Kylie Jefferson (center, back) in "Tiny Pretty Things" (Sophie Giraud, courtesy Netflix)

Netflix’s “Tiny Pretty Things” Faces Ballet Stereotypes Head-On

The pilot of Netflix's dance-centric series "Tiny Pretty Things"—based on the YA novel by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton—will leave you breathless. It touches on, well, everything: love, murder, racism, competition, jealousy, girl cliques, sexual experimentation, eating disorders. And the intricate plot is propelled by equally breathtaking ballet sequences.

Here are the basics of that plot: The Archer School of Ballet is the premiere conservatory in Chicago. During the first three minutes of the episode (no spoilers!), star student Cassie Shore is pirouetting along the edge of the roof of the school when she's pushed off by a hooded man (Her boyfriend? A jealous lover? A ballet master or choreographer?) and dies. Neveah Stroyer, who'd previously been rejected from the school, is flown in from L.A. to replace her.

While the series can verge on melodrama—the pilot does open with a dancer being pushed off a roof, after all—its depiction of the finer details of the ballet world feels spot-on. That was paramount to the production team. "We wanted the dancers to feel represented in their athleticism, and in the sometimes ugly business of making something beautiful," says executive producer Jordanna Fraiberg. "The show encompasses the grit and sweat, before it's wrapped up in costumes and makeup."

Catch "Tiny Pretty Things" streaming on Netflix Monday, December 14.


Finding the Right Cast

To ensure the show would feel authentic, the creators set out to cast dancers who could act, not actors who'd require dance doubles. The process spanned three months and many continents. It often felt—especially when casting two of the leads, roles that ultimately went to Kylie Jefferson and Barton Cowperthwaite—like "trying to find unicorns," head choreographer and dance consultant Jennifer Nichols says. "To be at that level of dance skill is already a huge feat, and to be a brilliant actor on top of that is hard."

Nichols was also tasked with making sure every other element of the production accurately reflected the ballet world. "The team consulted about how the shoe room would really look, how the studio was set up, how to tie a pointe shoe ribbon," Nichols explains. "These are all dead giveaways unless they're supervised by someone in the dance world. I was worried we wouldn't have the time and money to make it all look right, but it was never pushed aside."

A still from "Tiny Pretty Things." Dancers stretch on the floor of the studio. Our focus is on Kylie Jefferson and Daniela Norman, who seem to be engaged in conversation while stretching. Both girls look serious, and face each other. Kylie Jefferson is in a split, and Daniela Norman is in a lunge. Both wear long-sleeved dresses, tights, pointe shoes, and their hair in buns.

Kylie Jefferson (left) and Daniela Norman in an episode of "Tiny Pretty Things" (Sophie Giraud courtesy Netflix)

Ballet-World Realness

"Tiny Pretty Things" explores issues many young ballet dancers grapple with: How do you befriend your biggest competition? How has racism stained the ballet world? How does a young dancer figure out their sexuality? How common are eating disorders among dancers? "In the past, entertainment often hasn't done justice to the dance world," Nichols says. "Not just the ups and downs of it, but also all the difficult work that goes into it." Oren, played by Barton Cowperthwaite, struggles with his sexual identity and an eating disorder. June, played by Daniela Norman, is tortured by a mother who doesn't believe in her talent. Bette, played by Casimere Jollette, lives in the shadow of her more gifted sister, a principal dancer in the company. Shane, played by Brennan Clost, worries that his male lover will leave him for a woman.

Kylie Jefferson, 25, who plays Neveah and earned her BFA at The Boston Conservatory, says her character's storyline reflects her own experiences with racism in ballet from "top to bottom." In the first episode, the head of the ballet school, played by Lauren Holly, glibly claims that Neveah, who is Black, was plucked out of Compton (she wasn't); fellow dancers make fun of a YouTube clip of her dancing hip hop; and her ballet teacher critiques her every move (and clothing choice).

