She learned her first Vaudeville routine at 18 months old from her grandfather, a Vaudeville performer himself who taught her how to ‘Shuffle off to Buffalo’. As she danced her way through childhood, from her first experience as a choreographer in a middle school dance show to her work in high school as an assistant choreographer for her school plays, her passion grew into a lifetime focus. Now, decades later, Mrs. Sandi Makofsky continues to draw inspiration from her long and varied career in choreography as she applies vaudeville, ragtime, proper step dancing, staging, and many other styles of motion to this spring’s production of Ragtime at Cherry Hill High School East.
“The thing I love about Ragtime, besides that it’s such an important piece, an important to be seen, is that none of the choreography is gratuitous,” said Makofsky. “You have these fun, light fluff shows, like Anything Goes, where somebody says something, they drop a dime, and then they start dancing. [In Ragtime], all of the choreography comes directly from the dialogue, or from the theme, or from whatever’s happening at that moment in time.”
She estimated that there are about thirty-three total numbers in Ragtime that involve some kind of dance. This includes several particularly elaborate, showstopping dance numbers, including an elaborate piece set in Atlantic City and an opening number clocking in at over seven minutes long. However, also included in the lineup are many pieces with a more subtle style of choreography called staging. Staging is utilized in any scene with a song, including duets and trios, and basically just indicates blocking in time to the music that is less stylized than a full ensemble dance and relates to the lyrics being performed. Generally, Makofsky describes her Ragtime choreography as “a mix of things…Very broadway… very typical classical Broadway.”
Listen to our interview with Mr. Weaver on choreography!
Some of the notable “staged” numbers in Ragtime include a Vaudevillian piece featuring the character Evelyn Nesbit, which Makofsky fondly describes as “fun” and “ridiculous,” and an all-male number set at a baseball game – which is a particular cast favorite. While Makofsky herself enjoys the unique challenges that planning and executing each type of dance piece presents, her favorite are the large ensemble numbers.
“Although they’re the most difficult, they give you the most payback,” she explained. “When everybody gets it, it’s very exciting for them, and it’s very exciting for me.”
In addition to the varying sizes and circumstances of each number, there are several specific styles of dance that are utilized primarily in the play; the most prevalent, of course, being ragtime dance. “Proper” dances, like the two-step, as well as a little bit of Vaudeville are also utilized, according to Makofsky.
Considering how easy experienced thespians can make complex choreography look on stage, it’s easy to forget how much intense preparation and planning is required to pull off any good show. Makofsky takes into consideration a myriad of factors when designing the choreography of each number. Her primary concerns involve the performers – their skill level, their stage placement, and how many there are.
“I plan very, very carefully. It’s like a big math problem… it’s always a work in progress,” she said. “I never am done until the last performance.”
Luckily, Makofsky doesn’t have to do it alone; she works with student dance captains who act as leaders among their peers during the rehearsal process, assisting her with running numbers, evaluating areas for improvement, and so on. Makofsky specified that her student dance captains are typically upperclassmen who she feels have proven themselves within the department in terms of responsibility and skill level, and who are respected by younger thespians. So, how exactly does Makofsky go about translating her choreography ideas into physical motion?
“I listen to the music, I read the script, I read the script again, I listen to the music some more; and then I kind of just see pictures in my head…” she said. “What’s in my brain sort of translates into certain steps.”
Her next challenge is navigating the complex rehearsal schedule in order to ensure that every last cast member is able to have sufficient time to learn and practice their choreography. Because there are so many different departments that cast members must interact with in ever to pull off a complete show, from vocal to costumes, Makofsky’s timeframe varies every week. On average, she comes to East about three times a week, for two and a half to three hours at a time. Within this timeframe, she staggers the rehearsals of each individual aspect of a piece based on who is needed. A principal actor might come in at the beginning of a rehearsal to work on a solo, then a smaller group which that principal is also involved in might arrive 45 minutes later to work on a larger piece. On Saturdays, these elaborate jigsaw puzzles of preparation come together as full numbers are run, reviewed, and improved. According to Makofsky, “It’s like a well-oiled machine at this point.”
Makofsky is no stranger to the East Drama Department; she has been working with director Mr. Tom Weaver for years, since their first joint effort on a production in Washington Township. Over the years, the dynamic duo have become close friends as well as creative collaborators.
“We have a symbiotic relationship. He’s a very, very magnanimous director,” said Makofsky.
In addition to her work at East, Makofsky is also the drama director at Carusi Middle School and the resident director at Voorhees Theater Company. She has worked all throughout New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania with various middle schools, high schools and colleges, as well as contributing to commercial projects and various industrial films. It’s been a jam-packed career, but Makofsky wouldn’t have it any other way. “I always say it beats a ‘nine-to-five’,” she declared. “I’d be bored.”
As preparations for the spring production of Ragtime continue, Makofsky urges students to consider involvement in the vast realm of theater. “The skills that you learn in theater, regardless of what you do in your lifetime, will help you,” she said. “If you have any interest in it whatsoever, don’t be afraid to do it. It is a very inviting place and the payback is amazing. I don’t mean just the applause, I mean what you get out of it. You get a family.”