Whether choreographing for "So You Think you Can Dance" or her new company Still Motion, Stacey Tookey's unique voice comes through loud and clear.
It’s an electric Thursday afternoon at Hollywood’s EDGE Performing Arts Center, and the 60-plus dancers packed into its “G” studio have contemporary instructor Stacey Tookey to thank. An acoustic version of U2’s “One” fills the air as dancers start to stretch and prep for Tookey’s notoriously rigorous class, while others buzz excitedly about the chance to learn from the “So You Think You Can Dance” choreographer and three-time Emmy nominee.
When Tookey launches into the choreography portion, it’s almost difficult to distinguish her from her students. Rather than just counting or giving directives, she performs the choreography almost every time, and her upbeat, friendly demeanor creates an easy rapport with the dancers. Not that there’s time for socializing—Tookey doesn’t like to waste one precious second. “I’m talking as fast as possible so we can dance,” she laughs, while explaining a particularly intricate combination.
Along with word economy, enthusiasm and encouragement are Tookey’s trademarks. After each group performs, she yells out hearty affirmations. “I scream ‘Yes’ about 65 times a class,” Tookey says later, adding that her husband, actor Gene Gabriel, says she should make “YES” T-shirts. “I scream from my gut—sometimes I lose my voice. I get so excited, I can’t help it.”
And Tookey wants her students to be loud, too, but with their movement. “Don’t be shy, don’t apologize!” she commands them. “Be large. Don’t be quiet.” And the dancers follow her cue, going full-out every time and cheering loudly for every group.
About her ability to coax dancers out of their shells, she says the key is to “get out of their heads and tap into their hearts. If they’re having a bad day and can’t get a combo, I tell them to remember why they do it. When you go back to that innocence of why, something magical will come out.”
From Studio to Screen
Tookey knew she wanted to be a dancer from a very early age and “jumped into every class possible” at her mother Shelley Tookey’s home-based studio in Edmonton, Alberta. “My earliest memory is as a little baby bouncing on the floor to the tap class,” says Tookey. “Later, I remember sneaking downstairs after bedtime to watch senior jazz.”
Soon she was proficient in not only basics like jazz, ballet, hip hop and tap, but also baton twirling and Highland dance (for which she competed nationally). “Whenever my mom offered a class, she would say, ‘Put Stacey in it,’” she says. “Thank goodness I loved it—I didn’t know any different. Little did I know I was getting the best training.”
Her broad skill set came in handy once she entered the professional sphere. “Once I auditioned for Bette Midler, and I whipped out the Highland fling,” she laughs. “She was shocked.” Though Tookey didn’t land that job, her diverse background did qualify her for an array of other opportunities—from apprenticing for Ballet BC to cheering for the NBA’s Vancouver Grizzlies. In later years, she performed with Mia Michaels’ RAW company in New York and Celine Dion’s extravaganza in Las Vegas.
After wrapping Celine and moving to Los Angeles in mid-2008, Tookey first got wind of the “SYTYCD” opportunity. The Canadian offshoot of the popular American show had contacted her mother about possibly using her studio for shooting, and Stacey’s husband encouraged her to submit her choreography reel. “When they called me up to tell me I’d been selected, I almost fell over in Costco!” says Tookey, who was touring with West Coast Dance Explosion at the time.
Her work on “SYTYCD Canada” quickly got her noticed by executive producer Nigel Lythgoe, who tapped her to join the American version for Season 5. Today, Tookey is a regular on the show and has garnered three Emmy nominations for her contributions. Yet she says the most gratifying part is the meaningful connections she makes. “The best gift is when a dancer thanks you and says that you’ve changed her,” she says. “Whether a routine is a hit or miss, that’s the number-one thing for me. I want to see dancers grow as well as win.”
Tookey as Teacher
In the high-pressure, tight-turnaround environment of “SYTYCD,” Tookey’s teaching skills are especially clutch. “We have maybe five to six hours from the time we meet the contestants to the time they perform, so it’s really helpful to be a good teacher as well as choreographer,” she says.
The biggest challenge is the difficult partnering required. “Dancers get on the show as soloists. A lot of them haven’t worked with partners before,” says Tookey, who taught her first class at 15. She often calls on her own experience to demonstrate the movement. “I know what it feels like to be partnered and how to carry my weight, which helps when you’re teaching a girl dancer how to hold her own,” she says.
One especially nail-biting piece was “Fear” (which nabbed her first Emmy nod). “I got [Jonathan] ‘Legacy’ [Perez], a b-boy who’d never been taught any steps, let alone a plié or tendu,” says Tookey. When Legacy went into front attitude with hunched shoulders and a distinctly flexed foot, “I said, ‘Legacy, they’ll totally crucify you if you don’t point your foot,’ and he said, ‘Stacey, I’m pointing it as hard as I can.’ When I bent his ankle, he said, ‘Oh, you wanted me to point to the ground? I was pointing it to the sky.’ That’s when I realized he knew nothing about contemporary dance. But he never gave up.”
