Luam Keflezgy…this girl is on fire!

images1Attention! Attention!  Luam is back teaching at Broadway Dance Center! A long-time Hip-Hop teacher at BDC, Luam has danced and toured for many recording artists before choreographing for stars like Britney Spears, Beyonce, Kelly Roland, Carly Rae Jepson, Rihanna, and countless commercials and industrials. A truly inspiring teacher, Luam is also a popular mentor for BDC’s ISVP, Training Program, and Professional Semester students. She’s recently back after serving as choreographer and artistic director of Alicia Keys’ new “Set the World on Fire” tour.  In between her busy schedule, BDC blogger, Mary Callahan, sat down to interview Luam about her experience working on the Alicia Keys tour and what she looks for when hiring dancers.

What was your dance training like growing up?

I was born in East Africa and grew up in Philadelphia, Cali, and Seattle. My family lives in Seattle but I came to New York for college.  Dance was actually not a part of my life until after college.  I was planning on going to medical school.  When I graduated I had a lot of freedom to take classes…and I was hooked!  I said, “I’ll do this for now and then go back to school.”  But I never went back…I couldn’t go back!

It’s kind of funny – I initially began taking dance exercise classes at the local gyms.  Soon after, I quickly found Broadway Dance Center and Djoniba Dance center.  I then realized I needed a better dance foundation if I wanted to pursue this.  I could do African dance and hip hop, but I needed to understand dance as a whole to be a versatile dancer.  So I started taking classes at Ailey and Steps in addition to jazz and ballet classes at BDC.

When did you begin auditioning and teaching?

I was training, training, training, and then started performing in different showcases and eventually danced for artists.  The music industry was totally different back then – there was a lot of work for dancers in New York, big and small.  And this was before any dance agencies were around.  You just went out and did your thing.  It was a small but tight dance community and everything was word of mouth.

At the same time, I was also teaching and developing my classes.  Having trained in African dance in college, I started teaching hip hop at New York Sports Club, Djoniba Dance Center, and then at BDC which was a big honor.  As I developed my choreography while teaching I also began getting small choreography gigs that built my repertoire, experience, and credibility.

How did you get choreography jobs without an agent?

People would see my work and seek me out.  Nowadays I get work through my agency as well, but as choreographers we still shoulder a lot of the responsibility.  You have to become visible by getting your work out there and marketing your “brand.”  You really have to “build your own buzz.”

You’ve really choreographed everything: music videos, tours, commercials, and live events.  Is one type more challenging or more enjoyable as a choreographer? 

It’s not the type that determines difficulty but rather the situation – the conditions that you’re working in.  For example, you may have to change everything on the spot due any number of reasons, or the song arrangement may change last minute, or you artist may not even be able to attend rehearsals…but you still make the artist and performance look flawless.  Situational challenges come up with any type of job whether it’s for the stage, TV, or a commercial.  For me, I love being diverse and working on different projects.  I welcome that challenge.  But I especially love choreographing to music that I enjoy.  If I get to work with music that inspires me, that’s icing on the cake!

What is it like to work with vocal artist who are not necessarily trained dancers?

You have to understand what their goal is, who their market is, and how you can push them to be fresh and new (but still true to their “brand”).  Most vocal artists are not dancers, but they are performers.  It’s about creating a visual around them.  While the artist is telling the story through their music, the story is actually unfolding around them.  But the singer is participating!  Even if they cannot dance a single step, they can walk to the right, walk to the left, look at somebody, look over there, and then they become involved.  You have to be clever about the choices you give them.

I walk in to rehearsals and I get to know how the artist moves.  My goal is to push the artist to be the best at what they do rather than imposing something totally different upon them (unless they are a dancer and then they might want to explore or challenge themselves through new styles of movement).  It’s not about the steps, ever.  It’s about the visual, the feeling, and the total performance.  And you have to be ready to sacrifice.  You can choreograph an entire routine and you have to be ready to say, “Let’s cut it all” because it’s just not working.  You have to put the artist’s agenda over your own.  You have to match the artist.


images2You just finished directing and choreographing for Alicia Keys’ new tour, “Set the World on Fire.”  What is it like being a choreographer for a tour?  Who do you “report” to?

