The opening image, a video featuring tap dancer Chloé Arnold hoofing to Jaden’s “Icon” in the center of one of Los Angeles’s symmetrically satisfying palm tree-lined streets, while six women enter stage right. Clad in sequined jackets, the company members introduce themselves with a unique eight-count improv, bolstered by the beat and elevated by the comradery of sonic sisterhood. This show, like Arnold, celebrates not what there isn’t, but what there is: an evening and company overflowing with strength, love, rhythm, and power.
Chloé Arnold is an “icon livin’,” simultaneously shaping and inhabiting her dream in the dual realms of social media and a more grounded reality. I caught Arnold and her Syncopated Ladies in Malibu last month. These women are a force, and their tour is nothing short of a viral success.
This was not an ordinary dance concert. Those in attendance spanned decades, came from a variety of socioeconomic classes, and drove long miles to see this show. A combination of different types of spotlights and special effect smoke contributed to the evening’s rock concert ethos. The show’s movie-trailer-like video introduction is a testament to Arnold’s unique approach to tap dance.
On the cusp of live and digital, Arnold’s millennial grasp of the world makes her adept at all things digital and digitally social. She is also highly attuned to the importance of doing things in person. Syncopated Ladies Live! is what Arnold calls a “popdocu-concert,” a live show which encourages the use of video, shares, and tags, and asks its audience to get up and dance if they feel so moved, to be present.
“We feed off of your energy, so please, don’t get too comfortable,” Allison Semmes, the evening’s emcee, announces. Chloè Arnold and her dancers feed off the live energy the theatre brings and take pleasure in an economy of circulation, re-living the present through the eyes of others. “I love seeing how other people experience our show which is why we ask people to film what they like and tag us,” Arnold says to me after the show. Arnold has found a way to keep the legacy of tap dance alive by bringing it to the masses and keeping it relevant for future generations.
For Arnold, the Syncopated Ladies is more than a company. “We are a movement,” she explains. “Our mission: to bring tap dance to the world with a cutting-edge style, fierce footwork, and female force in order to amplify the voice of Black women through the language of tap dance.”
Chloé Arnold grew up in Washington D.C. with dreams of becoming a professional tap dancer but experiencing first-hand what it felt like to be marginalized and overlooked for the color of her skin. Arnold has allowed those experiences to fuel her passion for the arts rather than letting them break her. “I saw so much struggle and suffering growing up, and it solidified my purpose, and so I love lifting others up,” Arnold says. And that is exactly what the Syncopated Ladies Live! Tour does for its audience. “We want to share our own authentic voices to empower others to be themselves, dream against all odds, work in solidarity to achieve their goals, and pay it forward,” Arnold says.
The dancing talent and rhythmic mastery of the Syncopated Ladies is extraordinary, but the evening is just as much about telling stories as it is about impressive physical feats and music. One memorable story is co-Executive Producer (and Chloé’s sister) Maud Arnold’s “MAUDIFY” monologue, a word which she defines as “to see, be, and create joy.” “I love bringing joy to people through dance and it feels so special so be able to SPEAK about it! And I love doing the affirmations with the audience so that they leave feeling empowered, uplifted, and powerful,” says Maud.
Chloé and Maud’s spirit of leadership and positivity is infectious, a trait big sister Chloé attributes to their family. “They are activists, and survivors of three different genocides. African enslavement, Cherokee Native American genocide, and the Holocaust,” Chloé explains. Surviving may be in their blood, but the choice to thrive is an attitude the family has chosen when faced with adversity. The tour, Chloé hopes, will energize and activate the public to experience the infinite possibilities of tap dance and encourage others to see the light in themselves.”
Watching the Syncopated Ladies perform in person is uplifting, inspiring, and an exercise in intergenerational/interracial/interethnic community-building. This was really evident when the company performed Ciara’s “Like a Boy.” The dancers performed onstage in front of a projection of their viral video. Like most people in this audience, I had watched this one on YouTube at least a dozen times. I, a white woman in her thirties, was able to connect with the posse of young Black girls sitting behind and the white woman in her eighties sitting next to me through this shared experience. Together we held the familiar choreography we had experienced in the virtual alongside our encounter of the Syncopated Ladies performing this same choreography in the present.
We were all insiders getting to experience the repetition and the novelty of this live version. Onscreen the close-ups of the dancers’ feet and faces offered a special kind of intimacy. In the flesh the dancers’ energy and sweat was palpable. Juxtaposing the now-famous YouTube version with this live performance irradiates just how valuable each medium is, and exposes just how much we have all craved real human interaction these past few years.
Film allows for more fluidity of time, space, and an autonomy of the elements. Seeing Arnold’s choreography to Beyoncé’s (ft. Kendrick Lamar) “Freedom” in person adds depth to the song and choreography’s layers of meaning. I was not present when the Syncopated Ladies performed this work at Folsom State Prison back in 2020 but seeing the footage elicited great emotion for me. Experiencing, in person, the dancers’ undivided presence as they run, riff, and stand akimbo in the name of freedom offers a glimpse into just how meaningful their performance for these incarcerated men must have been. Their dancing humanizes the very real pursuit of justice that so many incarcerated people chase. When the Syncopated Ladies dance, they exhibit strength, determination, and even hope.
