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#SHEsinSports: Sarah Atenhan

Sarah Atenhan is the owner and director of So Fly Studio, a boutique fitness center in Mt. Juliet, TN and Satellite Dance, a newly created nonprofit dedicated to dance and movement. Sarah recently choreographed a commercial for Birchbox and blogged about the experience and her personal history with dance.

Name: Sarah Atenhan
Age: 33
Industry: Fitness and Performing Arts

Dance background: I studied classical western dance forms: flamenco, ballet, jazz, modern from ages 3 to 14 at the Academy of Movement and Music. At age 14 I began training in hip hop, breakdance, and contemporary through Lou Conte Dance School and Oak Park & River Forest High School’s Orchesis Troupe. After studying choreography and dance at University of Illinois, I continued my career in dance and discovered my passion for aerial acrobatics. I currently live in Nashville with my husband, daughter, doggy, and two companies, So Fly Studio and Satellite Dance.

You recently choreographed a commercial for Birchbox, one of the most popular makeup, haircare, and skincare subscription boxes in the world. Our most pressing question is: how did you land such an amazing gig?! 

I auditioned! Getting a ‘gig’ is a combination of luck, tenacity, and talent. My husband was the supervising producer for the film crew assigned to the project. They were looking for a choreographer and my name was submitted. It happens all the time, and let me tell you, it’s rare that I’m selected for a project (as on-camera talent or as choreographer).

How did it feel to choreograph for Birchbox, and especially to have your husband, Ryan, working alongside you for it? 

It has yet to sink in – choreographing for a commercial. I felt, and continue to feel, that I was there to serve the on-camera talent, Saran. The premise for the commercial is a love letter from Saran to Saran (also known as S-wrap). I was there to coach and guide him through the dance process.

As for Ryan and I…we are a divide-and-conquer couple, so any moment of collaboration during rehearsals and pre-production felt…tense. Once we were on set and working our separate jobs, we felt more in sync. If I had to guess why, I think we are serious perfectionists in our work environments – a complete 180 from the chemistry in our personal life.

What’s the process of choreographing something like this commercial? In particular, what’s your creative process for choreographing a piece?

Saran was cast before me, so I deferred to his natural movements. We had a rehearsal prior to shoot day where we met at my studio and I guided him through improvisational exercises. There was a music track already identified as well, so I took the same beats-per-minute and played a wide variation of music to tap into different dynamics. Finally, our director showed up at the end of rehearsal and provided additional direction of discovering your ‘inner child’. Luckily, my real three-year old daughter arrived, and we spent a long time mirroring her movements. It was the best.

Improvisation is my strongest tool and my most comfortable work-mode.

When we got to set, it was quite the ‘dance’ between the director, writer, and myself. The challenge was to stay true to the story, the shot list, the dancing, and most importantly, Birchbox. Once we began shooting, I would stand off camera and improvise while Saran danced. If I noticed movements becoming repetitive, or his focus narrowing, I would shout suggestions of concepts we worked on in rehearsal. If I found some new ideas through improvising in the space, we’d practice between takes. It was unbelievably fun and exhausting.

We know you have a long history as a dancer, with experience in different types of dance. What has dance brought to your life, and what has it brought to the communities you’ve been a part of? 

Dance is my channel for communication. As a (secret) shy introvert, it is my tool for forming intimate bonds with others. Our life’s journey is asking the question, “who am I?” I’ve never had a moment, written or spoken, where my loved ones have said, “that’s YOU.” When I dance and present my own work, the comment I hear most frequently is, “I loved that dance because I could see Sarah.”

Whether I’m moving with, or choreographing for, dance is my bridge for allowing vulnerability and authenticity. The bridge is a two-way system and provides an alternate route of communicate for people in my community.

When you think about dance, are there any issues of equality or equity that come to mind? 

Socio-economic status dictates the resources provided to children and adults. From the start, unless you’re lucky enough to find a sponsor, money and support are the determining factors for success in the performing arts.

Like in all industries, women are overlooked and underappreciated. Somehow, professionals in the industry the struggle to make ends meet, yet still find ways to exclude others or make them feel less than. In a way, I get it. Job security and finding a dance job in general is cutthroat due to the high number of talented people against the small numbers of jobs or projects.

I hope more members of the dance scene step into leadership positions and create (paying) opportunities instead of competing for stage time. There’s enough for all, I promise.

You own multiple dance companies, as well as a fitness studio in Mt. Juliet, TN. Tell us about them, what you hope for the future of all of these endeavors, and what impact you want them to have on Middle TN and beyond. 

In addition to my advertising day job, I own So Fly Studio – a boutique fitness gym in middle Tennessee. Recently, I converted our So Fly performance ‘club’ to a non-profit organization called Satellite Dance. Aerialists who train at So Fly Studio want more opportunities to engage in the performing arts community – this was an organic, natural transition for us and we are gaining a lot of interest and momentum.

I want to show the world that your history does not dictate your future. I hear, in my own head, and from others, countless stories of missed opportunities to explore one’s own passions. Too old, not thin enough, too thin, etc., etc., – this is just bullshit. You want to dance and create? Come on in. We cultivate the amazing experiences of our brave women and create work that is inclusive and impactful.

For a lot of us, the “dancer” stereotype evokes an image of a woman who is white, thin, able-bodied, delicate–how can we challenge those stereotypes to help everyone feel the joy of dancing? Are there any dancers or companies we should follow for examples of dancers who don’t fit into the typical mold? 

For starters, the lithe dancer is a newer concept for dance. George Balanchine is a hero of mine, but I also recognize the wide-ranging consequences of his ethos and aesthetics. He, amongst others, encouraged this thinner than thin, whiter than white ‘ideal’ dancer.

And now a thought experiment…

Look at athletes and how their passions influence their physical figures. Would Simone Biles trade her medals for height? Do you think Lindsay Vonn is counting grams of protein to be thin or to make sure her body is getting what it needs to compete? I doubt Sara Mearns, principal ballerina at New York City Ballet, is cross-training to get a bigger ‘booty’. She’s in the gym to strengthen muscles and avoid injury.

The point is, it’s not about aesthetics, it’s about craft. Our generation of women are shifting our goals from becoming a ‘finished product’ to be a ‘work in process.’

I’m not one to look to anyone or anything to tell me how to be or what to think. That said, these Bosshes are really challenging the lame tropes of troupes:
Balance Nutrition – Melissa Giovanni, MS, RDN, LDN, CEDRD
It’s Jenna J – Jenna Jozefowski, dancer/choreographer, fitness professional

Any final words on dance for our audience?

·      Donate to support women-run dance programs in your area. Tax deductible, baby.
·      Support your friends who are leading the charge by volunteering your time and expertise.
·      Check your privilege.
·      Don’t let anyone stop you.
·      Unless you want to be stopped. In that case, Netflix & Chill, baby.

Want to take a class with Sarah or one of her So Fly instructors? Visit the studio at 151 Adams Lane, # 8, Mt. Juliet, TN 37122 or find them on the MindBody app to schedule your first class!

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