by Tommy Bracco
Part of The Ensemblist's "What I Teach" Series
Have you ever tried to learn choreography from a YouTube video? You’ll find that you end up doing everything backwards, because you’re learning from a screen. Also, it takes forever to rewind, slow down the dancers, and count it out yourself. But that’s exactly what one of my students at LaGuardia High School used to do. Let’s call her Mya. When Mya came to my class, she had very little formal training. She couldn’t point her feet, hold her core, or spot her turns. But her curiosity was gigantic.
Over the course of two years, she developed a rigorous work ethic. She’d stay after every class to ask me questions or to show me the latest phrase she’d choreographed. Eventually, Mya became the most compelling dancer in my class. She created a number for LaGuardia’s competitive ‘Rising Stars’ talent show, bringing an entire audience to their feet with her undeniable presence, rhythm, and authenticity. Watching her uncover the joy of expression is something I’ll never forget. She inspired me to lean into my passion for teaching.
For years before I taught classes at LaGuardia, I’d been preparing my young cousin, Serena, for her professional auditions. She was a trained dancer with raw talent as an actress. The first few times that she had to tape auditions for TV shows, she wasn’t used to working on scenes. She’d read from the paper and rest on her charisma and dance training to get some jobs. But I could tell that she had more to offer. She began to find a new level of success when I pushed her to go beyond memorizing lines for an audition. It took sacrifice for her- she would have to cancel plans with her friends and get all of her homework done, in addition to preparing several pages of sides for the latest audition. But over time, I watched her come to the realization that when she really worked hard on these sides, she liked the way they came out. Eventually, this confidence transferred to her auditions. After that realization, Serena booked Matilda The Musical on Broadway, followed by several major TV shows, and was recently flown to L.A. to test for the lead in a Disney pilot.
Moments like these led my best friend Adam Kaplan and I to start LION ARTS - a ‘one stop shop’ for young artists. Our goal is to strengthen audition technique and to amplify confidence. We tackle technical skills of auditioning, such as picking up choreography in a dance call, finding beats in a 32-bar cut, choosing solid repertoire, and knowing how to speak to an accompanist. But the practice is much deeper than that. It’s really about learning to bring your authentic self into the room, fighting through nerves to express yourself bravely and rigorously preparing yourself so you can make excellence a habit.
Along the way, I’d like to demystify this industry to artists who are starting out. Young people should see themselves in the Broadway stars that teach with us.
Since Newsies became such a phenomenon, I’ve had a lot of fans of the show approach me and talk about how much it meant for them to see it. A lot of them are aspiring performers themselves. It’s always flattering when this happens, but it also feels undeserved; I feel like they see me as more than I am. I’m a human being, just like anyone who sat in the audience of that show. A lot of people see success in this business as a secret formula that only some people can unlock. At LION ARTS, we want everyone to know that it really is just about authenticity, training, and perseverance. If you build a reputation as a kind person who works hard, you will do amazing things. I want every young artist to know that. There’s no better example of this than when I had a student in a class at a theater camp in Queens back in 2013. A young boy named Luca Padovan approached me after I taught and told me that he wanted to do what I did. Two weeks later, we were sharing the stage in a Broadway show. We closed Newsies together, and he’s gone on to star in several other Broadway and TV shows.
In the years that I’ve been teaching, I’ve discovered that every exercise comes down to confidence. The performers that people want to work with are the ones who exude authenticity and bravery. And obviously, building those skills is helpful - not just for success as a Broadway performer - but for any endeavor in life.
Connecting with young artists is the greatest gift I can give myself. Instead of being approached by people who think that I’m somehow above them because of what’s on my resume, I’d rather connect on a personal level so that they see us as the same. I don’t give them anything- we work together so that we grow together. It feels to me like completing a circle, so that we end up having a shared experience as we all grow the artistry and confidence that are already inside of us. That process is a million times more fulfilling than a standing ovation in a Broadway house.
More info, including our August Intensive (Aug-23rd-26th), go to Lionartsnyc.com