Dancing Queen

UA graduate Sara Braslow’s job: keeping ‘Mamma Mia!’ performers in step

Sara Braslow grew up in New Jersey, in the suburban tangle across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, but she was immersed in a venerable showbiz tradition from the earliest age.

From 3 to 18, she studied tap with an old-time teacher, Jay Dash. Then in his 70s and 80s, he taught a number of big tap dancers, from Gene Kelly at the beginning of his career to Gregory Hines at the end.

"He worked with movie and theater people way back in the '40s and '50s," Braslow said. "He had their pictures on his wall, and he used to tell me stories about them. He was my private tap coach for 15 years." He was still tapping—and teaching—when he died at 84.

Braslow was speaking last week by cell phone from Los Angeles, where she was touring with Mamma Mia!, the cheerful musical drenched in ABBA songs. The dance captain and swing with the traveling show, she trains newcomers in the choreography backstage; onstage, she plays seven different dancing and singing parts, as needed. Starting next Tuesday, April 21, the UA grad will be hoofing in Tucson, during a six-day, eight-show Mamma Mia! run at the Tucson Convention Center Music Hall.

"A couple of my Chi Omega sisters are coming down from Phoenix and Scottsdale" to see her perform, she says happily.

Braslow danced a little at the UA—she graduated in 1997—but her bachelor's degree was in musical theater.

"I had an unofficial dance minor," she said. "We had to dance as part of the program, but I was in the advanced classes. I loved Michael Williams," a professor of jazz dancing.

Braslow had done all kinds of dance since she was a little girl. Besides the private tap lessons, she studied ballet and jazz at studios in her hometown of Cherry Hill.

"I was put in dance at 3," she says. "My parents thought I was shy, and they thought dance would help. I danced all through elementary and high school, and I did community theater in high school."

But she was in training to be a classic triple threat ("I tried to be," she said with a laugh), and she also studied piano and voice. By the age of 17, she got the singing-dancing-acting lead of Peggy Sawyer in a small professional production of 42nd Street.

"It was my first audition," she said.

She came out to the Southwest for college, because "I wanted to do something different from New York City. I wanted a normal college life. I sat in the middle of the UA Mall and looked around and said, 'This could really work.'"

The UA's competitive musical theater program was "great," she said. "I did everything. I was in so many shows, doing some dance, but mostly acting and singing. I did two straight plays. It was well-rounded. The professors were so nice to me," particularly Dianne J. Winslow, Richard Hanson and Marsha Bagwell.

Straight out of the UA, Braslow was cast in a California production of The Who's Tommy, and she's been working almost nonstop ever since. She met her husband, fellow actor Don Daniels, on a cruise-ship gig, and the pair eventually moved to New York City. Both do lots of regional shows: sometimes together, sometimes not. Braslow's been touring with Mamma Mia! the last 3 1/2 years; he's not in the show, but he travels with her—and their dog—whenever he has time off.

The musical debuted in 1999 in London, and made it to Broadway two years later, with a slight story pieced together from themes suggested by ABBA's danceable hits. Catherine Johnson wrote the book, about a woman who counts three possible fathers for her daughter. The daughter is about to be married in an idyllic wedding on a Greek island, and the bride-to-be invites all three potential dads on the sly. (Meryl Streep played Donna, the mom, in last year's movie.)

Both the English and New York stage productions launched separate tours. The show coming to Tucson was spawned by the Broadway version; it's been on the road since 2001.

"I'm the swing for seven different ladies in the ensemble, if they're sick or away," Braslow says. "They're not speaking parts, but I do singing and dancing. I'm usually in the show two or three times a week."

As the dance captain, it's Braslow's job to keep the movement sharp and in sync with the original choreography by Anthony Van Laast.

"He lives in London. I had a sit-down interview with him in New York, and six months ago, he visited the show. I also have a dance supervisor in New York," she explains.

The former dance student is now the dance teacher; she trains all Mamma Mia! newcomers in the joyous steps.

"In 3 1/2 years, I've put 76 people into the show," she says. "The dancing is a lot of fun. The movement is 'pedestrian,' in a good sense. We want to make the audience want to get up on stage with us."

Two rivers west from Braslow's native Cherry Hill—past the Delaware, past the Schuylkill—Philadelphia Dance Company has been generating innovative modern dance—and dancers—for the last 39 years.

Lovingly nicknamed Philadanco, the company is in a tough neighborhood of West Philadelphia, but its dancers perform all over the world, winning raves for their technique and beauty.

"They dance in a range of idioms most companies don't even try to possess," Dance Magazine once declared.

Founding and director Joan Myers Brown hews to one abiding principle, though: "I prefer to see just movement," she told Philadelphia City Paper in 2004: no dance dramas, no multimedia. "I like to see beautiful bodies in motion."

Primarily composed of African-American dancers, the 16-member troupe alights at Centennial Hall tonight, Thursday, April 16 (the day this paper officially hits the streets), for a single show. Four works are on the program.

The romantic "Ritornello," by choreographer Gene Hill Sagan, moves eight dancers through turns and leaps to music by Bach. Christopher L. Huggins presents two works: the all-female "From Dawn 'Til Dusk" from 2008, set to music by Bobby McFerrin, and "Enemy Behind the Gates," a big group piece for 13. The "Enemy" dancers move to the contemporary sounds of Steve Reich.

Philip Glass lends his Violin Concerto for a 2007 dance of the same name by Milton Myers. The piece for seven dancers shifts from lyrical to lightning-fast.

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