When Joseph Pilates immigrated to the United States and founded his signature strength training technique in the 1920s, he emphasized a holistic, interconnected approach to physical well-being. Pilates focuses on core strength, proper alignment, and full range of motion. The exercise form has experienced several renaissances in the last century, but has remained a tried-and-true method in more recent decades as people have come to recognize and respect the science-backed technique that personifies the song, “Dem Bones” (“The hip bone’s connected to the leg bone!”). All of our body parts are connected and any imbalance in one area can impact everything else (#everythinghurts).
“Gah, gah, reach–ball change. Now, one-two-three hundred turns!” If you haven’t already guessed, today we’re featuring the woman, the myth, the legend: the one-and-only Sheila Barker. Whether she’s teaching her weekly drop-in jazz classes, mentoring training program students, hosting classes for BDC’s annual Dance Teacher Workshop, leading her sought-after Summer Workshop, or just greeting everyone (by name!) as she roams the halls of BDC, Sheila seems to inspire every dancer she meets.
It’s Pride month and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. New York City–especially Broadway Dance Center–is celebrating love loud and proud by walking in the Pride March again and hosting special Pride March fundraiser classes. Amidst all this joy, pride, and celebration, it’s important to remember how far we’ve come (and also how far we still have to go) in the fight for LGBTQIA+ rights and respect.
The arts reflect life, and the dance world has often ignited social change (Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey are but two choreographic changemakers that come to mind). It’s not quite a surprise, then, to know that the dance community had a huge influence on making “gay” visible, accepted, and mainstream.
A few days after class, we would get an email from Katelin with an encouraging message, list of songs we used in class, and video links to iconic dances from the era. It was at this point that I realized Katelin is happily going above and beyond in teaching her first Absolute Beginner Workshop and I’m getting waaay more than my money’s worth!
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
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’.
Every year Dancers over 40 honors a number of dancers and choreographers who are truly “Singular Sensations,” having had remarkable careers and influence on the dance community. This year I was lucky enough to volunteer as an usher for the event held at the super-funky Lips Restaurant. The presentation started with video footage of the honorees and then led into speeches by Chita Rivera, Leni Anders, Dennis Grimaldi, Billy Goldenberg, Kim Jordan, Donna McKechnie, Leslie Uggams, and Ken Urmston.
After hearing those speeches, I had never wanted to be a dancer so badly in my life. I was so inspired by the talent and The DO40 Legacy Awards honor the legacy, history, and lives of some truly amazing individuals. What’s more, honorees are nominated by their own peers in the dance community. Congratulations to all of the 2012 honorees!
The 2012 Legacy Award Honorees
Norma Dogget-Bezwick – Norma was an original Jack Cole dancer and one of the brides in the 1954 movie “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.”
Larry Fuller – Larry choreographed such Broadway musicals as “Sweeney Todd,” “On the Twentieth Century,” “Merrily We Roll Along,” “A Doll’s Life,” and “Evita.”
Carol Lawrence – Carol was the original Maria in “West Side Story” on Broadway. She has performed in such shows as “Kiss of the Spiderwoman,” “Funny Girl,” “Sugar Babies,” “Sweet Charity,” “The Sound of Music,” and “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.”
George Marcy – George has worked with some of the greatest directors and choreographers including Jack Cole, Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, Larry Fuller, Agnes De Mille, Gower Champion, Danny Daniels, Joe Layton, Grover Dale, Vincent Minelli, and Cyril Richard.
Lee Roy Reams – The New York Times named Lee Roy “Broadway’s song and dance man nonpareil.” He performed leading roles on Broadway in shows like “The Producers,” “42nd Street,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Hello Dolly!,” “La Cage,” “Oklahoma!,” and “Sweet Charity.”
I was so excited to see the Broadway revival of “Evita,” not only because of the amazing cast (Elena Rogers as Eva Perone and Ricky Martin as Che) or the renowned score (Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice), but because with Rob Ashford as choreographer, I knew I was in to see some amazing dancing.
Ashford’s choreography has received countless nominations and awards (both as director and/or choreographer) for shows such as “How To Succeed…,” “Cry Baby,” “Promises, Promises,” The Wedding Singer,” “Curtains,” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” His style is very grounded and EXTREMELY athletic. I was curious, therefore, to see how Ashford’s choreography would “fit” on a more traditional and thematic musical.
“Me time” is important to maintaining a healthy mind and body. Here are a few ideas and ways they can benefit every dancer’s well being.
Excerpted from Dance Informa magazine interview with Stefan Karlsson, a former professional dancer and massage therapist.
How does massage improve our health?
A massage improves your health by assisting in the elimination of toxins like lactic acid and it improves circulation to tissues within the body including the skin. It can elongate tight muscles, keeping joints ‘less stressed’ from being compressed by tight/short muscles (like those surrounding the knee for example). A major benefit of massage is that it decreases the pain we feel in our muscles after training, rehearsals and performance through the dispersal of the lactic acid. A good masseur will also give specific stretches to target problem areas. Massage will increase the range of movement through your joints, speed up the recovery after hard training and increase energy flow.
Does massage help our immune systems?
Massage helps the immune system as it increases the number of white blood cells in the body. Research in Florida showed an increase in neutrophils (the most common type of white blood cells) after massage. We know that white blood cells protect the body by eating bacteria, for example, so yes, massage boosts the immune system!