"At the Boston Conservatory, girls were complaining to the head of the dance division about parts I was getting," she explains. "They said I was given them because I was Black. Don't they think I was aware of the stares or forced smiles they gave me when I did more turns than they did, or my arabesques got higher?" She appreciates the show's unvarnished portrayal of the challenges she and many other Black ballet dancers face. "Representation is so important," she says. "I'm grateful to be part of a show that's able to do that—and not just in one light."

Using Dance to Tell the Story

The show's conflicts play out in the dialogue, of course, but dance also plays a vital role in the storytelling. (A pas de deux between two dancers might preview an unexpected love story, for example.) That meant choosing choreographers was particularly important. "We asked ourselves: How can choreography amplify and reflect the inner workings of narrative and the psychology of the characters?" Nichols says. "How can the dance further the narrative without playing second fiddle to it?"

Five A-list choreographers were hired to reflect the show's varied moods and styles: Guillaume Côté, Juliano Nunes, Garrett Smith, Tiler Peck, and Robert Binet. In typical entertainment-world fashion, they had relatively few rehearsals with the cast. Since time with each choreographer was so limited (dancers were often off shooting other scenes), Nichols—who was on set the whole season and choreographed all the in-class segments—acted as a go-between, helping the choreographers understand each dancer's strengths.

A still from "Tiny Pretty Things." Kylie Jefferson and Barton Cowperthwaite dance together in an empty, sun-lit studio. Kylie Jefferson's arms are extended above her head, and her legs are bent, with one extended to the side, on the floor. She wears black leggings and a metallic, geometric-printed long sleeve shirt. Barton Cowperthwaite stands with both legs bent, and one arm extended over his head. He wears navy joggers and a maroon tee shirt.

Kylie Jefferson and Barton Cowperthwaite dance together in an episode of "Tiny Pretty Things" (Sophie Giraud, courtesy Netflix)

Inside the Creative Process

The production process was fundamentally different from what the dancers, many of whom have impressive concert-world resumés, were accustomed to. "I learned that time is money!" Cowperthwaite says. "I'm used to performing onstage. The show goes how it goes, and you decompress and process after. When you're shooting, it's the same kind of pressure, but you have much less time to decompress. On set, you get your six to 10 takes, and you move on."

The camaraderie and professionalism of the stellar cast helped facilitate the filming process. The dancer-actors soon became "best friends," according to Cowperthwaite. "We would shoot all hours of the day and hang out all weekend. The dynamic was something to behold."

The natural chemistry between Jefferson and Cowperthwaite, in particular, made their onscreen dancing feel seamless. "We started filming a scene where they're paired for a Sleeping Beauty pas de deux, and immediately there was a spark between them," Nichols says. "It's written into the script, but it happened in real life, too. We all thought: 'We're really lucky to be able to pair them together.' "

The hope is that the show's clear-eyed portrayal of ballet, and the way it showcases gifted dancers at the top of their game, will hook Netflix's massive mainstream audience on dance. "When I got to set," Jefferson says, "I knew that everything I've been through in my life—everyone who's told me I wasn't working hard enough, every heartbreak that had nothing to do with dance—all of that was to get me there. It was to get me there and to help me keep going."

Meet Two "Tiny Pretty Things" Standouts

Barton Cowperthwaite

Age: 28

Higher education: BFA in dance from the University of Arizona

Hometown studio: Denver School of the Arts and The Academy of Colorado Ballet

Proudest career moments: Performing the lead in Lar Lubovitch's Men's Stories, and going on as Jerry in An American in Paris on tour. "I got thrown on 15 minutes before curtain, when both the lead and alternate called out!" he says. "I'd never done it with lights or costumes or with the female lead. And it was April Fool's. No one believed it!"

How he got the job on "Tiny Pretty Things": "I was in China with An American in Paris. I did a Skype audition from the basement of the theater during the one hour my Wi-Fi was functioning properly. It was a small miracle."

What he's been doing in quarantine: "Working out, and taking ballet online three to four times a week. I'm also reading sci-fi and acting books, and working on my voice. I've been active on social media, supporting Black Lives Matter, learning to be an ally. I'm also involved with Vote Forward, a letter-writing campaign to engage underrepresented and unlikely voters."

