Broadway Dance Center is celebrating Black History Month by honoring some of the Black dancers, choreographers, and educators who broke through barriers and transformed the industry.
Next up is Katherine Dunham.
Who is Katherine Dunham?
Katherine Dunham (1909-2006) was an American dancer, choreographer, and anthropologist who informed her work (and namesake technique) with African American, Caribbean, African, and South American movement styles, themes, and other influences.
A dance student beyond the studio
Dunham was born in Glen Ellyn, Illinois to a French-Canadian mother and father with ties to Madagascar and West Africa. While she danced as a child, Dunham never envisioned a career in the arts. Instead, she followed her brother to the University of Chicago to study anthropology. After founding the dance company, Ballet Negre, Dunham was encouraged by her professors to integrate her academics and her art. For her master’s thesis, Dunham explored the ethnography (the study of culture) of dance through fieldwork in Jamaica, Trinidad, Martinique, and Haiti. She researched the material aspect, organization, form, and function of dance (for example, the use of dance in ritual and the evolution of dance during the African diaspora).
Bringing her studies to the stage
While Dunham was offered another grant to continue her studies, she decided to head to the coasts where she performed both on Broadway and in Hollywood films such as Star-Spangled Rhythm and Stormy Weather. But in addition to performing, Dunham longed to create. She revived her dance ensemble (renamed The Katherine Dunham Company) and toured her choreography throughout the United States and around the world. The Dunham Company performed on Broadway, in Hollywood films, on national television broadcasts, and in over 30 international countries. Despite their acclaim, the company frequently faced racial discrimination, receiving subpar accommodations and sometimes being denied any hotel options. Dunham refused to perform with her company in segregated theaters where Black audiences were forced to sit in the back or prohibited altogether. She brought several lawsuits to court in order to shine a light on the injustice.
Dance education takes a whole new meaning
In 1946, Dunham founded The Katherine Dunham School of Art and Research (later known as The Katherine Dunham School of Cultural Arts) in New York City. Here, Dunham cultivated her namesake technique—a modern dance style infused with ballet vocabulary and Caribbean folk movement. While Dunham Technique is a codified method, it is instilled with a philosophy: dance is a way of life—an integration of mind, body, and soul that has the power to transform people’s lives. In alignment with that mission, the Dunham School offered not only Dunham Technique and other genres of dance, but also classes in music, drama, foreign language, and anthropology.
Throughout her career at her school and with her company, Dunham continued to publish scholarly articles and lecture at universities and societies around the world. Even after retiring from the stage, she remained in the spotlight as a writer, educator, and humanitarian. For her incomparable contribution to the field, Dunham was bestowed numerous honorary doctorates and awards including the Haitian Legion Honor of Merit, a Distinguished Service Award from the American Anthropological Association, and a Kennedy Center Honors for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts.
Broadway Dance Center is celebrating Black History Month by honoring some of the Black dancers, choreographers, and educators who broke through barriers and transformed the industry.
Next up we’ve got Honi Coles and Cholly Atkins.
Who are Honi Coles and Cholly Atkins?
Coles & Atkins were tap duo known for their suave style and impeccable unison. Instead of showing off acrobatics and bold tricks, the pair mesmerized audiences with their cool, laid-back vibe and signature “Soft Shoe” dance where they performed a painstakingly slow and hypnotically smooth routine in perfect harmony—a talent that is especially challenging for tap dancers who need to not only match the physical movements of their partner but also the exact soundandquality of the taps.
Before they were a team
Charles “Honi” Coles (1911-1992) grew up in Philadelphia where he learned to tap on the streets, challenging neighborhood kids to dance duels—and usually winning. As a young adult, Coles moved to New York City to perform as part of vaudevillian troupe, “The Three Millers.” But when the other two dancers sought to replace Coles, he decided to prove them wrong by perfecting his technique and amping up his performance. When Coles returned to the NYC dance scene, he was hailed for his graceful style and incredibly fast feet. He performed with “The Lucky Seven Trio” and as a soloist for Cab Calloway’s orchestra before pairing up with Cholly Atkins (*read more about Coles & Atkins below). After their career as a duo, Coles worked as production manager for the Apollo Theater, served as president of the Negro Actors Guild, co-founder of the Copasetics (a tap ensemble honoring Bill “Bojangles” Robinson), and won both a Tony and Drama Desk award for his performance in Broadway’s My One and Only. Later in his life, Coles was bestowed a Dance Magazine Award, Capezio Award for Lifetime Achievement in Dance, and National Medal for the Arts to honor his lasting legacy in tap dance.
