How did you start dancing?
My parents are both dancers. They have a dance school. They still have it in Brick, NJ, which is about an hour and a half south from New York at the Jersey Shore. My sister, six years older than me, also danced. I was the youngest. My first time on stage was in diapers. Literally. That’s how I started. Everyone in my family did it. It wasn’t really a choice. I wasn’t really into it until later--in high school was when I got really serious.
So it took you a while to get really into it.
Yeah. I think I took it for granted. It was just there all the time. Going to dance was sort of like going to school. It was all the same thing. It wasn’t until my mom sent me away for the summer to dance camp when I was a freshman in high school that I was like, “I want to devote my life to this” Then I came home, and I was really into it. My parents thought it was great. They opened up a lot of opportunities for me. Because they were dancers themselves, they were super supportive. I am lucky because they understand in a way what I think most other parents probably don’t.
Were your parents professional dancers?
They were both dancers who took dance classes in New York and were very passionate about it and trained. But they never really auditioned. It was just something they loved. My dad was at Columbia, and his hobby was ballroom dancing and then later jazz dancing, ballet, and tap. Dance was something that he thought was really interesting. My mom was at NYU studying education. For her going to dance class was an addiction. She couldn’t get enough and stayed that way well into her 50’s. Back then they actually both took dance class from Charles Kelly and Don Farnsworth in the 70’s and they met in class.
My mom wanted to be an English teacher, but there were no jobs at the time. So she figured she could start teaching dance in Jersey until she could get a teaching job. When she started her school, it was very successful right away. I guess in her second year of business, she wanted to bring in a guest teacher—she brought my dad down to teach, and they started dating. He ended up moving down and eventually they got married. My parents have continued to run the school for 44 years.
Wow. 44 years.
A long time. A very long time [laughs].
You said that you went to a dance camp and got really into dance after it. What happened at the camp?
First of all, it was the first time in my life where no one knew me as Albert the Dance Teacher’s Son. For the first time I felt like people looked at me and didn’t know what to expect. I think I was just used to people expecting me to play a certain role. At camp, I suddenly felt the same way you come to New York and you’re a stranger. People don’t know you, and you have to let people know who you are. I felt like for the first time I had to ask myself who I was. I got an injury while I was there, which really cemented my passion for dance. I was so afraid that I wasn’t going to be able to dance again. That was a very, very vivid moment where I just thought this is what I want to do. I realized how much I had taken it for granted and also how much I love it, all in this exciting summer in Myrtle Beach, SC when I was 14 years old. I came home, and I was a changed person.
Was that the first convention you went to?
I had been to dance conventions like New York City Dance Alliance and Tremaine before that with my mom. I always loved it. But Myrtle Beach was the first time I was studying dance away from home. I went away for three weeks and lived there. I didn’t know a single person at all. The faculty included teachers like Frank Hatchett, Doug Caldwell, and Dale Lam. I was in heaven.
What happened after you came back?
I came back, and I was taking class at my mom’s studio. I stayed all throughout high school. I started going in to Broadway Dance Center after school once a week to take from Jason Parsons. I did that through high school, and I went away every summer. I just got increasingly more into it. At the end of my sophomore year, going into my junior year, I started choreographing as well. That was also a big event for me because I realized it’s something I really loved to do and had a knack for. My parents were incredible in that they just let me use the dancers and make dances at age 15, which is so rare. That’s how it started.
Did you go to college for dance?
I went to NYU to study dance at Tisch. I left halfway through my first year to tour with Tremaine Dance Conventions because I had won their title, and my dream had been to be a Tremaine Dancer of the Year. My parents were like, “go to school and then you can take the second semester off and then go back.” I ended up meeting some great people at Tremaine and moved to Los Angeles. I never went back to school; I am still on a leave of absence [laughs]. It was a weird time to be moving to New York. 9/11 happened my first week there, and frankly I just wasn’t that sure that being a dance major was what I wanted. My parents always trusted me. They let me make my own decisions. So I ended up moving to Los Angeles and was there for 2 years before I came back to New York.