His advice to young dancers: "Find your dance instincts, and then train in a style on the other end of the spectrum so you stay grounded and disciplined. My physicality pushes me towards contemporary, but I turn to ballet as my rock, my lightning rod."

What the team says about him: "He's a brilliant dancer," Jennifer Nichols, the show's dance consultant, says. "He's a sinewy chameleon. He can be powerful and snappy, or soft and fluid. He has a lot of training in a myriad of styles, and an extensive professional past. I remember within seconds thinking: 'This kid can do anything.' "

Kylie Jefferson

Age: 25

Major: BFA in contemporary dance performance, with an emphasis in pedagogy, from the Boston Conservatory

Hometown studio: Debbie Allen Dance Academy. At 6, Jefferson was the youngest student to ever be admitted—the cutoff used to be 8. "From the beginning, Ms. Allen kept me close and pushed me beyond my limits," Jefferson says.

Proudest career moment: "Choreographing ScHoolboy Q's 'CHopstix' music video. I was able to hire friends I grew up dancing with—African-American women performing ballet exceptionally on TV. It was the first time the community I grew up with and my craft were aligned. In that moment, it became clear that I would never give up."

How she got the job on "Tiny Pretty Things": "I called so many dance studios in L.A. looking for space to make my audition tape, but they were all booked because so many dancers were auditioning for the show! The only time I could get was 7 pm on the night of the submission deadline. I spent the whole night editing. I was stressed-out getting it to upload!"

What she's been doing in quarantine: "Most mornings I wake up and mourn Breonna Taylor and turn on Lizzo and dance however I want to dance. If I want to put my leg up one second and twerk the next second, I will. I'm trying to set healthy patterns for myself, so I can get out and fight for my future and my future children. I've gotten to a point where I'm not asking for love or protection: I'm going to be that love and protection. I know that my spirit needs it, and I know my friends need it, too."

Advice to young dancers: "You have to show up for your lessons to receive your blessings. Stay 10 toes down in that. Sometimes you are the lesson you have to learn, and sometimes there are outward lessons. When you get shaky—questioning yourself, your confidence—the universe will respond to that."

What the team says about her: "There's an innate grace and purity to Kylie's lines," Jennifer Nichols says. "There was an authenticity to her audition tape: This is Kylie dancing, not a graduate of such-and-such school, where you see their teacher speaking through them. There's a real freedom to her movement. She comes alive when she dances."

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Because all dancers have experienced it at some point or another (Getty Images/patat)

How Dancers Can Beat Zoom Fatigue

Now that we're more than nine months into the pandemic, there's a big chance you're feeling Zoom-ed out. Read: Totally overusing the video-conferencing app for school and dance classes—and everything else. And according to dance/movement therapist Erica Hornthal, MA, LCPC, BC-DMT, there's good reason for that: "Managing your environment in a virtual space is taxing on the mind, and therefore taxing on the body."

Hornthal attributes these feelings, in part, to a mind–body disconnect that happens when we use the app: Your body knows you are alone in the room, but your mind sees a group of people on screen—and managing this COVID-era reality can be, well, exhausting. But we can also feel Zoom fatigue, Hornthal says, from having to "constantly be present to the third 'person' in the room: the Zoom camera." Uh, relatable!

So if staring at a grid of fuzzy faces—or into the abyss of that cold, dark lens on your device—has you feeling less than energized, here are some ways to cope.


Take breaks from tech throughout the day

Tamia Strickland, a sophomore in the Ailey/Fordham BFA dance program, trains both in person (with a mask, of course!) and online but says there are unique challenges that come with the latter. For one, she says, it's hard "to stay focused and motivated when you are in your basement or living room staring at a computer screen all by yourself—and all day long." These feelings can lead to frustration: You want to stay engaged with the class, but after staring at your computer screen for so long, you start to feel unmotivated.

