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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“Beyoncé made me see the role of women in entertainment differently,” Chloe says. “She’s so unapologetically amazing, and at the same time, she lifts everybody up and makes you feel amazing. It doesn’t matter if you’re picking up trash — you still feel like you’re part of the most incredible production ever. I thought, ‘That’s what I want for Syncopated Ladies. I want these women to feel that we are lifting each other up.’”

By 2013, the sisters were ready for a new step. “Maud,” Chloe said, “it’s time to use our film degrees. Let’s make music videos of tap dancing.”

Chloe choreographed a piece for Syncopated Ladies, set to Rihanna’s “Where Have You Been.” Dark stage, floor lights, black shorts and bodices, silver glitter, studded boots, rapid-fire syncopations, kinetic camera work. Chloe and Maud put the polished product on YouTube, and it quickly got more than sixty thousand views. “I was blown away,” Chloe says. “I had no idea that we could get tap seen by that many people.”

“I want these women to feel that we are lifting each other up.”

Next, as an expression of gratitude to Beyoncé, the Ladies made a video to her song “End of Time.” To their surprise, Beyoncé shared it on Facebook. Within days that video got more than five hundred thousand views. The popular TV show So You Think You Can Dance took notice, and the Ladies were invited to compete in the show’s first-ever dance-crew battle. They won.

Twitter was aflutter. Blogs and magazines swooped in. People started recognizing Chloe and Maud on planes. Now the question had new urgency: what next?

Photographs by Jorg Meyer

If there is a glass ceiling for women in tap, it’s full of cracks made by generations of rapping feet. For Chloe, tap history is filled with women who “did the work but don’t get the credit they deserve,” and she recalls the lack of prospects that she faced coming up.

“I was really entering a boys’ club,” she says. “You had Tap Dogs and Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk; there were no roles I could get into.” Nor was Riverdance an option. “If you look at Broadway, there are very few shows that feature or star a Black woman, and very few African-American producers and choreographers,” says Chloe. “I would say to myself, ‘If it doesn’t exist, create it.’”

In the critical realm, too, she encountered a certain narrowness of perspective. “Some people didn’t like that I was using my curves, my African-American culture, incorporating African dance and hip-hop and things that are authentic to my experience,” she says. “There was a lot of resistance, and Debbie Allen was so pivotal in saying, ‘Ignore them, go forward, don’t let them stop you.’”

Margaret Morrison, who knew Chloe and Maud at Columbia and had Maud as a student, notes that the Arnold sisters are fighting against centuries of ideas. “Anything too close to sexuality and the female body is considered less art-worthy, less rigorous, less serious. It’s entertainment, not art. Chloe just dives into that and says, ‘That’s BS. Who made these rules?’ And that’s how I feel. It’s the twenty-first century! We’ve been through postmodernism! Who made these rules?

“Some women of my generation felt it was important to downplay sexuality to align ourselves with art, so we did that,” says Morrison. “Then Chloe’s generation came along and said, ‘That’s interesting, but why?’ We fought that fight, and Chloe doesn’t need to fight it anymore. Now she and Maud can fight a different battle.”

On February 6, 2016, Beyoncé released “Formation,” an empowerment anthem of Black womanhood whose music video contains visual references to police violence and the abandonment of African-Americans in Hurricane Katrina. The next day, the singer performed “Formation” during the halftime show of Super Bowl 50.

If Chloe and Maud weren’t sure what to do next, now they knew. Chloe created a dance for “Formation,” and the Ladies hit the studio. “The idea of formation — of getting people unified — inspired me to reach out to people in countries I’d traveled to as a performer,” says Chloe. “I sent them instructions for the dance and told them that if they could learn this and film it in a week, they might be in our video.” The response was emphatic: the video features dancers from Chicago, DC, Seattle, LA, Taipei, Rio de Janeiro, and more.

The sisters uploaded the video, not expecting Beyoncé herself to see it. Not only did she see it — she posted it on her homepage. In two weeks it got eight million views, and now it has more than thirteen million.

Beyoncé hired the Ladies to perform in London at the launch of her clothing line, Ivy Park, in April. A week later, the pop star Prince, another major influence on Chloe and Maud, died unexpectedly. Syncopated Ladies made a tribute video, set to “When Doves Cry.” That one has topped twenty-five million views.

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