An Interview with Cocoon Central Dance Team
Please briefly describe Cocoon Central Dance Team.
Tallie: We are a dance-comedy trio. Our names are Sunita Mani, Tallie Medel & Eleanore Pienta and we've been very dear friends since we met in college. We dance big splashy numbers and we also write sensitive melodramas.
Eleanore: We are three comedians with backgrounds in dance, so we utilize both to make dances that hopefully make people laugh and feel joyful.
Sunita: CCDT is a playground for dancing and making your best friends laugh. It's pure joy and discovery in this pretty specific way which combines dance vocabulary and character exploration: dance-comedy. For me, dance-comedy is as intuitive as it gets. And that's what CCDT is, even though I think we just made up a genre of physical comedy. It's a lot of improvisation--the stupider the better!--and craftily building on whatever makes us laugh the most. To present with love to an audience!
What projects are you pursuing outside of Cocoon?
T: I am presently working on a feature in Austin, and I'll act in three features in New York over the spring and summer.
E: I’m going to be shooting a short film that I wrote and will be directing and starring in. It’s about a very unlikeable girl named Ada. I’m also working on a solo show about a dinosaur made out of pom-poms.
S: I’m trying to work on stand-up. I want to be more comfortable conveying a personal narrative or concept to people, with little spectacle and feeling freed by that, and also be okay with failing at it.
I feel lucky having a couple side gigs on exciting television shows. I never imagined I could say that--how lucky! I'm currently working on Mr. Robot and I'm very very thrilled to be a part of a shiny, new Netflix series called GLOW about a women's wrestling league in 1985. I'm working on being a believable wrestler and actress!
What obstacles have you faced as a woman? What stereotypes have you encountered?
E: Being seen rather than being heard. It’s funny that we as Cocoon have put ourselves in a stereotypically gendered role: the dancing girls! We are seen rather than heard, but we use that as a story-telling device. Dance is inherently sexy because you’re using your body, but I think we play both with and against that sexiness which is where a lot of the humor comes in. We delight in trying on each other’s moves and watch how they fit on our own bodies.
T: Getting period blood all over my costumes tends to be an issue as a cisgendered female. Stereotypically, women in comedy are expected to take risks as all comedians are... Honestly, as a comedian, the worst stereotype is that I'd react poorly to a rape joke. That's because rape jokes are garbage and I'm right.
S: It’s challenging to be seen superficially at times as an actor. To be a vessel for assumptions. At times it's my ethnicity--having brown skin and a big nose and big eyes--I often am asked to do an accent or to play naive or foreign in some way. It's frustrating, but I hope to change perceptions and I am grateful for the opportunities to do so. I'm a "type" that's not a main character in projects because it's harder to relate to me as as Indian-American, with a narrative that is less main stream. I think it's an outdated idea, and it's evolving, but I've definitely experienced being the character that isn't taken as seriously because of that idea.
What women inspire you?
E: Sunita Mani and Tallie Medel, duh. They each have such a specific comedic voice that is such a treat to witness and be a part of. The same can be said of Caity Widness, who was a founding member of Cocoon. My mom and my sister were my pioneers in showing me what it looks like to be comfortable in one’s own shoes. One of my oldest friends, Katy Smith, was a nurse, storeowner, and successfully battled stage 4 cancer, all with a sense of humor. I mean, come on. She’s now studying public health and will likely open a bakery! She made a card for me in high school and somewhere in it she wrote “the world doesn’t need more celebrity, it needs more integrity.” What a wise young cat. I could truly write a book on people who have inspired me, but I’ll stop there.
T: Three Busy Debras, Ana Fabrega, Lorelei Ramirez, Patti Harrison, Theda Hammel, Johnetta Elzie, the #BlackLivesMatter founders, the Womens March founders, Sally Yates, Elizabeth Warren, Ashley Byler, Michelle Obama, Ashley Connor, Keisha Zollar, Sasheer Zamata, my grandmothers, my phenom mom, my sister-in-law, the artists in Ketchikan, infinity others. INFINITY MORE
S: These days, I'm looking to the words of Audre Lorde and Ava DuVernay...I've loved Molly Shannon for a long time. The women in my family and extended family, every female roommate I've lived with, the band of hostesses that I used to work with at my old restaurant job...Oh gourd, so many, I'm constantly inspired by so many.
What advice would you give yourself when you were starting out in your career?
