How Tap Star Chloe Arnold Thinks Like a Musician
February 9, 2022

Renowned tap dancer, choreographer and teacher Chloe Arnold always felt a deep connection to music. “I played instruments and listened to R&B and hip hop early on, and my parents loved jazz music, so I was surrounded by a lot of different genres,” she shares. Growing up in Washington, DC, Arnold’s first live music experiences came from go-go music, a percussive subgenre of funk that originated from DC’s African-American community. Music has always naturally drawn Arnold to dance. She started tap dancing at an early age and by the time she was 14 and training in multiple styles, everything clicked. “When I saw the movie Tap, and shortly after had the chance to see Gregory Hines perform live in DC, I knew that was what I wanted to do,” she says. “Tap inspired me as the artform where I could literally create music through dance.”

The rest is history. From founding the Syncopated Ladies to teaching all across the country with NYCDA, and providing young dancers opportunities through the Chloe and Maud Foundation, Arnold is herself an instrument of expression, equal parts dancer and musician. “They’re one universal language,” she explains. “When you look at Africa, it’s a massive continent, but culturally, music and dance are the essence of day-to-day life. It’s how people connect and experience the human journey together.”

As a dance educator, Arnold often uses music to bridge the generational gap between teacher and student. “It’s very fun to involve artists everyone knows, like Beyoncé,” she says. “The Syncopated Ladies are about to go on a national tour, and in the show we dance to everything from Andra Day to Chance the Rapper. It’s all about what makes us want to move and tell a story.” In fact, musical storytelling is the heart of Arnold’s teaching style. And for her, complicated does not always equal impressive. “When you’re younger, you just want to do fancy steps and pack everything in at once,” she says. “But a mature dancer will ask, ‘What needs to be said at this moment?’, and then move with a purpose that’s not just to demonstrate all their skills.”

Arnold helps connect students with their musical side by having them close their eyes, listen to a song, and improvise. “I’ll guide them through specifics in the music, starting with having them react only to the bass, then the drums, then the lyrics, and so on,” she explains. “Sometimes I won’t even play the whole song; I’ll just loop a few bars and challenge dancers to find multiple ways to embody that one rhythm. Being able to digest music like that and maintain even basic grooves is essential.”

Photo by Annika Abel Photography, Courtesy of SILLAR Management

For someone who knows a thing or two about music and musicality, Arnold is on a constant quest to learn more and hear more. “During my college years at Columbia, I immersed myself in the NYC jazz scene so that I could jam with live musicians,” she recalls. “I think that, as well as learning about music theory, are the ultimate ways to grow your musicality.” Arnold relies on her network of musicians and fellow dancers to stay on the pulse of what’s new now, and constantly grow her playlists. “I’ll have calls with my friends in Syncopated Ladies where we go around and share our favorite songs at the moment,” she explains. “I also think every dancer should have a DJ friend that can expose them to new music and inspire them with how tracks are combined together.”

Overall, the desire to marry what she hears, sees and feels into a compelling story is what drives Arnold, and her well of musical inspiration is not running dry anytime soon. “Don’t let what you don’t know keep you from learning more,” she says. “It’s so easy nowadays to pull up Spotify or Apple Music and explore new genres of music. Whichever it is that you’re unfamiliar with, dive into it, because it will just expand your imagination and creativity.”

Arnold created a playlist of songs that fuel her choreography and teaching:

“Free Mind,” by Tems

“I use Afro-beats–based music to work on syncopation and style with my students.”

“Sir Duke,” by Stevie Wonder

“Funk and soul music helps me teach how to stay in the pocket. My favorite tracks are by Teena Marie and Stevie Wonder.”

“Butter,” by BTS

“I like using positive and upbeat pop music when I’m teaching kids. I especially like artists like BTS, Lil Nas X, Jabu Graybeal and Beyoncé.”

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