How did you like LA?
It was really good for me. I learned how to do my laundry and cook and made a lot of incredible friends. Some of my closest friends are from that time. I was introduced to a whole world of dance that I would’ve never experienced. At that time, the hip-hop scene in LA was growing really rapidly. I had never seen commercial dance like that before; it was art. I didn’t necessarily want to be a hip-hop dancer, but the musicality of it was mind-blowing. What we now call contemporary was also evolving in LA at that time. Dee Caspary was putting on his shows during the summer, and Mandy Moore was teaching weekly at the Edge. I was exposed to a lot of things that I feel like ended up shaping me musically and stylistically. I was really glad I was there to experience all of that.
NYU was also a very formative experience, even in that short amount of time. I got exposed to some amazing modern dance and saw companies like Pina Bausch. Heather Lang, who ironically is my neighbor here in Sunnyside now, lived next door with our friend Lauren, and at night they would have parties in their apartment and play house music. They would just freestyle for hours and that was a huge eye-opener for me. I was exposed to what improv was, house music, and voguing. It was really special. Then I went to LA, and I was introduced to that world. I was, in a very short amount of time, exposed to a lot of different kinds of dance that I wouldn’t have been had I been on a more traditional path.
I didn’t really work in LA [laughs]. I sort of hung out and partied and grew up a little bit. Came out of the closet. Did all those sorts of things. When I came back to New York, two years later, I was ready. I wanted to get serious. So I did.
What was a big factor in moving back to New York?
At that point I thought, "I think it might be good for me to start exploring musical theatre," which I had not been particularly interested in before. I went to shows as a kid with my mom often, and I loved them, but I didn’t really dream of being on Broadway once I got out of high school. I wanted to be “edgy” and dance barefoot.
When that didn’t happen in LA, I thought, "I am going to go home and give it a second chance." I came back to New York, and the first class I took was Andy Blankenbuehler’s. It completely changed my life. That was when I decided that I wanted to study this. I never thought of theatre dance as something you could study. I thought it was just jazz dance to theatre music. I realized in his class there was so much to learn. I think for me I was always very drawn to how I can grow. If I stop growing, I get restless and I leave. I was in LA for two years, and I felt like I had grown as much as I could here. So I came to New York and luckily came to his class. I took it religiously for 3 years before he stopped teaching. It shaped me as an artist undoubtedly.
I got to watch Andy teach at Broadway Donation, and it was an mind-blowing experience.
He is mind-blowingly brilliant. He is a very, very generous teacher in that he is not only passionate about sharing information but took an interest in my choreography and was very supportive of that. He got to know me as a person and got to know my family. He’s been a very instrumental person in my life and the best role model I could possibly ask for.
After moving to New York, how did you get your name out as a choreographer?
I did about five years of performing. While I was auditioning, the way I afforded to live in New York was by choreographing for local dance studios. I did a lot of choreography in New Jersey. I was making money doing solos and group numbers. So I was always choreographing, but I wanted to get a show and be on Broadway. I did my regional gigs, and I ended up going on tour with Wicked. And then I was moved to the Broadway company.
I was back in New York doing my first Broadway show. I was thinking that I was going to do my first show in New York and then hopefully it would be easier to get another one. My plan was to spend a good five years from 25-30 continuing to perform. But while I was there, I entered the ACE Awards, which is a choreography competition sponsored by Capezio and Break the Floor Productions. A friend of mine, Mandy Moore, had encouraged me to enter, so I did. I ended up winning.
