In January 2008, Shane Sparks told Dance Teacher that he was going to “blow everyone’s minds” as a choreographer. And since then, he has done just that. In addition to teaching at The Pulse, Star Systems and Millennium Dance Complex, he continues to be a judge on MTV’s “America’s Best Dance Crew” and a choreographer for Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance.” His Season 3 Transformers routine earned him a 2008 Emmy nomination. Recently, he made the jump from Hollywood to Broadway, co-choreographing the 2009 revival of the 1981 Tony Award–winning musical hit (and 2006 Academy Award–winning film) Dreamgirls. The show, which won rave reviews during its run in South Korea this spring, opens November 22 at New York City’s Apollo Theater. (Oh, and did we mention that he’s completely untrained as a dancer? It’s true!) Here, Sparks opens up about his successes.

Dance Teacher: How did you get involved with Dreamgirls, since you’re mainly known for hip hop?
Shane Sparks: Brooke Lavin from Clear Talent Group had to convince me. Broadway was such a different world to me—I didn’t know if I could handle it. And on top of that, I was supposed to go to Korea to create the show. I was intimidated, but she said it could change my career. I realized that it’s nothing but dancing, which is what I do every day. So I took the challenge and now it’s the number one show in Korea.

DT: Did you change Michael Bennett and Michael Peters’ choreography?
SS: I changed almost everything! And anything that looks similar is because there are only so many moves you can do. The people behind the show didn’t want me to look at the Dreamgirls movie, and I didn’t want to outdo what was originally done; I wanted to make it current. I looked at old Bob Fosse videos and drew inspiration from those. Once I had the music, I played around with it and listened to the lyrics. I choreographed based on this, and what the dancers could do, pushing them as far as I could.

DT: How is choreographing for Broadway different than for TV?
SS: It’s two different worlds. For the Dreamgirls show, the dancers rotate around the stage, so I had to choreograph as if the stage was rotating, since the dancers move around it. For example, there would be three scenes going on at once: the Dreamgirls in the front singing and acting, while two silent scenes are going on at the left and right sides of the stage. Then one of the side scenes would seamlessly become the main scene. The timing had to be perfect. For TV, if you’re not on camera then you’re frozen.

DT: Will we be able to see your style in the choreography?
SS: You will see a lot of my style in “Steppin’ to the Bad Side” because it’s so dark. A lot of my stuff is Matrix-y and I use props. For this number, I was able to put them in black three-piece suits and the movement is really militant. There’s a lot of choreography using briefcases—throwing them around with a kaleidoscope-type vibe (if viewed from above). “One Night Only” has a lot of my style in it, too. We killed it with house, disco and jazz. We brought in some of the best NYC dancers, so I had the kind of talent on my hands that would allow me to do what I wanted.

DT: Would you like to work on Broadway again?
SS: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes! I have a few concepts I would love to turn into Broadway shows or TV movies. One is an African piece I did for a benefit called Rock For Change. I saw a documentary on Darfur and couldn’t believe the situation there. I created a number about it called Rise of the Crown, where the military comes and snatches a family apart. People were crying because it’s very brutal, but the dance scenes are incredible. After it was performed, Debbie Allen came up and said, “If you turn that into a play, you’d better call me.”

DT: Is there one teacher you respect the most?
SS: Wade Robson. Even though Wade is a bit younger than me, he inspires me to think outside the box and be more inventive. He actually used to take my class when he was 10, and I remember thinking: This kid doesn’t need to take my class, he needs to be teaching. Then, a few months later he had his own class. But I didn’t take it because I don’t take classes.

DT: You don’t take classes?
SS: I don’t want to adapt to other styles outside of my own. There are too many clones in this industry. I’ve only taken a few hip-hop classes with Kevin Columbus and a ballet class. Ballet was literally the hardest thing I’ve ever done. After, I was like, “Y’all can have ballet.” Ballet dancers move in a totally different way than street dancers. I realized how weak my body is compared to ballet dancers.

DT: So, how would you describe your teaching method?
SS: Come to my class and you’ll get anything from booty shaking to gutter hip hop to lyrical hip hop to futuristic stuff. My style is unpredictable, and that’s what keeps the kids coming back. With other teachers, dancers can pick up the teacher’s style after a few classes so there is nowhere to grow. I pride myself on being able to mix in three to four different dance styles in a few eight-counts. But usually if you have a little rhythm and sense of dance, you can do my choreography. I don’t try to show off at all. It’s about the students when I’m in there. DT

Lauren Levinson is an associate editor at Dance Spirit.

Click here for a behind-the-scenes interview with Shane Sparks on Dreamgirls!

Photo by Chris Polk, courtesy of Polk Imaging

Jonathan Lee is doing a victory dance—his beginner hip-hop class at STEPS on Broadway recently got upgraded to one of the largest studios. And while he’s ecstatic to be doing so well in this economy, he isn’t gloating. Brooklyn born and raised, Lee has been paying his dues in New York City for some time. After training with hip-hop masters Mr. Wiggles, Robin Dunn and Crazy Legs, he went on to study ballet and modern at Alvin Ailey, Joffrey Ballet School, STEPS and Broadway Dance Center. Lee officially made the switch to teaching five years ago, and now packs his classes full at STEPS, Dance New Amsterdam and The Ailey Extension. At just 22, his career already includes such impressive accomplishments as commercial gigs, theater credits and working with major names like Britney Spears and Madonna. Read on to discover this young talent’s recipe for success.

Dance Teacher: Is there a teacher who influenced your career the most?
Jonathan Lee: Robin Dunn [who taught the first hip-hop class in NYC]—she’s my “mom,” aka mentor. Robin didn’t want me to just be a better dancer. She wanted me to be a better person. She stressed that it’s not just about booking jobs and being in the commercial scene. It’s about inspiring people. And that’s why I teach—I want to inspire young people.

DT: What else led you to teaching?
JL: I was part of a youth organization called City Kids. They always talked about youth leadership; they gave me the tools to be a leader. One of their mottos was “Each one, reach one.” That really molded who I am today. I also started assisting some of my teachers, and that helped develop my skills.

DT: What’s your teaching philosophy?
JL: Some people treat classes as auditions. I teach so that people can learn. I want my students to walk away with something. I get a wide range of students, from professional dancers to people with 9–5 jobs who just want to stay in shape. My class accommodates each individual, so that everyone can have a good experience.

DT: Do you still take dance lessons? Do you think it’s important for dance teachers to take class?
JL: I still do, and I definitely think it’s important for teachers to take class. You have to open up your vocabulary, especially once you figure out who you are as a choreographer, because you’re going to gravitate toward what you like. But you have to think outside the box and find challenges. Each teacher has something different to offer.

DT: A main focus during your class is drilling the steps. How do you think that helps your students?
JL: It’s a beginner class, so I feel that repetition really helps people pick up choreography. Especially if someone has never taken hip hop, the reiteration builds muscle memory. Even if my students don’t get all of the steps, they can get most of them and still enjoy it.

DT: You are known to end every class with a circle talk, as does Robin Dunn. Why do you think that’s important?
JL: I teach drop-in classes, so I want my students to know that I acknowledge them and thank them for being in the room. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be there. I also do the circle to illustrate that there’s no head or end—just one open circle and everyone is on the same plane. DT

Lauren Levinson is an associate editor/fashion at Dance Spirit.

Photo by Arthur Coopchick, courtesy of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

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