As a remedy, Hornthal suggests taking breaks from your tech devices when you can. "The last thing you want to do," she says, "is exit a Zoom session and then immediately jump onto your phone." Instead, take a breather from everything virtual, and give your mind—and body—time to recalibrate. "Create space to connect or reconnect with your body when you are off technology," Hornthal says. "Take a walk, practice mindful breathing, embrace nature."

Move for yourself—and on your own

Another way to overcome feelings of online-class fatigue, Hornthal says, is to find time to move on your own—away from the camera on your device. As you begin moving for yourself, try to recognize and notice your own body wisdom. As a dancer, this could simply mean taking stock of what feels good and natural to your body as you, say, indulge in an improv sesh.

Tim Roberts, a Maryland dance studio owner and former performer, says giving his students time to turn their cameras off and work through their own movement has helped keep them motivated. "Opening that space for them is so necessary­ and beneficial, and helps them appreciate the time they do have with me," he says.

If you're not feeling up to a movement break, consider cooling down the mind and body by taking some time to stretch out and take up space in the body, Hornthal says. By encouraging greater body awareness, stretching can help give you more insight into what your body needs at any given point—a physical check-in before you head back into The Land of Zoom.

Tap into your other senses

When you're on Zoom, you're constantly using your eyes—to learn choreography, to support fellow dancers, to catch physical cues from teachers—so it's important, Hornthal says, to give yourself screen breaks. As you give your eyes a rest, take time to whet your other senses: Squeeze a stress ball; smell the outside air; gulp a tasty green smoothie; listen to your favorite playlist. The key here is to take in stimuli that trigger your other senses, rather than continuing to use (or overuse) your sense of sight.

And as a golden rule for your overall Zoom-life health, always remember: "It isn't just dance that is happening online—our entire lives are virtual," Hornthal says. "That means we have to be intentional with our downtime, and turn off technology, so we can tune in to ourselves."

Because honestly, what could be better than dancing alongside your mom? (Getty Images/undrey)

How You Can Support the Beginner Dancer in Your Life

Plenty of us have been dancing since we were teeny-tiny tappers and trinas, but walking into a dance class as an older beginner can be seriously intimidating. Luckily, one silver lining of the pandemic is that it's easier than ever to try out a two-step without even stepping into the studio—virtual classes seem to be everywhere we click nowadays.

Is one of your friends, siblings, parents, or grandparents interested in starting to dance, but totally unsure about where to begin? As the resident dancer in their lives, there are plenty of ways for you to encourage them. Here are just a few of the ways to support the newest dancer in your life.


Roll Out the Recommendations

The pandemic has opened up a whole new world of dance classes that you can stream right into your living room. By now, you're probably a seasoned Zoom dance pro. So start by asking your aspiring dancer what their goals are. Are they looking to just become more active? Study a specific genre of dance? Find a new creative outlet? Take that info and help them narrow down what kinds of virtual classes they might enjoy. Then, recommend some studios you know and love.

Be sure to give your friend or relative an impression of what to expect from their virtual class. Don't forget to offer Zoom-specific tips, like where to place their camera, or how to rearrange their furniture to provide enough space for class. And if they're nervous (or don't want the pressure of being on camera for their first few classes), let them know it's okay to leave their camera off until they're ready to try class with it on. After all, if Hugh Jackman can do it, so can they

Join Their Journey

Maybe you'd also like to broaden your dance horizons, or your friend is looking for an accountability partner. Try taking a beginner level class with your friend in a style you're unfamiliar with. Plenty of studios offer workshops for beginning dancers in a variety of styles, like Broadway Dance Center's Absolute Beginner Workshop seriesAbsolute Beginner Workshop series, which offers a series in every genre from ballet to street jazz.

Another option is to find a dance class video on YouTube, like Kathryn Morgan's at-home class series, and take it at the same time over a Zoom call by sharing your screen. That way, you can pause the video if you need to answer a question from your friend. (And try your best to remain calm when they ask you, for the fifth time, what "plié" means.)

