ENTERTAINMENT

How Cocoon Central Dance Team Made Dancing With Their Besties An Art

Sunita Mani, Tallie Medel and Eleanore Pienta make up the dance-comedy trio of your wildest dreams.

07/24/2017 15:31 EDT | Updated 07/24/2017 17:35 EDT
Photo by Ashley Connor

Sunita Mani, Tallie Medel and Eleanore Pienta are Cocoon Central Dance Team. For the past 10 years, the comedy-dance trio has been living the dream of every young and boobless girl who rushed home from school, locked her bedroom door, stood in front of the mirror and danced her brains out to the sound of mom and dad’s weird CD collection, preferably wearing something sequin-y.

Together, the three women create goofy yet skilled dance routines, grown-up extensions of their childhood urges to choreograph secret dances in closed quarters. The dances are earnest tributes to beloved pop songs, executed under the mission of being as profoundly stupid as possible. Corny, absurd and addictive, the dances use bodily logic to elicit their laughs. A jerky leg kick, over-sexualized body roll or a facial expression reminiscent of a possessed drill team dancer are self-contained jokes without narrative rationale. It’s kid humor ― joyful, unironic and unabashed ― ushered, somewhat misshapen, into adulthood. 

Since meeting in undergrad at Emerson, Cocoon has taken their show from the basement of the campus dance studio to some of New York’s most exciting comedy destinations. Their roster includes “Showgasm,” John Early’s monthly variety series highlighting emerging talents in comedy and theater, as well as “Something New: Innovation in Contemporary Comedy,” a showcase of pioneering comedians held at MoMA PS1. They’ve done “Broad City Live, a showcase organized by Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, and “Sasheer Zamata Party Time!” hosted by the SNL comedian. 

Cocoon’s success, steadily gaining traction since its college days, reached new heights this year when directors Rachel Wolther and Alex H. Fischer approached the members about adapting their stage show “Snowy Bing Bongs Across The North Star Combat Zone” into a feature film. The result, described as “part psychotropic performance art spectacle, part absurdist sketch show,” closed out BAMcinemaFest last month. 

In an early sketch in the bonkers film, Mani, Medel and Pienta indulge in their unique version of sunbathing. Donning white bikinis, the ladies sprawl out on beach towels in front of a projection of a beachy paradise as tropical lounge music plays in the background. The scene is glamorous; a contemporary take on old Hollywood. In it, the trio stretches their legs and basks in artificial sunlight, but while classic films often cast women’s forms as plasticine and passive, Cocoon’s bodies are bodies ― bloated and itchy and gassy and super hot. As the ladies recline in pinup positions, the camera captures the way their breathing makes their necks twitch, their bellies, filled with fluids, float up and down. First Medel farts, and eventually the others follow suit, arching their asses in the air to make the passage of gas as slutty as possible. 

Female performers ― especially those in a field as body-centric as dance ― are routinely sexualized with every move they make. As a team of best-friend lady dancers, Cocoon subverts these expectations, doling out sexuality then topping it off with a sprinkle of gross-out humor, a taste of total absurdity and a hefty dose of fanatical, sisterly love. Combining Dynasty Handbag’s appetite for lowbrow insanity and the “Broad City” girls’ undying infatuation with one another, Cocoon makes their fans hysterical without mockery, sarcasm or even, sometimes, words. 

Photo by Mike Dempsey

In one of Cocoon’s most beloved videos on YouTube, the women sing along to Beyoncé’s “1+1.” Wearing only colored bedsheets, they sit atop furry Ikea rugs in an empty dance studio, each staring at her reflection in the mirror as if it’s her main squeeze, which in a way, it is. As the sensual ballad coos “make love to me me me me me,” the dancers make eyes at themselves, unleashing their inner horny divas, alternately giggling and heavy-breathing and hair-stroking and emphatically mouthing the lyrics. At some points, they’re even holding back tears. Eventually the camera pans out to reveal the three ladies gesturing wildly at nothing, feeling themselves in the purest, most earnest sense. Moments after convincingly cosplaying as Bey, they suddenly look totally insane ― and it’s hilarious. 

The members of Cocoon create work that makes themselves laugh, with little regard for its likability or bankability. And it works. Their intensely physical, exuberant and affirmative brand of comedy transforms failure into experimentation, stupidity into exquisiteness, being an outsider into becoming part of a very strange, happy family. 

When they were kids, Mani, Medel and Pienta ― now 30, 31 and 30 years old, respectively ― all loved to dance. Yet for each, the passion felt like a dirty secret, an activity to be indulged behind closed doors. Sitting on beanbags at HuffPost’s office in New York City this month, the three women recalled their early days choreographing routines and foraging for costumes in their respective small towns.