Charles “Cholly” Atkins (1913-2003) was born in Pratt City, Alabama and moved to Buffalo, New York with his family at the age of seven. Atkins grew up performing in his school’s musicals and, as a teenager, worked as a singing waiter. He and coworker, William Porter, partnered up to form the song-and-dance act, “Two Rhythm Pals.” Atkins went on to dance with Dotty Saulters before pairing up with Honi Coles (*read more about Coles & Atkins below). Throughout his performance career, Atkins also choreographed and coached behind-the-scenes. He was named staff choreographer at Motown Records and staged acts for stars like the Temptations, Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson, and the Supremes. He also won a Tony Award (shared with Fayard Nicholas, Frankie Manning, and Henry LeTang) for his choreography in the Broadway show, Black and Blue. In 1993, Atkins was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship to teach vocal choreography (staging for vocal artists and singing groups) in colleges and universities.
A “class act”
Coles & Atkins won over audiences with their elegance, charm, and no-fail formula—beginning with a fast-paced song-and-dance number, followed by their trademark soft-shoe, and ending with an impressive dance challenge where each performer one-ups the other with their very best moves. The dynamic duo performed throughout the Las Vegas show circuit, with the big bands of Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Barnet, Billy Eckstine, and Count Basie, and on Broadway in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Coles & Atkins were considered a “class act”–the cream-of-the-crop tap dancers—and their signature style continues to influence and inspire tap dancing today.
If you’re a musical theater dancer, you know the name Lizz Picini. Whether you take Ricky Hinds’ class next to her, audition for her at Pearl Studios, perform with her at a regional theater, hear her name called back at an ECC, or take her class at Broadway Dance Center, it’s clear that Picini has become what the industry calls a “unicorn” – someone who magically wears multiple hats on any given project.
BDC was able to catch a quick call with Picini, who is currently performing in and serving as associate choreographer for CHICAGO down at the Maltz Jupiter Theater in Florida. “I started dance because I liked dressing up in costumes,” she laughs. “Though honestly, it’s truly a miracle that I do this for a living.” Picini was born premature with underdeveloped hips. Her doctor had her wear triple diapers to realign her femurs in her hip sockets. “I’m lucky to be able to walk, let alone to dance! It’s a reminder to be grateful for this gift.”
Picini continued dance throughout her youth—mainly focusing on ballet and pointe work. She also sang in her church choir and studied piano from her mom. After high school she attended Towson University, known for their strong technical dance program, to obtain her BFA. “I studied Dance Performance and Education,” she explains. “I took all the education curriculum but ended up dropping that secondary focus. I never thought I was going to teach…I just wanted to perform!” (We’ll come back to that irony later)
Just four days after graduation, Picini moved to New York City to participate in Broadway Dance Center’s Summer Summer Session. “Towson was fantastic for concert dance training, but I felt BDC’s SIP would help bridge the gap between college and the professional world.”
“I vividly remember that first day at BDC,” Picini recalls. “There were 75 summer interns! I was intimidated by the talent.” But Picini stood out from the crowd. Bonnie Erickson, former Director of Educational Programs, saw how focused Picini was about training and about pursuing a lasting career in the performing arts. “I didn’t perform in every student-choreographed piece,” Picini admits, “l would take classes in the areas I wasn’t as strong in, I made an effort to look presentable in every class, I sent professional e-mails updating my mentors on my progress, and I took every note I was given.” For Picini, SIP was not just a fun summer in New York City. “The program opened my eyes to musical theater, and I was excited and hungry for the challenge.”
BDC’s theater teachers like Jim Cooney, Ricky Hinds, and Al Blackstone really shaped Picini’s time as a summer intern. “Jim saw my potential and gave me a lot of tough love,” Picini says. “I had strong ballet technique and vocal chops, but Jim’s class challenged me as an actor—It still does! Ricky’s and Al’s classes demand professionalism and hard work, but the room is filled with so much fun and joy. I believe that that supportive and empowering environment is how you can get the most out of a dancer.”
