "Oh, yeah, we go way back." [<em>Laughs.</em>] Sascha was in a Mandy Moore music video! Everyone forgets that "I Wanna Be with You" was a <em>Center Stage </em>song.</p><p><strong>Radetsky:</strong> I mean, there are, like, clips of me playing on a screen while Mandy is singing.</p><p><strong>Baiano:</strong> No, it's more than that!</p><p>[<em>Editor's note: </em><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ErntJrtQGBg" target="_blank"><em>Judge for yourself</em></a><em>.</em>]</p><p><strong>Stiefel: </strong>There was a real buzz in dance when the film came out, because it had been so long since a major studio had done a dance film. <em>White Nights</em> was great, but a totally different flavor. And the diversity of the characters involved was new, too.</p><p><strong>Baiano:</strong> You get to see a black gay character, finally! It was approaching modern times. Although I do cringe a little today at how inappropriate Cooper's relationship with Jody was, not to mention the cornrow braids in the Cooper ballet, which are, uh, problematic. But it got a lot of other things right. It was part of that wave of great rom-coms from that early-2000s era. All the Freddie Prinze Jr. stuff, and <em>10 Things I Hate About You—</em>it had that same feeling. To this day, it's still so <em>watchable</em>.</p><p><strong>Radetsky:</strong> There's some perfect formula it just hit.</p><p><strong>Kent:</strong> You can spend your whole life as a performing artist, performing all over the world, and that's one thing. But to be preserved in time on film, a film people still watch—that's special in a different way. I remember, when 9/11 happened, about a year after the movie came out, ABT was on tour, I think in Kansas City. We had to drive across the country to San Diego, because all the flights were grounded. We were at a rest stop in Colorado somewhere and the waitress came over and said, "Oh, the people at the counter have taken care of your lunch. They recognize you from the movies."</p>
Stiefel, Schull, and Radetsky in the finale of "Cooper's ballet" (courtesy Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
(From left) Stiefel, Radetsky, and Erin Baiano at their mini Center Stage reunion (photo by Joe Carrotta)
Hello, all you members of the great Dance Class of 2020. With the world on lockdown, this hasn't been the graduation season you expected. You likely weren't able to go to prom; your commencement ceremonies have probably been delayed or canceled; and you might not have been able to take your planned-for final bow onstage.
Since you're missing out on so much, we'd like to give you a virtual ovation, to recognize all you've accomplished. And what's the highest honor we can bestow? The cover of Dance Spirit!
Here's the plan:
- If you're a high school or college senior dancer, use this form to submit your information and dance portrait.
- Each day during the month of May, we'll create a digital Dance Spirit cover starring one of you, chosen at random—31 covers in total.
- At the end of the month, we'll create a "commencement video" featuring even more of your submitted dance photos.
- 100 of you, selected by lottery, will also receive free one-year subscriptions to the print magazine.
Merde, 2020 graduates, as you dance your way into the future!