It’s the last few minutes of Mandy Moore’s class at the 2009 Dance Teacher Summit in New York and she’s jumped down off the stage onto the Hilton Hotel ballroom floor. A third of the class performs the short routine she has just taught them, while others stand on the perimeter of the parquet looking on. Moore pulls aside a dancer struggling with an arm sequence and goes through the movements step by step, doing the choreography alongside the dancer. After a few slow repetitions, Moore is convinced the dancer has it and sends her back out onto the floor to rejoin her group.
Even in a large, convention-style setting, Moore isn’t afraid to single out someone who needs assistance. Done without tact, this could deflate a dancer’s confidence. But Moore’s intentions are unmistakably generous: She wants to provide attendees with a valuable learning experience. If she were in class, Moore says, she would expect the same hands-on treatment from her instructor. “I like people who aren’t afraid to correct me,” she says. “I want to be like everyone else in the room.”
Widely recognized as a choreographer for the Fox television series “So You Think You Can Dance,” Moore is known for the positive energy and vibrant spirit she brings into every situation, whether it’s a hotel ballroom, a private studio or the set of a network TV show. While her television work has given her notoriety, she’s more than a choreographer who occasionally teaches. With more than 15 years of experience, Moore has a well-considered teaching philosophy that fuses content and creativity.
When people talk about Moore, they inevitably mention her animated personality. Growing up in the small ski town of Breckenridge, Colorado, Moore found peace and comfort in her surroundings. “I grew up in a really happy home,” she says. “And growing up in the mountains, living in nature, I love the earth. I love people—they fascinate me.”
Beyond a bright outlook, Moore’s childhood gave her practical teaching experiences. Her mom was an English, drama and speech teacher and held summer school classes in their basement. “I remember watching students learn from her and seeing this light go on in their eyes,” Moore says. Her mom taught her how to approach a classroom of students with a technique Moore still uses today: “She said, ‘Always assume that you’re taking children from point A to point B, and that they’ve never been at this point A or this point B, because this moment is isolated in time, and it’s not the same tomorrow, and it was not the same yesterday. So if you can, in the first seconds of class, assess the situation and see where everybody is at.’”
Back at the Dance Teacher Summit, soon after the class begins Moore says to the group, “You’re a little quiet. That usually means that you’re sore.” She proceeds with that information held in her mind, moving quickly but allowing the dancers to warm up as they learn the choreography. She teaches fast. First the feet, then the upper body, stimulating their minds without hurting their bodies. When she gets to a battement in second, she reminds the dancers that the movement can be just as powerful at a low height if they use their arms and torsos to emphasize the angle.
Moore attributes much of her teaching philosophy to her first dance instructor, Kim DelGrosso. “That woman can get anyone to love dance. She was able to get a room to follow her lead. Students would literally eat out of the palm of her hand,” Moore says.
When the 8-year-old Moore showed up at the Summit School of Dance, DelGrosso was stunned by her innate talent. “From the moment she walked in, she was so gifted,” says DelGrosso. “Dance is her language.” Moore eventually taught classes at the studio, but first worked as an assistant, where she learned from DelGrosso how to effectively teach beginning dancers.
Most of Moore’s work on “SYTYCD” is in a genre called contemporary, what she defines as a fusion of many dance styles, from modern to hip hop. When asked if very young dancers can or should be taught the style, she says without hesitation, “No.” Contemporary is best left to more advanced dancers, she believes, because it requires a solid foundation of ballet technique. But more importantly, she thinks that instructors should take a strong position in guiding their dancers’ development and that many teachers today have given up their power to say, “No, you are not ready to do this.” “Every generation has a responsibility to continue the discipline of dance,” she says.
At 18, Moore moved to Los Angeles to pursue a professional dance career. She auditioned for a scholarship at the EDGE Performing Arts Center but didn’t make the cut. “It was the best thing that could have ever happened,” she says, her buoyant personality revealing itself. “It made my drive even crazier,” she says. “I already had a lot, but I was nuts after that.” She found jobs teaching dance for an after-school program and at a local senior citizen’s center. And she worked behind the desk at the EDGE to offset the cost of classes. Before long she was promoted to manager, “because of course, I was an overachiever!”
She then got a sales position with L.A. DANCEFORCE conventions and the opportunity to assist for convention teachers Rhonda Miller and Gregg Russell. After class, she would run out to the vendor stalls covered in sweat. “It was killing me,” she says. “I was like, ‘This is not my calling. I’m not supposed to be selling T-shirts.”
Somehow, she says, she got up the courage to approach Randy Allaire, the convention’s executive director and director of the EDGE. She told him she thought that her talents would be put to better use as an instructor. “He was awesome,” she says of the meeting. “He said, ‘Well, we’ve been waiting for you to come say something.’”