It really depends.  Usually if you’re a choreographer you report to the creative director and show director (though the overall boss of any artists’ project is the artist!).  On this last tour [Alicia Keys] I was both the choreographer and show director and worked alongside the creative director so it was a little more complicated. Also I worked pretty closely with Alicia to make sure the heart and message of the show was on point as she’s such an organic musician and artist. Choreographing eventually became the last thing I did.  I was more concerned with the movement of the stage, changing musical arrangements, the timing of the LEDs, the way the piano was coming in, shooting the content for the back screen, etc etc. I also had an assistant choreographer/artistic director, Jemel McWilliams, who was brilliant and talented and together we kept each other positive enough to handle all creative challenges.

It’s both beautiful and daunting when the artist looks to you for guidance and her team trusts you with the vision. If something doesn’t work, it’s on you!  That’s what directing or choreographing is about really, being able to make the vision come alive no matter what is happening around it. I’m a planner so I was super prepared but that went out the window! The show was a living, organic thing, and evolved as such… So you have to stay flexible when logistical and technical elements change and people look to you for next steps. It’s about being able to manage the changing elements and people and keeping the vision alive. By the way, there’s no time to vet anything, you have to trust your instincts and go! It works out as long as you stay positive, inspired and keep the people around you the same, and I’m very lucky to have worked with such a positive & talented team.  Alicia herself is such a phenomenal spirit, her continued grace always kept me wanting to give my best, my all.

Do you get to go on the tour, too?

I did go for the first few cities, I pretty much stayed with the show until I felt we found our final stage movement, choreography, and lighting.  Jemel is still there to make sure everything’s running smoothly, and is dancing as well.  At this point I’ll check in for maintenance, tweaks, and to keep things fresh.

What do you look for when hiring dancers?

My advice for dancers? Be a very consistent and confident dancer who can represent the choreography as it is taught but still have a great style in the execution.  Performing with your own style is great, but just be careful not to overdo it, you have to add to the vision, not distract from it.

For the past eight months I found myself hiring dancers quite frequently. With not a lot of time for auditions, I preferred to pull dancers that I knew would do well and matched the physical requirements for the artists. Luckily, being a teacher and choreographer in the community allowed me to be familiar with the dance community. When I do hold auditions, I have to be very efficient.  For Alicia I was constantly looking for tall, strong, masculine male dancers because she’s a mature woman with a family and not a young pop star.  I posted a height and body-type specification on the casting notice.  At times dancers would come who were not we asked for and it sometimes became frustrating. I tell dancers to be mindful of that. You may leave a bad impression if you “crash” an audition where you know you’re not the right type. It complicates things for the choreographer a lot of times. But if you fall in the category that works well for the artist, do your best!

Above all, exude confidence (even if you’re nervous), know your body, dress presentable and fashionable, be consistent and solid, and be respectful.  Give them everything you’ve got!  We can tell if you really care about an audition.  Your energy and spirit that you bring into the room can tell a lot about how you will be on the job.  I am excited to hire you and I want to see that you’re excited to do what you love too!

You said that you often don’t have time to audition dancers because gigs pop up so quickly.  Do you ever hire dancers directly from your classes?

The thing is, I want my class environment to be primarily a learning environment.  But I have students who have trained with me for years and if I need a dancer and they’re the right type, of course I’ll recommend them. I think hard work should be rewarded.  But those students weren’t just coming to my class to “get seen,” I’ve watched them grow and train for a long time in my class and in the dance community in New York.  Coming to a class to “audition” isn’t the right attitude for me (come to learn!)…but at the same time, it is good to be “seen” in the dance community.  My class is a part of the greater New York dance community and I want New York dancers to work.  And it’s not just in class. I am always looking for dancers, for talent, for students to mentor.  People should just be giving it their all in class and leaving the rest to the universe. Give freely of yourself to your dance classes, dance teachers, and the dance community.  You’ll be surprised at what will come back to you…

What is it like to be a New York-based commercial choreographer?

I feel very grounded here.  It’s my home.  No matter what’s happening in the music industry, I know I’ll always have myself, my home, here in New York.  It’s very easy to get caught up in the desires of chasing things in the industry, and I try to keep myself from that.  I want my home to be a place where I can reconnect with myself.  I really enjoy LA, but if I travel to LA, it’s for work or pleasure, not to live.  If I lose a few jobs because I’m not there quick enough, so be it. I have me!