The whole evening is interspersed with personal narratives, so the sense of intimacy grows with each scene. With the opening of scene two, “Against All odds,” we learn a little bit about that pivotal moment that helped give rise to the Syncopated Ladies when Arnold witnessed teenage girls who were unafraid to improvise. She admired their courage and their grit. “Build a team that you believe in, and build a team that believes in you,” she announces. Arnold’s story provides a spoken word soundtrack for the jam session that ensues.
Company members take turns in the center of the circle, soloing sixteen counts of improvisation as the group provides a backbone of rhythm and love. After making the rounds, each enters the center for eight more counts of exhilarating solo work, feeding off the energy of their sisters’ body percussion and egging on of talent. They finish out the set together, picking up the tempo a bit and paying homage to some of the art form’s most famous signature moves, including the “shave and a haircut” finale, that even a non-tap dancer can recognize as familiar. After a fierce one-off between Arnold and Anissa Lee which left me breathless—and the dancers out of breath—they end where they, and most of us dancers in the audience began—a painfully slow shuffle ball change step. So even in the presence of great virtuosity, Arnold acknowledges her foundation. Everyone starts somewhere.
But Arnold takes it back a bit further, acknowledging her predecessors and her teachers, Beyoncé and Debbie Allen get special accolades throughout the evening. “We recognize and honor the women who have come before us” reads the video backdrop. What follows is a tribute to some of the greatest Black female tap dancers, whose performance careers spanned the turn-of-the-century through the 1950s.
Many of these women have been marginalized and overlooked, because of their race and (somewhat ironically) on account of their strength and female bad-assery. We see clips of Mabel Lee, The Whitman Sisters, Cora LaRedd, Lois Bright, Jeni LeGon, Juanita Pitts, and the Edward Sisters. The importance of drawing peoples’ attention to these women is, Maud announces, “to make sure that the voices and the herstories of Black women in dance and in tap are never forgotten.”
Knowing the histories of these powerful, entrepreneurial women, I am struck by the parallels I see between Arnold’s Syncopated Ladies and the Whitman Sisters, the longest running and best paid act (male or female) on the T.O.B.A. (Black) vaudeville circuit. It was the collaborative nature of the Whitman Sisters, along with their grit and business of show that contributed to their success, a crucial component in the success of the “Arnold Sisters” and their adopted sisters, the Syncopated Ladies.
Much like the Whitman Sisters, each Syncopated Lady contributes to the whole. Of course, the company’s managers do a lot of the heavy lifting, but like the Whitman Sisters, the dancers do so much more than perform. Chloè, the company’s founder and leading lady, could not have built her enterprise without her sister Maud who is the show’s co-Executive producer and writer. Maud also runs their business (Chloè and Maud Productions and Foundation) and deals with the company’s finances. With a degree from Otis School of Design and her own design company, Anissa Lee has been designing the company’s clothing for years. She even made Chloè’s dress for the Emmy’s. Co-dance Captain Assata Madison is the Director of community affairs. Co-dance captain Pamela Yasutake does a lot of the detail work, including the music edits and photoshop work for flyers and programs. Chloè calls company member Gisele Silva the “child whisperer” for all the amazing work she does teaching their Foundation children.
The parallels between the Whitman Sisters’ business of show and that of Chloè and Maud’s is also notable. The Whitman Sisters held a reputation for employing an unsurpassed number of dancers. Often, they were responsible for a tap dancer’s big break. The Syncopated Ladies are committed to giving tap dancers jobs and cultivating a future for tap dance. A perfect example is the Apple TV+ film Spirited, coming to theaters this month, which Chloè choreographed and for which she employed 90 tap dancers. That’s the most hired number of tap dancers Hollywood has seen since the 1940s. The Chloè and Maud Foundation produces the DC Tap Festival and the Syncopated Ladies host boot camps, empowerment camps, and free master classes, all to keep tap dancers dancing and the legacy of tap dance alive.
Chloè and Maud have built a highly successful venture, for themselves, for those whom they have touched and, perhaps most importantly, for the future of tap dance. “I am so appreciative that so many people around the world understand the message and purpose of our work,” Chloè says. “It warms my heart to see the impact it has had inspiring others to follow their dreams.”
And this is the message the Syncopated Ladies hope to leave you with when you come to see the Live! tour. “When what you think, what you say, and what you do are in alignment, then you are in formation,” Chloè announces before the evening’s final number. While not the same five dancers, as those in the original “Formation” video (which went viral when Beyoncé shared the video on her platforms back in 2016), the choreography is identical. What’s different is the live audience cheering loudly as these five women give it their all. Between the video and the live dancing, there is too much “slay” to stay seated. It’s not rude, because Semmes opened the evening telling us to get up and dance. And dance we ALL did. I know I wasn’t alone when I left feeling energized and empowered. And I plan to catch the tour on its next leg this spring.
To find out more about Syncopated Ladies, please visit their website.
Written by Brynn Shiovitz.
Featured image: Syncopated Ladies – Photo courtesy of the artists.