How I teach musical theater dance
Andy Blankenbuehler and Rickey Tripp
"There aren’t any battements or a lot of pirouettes; there’s only one double turn in the entire show,” Andy Blankenbuehler says about the musical In the Heights. “And yet, the whole show dances.” He says his Tony Award–winning choreography is interpretive, built on real-life gestures and postures. He explores the “core of the moment” and stylizes natural movement to reflect a specific situation. “I don’t get invested in a dance if I don’t know what’s going on,” he says.
In musical theater, dance is used to advance the plot and heighten the emotion of a scene. But a compelling dancer of any genre applies the technique practiced in the studio and builds on it to convey a message to the audience. “A passé itself doesn’t have meaning,” Blankenbuehler says. “The steps we train in don’t say anything. However, it’s our training that helps make the unique pictures we create clear and understandable.”
To prepare for In the Heights, which explores life in NYC’s Washington Heights, Blankenbuehler studied with hip-hop choreographer Marty Kudelka. “I admired his storytelling that’s almost pantomime in his work,” he says. “That’s how I molded In the Heights. I transformed the gestures that I would naturally choreograph into hip-hop shapes.” When making 9 to 5 (a musical about disgruntled office workers) Blankenbuehler left the dance studio. “I went to Starbucks across the street and watched people push past each other on the sidewalk. Then I duplicated what I saw.”
In the classroom, Blankenbuehler stresses the importance of motivating students with imagery. But the hard part is making sure the music and steps are aligned with the offered image. “Students can’t act out what’s not in the movement,” he says. Even technical aspects should be a part of the story. For example, Blankenbuehler tells young students to sneak across the floor like they’re stealing diamonds. “I’ll tell them to point their toes and lengthen through their legs. They do it technically, but it’s because that’s how they imagine a cartoon jewelry thief would do it. Pretty soon, some kids start spinning stories for themselves—those are the students we’re going to watch,” he says.
Here, Blankenbuehler and dancer Rickey Tripp demonstrate gestures from the opening dance number of In the Heights and explain their meanings.
Andy’s explanation: This is a phrase used in the opening number of In the Heights, and it’s repeated in the finale. The meaning we strive to convey is that in life, we must work hard for our dreams and push forward with determination. And in the end, if we persevere, there is something waiting for us.
Throughout the phrase, remember the theme of “hard work.” Feel weight pushing you down into a low position, which is reinforced by a tucked pelvis. It’s like the whole world is pushing against you.
Reminder: In musical theater dance, we never act with our faces. All of the acting is in our bodies. Your face should exude the same energy your body gives off. So even if you change emotions, your facial expression doesn’t have to change, it just follows your body’s shift in energy.
Originally from Cincinnati, OH, Andy Blankenbuehler attended Southern Methodist University before moving to New York City. On Broadway, he has performed in musicals including Fosse, Contact, Saturday Night Fever and Guys and Dolls. Blankenbuehler choreographed the Broadway revival of The Apple Tree and the original musicals 9 to 5 and In the Heights (the latter won him the 2008 Tony Award for best choreography). He is a contributing choreographer and judge on Fox’s television show “So You Think You Can Dance.” Currently, his work can be seen in the upcoming show Bring It On: The Musical. Blankenbuehler teaches for New York City Dance Alliance and leads master classes at Broadway Dance Center and the Dance Teacher Summit.
Rickey Tripp is an original ensemble dancer (and understudy for a leading role, Graffiti Pete) in the Broadway production of In the Heights.
Photo by Matthew Murphy