Many dream of being nominated for an entertainment award like an Emmy, but few find out exactly how surreal the experience is. Dancer and choreographer Chloe Arnold was so unprepared for the honor, she initially suspected the worst when she began receiving dozens of missed calls and text messages in the middle of the night.
“Immediately my heart sinks, and I’m like, ‘Oh no. What’s happened?’” she tells The Glow Up. “And as I’m looking at the phone my manager calls, and so I pick up, bracing for the worst. And she’s like, ‘Guess what ... you were nominated for an Emmy!’ And then literally, I popped out of bed and started screaming.”
After the requisite freakout, Arnold’s next call was to friend and longtime mentor Debbie Allen. And as it turned out, the multi-hyphenate legend was already celebrating her protege’s success.
“[S]he had already posted about it [on social media],” Arnold laughs. “She was just so proud and she said, “We’re always connected.”
With that connection was a poignant sense of continuity; prior to coming under Allen’s tutelage at age 16, one of Arnold’s earliest impressions of the entertainment legend was seeing a picture of Allen accepting her first Outstanding Choreography Emmy for her work on the hit television series Fame (an award Allen would win again the following year).
“It’s the most impactful thing when you see it’s possible, and it’s right in front of your face—like, this is possible,” says Arnold. “And the thing is that Debbie always told me that; she always said, ‘You’re going to be able to do this; you’re going to get there.’ She was just saying everything encouraging while simultaneously challenging the heck out of me in every single way.”
As fate would have it, Arnold’s nominated choreography is linked to Allen, as well. Though best known for her incredible tap group Syncopated Ladies, it was Arnold’s work on The Late Late Show with James Corden that earned her a 2018 Emmy nomination. Corden’s hysterical December 2017 installment of the dance mob-style sketch series “Crosswalk, the Musical” (featuring Hugh Jackman, Zendaya and Zac Efron) was partly set to the theme of Fame.
“You have 45 seconds to do a musical on the street,” Arnold tells us. “This is not like a staged event where you shut down the street, this is real ... literally, they’re dodging traffic. It’s amazing.”
But perhaps more amazing was the fact that this particular episode (which is pretty brilliant) earned Arnold her first nomination. “I’ve choreographed over 30 episodes for the show,” she says. “So for this one to be the one that got nominated was just really touching to me because it’s the one where the song was a tribute to my mentor and teacher. It’s just unbelievable.”
It was Allen who impressed upon Arnold that she must be multifaceted as an artist—advice the lifelong dancer took to heart. While attending film school at Columbia University in New York City, she spent summers training and teaching at Allen’s school in Los Angeles. And when Arnold graduated, she was generously welcomed into Allen’s home while she figured out her post-graduate steps. She recalls:
[S]ometimes I say it was like the real life version of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air ... I’m from D.C., we come from very humble beginnings, and coming to live in her house and just see the amount of success she’s amassed—and when I say success, I mean in so many multitudes—what Debbie was able to do was become an entity unto herself [as] an artist. ... It’s just really incredible that I got to see this happening and to be challenged into that world.
But Arnold is adamant that she also had to work. “The Fame Debbie Allen is the real Debbie Allen,” she laughs. And Arnold tells us that those years of training paid off in confidence in her skills:
“All of a sudden it was like time to make it happen and I’m like, ‘I know how to do it—I can do this.’”
In fact, Syncopated Ladies began at Allen’s home in 2003, when Arnold asked her then-teenaged younger sister Maud and a group of younger tap students if they wanted to form an all-female tap company. To solidify the group and fund their training, Arnold, already an aspiring philanthropist despite her own meager beginnings, began paying it forward before she even had the resources to, asking Allen to grant scholarships when necessary.
“Along the way, I had these incredible black women that came and lifted me up, and when I was going through my hardships as a kid, saw me and didn’t let those hardships dim my light,” says Arnold. “[I]nstead, they taught me how to use my art and my voice to challenge the hardships, or to cope with [them], or to overcome. And so when I finally got to L.A. and I saw these girls, I thought, ‘I want to do this.’”
Fifteen years later, Syncopated Ladies is a force to be reckoned with in the previously male-dominated field of tap dance. The group—which recently expanded from five to ten members to accommodate their worldwide touring schedule—continues to stun audiences with their live performances and viral videos featuring highly choreographed tap routines set to contemporary music like Prince, Fetty Wap and Beyoncé.
In fact, Arnold credits the group’s heightened visibility to becoming a product of what she calls “the Beyoncé Effect,” after the Syncopated Ladies’ rendition of “Formation” caught the attention of the star, who went so far as to place it on the homepage of Beyoncé.com for several weeks. As Arnold tells us, it was the tipping point for the group, and one she is profoundly grateful for.
“Beyoncé was such a key component to all of this because when she elevated our work by sharing it, she put us in another stratosphere,” she says. “And to me, that’s one of the reasons why all of this is in motion because she put it into the universe for people to feel and to experience.”
For Arnold, the accolades the group is amassing elevate and evolve the art of tap dance, which she has devoted her life to promoting and performing. “Our art form has been marginalized, and then within it, black women have been marginalized,” she says, adding:
These women, we’re all connected to the same passion and purpose; tap brought us together and our art is how we express what we feel. But we all have this common dream to be able to encourage and ignite a light in someone else and to just remind everybody that we’re worthy, that we’re amazing, that we are intelligent—just the essence of what black girl magic means.
And being a bona fide and unapologetic black girl is something Arnold is celebrating in every aspect of her career, including in her work with The Late Late Show.
“They allow me to hire, which allows me to diversify television, and it’s amazing because I remember being that dancer going out for jobs where my hips were too big, my butt was too big, I was too big—I was not what people were looking for on television,” she says. “And now, because of the show’s confidence in me and trust they allow me to hire and they encourage that I’m creating a diverse cast and I love it, because this is how things change.”
Most important, Arnold is profoundly aware of what her successes mean in the broader scheme of things—one that is that is bigger than herself or The Late Late Show, or even Syncopated Ladies, whom she calls “the best team.” And whether or not you’re a dancer, the sense of purpose and collective responsibility she feels is deeply resonant, on a cellular level:
It’s a dream to be able to do all these things that we love and keep the fires burning. ... I want to tell our stories and I want our art to be represented. The journey of us as tap dancers is very parallel to the journey of a black woman—the challenges you face, and the inner strength that you have to find and the solidarity that makes the difference to whether you are able to break down the barrier.
That is the number one thing [the Syncopated Ladies] talk about: We are a team; we have to do this together. If we shift off purpose or off focus, it won’t go. It won’t work, and it won’t last.