Since many young dancers have dreams of not only becoming professional dancers but also of becoming professional choreographers, I decided to ask Joey Dowling how she transitioned from successful dancer into her career as a successful choreographer. This post includes my questions and her answers.
I have to admit that my interest in this topic was a bit selfish; Julian has a strong interest in choreography. Last year at TDC he participated in the student choreography program, and this year at City Ballet School he will choreograph a piece that hopefully will be shown at the Regional Dance America competition. He figures choreography could be a fall-back career when he can no longer dance.
Joey’s choreography credits include serving as the associate choreographer for the Tony Award winning Broadway hit In the Heights. She also was the associate choreographer of the Encore’s summer series production of The Whiz starring Ashanti. She has choreographed on the past three seasons of FOX’s So You Think You Can Dance as well as on the Ukraine version. To learn more about her, please read her full bio in part 1 of this series.
Describe your transition from dancer to choreographer.
I’ve been choreographing since I was 15. My mom owned a dance studio, and I was president of my dance company in high school. My mom put me in charge of a mini teams when was in high school. So I started choreographing when I was young. I moved to NY when I was 18, and two or three times a year I would fly back to Utah and choreograph competition numbers for my mom. I always had a love for choreography.
I got involved in choreography slowly but surely in New York and would meet choreographers just because of my background. I was the kind of dancer or trainer, I should say, that wanted to be good at everything. I wanted to be good at hip hop. I wanted to be really good at jazz, ballet, tap, and modern. I had a love for it. I even ended up in a show called The Mambo Kings where I trained in salsa for a year and a half from a salsa master. When it came time to get involved with different choreographers, they new my background was extensive. I was in demand because I wasn’t just a musical theater girl. I had this varied background. For certain shows that called for this varied experience, especially when I ended up assisting and associate choreographing In the Heights, I had what they wanted. I was really well trained in contemporary, hip hop and salsa and had five Broadway shows under my belt. That started that journey on In the Heights.
Plus, I had told my [talent] agency I was really interested in choreography. They have an assistant choreography list, and they recommend these people to choreographers.
By just being in New York and getting your name out there sometimes really good dancers will be asked to go and do preproduction with choreographers or be on skeleton crews where they go and create in the studio. I started doing that. Once the community knows you’re involved in that sort of thing, it’s kind of word of mouth; choreographers start asking you to do things with them.
What tips can you offer young male dancers about how to transition from dance into choreography?
You need to continually keep educating yourself about other people. Go to contemporary shows. Constantly look around your local area for when companies visit and go see them. Read books on directors and on movie making. If you move to New York or Los Angeles, you have to keep educating yourself.
You’ll find you can do small projects for free. There are so many ads in Backstage calling for choreographers that don’t pay, but they will hire people with no experience because they don’t have a budget to pay anyone with experience to do it. When you get tiny jobs under your belt, you can start working with choreographers and assisting choreographers. You can start expressing to choreographers, “Hey if you ever need any help, I’d love to come to the studio and create.” Just by telling people these things, they will ask you to come help you. Then you get the experience.
When you constantly work as a dancer, you can even put together a reel and send it out to as many people as possible. You have to be very proactive about it. You can’t expect an agent to do that for you. In my career, I started to make a reel while I was still dancing, but it is a hard transition. You feel a little like you are starting over because it is a completely different process.
In the dance world you go audition and show them your stuff. When you audition for a choreography job, you just have a reel sent, and they choose if they want to have an interview with you. Many times you have to prepare for a dance show, you read the script and decide what you would do with the show and how you would make the show better. When you go for a choreography job, it’s not just about the steps; you have to be very smart about your ideas about the show and about storytelling.
I think that is one thing choreographers don’t realize. They are so consumed with the steps and the staging and how cool the steps should be. A lot of times it’s not about that. It’s about storytelling and about how well you can tell a story about movement. And that doesn’t relate just to musical theater but to contemporary work as well. So many people aren’t trying to tell a story these days with movement. As far as directors go, I think if they were to comment on choreographers many of them today would say that choreographers truly need to learn how to tell a story through movement.
What advice would you give young boys thinking about a career in dance so they can be prepared not only to become professional dancers but also for their transition later out of dance?
The dance community is a really small community but also a huge community. I find a lot of people get stuck in their small cliques of who likes them and who they like. The biggest bit of advice I’d offer is you have got to network, so when you move to Los Angeles or New York you have to take every single person’s class or go to every audition you can. Be proactive about going up and introducing yourself to everyone you can. Be proactive about giving your information to everyone you can. And follow up; if someone asks you to email them, email them. Network and meet as many people as possible, so as many people know you as possibly.
A lot of people pigeon hole themselves. They move to New York, and they start taking someone’s class. This person likes them and pulls them under their wing. Let’s say it’s a contemporary choreographer. They start doing shows for free for this choreographer and assisting them. They help them out and get used and abused a little bit, and it gets them nowhere. That happens a lot. There is a lot o free work that goes on.
I’m not saying don’t do the free work and don’t do a free concert, because it’s exposure as well. I am saying make sure you get out there and network. The more people that know you, the more casting agents that know you, the more agents that know you, and the more choreographers that know you, this helps you. People who do this and are active and friendly and meet people and put their name out there find it really helps. Eventually someone will say, “I really like that kid. I want to see that kid. Someone call that kid. I saw him in that show and he was fantastic.” So many times that happens. You put in a lot of work at the beginning and it pays of in the long run. Ten years into the business you don’t want to be going to auditions and trying to meet people because you pigeon holed yourself early on. You want to have put in the work for the first three or four years you live in New York so you create a name for yourself. Constantly keep training and learning and going to shows and concerts and reading books.
When you graduate high school and go to college for a normal degree you get four years of training. You might do an undergraduate degree and then might go on to be a doctor and do a residency, for instance. But when you are a dancer, you are a dancer you have to create a college for yourself. You have to train yourself to constant keep learning. In this business it isn’t like you going to college and then getting a job and getting promoted and getting promoted again and then you become senior partner and then head of the company. It doesn’t really work like that.
I know people who moved to New York and were in the chorus and then got a lead in a Broadway show and were the lead for three years. When the show closed, they couldn’t get a job for two years. Then they got a job as an ensemble member.
It’s difficult because you never know what will happen in this business. You don’t really climb a ladder. Sometimes you climb the ladder and then get shot down. It just depends upon what is available. I know certain choreographers who got a Broadway show and never got one again and have been doing small shows since.
The more educated you are, the more it is going to help you. You have to be very passionate about this.
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