"Dance was my life–even before I was a dancer. My training started from osmosis. When I was 7 years old I would watch my mother teach at Scottsdale Community College and I knew what was going on with dance. I had an eye for it,” says Brian Friedman, dancer, choreographer, director, teacher and entrepreneur, about his passion for the artform. Now 33, Friedman commutes between Los Angeles and London, where he is creative director on “America’s Got Talent” and Simon Cowell’s TV show “The X Factor.” A virtual rock star of the dance world, he’s choreographed for pop icons Britney Spears and Beyoncé and also served as a judge and choreographer for three seasons on Fox’s hit television show “So You Think You Can Dance.” But, of everything Friedman does, including designing shoes and clothing, he says teaching is the most rewarding.
“As long as I can move and talk, I will teach,” says the shaved-headed dynamo. “For every person who’s trained their whole life, it’s their duty to give back and make sure the next generation is strong. It also helps other people achieve their dreams.”
Friedman began dreaming early on. With his father often away on business, the youngster formed a close bond with his mother, Judi Friedman, who taught him time steps, piqués and pirouettes before he actually enrolled in dance class at age 11. Shortly thereafter, he moved to L.A. with his mother to begin working as a dancer, landing roles in the musical Newsies, directed by Kenny Ortega (High School Musical), and the TV series “Kids Incorporated.” Friedman, who also attended the Dupree and Tremaine dance conventions, recalls his on-the-job training as invaluable.
“I learned so much on movie sets,” he says. “Working with Kenny and then with Twyla Tharp on I’ll Do Anything, I was able to soak in things at such a young age.” As a youth, he also worked with Michael Jackson, Paula Abdul and others.
Friedman makes up a verbal score full of whimsy and imagery as he demonstrates: "Whack it, drop it, shoo-shoo gaga woo; one two bam-bam tooga-tooga woo-ha; you hold here, crown of life, press it down, hugga bug."
Friedman cites choreographer Marguerite Derricks (Fame) as his main dance teacher and Jamie King (director of Rihanna’s Last Girl on Earth Tour) as idol and mentor. “Marguerite took me under her wing and gave me the technical base. Jamie is the person who made me see a bigger picture and want to be more—a creative director and choreographer, not only a dancer.”
Then, at 16, the born multitasker opened a dance school with his mother in Scottsdale, where he taught jazz and hip-hop classes and she instructed ballet and tap. Although that school no longer exists, Friedman makes use of his teaching expertise by co-directing The PULSE On Tour, a national convention with classes featuring headlining choreographers Wade Robson and Mia Michaels, among others.
However he chooses to express himself, Friedman is commanding: six feet tall and sporting a tattoo on his right forearm with the Hebrew words for “to be free.” Charismatic onstage and off, he is articulate and self-possessed—but without a “divo” attitude. His enthusiasm is contagious, befitting his superstar status on YouTube, where his videos receive hundreds of thousands of hits. He’s also got more than 30,000 followers on Twitter. But charting his life in 140 characters doesn’t begin to tell the story, a big part of which is his work at The PULSE.
“Teaching up to 700 people at one time is difficult,” says Friedman, “but you make sure that every student feels connected to you. When I’m onstage, I make it a point to be personable so that each person feels I’m talking to them and that the note or correction is directed at them. I want them to feel that I understand who they are and that I’m on their level. Once you have that relationship, anything is possible.”
Regarding studio teaching, Friedman says it’s a different animal, with the hands-on approach to technique and routines helping make students better dancers. “You can be more thorough [in the studio],” he says, adding, “If it wasn’t for studio teachers, we wouldn’t have professional dancers.”
Friedman’s co-director at The PULSE is choreographer and “SYTYCD” judge Mia Michaels. The two met in the ’90s at a dance convention, and Michaels began working with him at The PULSE several years later. Together, the pair approves the whole faculty roster, as well as classes, the layout of production and the Protégé Program, which offers scholarships to young dancers.
“The kids love Brian, but they know they can’t pull any [stuff] with him,” says Michaels. “We’re old-school like that. They’ve got to do the work, and we let them know when they need to be better. As teachers, we’re bringing artistry to the kids, instead of a dance-school mentality.”
Friedman is particularly proud of his students who have gone on to have successful careers of their own, including Tucker Barkley, 20. A hip-hop dancer and choreographer, Barkley studied with Friedman at conventions for eight years. Singled out by Friedman at a Monsters of Hip-Hop event, Barkley has supported himself by dancing and choreographing since he was 15. He attributes much of his success to Friedman.
“In class you are pushed to the full extent of your ability,” says Barkley. “When you mess up, he’ll give you that look and you know you’re wrong. Then you have to pull up and fix yourself, and everything will work out. You have no choice but to grow and become a better dancer because Brian doesn’t take no for an answer. He won’t let you not give it everything you can.”
As for the cultural impact and über-popularity of shows like “So You Think You Can Dance,” Friedman opines freely, especially on the contestants’ “wow” factor—the spectacular jumps and turns that make audiences go wild.
“A lot of the dancers have trained like Olympic athletes,” he points out, “and you can’t look down on that. But there’s not a lot of artistry in, say, running track—it’s technical and falls under athleticism. I choose artistry with strong technique over tricks any day.”
“I enjoy a dancer who has it all: technique, artistry and athleticism,” Friedman adds. “Being able to push yourself further than what is expected is an amazing gift. That’s the wow factor for me.”
And while Friedman doesn’t have much downtime (he splits his time between London and L.A. and travels about 40 days annually with The PULSE), he’s happy to hang out at his Southern California home.
Besides, says Friedman, his work is fun and that’s what fuels him. Indeed, much of his work ethic stems from his philosophical attitude—that, essentially, nothing’s impossible. When he puts on his headset and commands those hundreds of dancers to “be an open canvas and paint this new movement into your space,” it is not only seductive, it seems within reach.
“It’s all about self-belief, determination and drive,” he says. “Immerse yourself and you can truly achieve anything.” DT
Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning freelance arts journalist and regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times, Dance Magazine and other publications. She also teaches Dance as an Artform at Santa Monica College and the University of Southern California.
This flamboyant, extravagant dance style, which Brian Friedman helped create and popularize, is all over the commercial dance scene. Friedman was one of the first choreographers to use the style and initially referred to it as “ganking.” Using Britney Spears as his muse, he created his own recipe for a “ganky stew,” which he describes as “a mixture of drag queen performance, vogueing, house and thrashy jazz.” He adds: “It has to be powerful and dominant, almost like you’re getting into a fight with a dance move. Mash it, stab it, kill it and then walk away with confidence.”
Though ganky seems like feminine movement, it’s definitely not just for females. “While it’s very girly dancing, sexism should be squashed,” Friedman says. “This style will continue to spread like wildfire,” he continues, “because it’s fun to watch and even more fun to do.” —Monica Levy
Photo by Rachel Papo