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

At fifteen, Chloe went back to New York to see the Glover vehicle Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk, a tap odyssey of African-American history. After the matinee, she wanted to check out Columbia. Some dancers from the show took her uptown. “I saw the campus and said, ‘This is going to be my life,’” Chloe says.

The next year, she got a part in a dance musical in DC directed by Debbie Allen, the dancer, singer, choreographer, director, and producer who played a tough-love dance teacher in the film and TV versions of Fame. Allen saw Chloe’s promise and became her mentor.

Meanwhile, at school, Chloe, Ivy-minded, signed up for everything: clubs, peer mediation, sports. She even got elected class president. Still, in her senior year, a teacher told her she would never get into Harvard. Chloe had no designs on Harvard, but the comment stung, and her smoldering mental response was Ohhh, you watch me. With the encouragement of Barbara and Tadeo (who would graduate from the University of Pennsylvania), Chloe applied to all the Ivy League schools.

“My mom was avid about our education and motivating us,” Chloe says. “She found this clip in a magazine that said, WHAT IF HARVARD WAS YOUR SAFETY SCHOOL? She cut it out and taped it to our door so that it was the first thing I saw each morning.” Chloe got into Harvard, and all the other Ivies. But her heart was set on Columbia.

Chloe applied for every scholarship available. The most substantial one she received was a Kluge Scholarship, a program endowed in 1987 by businessman John Kluge ’37CC, ’88HON, a German immigrant who had himself attended Columbia on grants.

At college, Chloe took classes from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., and then at night she’d pack up her portable tap-dancing floor and go down to Greenwich Village for a jazz-club jam session. “Can I jump in?” she’d say, and she’d drop her board and ad-lib with the band. Tappers are percussionists, and to develop musicianship “you have to play with musicians,” Chloe says. Afterward, she’d go back to campus and do her schoolwork.

She majored in film and was singularly focused. “In college I always thought, ‘I’m going to put tap on film. Now, to make a film is insane, and even crazier is to become a professional tap dancer, and even crazier is to say, ‘I’m going to make tap movies.’ But in my head, that’s what was going to happen. Every film project I did was about tap. My thesis film was about tap. Everything was about tap.”

After graduation, Chloe moved to LA. She had no money, so Debbie Allen put her up and let Chloe shadow her at work. Allen told Chloe that if she wanted to tap professionally, she had to learn how to do it all: dance, direct, choreograph, write, and produce. Tap auditions were scarce, so you needed the skills to create the work itself.

One night in LA, at a tap jam session, Chloe ran into some other female dancers. She rarely saw other women at jam sessions. Sensing their power as a group, she pulled them together — along with the teenage Maud — and formed a dance crew called Syncopated Ladies, a wink to Sophisticated Ladies, the 1981 Broadway revue based on the music of Duke Ellington, starring Gregory Hines.

These Ladies were something different: young, gifted musician-dancers who, through their moves and outfits, asserted their femininity in ways seldom seen in tap — bare midriffs, ripped jeans, bustiers, a little leather, and a strong, athletic attack. Tap was about to graduate.

Maud, too, majored in film at Columbia, and by her senior year, a new rhythm was pounding across the land. Yes we can! Yes we can! Graduation speeches at Columbia in 2008 were filled with references to Barack Obama ’83CC, who was two weeks away from clinching the Democratic nomination for president.

Maud could relate to the candidate. They had a common educational experience, and they’d both had to settle the complexities of their mixed backgrounds.

“At Columbia, I met a lot of mixed kids who really weren’t sure who they were, and I was so sure about it,” Maud says. “I’m Black. My mom’s white, I love her, but I’m Black. Our dad taught us a lot about being proud to be Black. He always said, ‘The world will look at you as a Black person, so you have to recognize that. You’re not better than anybody because you’re light-skinned.’ I’m so grateful, because it saved me a lot of time and emotion questioning this.”

Obama won the election, and Maud and Chloe were in the crowd outside the Capitol on Inauguration Day. “It was cold, but we didn’t care,” says Maud. “It was one of the greatest days of my life.”

With Maud out of school, the sisters started Chloe Maud Productions. Mindful of Debbie Allen’s gospel of versatility, they performed with Syncopated Ladies and also pursued jobs as production assistants on music-video shoots. Among the artists they got to work for was one of their heroes: Beyoncé.

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