Syncopated Sisters

Tap-dance entrepreneurs Chloe and Maud Arnold are ready to click with a new generation - and heal the world through rhythm and shoes.

by Paul Hond Published Winter 2016
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Photographs by Jorg Meyer

It’s five days before the show, and Chloe Arnold ’02CC is rehearsing her New York tap-dance troupe, Apartment 33, onstage at City College’s Aaron Davis Hall in Harlem. The dancers listen carefully as Chloe, wearing an Ivy Park hoodie and blue jeans, prepares them for the next number, set to Rihanna’s song “Work.”

“Do it with passion or not at all,” Chloe says, her voice firm and supportive. “You can never fake it, ever.” The dancers nod and get into formation.

The music starts, a mellow synth-pop groove, then crack! — the concussion of metal upon the floor, blunt force, and twelve bodies move as one, arms and legs and hips and hair, toes and heels banging out rhythms that vibrate the senses: sound as movement, sound made visible.

And now Maud Arnold ’08CC comes through the auditorium doors, carrying a white shopping bag. She’s been running around as usual. She’s a mover, a dealmaker, the social and business spark of Chloe & Maud Productions.

The dancers take a break, and Maud walks onto the stage and brings the bag over to Chloe.

“This is very exciting,” Chloe says, watching as Maud pulls a white shoebox from the bag. “We’re creating an affordable tap shoe for the nonprofessional. The shoes we wear cost hundreds of dollars.”

“These are in the seventy- or eighty-dollar range,” says Maud proudly.

“Maud and I wanted to create something for people who can’t afford top-of-the-line shoes but want to get into tap.”

“And that could be anyone.”

Photographs by Jorg Meyer

“From two to ninety-two,” says Chloe. “There was a guy who came to my class with a walker. You could be in a wheelchair. If there’s a way to create percussion with your feet, there are no limits to who can do it.”

No limits: that could be the sisters’ tagline. Tracing their arc from where they started to where they stand, they are the embodiment of Sly and the Family Stone’s “You Can Make It If You Try,” mixed with a little “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge. Like many of their peers, the sisters want to create change, but in their own fresh, offbeat way: through a traditional American art form that is perhaps more enjoyed than understood.

As Margo Jefferson ’71JRN, a Pulitzer Prize–winning cultural critic and Columbia School of the Arts writing professor, has observed, “Tap is a quintessential multipurpose form. It is dance, music, and theater, suitable for clubs, studios, street corners, chorus lines, and concert halls. It is aural, visual, and dramatic: it can tell a story about people, places, and emotions, or about rhythm, movement, and a body talking to no one but itself.”

Tap has its origins in Colonial times in the contact between enslaved Africans and Irish and English indentured servants. According to dance historian and tap dancer Margaret Morrison ’83BC, who teaches at Barnard, “The rhythmic imperative of African dance and drumming styles interacted with Irish and English clog dances. By 1900, all of that was fused.”

For many, the word “tap” evokes Fred Astaire or Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, minstrel shows or vaudeville — something, at any rate, anachronistic. But for Chloe and Maud, tap is as now as your own pulse.

“Tap has the ability to always stay current because of the choice of music,” Chloe explains. “In the 1980s, Gregory Hines danced to funk, and that’s what connected it to the people. When we tap-dance to the music I listen to, like Beyoncé and Rihanna and Prince, the public responds, because it’s what they’re listening to.”

In 1993, some of the greatest tap dancers in history gathered at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, as part of Savion Glover’s DC Crew. The lineup included Gregory Hines, the nineteen-year-old prodigy Glover, and the fabled Nicholas Brothers. Also onstage was a twelve-year-old girl named Chloe Arnold.

That night, Chloe saw what it meant to be a professional tap dancer. She’d been dancing since she was six, and now she dreamed of someday leaving her own footprint on the field.

She lived in Washington with her kid sister, Maud, and their brother, Tadeo, who “always had our backs,” Chloe says. Their father, Eddie, was a Vietnam veteran and jazz connoisseur who worked in public relations. Their mother, Barbara, who was born in France, where her mother hid during the Holocaust, was a high-school teacher.

Around the time of the Kennedy Center show, Chloe took a bus trip to New York to see Jelly’s Last Jam, a Broadway musical about the jazz composer Jelly Roll Morton. The show starred Hines and Glover, with choreography by Hines and tap guru Ted Levy. The whole scene captivated Chloe. “When it’s my time, I’m going to live in New York,” she thought. “I’m going to college in New York.”

But things were tough at home. When Chloe was thirteen, Barbara moved the kids to a small apartment in northwest DC. “Our mom was the only white person in the neighborhood,” Maud says. Money was tight. Barbara took extra work as a waitress and translator. The sisters were inseparable. They shared a bedroom, and Chloe, now Maud’s babysitter, also became her dance teacher.

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