“When you have a passion, there is no choice but to follow it, fight for it.  Make it your life’s work…because when you love what you do, you live your destiny.” – Luam

Check out this video from behind the scenes with Luam and Alicia Keys!

Luam’s class schedule:

Advanced Beginner Hip-Hop – Tuesdays 4:30-6:00pm

Intermediate Hip-Hop – Fridays 4:30-6:00pm

Intermediate Advanced Hip-Hop – Tues./Thurs. 9:00-10:30pm and Saturdays 6:00-7:30pm

A lover of music of all genres, Luam adores teaching and choreography and brings to her Hip-Hop classes a fusion of Hip-Hop, street jazz, African, and dancehall. She pushes her students to pair their inner grooves with precision and emotion while exploring the rhythms and lyrics of the music. In her classes ‘the music drives the movement’.

Baby, Dream Your Dream: Lainie Munro wins AUDELCO Award

images1Broadway Dance Center would like to congratulate theater and tap teacher, Lainie Munro, who won the 2012 AUDELCO Award for Best Choreography for her production of “Sweet Charity” at the New Haarlem Arts Theater.

The AUDELCO (Audience Development Committee, Inc.) Awards “promote recognition, understanding and awareness of the arts in the African-American community”.

“Sweet Charity” tells the nostalgic tale of Charity Hope Valentine, a dance hall hostess who remains a cock-eyed optimistic despite her history of not so wonderful  relationships.  The New Haarlem Arts Theater transformed this classic tale of hope and heartache into a more edgy and contemporary show, complete with Caridad, a Latina “Charity.”

Munro’s choreography received rave reviews from Playbill, Theater Mania, and the New York Times.  She focused on the classic Fosse jazz style, characteristic of traditional “Sweet Charity” productions, but added Latin flavor and pizazz for what critics praised as “vibrant,” “sharp,” and “exhilarating” dancing.

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Click here to learn about Lainie’s work with the Broadway Big Brother/Big Sister Program!

BDC Faculty Featured in Dance Publications

Be sure to check out BDC contemporary jazz teacher, Mishay Petronelli, in the October 2012 issue of Dance Spirit Magazine.  In the magazine’s “Style Lab: The Look” section, Mishay is featured for her eye-catching personal style.

In the article, Mishay advises, “Couple unique items with something classic.  Always remember the importance of creating clean, strong lines.  Make choices that will flatter you in the particular style you’re dancing.  And, of course, always be yourself.”

Mishay teaches Contemporary Jazz classes at Broadway Dance Center but has trained in nearly every dance style from commercial to ballet to tap!  She performed in Whitney Houston’s “Million Dollar Bill” music video, Madonna’s “Gimme All Your Luvin” music video, on “Saturday Night Live” with Kanye West, and in commercials for Converse and Verizon.  Mishay is currently a member of Dana Foglia’s dance company.

“Mishay Petronelli is probably the most inspirational person I have ever met. The way she dances and choreographs is out of this world! She truly cares about each student equally and strives to make every dancer improve. After taking Mishay’s class I feel as though I grow as a dancer. She always pushes me to be my best! Mishay Petronelli’s class is incredible and I highly recommend it!” – Makenzie Dascenzo (PS F’12)

“What I loved about Mishay her classes is her eye for detail. Although it was really hard for me to do exactly the thing she wanted she made me want to get her way of moving. She also made me watch better when a teacher was showing something so I could figure out the details myself. Mishay was my mentor, a great teacher and a very inspiring dancer, and I just really like her as a person and dancer!” – Nathalie Bilderbeek (ISVP ’11)

Here is Mishay’s choreography from the 2012 NYC Gala Opening Number of The Pulse: On Tour:

And wait, there’s more! Did you see BDC’s own Matthew Powell featured in Dance Informa?  The extensive article recounts Matthew’s journey from aspiring young dancer, to American Ballet Theater company member, to “A-Rab” in the International Tour of “West Side Story,” to a successful graduate of LEAP, and finally, to acclaimed NYC ballet teacher.

Matthew admits that a strong sense of balance (no ballet pun intended) is much to that for his successful career.  “You have to have a good network of support around you…if you don’t, people will see that and it’ll show in your work too.”

