Attention! 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.
You 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’.