On Top of the World

How Nick DeMoura went from “the little cute boy in the crew” to become one of the most sought-after choreographers in Hollywood.

 "It can be a pretty glamorous life,” says 27-year-old Nick DeMoura, best known for his work with pop star Justin Bieber. “You’re on top of the world—being on tour, taking a private jet around the world with a huge artist—but then the tour ends. You can go weeks or months without work out here. The hardest part is staying on top of the world.” So far it looks like DeMoura has that part down. Known for his tireless work ethic and drive, he just signed on as creative director for 21-year-old hit vocal artist Ariana Grande.

The story of how a self-trained street dancer in Boston went on to become the choreographer and creative director for Justin Bieber sounds like a fairy tale, but DeMoura has worked hard for his professional success, starting when he was barely a teenager. “From the beginning I pursued choreography and posted tons of videos on YouTube to get my work out to the world. I always knew I wanted to choreograph, but I knew I needed to be a dancer first.”

Mentor Napoleon D’umo first saw him at a Monsters of Hip Hop convention. “His look wasn’t necessarily what the commercial world was all about,” D’umo says. “He was small, he didn’t have a cool haircut and didn’t really dress the part—but he was an awesome dancer. He was so compact, but his style was precise and yet totally smooth. He worked hard, and he went to every one of our classes. He wanted it so bad—he just needed someone to give him a chance.”

DeMoura never formally trained in a studio, opting instead to start a crew called Movement Specialists. Often recognized as “the little cute boy in the crew,” DeMoura was younger than the rest of his dancer friends, and together they performed at local shows and school dances. After one performance, the owner of Artistic Dance Studio in Fall River, Massachusetts, asked two of the boys to start teaching hip hop to her students. DeMoura was 16 at the time. “That’s when I found out about dance studios. I could never afford to go to a studio growing up; it was never an option. It was me and my friends dancing in my living room or in the CVS parking lot.” Soon, he was teaching open classes two or three times a week and had saved up enough money to start attending conventions, including Monsters of Hip Hop and The PULSE On Tour.

He was taking the train to New York City a few times a month to take classes, and he received a scholarship from Monsters to travel to Los Angeles and train with big-name choreographers, including Tabitha and Napoleon D’umo and Marty Kudelka. “I went to L.A. with $500 in my pocket,” he says. “After the Monsters closing show, my friend convinced me to stay. So I didn’t take my flight home. I spent a year living on my friend’s couch, working at a restaurant and at RadioShack and taking the bus everywhere until I got on my feet.” Although he landed a few dance jobs, including a stint on “The Pussycat Dolls Present: The Search for the Next Doll,” a part in Walk Hard and a few music videos, booking one or two dance jobs a month wasn’t enough for DeMoura to call himself a full-time professional dancer. “Music videos are the worst jobs on earth, with the longest hours and the least amount of pay,” he says. “With commercials and films, you get a residual check a year later for no reason!”

After almost two years in L.A., DeMoura booked a four-month tour with R&B singer Keke Palmer and could finally ditch his side jobs. He also assisted the D’umos during several seasons of “So You Think You Can Dance.”

“I learned so much from Tabitha and Napoleon: choreographing, staging, preparing for a job, submitting for a job, how you even get the job. A lot of times, your presentation before the job is everything—how you speak to people and react to their challenges. It’s not just about making steps. It’s a business.”

Here’s what Napoleon D’umo has to say about it: “Some assistants show up and say, ‘Tell me what to do.’ But Nick would stand beside me, like a partner, helping me see my way through the movement. It’s not like in the convention world where assisting is just standing on the stage and looking good doing choreography. We had Nick doing 100 other things, helping us run the room and running a productive rehearsal.”

Then came his big break. A friend was embarking on the My World Tour with Justin Bieber and called to say they needed an alternate male dancer. DeMoura learned the choreography, and just two weeks later one of the dancers quit. He was in for the entire world tour.

“Justin would always ask me to show him moves,” DeMoura says. “He liked the way I danced and freestyled. During a stop in South America, Justin and his manager Scooter Braun came into my dressing room and said, ‘Yo, you choreograph?’ I said, ‘Yeah, why?’ and they said, ‘We watched all your YouTube videos last night! Why didn’t you tell us?!’ I said I was just there playing my position, and I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes.” A week later, Bieber and Braun asked him to choreograph Bieber’s performance for the MTV European Music Awards.

The transition from dancer to choreographer was a natural one for DeMoura, who learned from the D’umos that choreographing for an artist isn’t necessarily about having a specific style. “It’s about choreographing for the artist, not for yourself,” DeMoura says. “You have to know how he likes to move, what his strengths and weaknesses are. It’s not about making the best steps; it’s about what’s going to make the artist look the best. When I choreographed the New Kids on the Block tour, we didn’t do anything crazy. I just had to make these guys in their 40s look good.”

When asked if his young age poses a challenge to any of his working relationships, DeMoura replies it was challenging at first but that age doesn’t matter. This is particularly true in his teaching at Movement Lifestyle in L.A. and with Monsters of Hip Hop. “In L.A., everyone is here to be a professional dancer. They range from 5 years old to 40. I don’t think about whether the students are older than me or younger. I’m just teaching people who want to dance.”

And though he counts so many colleagues as friends—some of whom were friends before they worked together, others who became friends during the creative process—on set, he knows there’s a line between being buddies and working professionals.

Justin Bieber (in 2010)

Ariana Grande

“Justin and I are friends—we’ve known each other for years and have grown up together—but I don’t choreograph for him because I’m his friend. If I was whack, he never would have hired me to begin with. I love him and owe him a lot for believing in me. In the studio, we know it’s time to work. He’ll tell me what he likes or doesn’t like, or he’ll throw a move in and then I can help make it better. We always have the same end goal.”

“Nick is stubborn, loving, energetic and honest,” says dancer Mykell Wilson, who has worked with DeMoura on several jobs and considers him his best friend. “He has these motivating characteristics that make you want to do your best.”

And just when you thought it may not get bigger and better than working with Justin Bieber, it did. At press time, DeMoura was preparing for Ariana Grande’s world tour, kicking off in early 2015. The Billboard Hot 100 music sensation is known for her wholesome look and four-octave vocal range. “I’ve been dying for a female artist,” DeMoura says. “With males, you have to be creative, but ultimately they have to be cool guys. With girls, you can be beautiful, flowery, edgy, sexy—there are so many more options. I can’t wait.” DT

Alison Feller is the former editor in chief of Dance Spirit.

Photos (from top) by Jino Abad; by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images; by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

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