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When Karen Schupp left the world of dance competition, she thought she left the costumes behind too. But with her new project, she’s not only donning costumes again, she’s also revisiting her competition roots.
“I never thought that I would play dress up to the extent that I do,” said Schupp, an assistant dance professor in the School of Film, Dance and Theatre in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University.
Schupp is playing dress up for her role as Miss Karen — the star of the web series “In It to Win!”
The satirical series looks at the inner workings of dance competition culture through Miss Karen, owner of Miss Karen’s Dance Studio. The entire first season, which features five short episodes, is available on the Miss Karen Wins YouTube channel and at misskarenwins.com.
Miss Karen’s origin story goes back about five years.
Schupp was trying to describe dance competition culture to a colleague and joked that it would be really fun if she just pretended she was in competition dance like when she was 13 years old and choreographed a dance — people would get it then. She got a laugh and walked away knowing what her next dance was going to be about.
“I made a dance for 11 college students, and I showed up for the first rehearsal as Miss Karen,” she said. “I went out and bought some 1980s dance wear. It was really hard but for that first rehearsal, I did it as Miss Karen would do it.”
When Schupp was getting to know her Miss Karen character, she originally planned to do a stage show.
“I thought Miss Karen was going to put on dance recital and explain what was happening,” Schupp said. “As part of that I decided to include a video element, and I realized that was actually the vehicle that best suited the project.”
A lot of people are familiar with dance competition through reality television shows such as “Dance Moms” and “So You Think You Can Dance,” and Schupp said if she wanted to make any sort of commentary on dance competition it made sense for the format to match what people find familiar. Also, Schupp liked that the format of the web series mirrors the short, fast-paced environment of dance competitions where the presented dances typically run around three minutes.
The web series is a standalone artistic product, but it’s inspired by Schupp’s background as a competitive dancer, teacher and judge and influenced by her current academic research into dance competition culture.
“There’s this autobiographical part that is exaggerated and parodied, then there’s this incorporation of the research that I’m doing through a more empirical and theoretical lens,” she said.
Schupp recently wrote a book chapter called “Sassy Girls and Hard-Hitting Boys” that looks at adolescent girls’ experiences with gender in dance competition and what they think is expected of them as girls and what’s expected of boys. She also has another chapter coming out called “You’ve Got to Sell It,” which looks at how dance competitions are sold and marketed.
“They operate on a ‘pay to dance’ system, so we need to look at what exactly is being bought and sold in the dance competition framework,” she said. “In looking at the people who participate, are they actually ‘In It to Win,’ which is the name of the series, or is there something larger?”
The web series format of “In It to Win!” brings together the three main elements central to the School of Film, Dance and Theatre.
"It's a model of collaborative work among faculty, staff and students in the School of Film, Dance and Theatre," said Tiffany Lopez, director of the school.
Students from all three disciplines are involved with the project. In addition to Schupp, the show features three main characters, two acting students and one dance student, now an alum. The actors who make up Miss Karen’s studio class are all dance students, and film students help with shooting the show.
“I can’t really say this project is dance-centric,” Schupp said. “The script has to be strong, the direction has to be strong, the videography has to be strong, the editing has to be strong, the dancing has to be strong, the performance has to be strong — if any one of those is weak the project can’t reach its full potential.”
To ensure the success of the multidisciplinary effort, Schupp enlisted the help of Film, Dance and Theatre colleagues Associate Professor Jeff McMahon and senior media producer Rebekah Cheyne.
“This project showcases the uniquely generative possibilities of the academic environment, bringing together diverse aesthetics and perspectives,” said McMahon, who has a background in theater, dance, film and writing. “We complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses. For example, unlike Karen and Rebekah, I knew nothing about competitive dance or the series ‘Dance Moms.’ We had a wonderful moment during a recent story conference when Karen and I explained the somatic ‘small dance’ to Rebekah, to whom it was hilariously foreign. Her reaction changed the script.”
McMahon said they have been able to educate each other a lot about their respective forms, while also pursuing research together. For instance, he and Schupp spent a chunk of last year reading books on story structure and directing, thanks to advice from film faculty in the school and colleagues in the industry.
“I think the three of us positively push each other,” Schupp said. “For the scripts, we spend a lot of time working on them together, the three of us. Even though Jeff is the head writer he takes in all of our input. With the videography, Rebekah has exquisite taste and ability, but I’ll often say ‘Oh, oh! I see this happening.’”
McMahon said the series is completely collaborative, and they have all worked together intensively on breaking the story and character arcs — “but Miss Karen gets final cut!”
Schupp hopes the series brings a broader awareness of dance competition culture and its complexity to people who watch.
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m trying to offer a counter-narrative to ‘Dance Moms’ because that’s not our goal, but I feel like ‘Dance Moms’ is a pretty extreme take on what is going on and that’s not accurate. I also think ‘So You Think You Can Dance,’ which is a different kind of dance competition, just brings attention to the good parts. When people find out that I’m researching dance culture they want me to either say it’s the best thing you can do for your kid or it’s the worst thing you can do for your kid. I refuse to say either.”
The second season actually sees Miss Karen venturing out of the dance competition world, hoping her studio doesn’t become irrelevant.
“She is still very much Miss Karen, yet seeking a larger repertoire of dance steps (and missteps), even as an old nemesis reappears to threaten her position,” McMahon said.
Filming for the second season is already underway, and it’s expected to be even better than the first season.
As Miss Karen says, “There’s nothing like a good rehearsal to show us what needs work.”