BY ADINAWA ADJAGBODJOU
This week I spoke with Chloe and Maud Arnold, Founders of The Syncopated Ladies as they shared their journey and vision as Tap Dancers, Choreographers, educators, entrepreneurs and philanthropists.
I would love for you to tell me who you are and one part of your identity that’s really integral to who you are.
M My name is Maud Arnold and something integral to my identity is joy.
C My name is Chloe Arnold and something integral to my identity is my determination.
Could you each expand on that for me?
M For me, I live my life and I utilize joy as the barometer for the macro and micro aspects of my life. And anybody who knows me knows that I am pretty much always joyful. I’m always happy. And I want to share that with other people. But it’s not like a shallow happy or me just smiling and running around. I really feel good. And one of my goals in life is to make other people feel good about themselves and just all around about their lives.
I think actually I would change my word from determination to love.
And then I’ll say that my love for things drives this undying determination to achieve that which I love and to share that with others. So from very young I always knew that I loved tap and that I loved art and that I wanted to share it. And I knew that nobody cared about tap, but I didn’t care because I loved it.
And I knew with this fierce determination that I would one day make this dream of mine come true. And that will, and determination is honestly something I apply to everything that I love: people, my activities, even silly things like interior design. When I get my mind set on something I love, I am determined to complete it.
So I know dance and your love for tap is a big part of both of your lives, and how did you set out on that journey?
C So I’m older than Maud so I started the journey earlier and honestly, the first thing was inspiration. I think everything that you love starts with this seed planted of inspiration. And I just felt it in my core and I felt I loved the community. I loved the art form, being a musician and a dancer. I love that it was part of our heritage and culture, something for us to be proud of as black women.
And I really saw my mom’s supportiveness in seeking out the communities that would really lift us up and invite us in and make us feel loved and supported and inspired. And so now that we have the ability to be leaders in the field we do the same to make sure that we’re creating a community that makes people feel that love that I felt as a kid with our company and our teacher Ms. Tony. This way, whether you become a tap dancer, like we did, or you become a doctor, like one of our best friends did, you’re infused with what it feels like to love something and to be in a community of love.
Can you tell me more about the rich history and heritage of tap?
C Yes, so a lot of times when people speak of music and dance of the diaspora, a lot of times people skip over tap and they don’t understand that it is an extreme part of the lineage. Tap dance dates back to plantations and Africans being enslaved and having music and dance and rhythm and percussion as the language of freedom. So the necessity for survival is what created tap dance. It was a tool for freedom. And so that’s what we think of when we’re dancing. We’re dancing from our souls and that necessity for freedom that is innate in our lineage, history and present reality.
You can see the syncopation that’s innate in tap in the poly rhythms of African music all across the continent. You see it in swing dance, you see it in hip hop, you see it in Dancehall, in afrobeats and all the footwork. But it’s not something that we take for granted and we appreciate and enjoy realizing how much this art form has been passed down over hundreds and hundreds of years. And so our drive and determination also has to do with our love for our people and our culture.
So having created that space, where you are seeing more people get access to tap, I’m interested to know if there are any favorite memories or times that have stuck out to you where you had an opportunity to work with a group of students and it inspired you to continue doing what you do.
M I would say one of our most important and incredible performances was December 2019. And we performed at Folsom state prison for about 800 inmates as a part of a campaign for the movie, Just Mercy, that Michael B. Jordan was in. And that performance was life changing. It reaffirmed everything that we believe in and it reaffirmed that art saves lives. It reaffirmed that art is for everyone. It is the universal language. And it reaffirmed that dance makes you feel free because a lot of the men after we danced told us, “When you ladies danced, I felt free.”
And that just solidified all of the hard work and all of the things we fight for, and all of this stuff that we fight to represent. I feel like that was like an all encompassing moment.
C So I feel like we live multiple lifestyles, right? So we’re performers, but we’re also choreographers and we’re also educators and entrepreneurs and philanthropists. So for me, the performance part is where you, as an artist, are speaking a language to the audience and at that moment, you have the opportunity to change the way people feel and think for the rest of their lives. So we performed in Detroit for 2000 middle school children, black kids, and they got to come to our show for free. And middle school kids can be real special and they were honestly one of the greatest audiences of our entire career when we were performing. Honestly, there was a moment in which I was wondering did Oprah walk out on stage or like Beyonce or Chadwick?
