"My Dance Family Tree": 5 Pros on Their Training Roots

September 16, 2020

You’ve got your mother’s eyes, your smile is just like your dad’s, and it’s uncanny how much you look like photos of that great-great aunt you’ve never met. But where did you get your distinctive port de bras from? What are the origins of your signature tap sound? Chances are, your technique and style can be traced back to a dance icon or two. We asked five dancers at the top of their craft to explore their dance family trees, uncovering connections to the legendary dance artists who’ve shaped their careers.

Megan Fairchild in Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering (Paul Kolnik, courtesy NYCB)

Megan Fairchild, New York City Ballet

Rooted to: Melissa Hayden, George Balanchine, Willam F. Christensen

Physical powerhouse Megan Fairchild exudes strength and grace as a principal at New York City Ballet, where she performs a diverse repertoire: classics by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, and newer works by Alexei Ratmansky and Justin Peck. Born in Salt Lake City, UT, Fairchild trained in Utah at Dance Concepts and at the Ballet West Conservatory (now Ballet West Academy), where her teachers helped to hone her craft and shape her into the incredible dancer (and teacher!) she is today.

Tracing It Back:

Maureen Laird,
Fairchild’s teacher at the Ballet West Conservatory. Laird studied with famed NYCB ballerina Melissa Hayden. “Maureen never spoke about her training as far as I can remember, so I’m actually amazed to hear she trained with Melissa Hayden!” Fairchild says. She still thinks about a correction Laird gave her once: “She said, ‘Well if you can do it like that, why not always do it that way? Don’t take so long to get to that final pulled-up version of the position. Do it right when you arrive!’ ” Fairchild says. “I give that correction to my own students all the time. Work to your fullest potential from the get go!”

Sharee Lane
, another of Fairchild’s influential teachers at Ballet West Conservatory. Lane was a soloist at Ballet West from 1970–1979, under the direction of Willam F. Christensen and Bruce Marks. In the 80s, she privately taught and coached John Travolta for his role in the iconic dance film Staying Alive.

Deborah Dobson
, also a mentor to Fairchild at Ballet West Conservatory. Dobson trained at San Francisco Ballet School and the School of American Ballet and later danced with American Ballet Theatre, as well as in Europe. She helped connect Fairchild to the Balanchine legacy. “In my last years in Utah, she gave me a lot of Balanchine training,” Fairchild says.

Bené Arnold
, who rehearsed the young Fairchild for The Nutcracker at Ballet West. The beloved Arnold was involved in the founding of Ballet West, where she was a ballet mistress from 1963–1975. She performed character roles in many Ballet West productions and also danced with San Francisco Ballet. “She had a major impact on me learning to tell a story as I danced,” Fairchild says. “I heard the most stories from Bené Arnold. You really can’t study your ballet roots unless your teachers talk about them, or you think to ask them. So it was fun to have vivid images of Bené’s career painted in our imaginations.”

Why It Matters:
“Learning about your teacher’s roots helps you appreciate every correction they give you,” Fairchild says. “It helps you feel connected to legends like Mr. B, which makes you feel authentic in your efforts and your approach to their work.”

Natasha Diamond-Walker in Martha Graham’s Ecstasies (David Bazemore, courtesy Martha Graham Dance Company)

Natasha Diamond-Walker, Martha Graham Dance Company

Rooted to: Lester Horton, Debbie Allen, Arthur Mitchell, Martha Graham, Fred Astaire

Natasha Diamond-Walker has been a soloist with the Martha Graham Dance Company for the past seven years, carrying on Graham’s legacy through her roles in repertory classics: Appalachian Spring, Cave of the Heart, Clytemnestra, Lamentation. As a company member, she’s also been able to work with today’s top contemporary choreographers. But her dance family tree is rooted in the icons who made modern dance what it is today.