The article explains, “Despite his undeniable success as a performer, it is evident that Powell thrives most with being a teacher. He has a boyish charm and calm demeanor that provides a very welcoming feeling for anyone who takes his class. “

Matthew teaches six ballet classes per week at Broadway Dance Center – Advanced Beginning, Intermediate, and Intermediate/Advanced.  Matthew also has taught/currently teaches at Marymount Manhattan College, the International Tour of “West Side Story,” Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, The Rock School, Brooklyn Ballet, “Billy Elliot” on Broadway, and Ballet Academy East.

“Matthew Powell is a teacher for all students. He has the ability to light a fire underneath you and give you a class full of vitality, substance and liveliness. He offers classes that literally replenish you and leave you with the confidence that you worked hard. It’s very rare to come across a teacher who not only pushes you to perform to the best of your abilities but inspires you to succeed, as well. I would encourage everyone to take his class.” – Alexa Erbach (PS F’11)

Here is a short clip of Matthew’s teaching shot for Dance Teacher Web:

Happy We’ll Be – Al Blackstone

After a much needed catch-up session at Blockheads Burritos, Jason Aquirre (PS S’12), Molly Day (PS S’12) and I headed over to the Roseland Ballroom for the much-aniticipated “Happy We’ll Be,” a dance narrative choreographed by Al Blackstone.  Al is a beloved guest teacher at Broadway Dance Center – just see what some students have to stay:

I have always subscribed to the notion that Al is the ultimate storyteller. Even in class, he brings a magical element to his teaching. The beauty of his movement and narrative is only matched by the warmth and compassion of his heart. – Alexa Erbach (PS F’11)

His class without a doubt always lifts my spirits. The energy he exudes is extraordinary and so motivational. – Nikki Croker (PS F’11)

Al was the 2011 recipient of the Capezio A.C.E Award (Dance Teacher Summit), which “is a great opportunity for emerging choreographers to expose their work to one of the most influential audiences in dance.”  Check out Al’s winning piece, “Brown Eyed Girl.”

As part of their prize, A.C.E Award winners receive a grant to fund their own dance production in New York City.  And thus, “Happy We’ll Be” was born…and for that, we are so happy!

The show is a full-length “dance narrative,” no dialogue – just music and dance.  The show takes a bit after the concept of “6 degrees of separation” (“Six degrees of separation is the theory that anyone on the planet can be connected to any other person on the planet through a chain of acquaintances that has no more than five intermediaries.”) In a sort of ripple effect, one character meets and affects another character, who affects another, and so on.  But, only the audience gets to see the full picture.

Each new dance scene witnesses a character’s own pursuit of happiness. ie:

  • A teenaged girl learning to walk in heels to impress her school crush.
  • A man planning to propose to his girlfriend.
  • A young gay man looking for support from his family.

We are all connected in our pursuit of happiness and we all play a role in making others happy.

Al’s latest project is a full-length dance production that defies the convention of any other show you have ever seen. “Happy We’ll Be” is an inexplicable account of love, loss, kindness, wonder and hope. It penetrates the center of our hearts and delves into the source of individual happiness, taking the audience on an unforgettable journey that forces us to marvel at the exquisite beauty in the smallest moments of our own lives. “Happy We’ll Be” is a revivifying reminder that love can be found beyond a lover’s embrace. It reminds us that love is rooted in the slightest touch of a hand, the help of a friend, the kindness of a stranger, and the affection of a parent. – Alexa Erbach

[excerpt from Al Blackstone’s resume]

…My heart’s been stolen.

Seize the Day! – Interview with Ricky Hinds, Associate Director for “Newsies” on Broadway

Before class I was able to sit down with Ricky Hinds for a quick interview – take a look!

What was your dance training like growing up?
I started dancing when I was four.  My aunt and uncle owned a dance studio in Connecticut so they pulled me in at a very, very young age.  So I grew up very heavy in the competition world, that’s all we did – tons of competitions.  My last three years of high school I went to Interlochen, a performing arts high school that was very strongly routed in ballet.  And then, since I’m from Connecticut, I would come to Broadway Dance Center all the time.  And then after I graduated high school I moved straight here to New York and just started auditioning and performing for about 5 years and then transitioned over to choreographing and directing.

Knowing that you wanted to pursue musical theater, did you also have voice and acting training growing up?
I started my voice training at my performing arts high school.  But back then, I feel you were sort of able to get away with being just a “dancer” in a Broadway show or musicals where now the casts are so small you have to do everything.

