Technique: Andy Blankenbuehler

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

Teacher Voices
Getty Images

I often teach ballet over Zoom in the evenings, shortly after sunset. Without the natural light coming from my living room window, I drag a table lamp next to my portable barre so that the computer's camera can see me clearly enough. I prop the laptop on a chair taken from the kitchen and then spend the next few hours running back and forth between the computer screen of Zoom tiles and my makeshift dance floor.

Much of this setup is the result of my attempts to recreate the most important aspects of an in-person dance studio: I have a barre, a floor and as much space as I can reasonably give myself within a small apartment. I do not, however, have a mirror, and neither do most of my students.

Keep reading... Show less
Music
Allie Burke, courtesy Lo Cascio

If you'd hear it on the radio, you won't hear it in Anthony Lo Cascio's tap classes.

"If I play a song that my kids know, I'm kind of disappointed in myself," he says. "I either want to be on the cutting edge or playing the classics."

He finds that most of today's trendy tracks lack the depth needed for tap, and that there's a disconnect between kids and popular music. "They have trouble finding the beat compared to older genres," he says.

Keep reading... Show less
Teachers Trending
Courtesy Lovely Leaps

After the birth of her daughter in 2018, engineer Lisa McCabe had reservations about returning to the workforce full-time. And while she wanted to stay home with the new baby, she wasn't ready to stop contributing financially to her family (after all, she'd had a successful career designing cables for government drones). So, when she got a call that September from an area preschool to lead its dance program, she saw an opportunity.

The invitation to teach wasn't completely out of the blue. McCabe had grown up dancing in Southern California and had a great reputation from serving as her church's dance teacher and team coach the previous three years (stopping only to take a break as a new mother). She agreed to teach ballet and jazz at the preschool on Fridays and from there created an age-appropriate class based on her own training in the Cecchetti and RAD methods. It was a success: In three months, class enrollment went from six to 24 students, and just one year later, McCabe's blossoming Lovely Leaps brand had contracts with eight preschools and three additional teachers.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.