Tracing It Back:

Karen McDonald
, Diamond-Walker’s childhood teacher. The director of Los Angeles Unified School District Gifted/Talented Program Conservatory of Fine Arts at Cal State Los Angeles, McDonald is the director of Debbie Allen Dance Academy. A Broadway dancer before returning to L.A. to teach, McDonald studied at Dance Theater of Harlem with legendary mentors and teachers like George Faison, Donald McKayle, Don Martin, Janet Collins, Arthur Mitchell, and Karel Shook, among others. “She was the most instrumental person in my process because I really identified with her as being a tall black woman, with an Ailey-esque style of movement,” Diamond-Walker says. “She was super inspirational for me.”

Don Martin
, Diamond-Walker’s teacher at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA). Martin studied under icon Lester Horton, who taught the likes of Janet Collins, Carmen de Lavallade, and Alvin Ailey. “He was really instrumental because he not only taught me the Horton technique, but also about theatricality and how it speaks to dancing,” Diamond-Walker says.

Ka-Ron Brown-Lehman
, Diamond-Walker’s mentor. Formerly artistic director of the LACHSA dance department (2001–2006), she was once a well-known TV dance artist, performing with Fred Astaire, Liza Minelli, and Diana Ross.

Francisco Martinez
, Walker’s teacher at the Ailey/Fordham University BFA program. Currently a dance professor at The Juilliard School, Martinez trained at the National Ballet School in Spain, at the Maria de Avila Dance School, and with Victor Ullate, who was a principal in Maurice Béjart’s ballet company.

Why It Matters:
Thinking about her connections to the past is important in Diamond-Walker’s professional career. At Graham, she’s enjoyed working with those who worked directly with Martha Graham, such as Elizabeth Auclair, Janet Eilber, Terese Capucilli, and Christine Dakin. “These women embody different parts of Graham’s legacy,” Diamond-Walker says. “They all have different interpretations of her work, but because of my experience with each of them, I feel deeply connected to Graham.”

Sarah Reich (Jeff Xander, courtesy Reich)

Sarah Reich, tap dancer

Rooted to: The Nicholas Brothers, Jason Samuels Smith, Dianne Walker, Harold “Stumpy” Cromer

The versatile dancer and choreographer Sarah Reich has performed and taught all over the world. She grew up dancing alongside tap dance legends—by the time she was 12, she was participating in tap jams with Gregory Hines—and those legends, in turn, lifted up the legacies of the dancers who preceded them. “Just like storytelling, tap dance is often passed down from person to person,” Reich says. “But as in the game telephone, certain things end up changed.”

Tracing It Back:

Cyd Glover
, Reich’s tap teacher at the Hawthorne Dance Academy. As a young dancer, Glover performed alongside Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards and Savion Glover in the famous tap musical Black and Blue, choreographed by tap greats Henry LeTang, Cholly Atkins, Frankie Manning, and Fayard Nicholas.

Paul and Arlene Kennedy
, who taught Reich at Universal Dance Design in L.A. Paul and Arlene trained countless tap dancers, including Derick K. Grant, Sumbry-Edwards, and Josette and Joseph Wiggan. Originally from Boston, Paul grew up dancing in his mother’s studio—and his mother, Mildred Kennedy Bradic, was Dianne Walker’s teacher.

Jason Samuels Smith
, whose classes Reich took at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in L.A. “With Cyd I liked tap; with Paul Kennedy, I loved it; with Jason, I fell in love with it,” Reich says. The renowned Smith has a diverse training and performance resumé, and his lineage connects Reich to a long line of famous dancers, including Frank Hatchett, Katherine Dunham, and the Nicholas Brothers.

Harold “Stumpy” Cromer
, who became a mentor to Reich. The former vaudeville dancer and comedian used to tap on roller skates, and performed on stages with Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, and Ella Fitzgerald.