What was auditioning like when you first moved to New York City?
Not unlike what it is now.  I did two non-equity tours, “Fosse” and “CATS.”  And then I got my equity card doing the show “We Will Rock You,” the Queen musical in Las Vegas.  I did a couple regional productions too.  My big mentor in New York was Andy Blankenbuehler, so when I told him that I wanted to transition over into choreography he asked me to assist him on “It’s A Wonderful Life: the musical” at Papermill Playhouse.

What was it like to choreograph a brand new musical like “It’s A Wonderful Life” or “Newsies?”  You don’t have the influences of previous choreographers such as Fosse’s “Sweet Charity.”
I’m the associate director for “Newsies,” and we did months and months of pre-production where we worked to get everybody on the same page.  That’s the most important thing – that as a choreographer, you share the same vision as the director.  And it extends way beyond just the artistic team – it includes the lighting, set, and costume designers.  Everyone needs to be so clear that when we start rehearsals no one is questioning.  There’s a lot of trust and awareness.  I’ve also worked on projects where directors don’t work that way, however.  You know, where you’re flying by the seat of your pants! – but that can be fun too!  But for me, my personal process is a lot of prep, a lot of pre-production, a lot of communication – I do my best work in that atmosphere.


How did you transition into directing?
I kind of go back and forth between choreographing and directing.  The day after opening night for “Newsies” I fly down to Kansas City to choreograph a production of “Little Shop of Horrors.”  And I come back and I’m working as choreographer and director of a tour of “Jekyll and Hyde.”  So, it’s good – I don’t think I see myself as only a choreographer or only a director.  I also like a blend of the choreography and directing roles together so I am always active and involved.  “Jekyll and Hyde” will be interesting for me, though, because it will be more about the acting than about the big dance numbers with turns and high kicks.

You are in the midst of a really exciting time with the opening of “Newsies,” your first musical on Broadway.  What was the process like of taking a movie that, dare I say, flopped, and turning it into a musical?
Our new book writer is Harvey Fierstein and he was great; It just took somebody with fresh eyes coming in.  And the way Disney works is that they had done all these workshops and readings before they had attached a director or choreographer to it.  When we came on board, the entire show was written for a turntable…And our director said, “Absolutely not.” (Our biggest fear was that these boys with dirt on their faces in 1899, on a turntable, would look too much like “Les Mis”). And it was good to sort of start over a little bit.  Once we came in, we had about 9 months before we started auditioning people, so we really had a lot of time to prepare.  And then it wasn’t until we had our cast that we then developed it further – because everyone in the show has a line, has a character name, there’s no ensemble.  The cast that we have now have helped further the script.  It’s been quite a process, two years now – and we’re still making little tweaks here and there up until Thursday night’s opening.

What’s your opinion about having a cast without an ensemble and the idea that you can’t just be a dancer on Broadway anymore?
I think it’s fantastic.  What’s great about our director is that he made each actor write out a history of his or her character.  And then we all had to sit around and talk about these characters.  And I think as a dancer, it’s really gratifying to feel like you’re not just the fifth dancer from the left in the third line and you have to dance like everybody else.  I mean, there are certainly moments in the show where the dancing has to be clean and in unison, but there are other moments where it is more of “what would your character do here?” “how would your character react to this information?”  And I think at the end of the day that’s what we all want to do – have a voice, a personality, individuality.

How does “Newsies” compare to the other Disney shows that have been/still are on Broadway?
I think it’s great – it’s fun for people to come in with very little knowledge of the material of “Newsies.”  What was also a breath of fresh air for us was not having to be worried about “how is that fish going to swim?” or “how is that teapot going to pirouette?”  For Disney, I think, it was sort of a relief to have a show that’s all humans!

What are your goals for the future as an artist?

I think everyone has this sort of thought that Broadway is the ultimate.  For me, I think it’s just good theater – whether that’s Broadway or regional theater or a tour or in Europe or here.  I just want to do good theater.  You know, something that touches people, that people respond to.  I would love to only say that I’m going to do Broadway shows!  But I really have had so many amazing experiences at theaters all across the country.

Check out Ricky’s choreography reel.
And be sure to get your tickets to “Newsies!”