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

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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