S: Stand your ground. You DO know what you're talking about! Don't expect others to articulate it for you, even though they get you and you share an incredible communal comedy-shorthand. You have something distinctly "you" to offer and when your POV is different from the crew, it's cool. And you don't need to get every reference in film, music, and tv.
T: Do standup ASAP, define what you find funny. Don't try to look cool, that's not your thing, and free yourself of assumptions abut what you are good at or you'll never grow.
E: Keep doing the things that excite you and challenge you.
What keeps you happy + emotionally healthy?
T: Carly Rae Jepsen, my boyfriend, my nephew, water, tequila, being outside.
S: Nature, dawg. That pure sunbeam on my face. My independence and my own space when I need it. I love to sing. Cooking, following through, being with my heart-partner, reading. Oh yeah, tequila, me too.
E: Constantly working on that but I’d say, consistently, Elephants.
What is the #1 trait that has contributed to your success?
E: Trying to stay true to my own voice, it’s a cliché, but clichés are clichés for a reason, there’s some truth to ‘em. And I think the same goes for Cocoon, we put things out in the world that we believe in, that we want to see.
T: My big juicy eyeballs.
S: I can make a goofy-ass face.
What are you most proud of?
T: When I speak up for other people and when I speak up for myself.
S: My pure love for my niece. She's the first baby in my nuclear family, so we're crazy over her. Didn't know I'd be so proud to be an aunt. Also learning how to wrestle this year! I learned how to do a flip that I'm pretty proud of.
E: It terms of Cocoon, I’m proud that we are still making things together. Each of us has grown and changed individually over the course of ten years, to move with those changes and continually keep our voice in sync is at times hard work, (for the most part it’s a ball of laughs) but I’m proud of all the work we’ve put in to make Cocoon, Cocoon.
How do you define success?
S: If you're growing as a person and happy and in love with what you're doing in life, I think you're successful. Much like a flower and a bee in the sun, gah, I love the sun.
E: Success is exceeding your expectations.
T: You pulled off a feat and you're going to do it again. You show up and you show up again.
Do you think the comedy scene is evolving in a positive direction for women?
E: Of course. I think comedy is evolving as much as our country is evolving re: gender (perhaps a little faster since the arts generally inform culture and are often the agents of that change). All of the voices have always been out there, there’s just more room at the table and also, more tables. More voices from differing perspectives only enhance a form. It’s not like we (women, trans, gender-nonconforming, gay) haven’t been doing comedy. There are just more platforms to perform and people want to hear more of the voices, not just straight male voices.
What would be a dream project for Cocoon?
T: Ashley Connor DP's a trio of films with at least one thousand dancers per film, and we do our Hometown Tour in New York, Tennessee and Alaska.
E: Choreographing and performing in a Beyonce/Rihanna collab. A big lake and harnesses would be involved. Cocoon would be tap dancing on the water and then there’d be about 15 seconds left in the song and Beyonce and Rihanna would emerge from the water. We would all dance on the water for about 10 seconds and with 5 seconds left in the song Cocoon would drown. Yoncé and RiRi would high five.
S: I feel like we've had so many dream projects already. But I guess being given a big huge budget to make this insane feature we've been talking about for, like, 5 years? I can't reveal any of it, you'll see it one day.
What advice do you have for friends who are thinking about going into business together?
E: Maybe don’t? The reason why Cocoon has worked is because it all moved so organically into what it is now. It is at times hard to balance the friendship and workship and not have the lines blur. That being said, we’ve made it work because of our deep love for each other. I think being upfront and communicative is the most productive aspect in any relationship.
S: It’s all I know. It really just happened, I don't think there was a moment when I thought of it as going into business together. It just made sense.
T: If you haven't already, learn how to hold yourself accountable. The best-case scenario for where you'll end up only feels good if you're on time, prepared and your teammates can trust you. And you must be deeply in love with your teammates, because you are going to fight passionately about your work, and you have to want to come back.
Cocoon Central Dance team supports La Frontera Fund.
La Frontera Fund provides practical support to people seeking abortions in the Rio Grande Valley and to Rio Grande Valley residents who travel to other clinics in Texas. La Frontera Fund advocates for reproductive justice by funding lodging costs for people seeking abortion services. La Frontera Fund opposes all restrictions to accessing a safe abortion and understands that lack of financial support is a barrier. La Frontera Fund was founded to help ease the severity of this financial barrier.