Why It Matters:
In addition to studying with tap masters, Reich has learned to appreciate her history through archival footage and learning dances of the past. “We have to keep, and we are keeping, these artists’ names and legacies alive,” she says. “I think it’s really beautiful that we get to feel what it’s like to dance like them. When you tap someone else’s choreography, you’re getting into their body and mind.”

Sharron Lynn poses in front of the marquis for The Lion King on Broadway (courtesy Lynn)

Sharron Lynn, performer in “The Lion King” on Broadway

Rooted to: Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey, Garth Fagan

Sharron Lynn
toured with The Lion King for four years before joining the Broadway cast almost two years ago. The Miami native was previously a member of Ailey II. She has an appreciation for the ways her teachers not only taught technique, but also prepared her for the workforce and the life of a dancer.

Tracing It Back:

Peter London
was Lynn’s most influential teacher at the New World School of the Arts in Miami. A former principal dancer in the Martha Graham Dance Company, London helped Lynn bridge the gap from student to professional, encouraging her to spend her summers in NYC at The Ailey School’s summer intensives.

Fred Benjamin
, former chairman of the jazz department and faculty advisor at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center, served as a profound inspiration for Lynn when she studied with him as a professional division student. Benjamin helped Lynn learn to color her movement—and to move from the heart.

Ruthlyn Salomons
, the resident dance supervisor of The Lion King on Broadway, taught Lynn the show. Salomons learned the choreography directly from its creator, Garth Fagan.

Why It Matters:
“To know your history is to know your power,” says Lynn. “You honor the work of those who come before you, and you’re able to pull from that and use it as a driving force for your own work. Knowing the shoulders we stand on gives us more height, more leverage.”

Martha Nichols, commercial dancer

Rooted to:
Frank Hatchett, Katherine Dunham, Debbie Allen, Madonna

Most of the world first noticed Martha Nichols‘ ferocious yet graceful dancing on Season 2 of “So You Think You Can Dance.” She has been featured in films like La La Land and The Greatest Showman, and she’s also performed with Christina Aguilera, toured with Rihanna, and was even an assistant choreographer for Madonna. Her versatility can be attributed to the teachers she worked with and the masters who came before them.

Tracing It Back:

Christy Curtis
, now the owner of CC & Co. Dance Complex, where Nichols trained as a student, nurtured Nichols’ love of dance and introduced her to guest teachers and master classes, and the convention and competition world. Curtis studied with jazz icon Frank Hatchett, who partnered with Maurice Hines (Gregory Hines’ brother) to open the studio that would go on to be Broadway Dance Center. And Hatchett trained with Syvilla Fort, a protégé of the legendary Katherine Dunham.

Mandy Moore
worked with Nichols on “SYTYCD” and La La Land. “She taught me almost everything I know about working on camera and how to be a professional in that space and as an artist and dancer,” Nichols says. “Mandy has had the biggest hand in how I am the way that I am.” Moore studied dance at the Summit School of Dance in Breckenridge under the school’s founder, Kim DelGrosso. (DelGrosso is now co-owner of Center Stage Performing Arts Studio, where she trained Julianne and Derek Hough, among many others.)

Tessandra Chavez
helped Nichols recalibrate her rehearsal approach when she first moved to L.A. Chavez has mentored and taught countless TV dance stars, and worked alongside Debbie Allen at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy as head of jazz dance.

Wade Robson
worked with Nichols on “SYTYCD,” and brought her into his Vegas Cirque du Soleil show Criss Angel Believe. Robson also choreographed extensively for Britney Spears and *NSYNC. “He redefined dancing full out,” Nichols says. “I thought I was doing it until I worked with him!”

Why It Matters:
Nichols is currently choreographing a musical about the life of Jeannette Rankin, the first woman in Congress. As part of her research process, she’s been studying musical theater greats of the past—including Michael Kidd, Marge and Gower Champion, and Jerome Robbins—to fully understand the history of musical choreography. “You cannot effectively navigate where you want to go if you don’t understand where you’re coming from,” Nichols says.