That’s not to say Picini’s time in the program was smooth sailing. “There was one musical theater mock audition where I crashed and burned,” Picini confesses. The teachers and administrators behind the table said that, with that performance, she would have been cut. But, because they knew Picini’s work ethic and capabilities, they said they would actually call her back. “More than anything, the program taught me that, while talent is great, consistency and hard work are the most valuable qualities to be successful in this business.”
At the end of SIP, Picini was praised with the “Most Outstanding Student” award. “I was given a job in BDC’s retail store which gave me the opportunity to continue my intense training.” She became a “regular” in many of the advanced theater classes and, when a teacher’s assistant would leave town for a gig, Picini was there and she was ready. “I didn’t go into class desperately wanting to become an assistant,” she explains. “Stay present and patient and do the work. It’s a balance of being proactive and open, but also being in the right place at the right time.”
Picini was also promoted on the administrative side when she started working in BDC’s Group Services. “One day there was a teacher who didn’t show up for class, so they threw me in!” Picini recalls. “It was exhilarating!” After that dive into the deep end, Picini got a few chances to sub for Jim Cooney, an opportunity to lead one of BDC’s Absolute Beginner Workshops, and eventually scored her own guest teaching slot. “I had about three people in my initial classes,” she says. But things took an unexpected turn in 2016 when FOX brought cameras into Picini’s class to promote “Grease Live.” “When cameras show up, a class will always sell out,” Picini jokes. Maybe dancers initially came for the cameras, but they stayed for Picini. Her class has been waitlisted ever since.
“I’m completely overwhelmed when I’m in that studio in front of 75 people. I have to pinch myself,” Picini says with immense gratitude. “It’s an honor to teach alongside so many of my mentors at BDC. Sometimes I feel insecure because I haven’t been on Broadway yet. But I realize that dancers don’t come to my class because of my resume, but because of me and my work.”
Outside of BDC, Picini has performed at numerous reputable regional theaters across the country. “I did a ton of dance captain jobs and then was asked to be assistant choreographer for a show at Finger Lakes Musical Theater (now The Rev Theater Company),” Picini remembers. “I was nervous because I didn’t want to give up performing. But, due to the limited amount of union contracts available, I would not have been on the project at all had I not also been assistant choreographer!” Her initial predicament quickly became her superpower. It wasn’t black-or-white—Picini could do both. And she was more marketable as a result! “It checks a lot of boxes if one person is capable to do a lot,” Picini acknowledges. That’s one less flight, one less housing accommodation, etc. “I’ve put a lot of work in and it has really blown up. People have taken notice and that’s such an incredible feeling.” Picini has assisted such choreographers as Parker Esse, Ricky Hinds, Rommy Sandhu, and Denis Jones. “Being behind the table has leveled me,” she discloses. “Casting a show is a complicated puzzle. At many auditions, you could cast the show ten times over with the amount of talent that comes in! A dancer’s job is to show up and do your work. That’s all you can do—and that’s enough.”
As a teacher, associate choreographer, and active performer, it’s no surprise Picini’s schedule can be jam-packed. “I’ve learned (and am still learning) about balance,” she concedes. “There was a point when I felt so popular yet so alone. I was also hospitalized for exhaustion at one point.” Picini has realized how important it is to rest, say no when she needs to, and keep a supportive inner circle of family and close friends. “Rest days, therapy, and my faith keep me grounded. Now I understand that I am me and the opportunities that have been opened to me are because I am expressing and taking care of who I am.”
Picini credits her ever-bourgeoning journey to BDC. Her creative voice, infectious laugh, and humble work ethic inspire her peers, students, audiences, and own teachers and mentors. “Recently a choreographer whom I had never worked with called me to wear multiple hats for his upcoming project,” Picini explains. “He said, ‘And if I know of Lizz Picini, this is right up her alley.’ That is the most amazing feeling. Sure, Broadway will always be a goal. But I’m learning to celebrate the present and continue to put in the work every day.”
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.