Cheer Them Through Challenges

Most importantly, be there to support your friend or relative in their new dance journey. You know that there can be bumps along the road, but you also know that nothing compares to the feeling of nailing a hard combo, or accomplishing your next dance goal. The newest dancer in your life has all those milestones to look forward to along the way. Don't let them get discouraged when it's difficult —and help them celebrate their accomplishments, big or small.

Photo by Anaiah Simons, courtesy Taylor Jade Edgin

How Dance Helped Me Achieve Success in My Nondance Career Path

Like most kids, by the age of 4 I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up…a dancer. And sure, every kid picks a career to play along with—doctor, veterinarian, princess. But from that young age of 4, I was determined to turn my dream into a reality.

I spent my adolescent years in multiple dance companies, training to make the move to L.A. And then I got it: glimpses of my big break. I began working for and with the choreographers on my bucket list, got accepted into dance companies I'd tirelessly watch on YouTube, and even made it on that national commercial that my friends, family (and don't forget the frenemies!) got to see on repeat.

But then, suddenly, I felt a shift. Was I, the dancer who spent 18 years of blood, sweat and tears (and a crap ton of money) getting burnt out from the everyday hustle of my industry?

If I'm being honest, I always felt like the odd one out in my profession. It took me about four years of paying my dues in L.A. to realize that everything that was different about myself—and my mind—would serve as the catapult towards my new career path as a creative director.


Just Outside of Dance

While grappling with my sudden change of desire, I reflected on where it all started. I remembered being 10 years old, listening to the Black Eyed Peas' Elephunk album in the car, closing my eyes and visualizing a whole music video in my head. And while I thought that meant I would just be the choreographer or the dancer performing in the video, I never realized it might also mean I could be the person to bring the music video to life.

I flashed back to my various experiences on set as a dancer. I remembered how I always took interest in communicating with other departments and learning about their industries, and realized that it's OK to pursue creative endeavors beyond dance. I also paid close attention to how I was treated on set as "talent," taking all the things I learned and didn't like into deep consideration.

Growing Into the Role

Opening my mind allowed for a lot of fun opportunities, like the time I got to star as the lead in a music video that I was also hired to choreograph and direct, or when I started working with my teenage idol and mentor D-Trix, who taught me how to simultaneously choreograph and direct a piece for the camera. Combining my passions just felt right, but the coolest part about developing my knowledge as a creative director was that I got to do it in spaces I was already familiar with. Creating in the dance industry without actually dancing helped me discover that even though I'm focused on this new, creative role, I can still maintain my deep connection with dance.

I've spent the last four years continuing down the creative-direction path, developing artists, producing music videos, and marketing for friends. A favorite moment for me was working with Nya Bloom, a friend and upcoming artist who I convinced not only to create a short film for his first project, but also to hire me as a director.

After six months of brainstorming together, we pitched our ideas to an investor who loved them and granted us a budget. From there, I was hired as set designer, choreographer, stylist and director for the project, which granted me the opportunity to hire all my friends, from dancers and actors to DP and editors. We paid everyone their full rates and ran our production in succinct timing, wrapping everyone 30 to 60 minutes earlier than planned.

I was ecstatic to use all my skills from previous jobs as a dancer on set, and everything I had observed from my previous experiences, to put my skills to the test and produce a visual that turned out even better than we could've imagined.

Edgin getting comfortable in the directors' seat (Avo Guedekelian, courtesy Edgin)

Dancing to My Own Beat

I pride myself in not underpaying or overworking dancers and (subtly) brag about being the person to book you for a 12-hour day, release you ahead of schedule, and still pay you your full day rate. It's really important to me, as someone who has been in the positions I'm now hiring for, to make sure the talent is as comfortable and happy as possible.

As I've gained more experience in my role as a creative director and taking on artist development, I've realized that having a dance background made finding success in these nondancing roles so much easier. So, whether you choose to join a prestigious company as a full-time dancer or become a freelance creative director who dances whenever they feel like it, just know that dance is a tool that can help you achieve success in spaces you may have never imagined.

I'm so grateful for my now 21 years of dance experience for introducing me to my true calling in life. There was never a moment wasted, and I can dance to the beat of my own drum now.

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