Red Hot

The inspiring drive of "Glee" choreographer Brooke Lipton

Brooke Lipton has packed a lot of dance into her 32 years. The driven redhead scored her first gig when she was 12—a pediatric AIDS benefit headlined by Paula Abdul—and has since become a force to be reckoned with, most recently as associate choreographer on the smash hit TV show “Glee.” She’s worked with Janet Jackson, Madonna and Beyoncé, and toured with Britney Spears. With faculty positions at Hollywood Connection and The PULSE On Tour conventions, Lipton may keep the schedule of a workaholic, but she does it all with the heart of a teacher.

As the fourth of six children growing up in a close-knit family in Phoenix, Lipton describes herself as competitive. Her parents were supportive of her career choice. Lipton began traveling when she was 12 to Los Angeles with her mother to take classes and audition.

Sporting a tiny diamond in her right nostril, Lipton, who occasionally highlights her hair pink or purple, recalls that first gig: “There were 10 of us who flew to L.A. to audition, and the tricky part was that my bat mitzvah was the same month. My mother kept going home to plan, and I was doing Torah stuff over the phone. I was a crazy dancer kid who did private Hebrew lessons because regular lessons interfered with dance."

Her bat mitzvah went off without a hitch. “I was a good student and got all A’s. That was important,” she points out, “because dance would be taken away if we didn’t keep up our grades.”

Lipton, who stands 5' 4" and studied everything from jazz and tap to ballet and gymnastics, says: “I grew up at a competitive dance studio where you did what the teacher said and you applied what they gave you. I may not have been the best, but conventions changed me as a dancer, by giving me more drive.”

After graduating from high school, Lipton moved to L.A., where she took class but didn’t understand how the industry worked. “My body wasn’t in the right shape and I didn’t have a look. I got frustrated on auditions. I knew I wasn’t the pretty girl with the beautiful legs. So I went to work on myself.” She joined a gym, lost weight, changed her hairstyle and took any job that would let her dance, paid or unpaid.

It’s this drive—whether teaching, performing, choreographing or self-improving—that has served Lipton well. After three years in L.A., she snagged her first big job in 2001, dancing on Britney Spears’ Dream Within a Dream tour. By then Lipton was well-known in the community, both for her talent and determination. “When people found out I booked the Britney job, I got such a warm welcome,” she says, “because they knew how hard I had worked to get there. It felt good having that backing, and that job changed my career.”

Brian Friedman, consulting producer of Simon Cowell’s U.S. version of “The X Factor” and choreographer for The PULSE On Tour, has known Lipton for years. They both performed at that long-ago pediatric AIDS benefit, and, as choreographer of Spears’ 2004 Onyx Hotel tour, Friedman had hired Lipton as a dancer. “As long as I’ve known Brooke, she’s been a beast,” says Friedman. “In rehearsals, class or onstage, she’s one of the hardest workers and is an inspiration to all dancers.”

He points out that success hasn’t changed Lipton. “She started professionally at an early age, and work like that can either humble you or go to your head. Brooke is down to earth and will stay that way.”

It was through another friend/colleague that Lipton landed “Glee.” In 2008 she was dancing with Spears in “Circus,” as well as teaching at Hollywood Connection. Also on faculty was Zach Woodlee, who’d been tapped to choreograph the “Glee” pilot. Lipton auditioned as a dancer. Recognizing both her resolve and her dance prowess, he then asked if she wanted to assist him. The dancing was six days’ work; serving as his assistant was six weeks’.

Those six weeks turned into three years and counting, plus the “Glee” tours, the Glee: The 3D Concert film and last year’s “The Glee Project,” a competition reality show that aired on Oxygen and whose premise was finding new stars for the current season of “Glee.” “It was an immediate click with Zach,” says Lipton. “We have one of the hardest schedules in Hollywood and whatever happens, we still laugh every day because he has such a positive attitude.”

As for working with dancers who play high school students at the show’s fictional William McKinley High, Lipton says she and Woodlee cast the routines and have hired nearly 400 dancers since the series began. “As our show has gotten older,” Lipton says, “our dancers have also gotten older, but we have to keep them young to fit into what the look is. We don’t try to fake it with 30-year-olds acting as high school students, so it’s been a big breakthrough for young dancers.”

Choreographing the routines, she admits, comes with challenges. Working with nondancing actors, says Lipton, requires “a different energy than working with someone who’s been trained since they were 4.” She says the main goal is to “not get stuck” and to make each number special. “We never want the dancing to look out of place. It has to be realistic and there has to be a reason for the dance.”

And should a dancer be unable to perform for any reason, Lipton’s the go-to gal. “We started shooting a number last year and one girl got injured. I put on her costume and a wig and filled in the slot. People said, ‘Thank God Brooke’s always around, because we can throw her into the dances if there’s any emergency.’”

At the end of the day Lipton maintains that she and Woodlee are happy “just doing the work.” Low points, she says, are not having enough time, with shooting schedules running 12 hours daily, Monday through Friday, from August until May.

Yet it’s precisely this frenzied schedule that seems to energize her, and she finds time to teach on weekends, including at Hollywood Connection. Owned by friend and former agent Bill Bohl, the organization helps educate parents and dancers about the nuts and bolts of a dance career. “We talk about what the kids are wearing, how their body language affects everything. It’s geared to reality. The kids might not work right away,” says Lipton. “We teach them what they have to do to be able to work in this industry. I tell them they have to be willing to put 300 percent into this, like I did.”

Bohl, who choreographed the Abdul pediatric AIDS project and ultimately hired Lipton, says, “Brooke was born to do this and it shows. For her to rehearse and shoot a ‘Glee’ episode all week and then get on a red-eye to one of our convention cities to teach and guide young dancers all weekend, it shows you her dedication."

One of her biggest assets, he says, is her honesty. “Brooke tells them what they need to improve on and what their assets are. She also challenges them to push themselves, because that’s the only way to get better.”

Lipton, however, gauges student interest before giving the big push. “All I want to do is dance, and that’s what I begged my parents to do, but I’m not going to push students into anything crazy unless I know they’re ready,” she says.

In 2004, she married Edgar Godineaux, an associate choreographer for the Broadway and touring shows of Memphis. The couple have a 7-year-old son, Pierce, and a daughter, Lennox, 5. Motherhood, gushes Lipton, has had a profound impact on her—personally and professionally.

“I understand what it’s like to take care of a kid and the feelings a parent goes through. Being involved with competitions and conventions, I have a bit more patience—but at the same time I’m a workhorse and I pay attention to the kids, no matter how big the class.”

One begins to understand the power of her persuasive influence when she says, “Anything I say ‘yes’ to, I’m going to give 100 percent. As soon as I can’t, I won’t, because I don’t want people disappointed. There’s always energy somewhere left in your body,” she adds with a smile, “because the more you give out the more you get back. You can do it.” DT

Victoria Looseleaf is a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times, Dance Magazine and KUSC-FM radio. She teaches dance history at the University of California. 

(Photo by Joe Toreno)

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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