Funny part of it is that I was a finalist for the competition, and I decided to put in my notice at Wicked. There was something about that moment in my life that I thought, "It's time for me to be done here." Two weeks later was the ACE Awards, and I won. So I took a huge risk and left the show, and then won this grant—$15,000 to put on a show. They gave me a theatre at Roseland Ballroom, gave me lighting, gave me publicity. I spent that next year choreographing and writing the show. I remember having this very vivid moment right after the Awards where I called my boyfriend at the time, and he was like, “How did it go?” “I won.” “Oh my god.” “Yeah... I guess I am a choreographer now.” From then, I knew I had to put the show together, and it became my life. I had a year to do it. In that time, not even an ounce of me missed auditioning or performing. That’s when I stopped performing. I never looked back. That show happened, and then I started teaching at Broadway Dance Center and Steps. Things started to happen rapidly. It always felt like I was doing the right thing. It’s been almost five years since the ACE awards and I’ve never looked back once.
I had always known that choreographing was going to be the thing that I ended up doing, as well as teaching. I just didn’t think it would happen this soon. When I entered, a part of me was like, “What are the chances that I could win it? Secondly, if I win, I can still perform. it’s not going to change anything.” What I didn’t account on was loving it so much. I just loved being in the studio making things. I was happier than I had been in a really long time. That’s what I wasn’t expecting.
I can only imagine how hard that decision could be for a lot of people. You were on Broadway making a nice salary and having stability, and you had to choose between the two.
A lot of people thought I was nuts. Some of my friends were like, "Why are you going to give up this job?" I just knew instinctively that I should, and somehow I had the guts to do it. It ended up being the right thing. I don’t think I’d be where I am now if I hadn’t made that decision--if I had tried to stay in the show or tried to keep performing.
But then it never felt like a choice. I am all about the gut feeling. If I have it, I go with it.
When I hear people talk about your class, they always say that it makes them feel really good when they dance. In your choreography and teaching, what do you pull from?
For me, the choreography always comes from whatever I feel inspired by that week. It’s usually rooted in some sort of story, and it’s acting based in the sense that the movement is motivated by a desire or concrete idea.. Since I started teaching, what I try to focus on is class as a whole from the very, very beginning to the very, very end. I really focus a lot of my energy on the warm-up. I realized that a lot of people take warmup, and they’re not engaging emotionally. And then they have to suddenly go into a combination or learn choreography and be emotional and be an actor. I tried really hard to make a warmup that makes people not only engage emotionally and musically, but also feel safe enough to let their guard down. I think that, for me, is why people respond to the class. I think that I am able to make people feel comfortable in a way that is not common in that setting. I think a lot of times dance class can feel very competitive. It can feel very stressful. I think there can be a healthy sense of competition, but I’d rather consider it motivation. Someone is dancing next to you and they are motivating you to work harder.
It all sort of happened naturally. I started experimenting with different exercises and warmups and they seemed to work. By the time people get to the combination they feel good and they feel not only connected with themselves but connected to the people next to them. People interact with each other during warm-up, which I think makes people feel more comfortable. I think they feel good before they even start learning choreography. And hopefully the choreography is really good [laughs]. Then they feel even better. For me, the key is what happens in that first hour, and I am really passionate about it. It’s so hard being a dancer in New York. It’s lonely, and it can be a difficult life from day to day. Auditioning sucks a lot of times. The last thing I want is for people to come to class and feel worse. I want them to have a place where they can come to get better, to get inspired, and also to have an emotional outlet to dance. To come dance for two hours and be reminded why they moved to New York in the first place.
You’ve done some really awesome stuff—what are some of your most memorable things that you’ve done?
Creating my own show was memorable because I had never choreographed anything longer than 3 minutes before and suddenly I had to do a whole evening. I also had to collaborate with so many other people like a set designer and lighting designer and producer which I had never done before and all in New York City where people in the industry were going to come see it. I learned so much in that process. It was a crash course.
I was in Vietnam doing So You Think You Can Dance last year, and that was an incredible experience. It was very difficult. There was a language barrier, so I was very much reminded how dance can unite people. I have this very vivid memory of holding this guy’s hand, who was a b-boy. I was teaching him Chasse, Ball Change. In America, that’s one of the first steps you learn, and it’s a very classic jazz, changing weight kind of step. He had never seen it before and didn’t know it. I was holding his hand in Vietnam in a yoga studio, teaching this person—passing something on that I very vividly remember my father teaching me. It was a very special moment for me.