That set Moore on track for the next decade or so. She taught at conventions and studios, choreographed and continued to take class, always focused on honing her technique while broadening her skills and learning new styles.
A few years ago, she started assisting Carrie Ann Inaba, of “Dancing with the Stars,” and her work on that show got the ball rolling on other high-profile jobs. She met Nigel Lythgoe and Jeff Thacker, producers from “SYTYCD,” and was invited to choreograph for the show’s third-season auditions. Not long after, she choreographed a duet for the show. One of her pieces from Season 3, set to the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams,” was nominated for an Emmy for outstanding choreography. Since then, she has become a mainstay on the “SYTYCD” choreographer roster.
On the show, Moore works with advanced dancers, but she hasn’t forgotten the lessons she learned from DelGrosso. Year-round, at conventions across the country, Moore leads students of all abilities—often in the same classroom.
Tabitha D’umo, best known as one-half of a choreography partnership with her husband Napoleon (see DT, November 2008), first met Moore when both were teaching at the EDGE about eight years ago. D’umo noticed the same qualities in Moore that Moore saw in DelGrosso. “I just loved how she commanded a room,” says D’umo.
At a convention, where classes are large and time with students is limited, it’s a challenge to provide material that offers students something new. D’umo thinks that Moore triumphs because her combinations give students the power to express their own creativity. “I remember one class she taught at JUMP,” says D’umo. “She gave them less material, but there were so many choices you had to make within the choreography. I watched the kids explore their own individuality.”
Moore tailors her class format to suit a convention’s restrictive nature, focusing on a single idea or lesson. “I have a short amount of time to get them excited about a little bit of vocabulary,” she explains. Everyone in the class may not execute the choreography perfectly, “but everybody could come from the same place of hearing the music or tapping into an emotion, or whatever the thing is that I’m teaching that day.”
D’umo was particularly taken with Moore’s ability to work with very young dancers. “At that age, it’s important not to give them such hard steps that they get discouraged. She would really teach and motivate those kids to do their best and have fun.” One of Moore’s students and now her assistant, 23-year-old Jillian Meyers, agrees. “With little kids, she is so good at being able to capture their interest so that they want to work hard for her,” she says.
Moore’s classes demand technical mastery in every dance discipline, a rarity in L.A., where each teacher tends to focus on his or her own particular style. One week Moore might have her students dance in heels. The next week, she may ask them to do triple pirouettes or leaps across the floor. Nothing is out of bounds. “She teaches quickly and she will correct you on the spot,” says Meyers. “It’s an environment conducive to learning, but she’s not going to sugarcoat it.”
Whether leading a small, elite group of dancers or standing on a stage in a hotel ballroom, Moore backs up her demands with personal accountability and professionalism. “I’m on time, I’m easy to get along with, I do a good job,” she says. “Those are things that are important to me, so I really try to make that happen at all times when I’m working.” And even though she pushes her students, she doesn’t ask anything of them that she wouldn’t ask of herself. “If I can’t do it, then I don’t expect someone else to do it.”
It’s this dedication and moxie that draws students in. When her Dance Teacher Summit class concludes, a group of 30 to 35 dancers crowd around the front of the stage, waiting to speak to Moore. A few ask for a quick snapshot, but most just want to shake her hand and say, “Thank you so much for a great class.” DT
A Week in the Life of Mandy Moore
Moore uses her day off to catch up on errands—trip to the bank, paying bills. On this particular Monday, she is shopping for a new TV because she’s been robbed. In typical Moore fashion, she turns the situation around saying, “No one was hurt and sometimes it’s fun to shop for new stuff.” Her dad arrives in town to help with things around her house in Lake Balboa, where she lives in Los Angeles.
Moore meets with a soon-to-be bride and groom. She is choreographing their first dance. They aren’t dancers, but they wanted a contemporary routine, so they knew who to call. Tuesdays, Moore also teaches at the EDGE Performing Arts Center in Hollywood.
On the schedule for today is Piloxing (a workout class that combines Pilates and
boxing), followed by a publicity event for “SYTYCD” and afterward, dinner with Dad. Together they watch the “SYTYCD” best 15 routines special. She’s excited to see that her piece “Sweet Dreams” was included.
Rehearsal with the wedding couple, then teaching class at the EDGE, then an audition for an animated Disney film. Always looking to keep her skills sharp, she takes class with Peter Chu and finishes the day with some much deserved social time: dinner with friends.
Another rehearsal with the wedding couple and then a callback for the Disney movie. During convention season, Moore travels every weekend. Today she leaves for Seattle where she will teach and choreograph on Saturday and Sunday. She flies home on Sunday and starts all over again.
Former dance instructor Katie Rolnick has an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU.
Photo by Evan Sung