It also helps the release of emotions and stimulates inner organs through nerve stimulation, as in Chinese acupuncture. Some masseurs use a similar system called Trigger Point Therapy, and some, like myself, use a combination to suit the individual body
Can massage help in injury prevention?
Massage is considered to help prevent injuries by assisting the body to stay supple, de-stressed and in better shape. As there is less tension in highly used muscle groups they react better to the ‘stress’ of dancing.
Can massage speed up injury recovery?
Massage is often associated with injury recovery, depending on the type of injury. Always seek advice from a physical therapist first who can check whether there are hairline fractures or spinal alignment problems, a severe inflammation or contusion – bleeding after an injury to the muscle.
The physical therapist often recommends massage as treatment in recovery from injuries which produce swelling in muscles and joints. But it is important to have a good understanding of the injury before applying massage, because a deep massage to a freshly injured muscle will only increase the problem and damage the muscle fibre further.
Sometimes a dancer may use their ‘turn out’ muscles to such a degree that it prevents them from being able to ‘turn in’, limiting the range of motion in the hip. Recommended stretches and massage to correct the one sidedness of the training can help. (Always think of doing the opposite moves from the normal class movements. And please always stretch after training/rehearsal or performance as it will help prevent soreness the next day and keep your muscles supple).
When should dancers get a massage?
A dancer’s body is highly tuned and sensitive, and a deep massage with strong release techniques can make our body parts sore for a day, until we reap the benefits. It can also give us the feeling of being in a different alignment or ‘place’, so that lifting our leg up or doing a turn could feel completely different than before – we might feel ‘out of sorts’ or ‘out of tune’ so to speak. If that is the type of massage you need, please make sure you get one just before a rest day, but not on a performance day or even a day before as it can ‘throw’ you. However, shorter massages on local areas such as the calves or thighs, if you are getting cramps or lactic acid build up, are beneficial right there and then even during rehearsal/ performance.
There are special techniques I use with fellow dancers to gain quick recovery during a performance. There are stretches specifically designed for the dancer’s body, and other methods of targeting lactic acid build up which can be extremely helpful when applied at right moment.
How often should a full-time dancer have a massage?
I would seriously recommend a dancer to have a decent massage at least once a month, if not every fortnight, depending on your schedule. A good massage once a month, before a rest day, will keep you free from problems building up over time
I did a little research and found mixed reviews about pedicures for dancers. For the most part, ballet dancers (specifically pointe dancers) are discouraged from getting pedicures because their callouses will be shaved off. Fresh, supple skin is more prone to blister and cause pain. Furthermore, pointe dancers shouldn’t paint their toenails because the polish may infect blistered toes. On the other hand, many online sources do suggest pedicures for dancers that want to protect their feet, at least aesthetically! It’s safe to get a polish-less pedicure without having the nail technician shave your hard-earned callouses. And that leaves more time to enjoy the foot massage!
Power naps have been associated with reduced stress, increased alertness and productivity, increased memory and learning, heart health, increased cognitive function, exercise motivation, boosted creativity, and overall improved health. “The short duration of a power nap (under 30 minutes) is designed to prevent nappers from sleeping so long that they enter a normal sleep cycle without being able to complete it (leaving a person groggy}.” So don’t be embarrassed to curl up in the corner of the studio for 20 minutes. Your friends might think you’re “lazy” until you dance circles around them in class!
Getting Fresh Air
Get out of the studio. Yes, I said it! Dancing is obviously a great form of exercise and a way for many people to de-stress, but it can also be the source for stress. If you’re in a “dance rut” (i.e. not getting seen at auditions, not enjoying yourself in dance class, being too hard on yourself, etc.), step outside and talk a walk outside. Explore the historical theater district, rent a bike to ride around Central Park, or lay out in Bryant Park to read or just relax. It’s important to get at least 10-15 minutes of sun exposure each day to boost your body’s Vitamin D (deficiency may actually lead to depression). So take a break and get outside!
Do these practices make us better dancers? I think they do. They certainly make us happier, more satisfied with who we are, and that in turn makes us better at what we do. Meditation is relaxing, and relaxation unbinds a storehouse of energy. It helps us become more integrated. We become more realistic about who we are and what we can do. We develop realistic goals. We know and respect our physical and emotional parameters. We strive in a healthy, integrated fashion.
“We love dance and all its benefits for body and soul. But running a business and teaching a physically demanding activity can be stressful. There’s a lot going on, and most of it requires focusing away from our own bodies and feelings. From my time as a professional dancer, dance professor, and meditation teacher, I know meditation gives us a moment with ourselves, develops our ability to focus, awakens awareness, and opens us to deepening embodiment, sensation, and relaxation. This simple act of rebalancing, tucked into the day, is a worthwhile, sanity-reclaiming skill to cultivate.
Meditation doesn’t require much time or need fancy equipment or gear. It does require your full attention.
I have a saying: Sometimes you have to do the “not doing” in order to undo the overdoing. Dancers are especially good at continuously holding muscles taut. As well, we tuck emotional strain into crevices between fascia, hiding our anxieties until some other time when we imagine we can better handle them. Then, given a moment to relax, we feel restless. We need to relax, but we can’t, and being unable to unwind is stressful.
Because dance people are kinetic creatures, the first step in our meditation work is to consciously let go of tight spots. Fully letting go is more than plopping down on the couch. We need to release not just the big outer muscles but the clenched jaw, gripped neck, the diaphragm, and the pelvic floor as well.”