And it showed me again, the power of tap dance. And it just goes to show that when you make art that is authentic and real, there’s no denying how people will receive it. And after that performance, we know that those kids will carry that feeling with them forever the way that we’ve carried the feeling of them in us forever. And those performances tend to be the catalyst for how we get a lot of new students because they get so excited from these moments and they feel it deep within.
And then they’re saying, “I want to try”. That is how we built our free after-school programs, Tap into Life, by performing first and then saying, “Who wants to do this?” So, it’s incredibly special because a lot of artists don’t take the time to perform in the hood or for the people that can’t pay some amount of money to come see them. But quite frankly, our favorite performances are the ones that are for free because the people that come to those show up with so much open-heart and passion and there is a level of appreciation once it’s over that money can’t buy.
What have been some of the challenges you have encountered on your way?
C So the Syncopated Ladies are syncopated sisters and one thing that we have solidified is that we stick together. We don’t hate on each other. We lift each other up. We show each other love. Sisterhood means we all can shine. We all want everyone to be as happy and fulfilled and rich as possible.
We want to be able to be like, “whose jet are we taking today?” Not, “I’m the only one who can have a jet”. So, I think for me, the hardest part was this thought of “When we get this platform, everybody’s going to be so happy for us and we’re going to be able to change the community and lift it up.” And none of that. All the sudden you’re like, whoa, misogyny and racism and sexism are real. Okay. Well, you know what? We’re going to press on ahead and we’re going to Michelle Obama, this thing: they’re going low, so we go high and we go rock on.
So through your mentorship of others and through your classes you pour a lot into other people. Do you feel that there’s ways that you’re being poured into or ways that you wish you were being poured into?
M Oh my gosh, yes! We are so poured into, Oh my goodness. We are so fortunate. We do give a lot, but we are so thankful we get a lot. We’ve had so many incredible mentors from Debbie Allen to Shonda Rhimes to Joan Hornig. And Felicia Horowitz. I mean, we are so blessed with the most incredible network of women who uplift us.
And then we’re also poured into, by our peers, by our friends, by the Syncopated Ladies and by all the kids that we teach. I mean, when a kid tells you, “Ms. Chloe, I wear my hair natural because of you. I used to only straighten it and now I wear my hair natural because it’s beautiful and puffy”.
C Let me tell you something, this little white girl sent me a DM today. She said, “I love you. And your hair is just like mine, except it’s different colors.” And her hair was literally stark blonde, but it was curly and big. And I thought she’s that girl that gets made fun of for the frizzy hair. And she’s now found a black woman role model for self love. And I just thought it was too precious. But that’s the point, it’s letting people know: be yourself, don’t change who you are. Don’t try to fit in. Don’t adjust. And I think that’s the greatest lesson I’ve learned in this whole journey of ours is being yourself always wins, period. If you’re consistent in your purpose and who you are, it always comes around. And we learned that honestly from our mentor Debbie Allen. So when you talk about being poured into, we have to talk about her because without her, all these things that we’re doing and understanding how you give and understanding how you succeed, we wouldn’t have the same level of knowledge or success. She shared all of the beautiful, incredible company that she kept, which ranged from those, the likes of Stevie wonder and beyond, and she gave us an education for free and paid me to teach tap.
So, it doesn’t get any better than everything I just said and we know how fortunate we are and that’s why giving is such an integral part of who we are, because we know the direct effect of what happens when you open your arms or your home, or your heart, or your tools or access to others. And so it’s not even a question that we help other people. It’s not even like an option.
M It’s just what we do.
As you think about the future, is there anything new on the horizon that you are hoping to accomplish, any new projects you want to take on?
M So, I dabble in stand up comedy and I would love to be the host of my own talk show. I currently host something called the Maudcast, which is a podcast. And we want to executive produce and create film and television shows that focus on tap dance from a black woman’s point of view and perspective.
Because that has never happened, ever in history. It’s always been through the lens of a man and oftentimes a white man, but there’s never been a woman, a black woman’s lens.
We also want to open a community center. We want to have our after school program in every state and all over the world.
So we are executive producing our own Syncopated Ladies concert, which in 2022 is going to have a nationwide tour. We are going to be the first black women to be executive producers on our own show that tours on this kind of scale. And especially for tap, this a massive change.
We want Syncopated Ladies Live to be something that stays around for decades and decades. So all the little girls around the world who aspire to be Syncopated Ladies have a chance to audition and be a part of something and actually make a paycheck and know that their dream isn’t just some elusive idea, but they can see a concrete result of where their skill can take them.