Yes, that’s Bernadette Peters’ voice you hear singing “Star Tar” from the original Off-Broadway cast album of Dames at Sea. The new Broadway production’s director/choreographer Randy Skinner held a master tap class at the Broadway Dance Center, proving that classic American dance style is alive and very well.
BROADWAY DANCE CENTER: WHERE NEW YORK’S FINEST GATHER TO GET DOWN
If anything, Broadway Dance Center — the hub of all things movement in New York City — lives up to its name. Yet, while it’s intended for professionals, it’s still great for noobs. I found BDC to be oddly welcoming to the outsider who was interested in dropping in for a formal dance party.
Dance studios across the city have added vogueing to their schedules in response to student demand. Javier Ninja, whose real name is Javier Madrid, teaches a class at the Broadway Dance Center, which is frequently filled with women. “There have always been women in the scene, but not a surplus of women as it is now,” said Kia Labeija, who won in the popular and competitive women’s vogueing category at last year’s Latex Ball.
Founded in 2011 by Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award recipient Michelle Dorrance, Dorrance Dance features some of today’s best tap artists, performing alongside co-choreographers of The Blues Project Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards and Derick K. Grant. Award-winning musician and composer Toshi Reagon created the music for The Blues Project, which is performed live by Reagon and members of her band, BIGLovely, on acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass, drums and percussion, and violin.
Called “the best kind of party” by Marina Harss of The New Yorker, The Blues Project premiered at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in 2013 in the Doris Duke Theatre to sold-out houses. A tribute to tap’s historical roots in blues music, the work features a diverse selection of dance styles including tap, zydeco, Appalachian flatfooting, and Lindy Hop, all performed by Dorrance’s collection of topflight, uniquely talented dancers. “One of the most imaginative tap choreographers working today” (Brian Seibert, The New York Times), Michelle Dorrance is among the most respected tap performers and choreographers of her generation.
From the time she was a little girl growing up in Jacksonville, Florida, Lainie Munro loved every single thing about Broadway musicals. Taking dance class since she was 4, she adored her teacher Lodzia Heath, a former Rockette from the 1930s and ’40s who played Broadway soundtracks in class at her tiny Satellite Dance Studio. “She way my star and so passionate,” says Munro. “There’s a mural of a Rockettes line from this era at the Top of the Rock in New York and Mrs. Heath is the second from stage left in the picture.” Munro always got to the studio early so she could go through albums like “The Tap Dance Kid,” “The Act” and “My Fair Lady.”
In fact, it was a really big deal to be selected for one of Mrs. Heath’s performance groups which had space-themed names. “When I was chosen to be a Starlite I was given a blue cape to wear over my costume and I never wanted to take it off. I even slept in it,” says Munro. “Satellite was the tiniest dance studio you ever saw. But inside it was magic.”
Munro’s father who was on the radio at WKTZ in Jacksonville also brought home many show albums from the station. So after dance class Munro choreographed every number on the records in her bedroom. “I made my little sister Alicia be in the numbers. My poor sister wanted to go outside and play but I’d say, ‘no, you’ve got to do that dance again, five, six, seven, eight,’” says Munro. “I was a task master dance captain even then and made her practice over and over with me until it was perfect. To this day, she’s my favorite person to dance with.” Munro even typed up programs, handed them to her parents and charged 5 cents to view the show as the young Munro sisters performed in the living room. “Yes I charged them!,” she says. “My parents loved it. I don’t know about my sister.”
At 8, she was cast as Gretl in a production of The Sound of Music at Alhambra Dinner Theater. The show’s Maria was a very young Paige O’Hara, who voiced Belle in the movie version of Beauty and the Beast. Munro idolized her. “She is a great and beautiful actress and has the voice of an angel. I thought, I want to be like her one day,” recalls Munro. And she remembers planting herself in O’Hara’s dressing room asking myriad questions about her life in New York and performing. O’Hara gave all the children in the show a silver ID bracelet engraved with their character’s names. “It’s my good luck charm,” says Munro. “It reminds me of when I started and I think of Paige all the time.”
After college Munro moved to New York, began performing and also taught at the esteemed Broadway Dance Center. “As a teacher I get to be a “Mrs. Heath” to my students and pass on my love of dancing and theater to them,” she says. She saw how talented the kids were and how they all wanted to perform. And she realized that they needed mentors. “They get their training, but they need somebody to say, “Here’s how I did it.” I remember when I was younger thinking ‘I want to do that, but how do I get into this business? “I wanted somebody to say, “Hey kid. Here’s how I did it and kind of be my friend.”
So Munro got inspired. She thought, imagine if I could give these children the opportunity to rehearse and perform side by side with a Broadway performer?
And in 2001 she created the Broadway Big Brother/Big Sister Program where kids perform with a dancer in the Broadway community. The young students who range in age from 10-16, are matched with Broadway cast members from a number of shows including On the Town, Pippin, Jersey Boys, Shrek The Musical, the Lion King, Anything Goes, How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying and more. Working side by side with their Big Brother or Sister, the children rehearse a production number and get to dance before a large audience. The kids gain an invaluable life changing experience learning about the joy, hard work and discipline it takes to be a professional performer. Just last month they performed “Put on a Happy Face” at the Broadway Dance Center Student Showcase to a wildly enthusiastic crowd.
Outside the studio, the youngsters have an instant role model and mentor. The dancers invite their young siblings to their shows, give them backstage tours, and even coach them for auditions. And now the program has come full circle. Gabrielle Salvatto, once a little sister, grew up to become a professional dancer with the Dance Theatre of Harlem and returned to the program as a Big Sister to mentor and dance with a young person. “When I started the program I thought one day they’ll grow up, become professional dancers and maybe come back and be a Big Sister or a Big Brother,” says Munro. “It really is how we pass all this on, so that the current generation of performers can train the next generation.”
For one little sister who lost her mother to cancer, her Big Sister was like a surrogate mother, attending school play performances and helping with homework. “Some children start out very shy but they completely come out of their shell,” says Munro. And the big siblings benefit from the experience too. As one Big Sister and Broadway vet shared, “You can perform in show after show, but this program made me feel as if I made a difference in someone’s life.”
Sofie is a dancer from Sweden studying at Broadway Dance Center in the city. For more information about Sofie, please check out her website.
How did you decide to come to New York?
I heard about Broadway Dance Center two years ago. In Sweden, it’s really big. It’s the only school in the whole world where people can go to and dance hip-hop and get a certification afterwards. I know that they have a lot of good ballet, contemporary, and jazz classes. I also thought about moving to Stockholm at the same time, but when I calculated the cost of the dancing studies, it was much cheaper for me to go to New York and take dance classes here in comparison to moving to Stockholm. I also had always wanted to move to New York and be a part of the American culture.
…[Heather] Rigg teaches a style of commercial jazz that reflects her training with Joe Tremaine in the ’90s and her subsequent touring career with Britney Spears. Though Rigg’s class is billed as beginner, aspiring professionals come to polish their technique and increase their marketability. It helps diversify their commercial dance repertoire beyond the dominating trend of contemporary. “Some elements of jazz may not feel current,” she says, “but like fashion, everything comes back. Dancers should have a knowledge of all styles.” Besides, she adds, “Technique is never going out of style.”