“Dance was very private for me,” Pienta, a native of Kinderhook, New York, who was described by her fellow dancers as “so tall, so beautiful and so androgynous,” said between bites of lunch. “I would turn on music and dance in front of the television, but when I heard someone pull into the driveway I would run away like it was this huge secret. I very much found my own way my body worked by goofing off by myself.”

Mani, who referred to her childhood self as a “small little peewee,” grew up taking classical South Indian dance classes at a local Hindu temple in Dickson, Tennessee, which allowed her to connect with the culture without subscribing to the religion. She also took Irish clogging. (“Those costumes were incredible,” she noted.) In middle school, she built up the nerve to audition for Miss Amy’s dance team, despite an overwhelming fear that she wouldn’t fit in with the other dancers. “I wanted to be one of those girls who was sexy and blonde and toned so bad,” she said. “But my hairline was still connected to my eyebrows and I had a mustache.”

In Ketchikan, Alaska, Medel grew up taking ballet classes, during which she was constantly getting in trouble for talking too much and generally “being a little shit.” But her most prized dance memories also went down in private, where reality’s rigid edges started to fade. “I would put on my mom’s dress and play the WaveAid CD,” she recalled, referencing a series of recorded concerts produced to raise funds for tsunami relief in 2005.

“I would put it on and lay on my back and make myself cry by thinking about my great grandmother,” she continued. “I never met her, but I just wanted to feel something. I had these really strong fantasies of being walked in on. That I would be spinning in circles and my older brother and his friends would come home and be like, ‘Oh my god, she’s so beautiful,’ and I’d be like, ‘Oh my god, welcome!’”

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As they matured, the three women moved away from traditional dance paths, each realizing they didn’t fit the “dancer” mold in their imagination. Not serious enough, not skinny enough, not good enough. “I saw dancers as different than me, because of how I saw myself,” Medel said. And so they expressed themselves in other ways: theater, improv, sketch comedy and fine art. 

The trio met during their freshman year at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts. All were involved in the comedy scene and had heard about one another before their paths actually converged. But when they did, it was love ― that blend of intimidation, awe and inspiration that binds women as best friends. Pienta recalled seeing Medel for the first time while she was performing with an improv troupe. On stage, Medel lifted up her shirt, puffed out her belly and strutted across the stage. “Such grace and confidence and goofiness, I fell in love,” Pienta said. “That self-possession! Ugh, to die for!”

Medel saw Pienta for the first time when she was standing in a middle of a circle of people who were “clearly in love with her.” Pienta was insulting them one by one. “I was like who is that?” Medel recalled.

And when Pienta first met Mani, the feeling was similarly intense. “It was like the first time somebody understood my language,” Pienta recalled. The two young women went dancing together at a Boston club, and Pienta watched enamored as Mani danced wildly in public, her face moving as fiercely as her body as she morphed from character to character to the beat of the music. “I spent all my life trying to fit in and trying to not be weird,” Pienta said. “I would do that kind of stuff privately. People would be out partying and I would be in front of my mirror pretending to be a character.” And here was Mani, letting it go on the dance floor without a hint of self-consciousness. Pienta was smitten.

“And then I almost took ecstasy because I thought it was gum,” Pienta added. 

Priscilla Frank

After becoming fast friends, Pienta, Mani and Medel wound up the only three women in Cognac, an improv team on the Emerson campus. They were still involved more in comedy than dance, though Pienta and Mani did discover an unlocked basement in one of the school’s dance studios where they’d often meet up to choreograph routines to pop songs. Instead of going to college parties or bars, they’d make up dances to MIA and watch their booties bounce in the mirror. 

Pienta transferred from Emerson to Hunter and moved to New York City. When Mani graduated she followed. While Medel finished up her degree in Boston, the two lived together in Sunset Park with friend Caity Widness (a founding member of Cocoon who left the group in the summer of 2009). They worked odd jobs while pursuing various creative side projects and let off steam by dancing like loons. 

Their apartment was virtually empty ― all the better for dancing ― save for an exposed brick wall that, in their humble opinion, just begged to be the backdrop for an open mic night. To welcome friends to the affair, Pienta, Mani and Widness choreographed a “welcome dance” to Kate Bush’s “Hounds of Love.” How wonderful, they realized, to take something so stupid so seriously. 

In early 2009, Medel moved to NYC after graduation and became the third part of the Cocoon crew. When a group of friends started hosting a comedy variety show in Williamsburg called “The Moon,” they asked the women to perform. Cocoon Central Dance soon became in-house entertainment for the event, making up new routines every other week. From there came more bookings, more gigs, more dances. 

For Cocoon, the choreography process begins either with a fierce devotion to a song or an interest in a specific made-up character. Or sometimes, both. This was the case with their performance of Beyoncé’s “Love on Top,” in which the women, donning drab office attire, break into a cheeseball jig celebrating the end of the workweek. At one point they literally and figuratively let their hair down, pulling out their buns to let stringy hair extensions flop down their backs.