It’s dancers like Legacy who make teaching so rewarding for Tookey, who now counts him as a class regular. “Some dancers have all the facility and ability, but those aren’t the dancers I’m inspired by,” she says. “There are kids in class that are balls of energy and have so much talent, but don’t know how to mold it or make it come through in their movement—those are my favorite dancers to work with.”
When not appearing on “SYTYCD,” Tookey teaches master classes around the country and tours as faculty for NUVO Dance Convention, where her high energy keeps attendees captivated. “Teaching conventions is like being a motivational speaker—you’re onstage with a mike and 200–500 kids in your class,” she says. “There is an art to doing it. I fly around the stage; I’m so animated, it’s ridiculous. It’s about constantly spreading energy and making everyone feel like they had a special experience.”
Now, Tookey is forwarding her brand of movement with the launch of her own company, Still Motion. A longtime dream for Tookey, the company features “SYTYCD” talent, including Melanie Moore and Kathryn McCormick, along with guest artists like Jason Parsons and Peter Chu. “It’s genius because I can mix fresh energy with experience and knowledge,” says Tookey.
Being grounded in one place for seven weeks while rehearsing for the Still Motion debut in November was a novel experience for Tookey, who says her schedule is anything but routine. During the “SYTYCD” season, the show consumes five workdays per week, and Tookey is on the road at least 21 weekends out of the year for conventions. She teaches regularly at EDGE and offers guest classes in studios, both in L.A. and around the country. Luckily, her husband of seven years, Gabriel, understands. He has a similarly unpredictable schedule as a stage and television actor.
“It has been difficult at times to have careers that can take us away from each other in an instant, sometimes to another country,” says Tookey. “But he is my rock. We are both artists and know how important it is to take opportunities when they come, follow our dreams, and not hold each other back.”
Though the professional and personal balancing act can certainly be a tricky one, Tookey wouldn’t have it any other way. “I’m grateful for the work and love what I do; every job breathes new life into me,” she says. “All I can hope for as a teacher and choreographer is to constantly be changing. The second you stand still, you die.” DT
Does Stacey Tookey have the Midas touch when it comes to “So You Think You Can Dance”? If Season 9 is any indication, she just might. The choreographer created blockbuster routines for both of the show’s winners, Eliana Girard and Chehon Wespi-Tschopp.
A smoldering duet between Girard and All-star Alex Wong, set to Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down),” showcased Tookey’s penchant for passion and powerful technique. Thanks to the dancers’ ballet chops and Girard’s mile-long extensions, Tookey’s difficult partnering appeared effortless.
Two routines made for Wespi-Tschopp got kudos, too. The first was a duet with Witney Carson to Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” Playing Wespi-Tschopp’s classical prowess off Carson’s fiery ballroom presence, the piece called for equal parts acrobatic ability, technical skill and palpable emotion. Much like Houston’s song, grand bursts were punctuated by gravity-defying lifts, then tempered by quieter, more tender moments—Tookey’s trademark. Nigel Lythgoe called the number “absolutely flawless.”
Tookey’s final piece of the season for Wespi-Tschopp and All-star Allison Holker earned a standing ovation from the judges and a prediction from judge Mary Murphy of a fourth Emmy nomination. Like all of Tookey’s pieces, the number, to Steve Kazee’s “Leave,” incorporated a strong storytelling element. It was one of Wespi-Tschopp’s last chances to win over voters before the finale. Golden girl, indeed.
East Coast vs. West Coast
When you’re on the road as much as Stacey Tookey, a typical month might include trips to cities from Orlando to Long Beach and in between. So, does the teaching experience change from east to west? We asked Tookey and three other traveling professionals to weigh in.
“There is a really strong work ethic and training focus on the East Coast, whereas dancers train a bit more sporadically on the West Coast. I think it reflects the type of work generally taking place on each coast: L.A. is full of commercial jobs that are short gigs—lots of stop and start. In New York, there are a lot more long-term jobs like company work and Broadway.” —Stacey Tookey
“On the East Coast, kids are obsessed with lululemon and traditional styling, whereas on the West Coast, you have kids expressing themselves through fashion like sunglasses, hats and wristbands. It’s about your look, your edge, your vibe.” —Tracy Navarro (University at Buffalo, Dance Masters of America.
“The East has more studios booming with an appreciation for tap and pushing the art. On the West Coast, we need to work harder to make it an equal priority to other genres. That relates also to the industry—there is more tap on Broadway than in Hollywood.” —Chloé Arnold (Debbie Allen Dance Academy, Steps on Broadway, Broadway Dance Center, New York City Dance Alliance)
“If someone wants to be a hip-hop dancer on the West Coast, it’s no different than on the East Coast. They can go onto YouTube and see some of the best instructors online and footage of break-dancers from the ’80s. When I was that age, we had beta and VCRs—the elevation of technology like YouTube and the internet has really closed the gap.” —Duncan Cooper (Modas Dance, New York City Dance Alliance)
Jen Jones Donatelli is based in L.A.
Photo by Joe Toreno