Obviously, doing So You Think You Can Dance here in the U.S. has been really amazing just because the show came on before I was professionally choreographing. It’s been 10 years. I’ve been very inspired by it. To show up there and be sitting in that room and be surrounded by people that I admire very much was really cool. That just happened this summer for the first time. I did two episodes. It was crazy.
How did you get the opportunity?
I had choreographed for a student of mine from New Jersey, Jess LeProtto, who was just in On the Town. I did his solos when he was in high school. He ended up being a finalist on SYTYCD, and I choreographed all his solos for the show. So they first learned my name that way. Then my agent at the time, Lucille DiCampli, had submitted me, and I was able to present for the producers, and that went very well. I ended up doing Vietnam, and eventually I ended up doing it here. It was very gradual—over many years.
Were you a judge on the Vietnamese version?
No, just a choreographer. I was there for two weeks. It was wild.
It seems like a lot of dance gigs send people to all kinds of places.
Yeah, it was just one of things where I was like, “How did I get here? How did this happen?” I felt so lucky to be doing it. You follow this thing that makes you feel good, and it can really lead to some amazing places.
Where do you see yourself going?
I am very passionate about theatre. I really love working on original, new material. I am not as interested in going off and doing regional productions of revivals of shows that have already been done really well. I am not opposed to it, but it doesn’t excite me nearly as much as doing something new. I am currently directing and choreographing an original musical for Holland America Cruise Lines written by the composer/lyricist team of Kooman and Dimond, and it has been one of my favorite projects thus far. They are brilliant guys, and I think we are making a very special show. Seeing something come to life for the first time is such a special feeling, and I hope to continue to doing that kind of work.
I want to continue teaching. I love teaching in New York, and I teach on a convention called JUMP that I feel very passionate about, so I don’t see that ending any time soon. The thing I fantasize about is being in New York more. I just got a new apartment in Sunnyside, and I definitely long for little bit more time with my family and friends. I know that can be very, very difficult in this business, but that’s the sort of thing that I am hoping for--staying here and traveling as much as I need to.
I love film and television as well. I have some short film stuff coming up that I am really excited about. I am not sure where that will lead. What I am passionate about is new ways to tell stories, so wherever that takes me is where I will go.
What would be your number one advice?
Surround yourself with good people. Be nice. And keep learning. That’s it.
To elaborate on that: There was a time where I was only taking classes from people who I thought were going to get me a job. And sometimes those could be great classes. I am not saying that doesn’t mean they can’t be beautifully inspiring. But at one point in my career, I was just unhappy. So I went back to Joe Lanteri’s class at Steps. Just to dance. Not that I didn’t think he was going to hire me for something, but I didn’t go there for that. I just went there for me. And I felt happier and better about myself and what I was doing than I had in really long time. So much of our time is spent here trying to figure out what other people want from us, but I think it’s also important to figure out the things that make us the best versions of ourselves.
My dream was to be hired by Andy Blankenbuehler, and I never was. I never got cast in one of his shows. But that dream fueled me to take his class. It fueled me to keep taking acting classes, which I never would’ve done. It fueled me to take voice classes, which I wouldn’t have done as passionately. And I grew as an artist in that period of time so much. Even though I never got cast in one of his shows, all of those things contribute to where I am now. The fact that I never was cast in one of his shows doesn’t change the value of any of that information or any of the time that I spent evolving. I am very grateful for that motivation.
Any last thing that you want to share?
Just be cool, everybody. Be cool [laughs]. Working with dancers is often times figuring out who to bring in a room with you. I want to work with people that are comfortable in their skin and aren’t trying to prove something to me. Be you, and I think the rest will fall into place.