“The general feeling of the character is ‘TGIF Ladies, it’s time to have some fun!’” Pienta explained. 

The women described their creative process as organic, indulgent and absurd. “We really give into the song,” Mani said. Some dances hint at a larger narrative, such as a 2011 routine set to Michael Bolton’s “Can I Touch You There?” The video’s description on YouTube reads: “Our husbands Kenneth, Skip, and Donnie went to Denver for business, leaving us their soft old button-downs and our friend Michael’s CD. Who drank all the Sunset Blush? Who dog-eared my Harlequin novels?”

Overall, the women’s music tastes skew towards contemporary pop and ’90s hits, the jams they grew up with. “It’s so fun to revisit those songs and do the same moves I did when I was 12,” Mani said. “They look different when you have boobs!” 

“I always felt like I wasn’t the strongest dancer,” Pienta added. “So it’s about tapping into those moments of not being the best. Delighting in our childhood successes and failures.”

Often the choreography process begins with improvisation, putting on a song and trying out moves that are as ridiculous as possible. Someone tries out an insane kick or twirl or shimmy and the others mimic that. “It’s just an ever flowing laugh fest of stupid stuff,” Pienta said.

“Faces are also so important,” Medel said. Indeed, during Cocoon dances the face gets just as twisted as the body, with expressions ranging from hyper-sexual to corn-tastic to totally berserk. “Getting to serve face the way we do in Cocoon is very drag to me,” she said. It’s the faces, the dancers agreed, that qualify what they’re doing as comedy. Comedic dancing isn’t bad dancing, they explain, it’s good dancing ― plus costumes, facial expressions and a bonkers sense of energy.

Along with dancing, Cocoon also incorporates sketch comedy into their performances. Oftentimes the bits toy with the ways that young girls imagine grown women act, which stem from how women are portrayed in the media. Pienta’s solo sketch in “Snowy Bing Bongs,” for example, assumes the style of a black-and-white French new wave film, beginning when Pienta drops a bag of groceries and sighs “damaged goods” under her breath. She then holds the door open for an old man who asks: “Do you have two hearts? You must have two hearts or you wouldn’t be so kind.” Things take a surreal turn as it’s revealed that Pienta, does, in fact have two hearts. The old man then discloses that he’s a talent scout and kisses Pienta on the lips. As he walks away she mutters “you’re gonna make it” with a smile.

The skit interweaves cinematic cliches with out-of-this-world weirdness, illuminating and indulging the inane stereotypes that women often play out onscreen. As a young woman who grew up watching one romantic comedy after another, it’s hilarious to see these expectations for adulthood exposed as the absurd nightmare fantasies they really are. This feeling ― of adults acting out their childhood expectations ― unites so much of Cocoon’s work. When they capture a sentiment the viewer is familiar with, the resulting emotion ― part nostalgia and part senseless folly ― is magic. “We’re living what we wanted to be as kids,” Medel said. 

Ten years into Cocoon the group has reached heights its members never imagined, including starring in a feature film. But despite the group’s quickly ballooning success, the women intend to stay true to their scrappy essence. In “Snowy Bing Bongs,” the trio wears Ikea rugs as leotards and tights as headpieces. While they can now afford to pay for things like color correction and sound, the group intends to keep their aesthetic very “broke 20-something.” 

The women also have their own creative pursuits outside of Cocoon, many of which have picked up momentum over the years. Mani stars in the new Netflix series “Glow” as Arthie “Beirut the Mad Bomber” Premkumar, Pienta is an exhibiting visual artist and Medel acts in feature films. There are clearly difficulties that arise from working with your best friends while maintaining individual lives and outside projects. When discussing the hurdles of balancing work and friend love, Pienta and Mani begin to tear up, while Medel spaces out. 

“There were plenty of growing pains,” Pienta said. “Now we can appreciate each other’s individuality in a way we couldn’t before. We met when we were 18 and we were holding on to these personalities as we were growing up and changing. When I think about it, I think it’s incredible we’re still making shit together. Even in the hardest moments, I still have fun making stuff with them, even when personal stuff gets tricky.”

“When I take a step back, I realize I get to make stupid shit,” she continued. “And when I say stupid I mean profound, with girls that are the funniest that I’ve known since I was a kid. What a treat.”

If Cocoon’s story was a Hollywood cliche, they’d be the freaky B-team dance crew who surprisingly goes on to win the regional championship, changing the game in the process. But it’s not. And they’re real people, who have struggled through young adulthood while keeping their love of dance and each other intact. What would their childhood selves think of all Cocoon has accomplished?

Mani mulls it over: “I’d be like, cool.”

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