How did you start dancing?
I started when I was 7. My parents were avid theatre goers. They took me to see the original Broadway production of 42nd Street back in 1982. During the opening number—when the curtain rose about two feet up, I just started crying. I started putting on shows in my living room for about a good 5-6 months, not knowing what I was doing at all. I was trying to replicate that opening. My parents heard that Hines-Hatchett (what is now Broadway Dance Center) was opening in September of 1982, so I started in the children’s program there. I took jazz, tap, ballet, and just worked my way up. I always wanted to be a tapper, but I found my passion for jazz about three years after that. I wanted to be like the next Fred Astaire, which is odd, because that’s the furthest thing from what I am now [laughs].
What made you switch to jazz?
In the 80s, tap was really big. There were a lot of tap shows on Broadway and in the industry. That’s also when hip-hop started to affect the classroom environment. Hip-hop was more of a street-based and cultural thing, and then it became more of a studio thing as jazz funk or funky jazz. I just loved the way that it picked up with Michael, Janet, and Paula. It shifted me away from wanting to be just one specific thing. I wanted to do everything from being a pop icon to Broadway movement to classical dancing. I was auditioning for ballet schools back then and made it twice, but I never went because I didn’t want to be one specific type of dancer. I just wanted to do everything and be a jack of all trades and try to express myself in any way dance would allow me. I guess it was kind of psychotic [laughs] in that way because I never perfected anything but wanted to learn everything.
What made you pursue dance as a career?
Not to be corny, but I think it was just written in the stars. I could never imagine doing anything else. I was an actor and a singer as a kid. But every time I would get home from school, turn on my stereo system, close my bedroom door, and dance. I always wanted to put on shows for anyone who wanted to watch—parents, family members, friends. In high school and junior high school, I was choreographing constantly. It was never my dream to be a dancer per se, but I always wanted to dance and have that experience to become a choreographer and a teacher.
I never thought I would teach so young. I didn’t know it was going to happen so soon. I thought teachers were in their 40s and above. I started teaching when I was 19, which was really weird and scary at the time. I only had 12 years of experience in the industry. I never thought of doing anything else but dance. Still, 34 years into it, I can’t think of anything else that makes me feel alive like dance does.
Did you start your career as a teacher?
From 7 to 19, I was a dancer, an actor, a singer. I performed with New Edition, did the Thanksgiving Day Parade 3 times, Off-Broadway shows, commercials, music videos, American Bandstand—all these different shows. During junior high school— it was a magnet school for arts—I was the only guy in the entire dance department, and I was just bullied so much. I think It was worse back in the day than it is now. I didn’t want to go through 4 more years of being ridiculed. So I went to LaGuardia High School for drama. It was the best thing I ever did. It got me to access the parts of performing arts that took dance to a whole new level—by storytelling. Those 4 years spent in drama training, studying the Stanislavski system, Shakespeare scenes, voice and diction, all that stuff—they helped me dissect a character and be able to follow it from beginning to end, intention-based and relationship-based. I then brought my training in drama into choreography. I started doing benefits for diabetes, AIDS research, all that kind of stuff. I wanted to use dance to make a social difference in the world rather than just it just being “look at me.” This was before social media or anything like that. It was never about getting myself out there to be known, but getting myself out there to help.
What are you up to right now?
Mostly traveling all over the place and going crazy [laughs]. I just recently did the choreography for the Brooklynettes again. I’ve been doing that for them like every year. I am setting up for America’s Got Talent now, which films in LA in the beginning of March, and submitting for the new season of So You Think You Can Dance.
How did you get into flash mobs?
That came to me three and a half years ago. Joe Lanteri and I taught at Steps on Broadway, and we used to always see each other, and we became acquaintance-friends, and then out of nowhere he just called me up and said that there was a flashmob that he thought I’d be perfect for. He couldn’t do it because he was running NYCDA stuff. I didn’t even know what a flash mob was, so I had to research. Everything that I saw online was so unwatchable. Just awful. Unless they were the big ones—like Flash Mob America. They were awfully choreographed and horribly staged disasters. I did the one in Bryant Park where it was a 150-piece marching band, 30 dancers, and 5 camera shoots. That blew up. I think it has almost 10 million views, which is insane. I got written up in so many different newspapers, CBS evening news, interviewed by so many different people. That turned into me getting hired by two different companies.
According to people, I had become a sort of a “flash mob king”, and I couldn’t believe it [laughs]. I had no idea that was an empire to have. I would’ve never even thought that. It was sort of handed to me, and I just thought about how I can make this better and make it mine. Everything’s been done before, but it’s how you put your stamp on it. I wanted to make it filmed well and amp up the choreography so that people would watch it. I can’t even tell you how many viral ones there are. I get written up constantly in newspapers and magazines. I didn’t even know that was something to do. It seemed corny to me at first, but it’s actually really sweet. Especially the marriage proposals. I usually end up crying.
Since you weren’t familiar with flash mobs, did you consider not doing it when Joe first offered?
I was just so flattered that I was even on his radar. I had no idea that he thought of me in that way whatsoever. I just wanted to represent him in the best way possible. I was glad that it blew up the way it did. It was a real big success. I think I’ve done about 200-300 of them now.
What are your aspirations?
I have a goal that I don’t vocalize a lot. I want to work in every single medium at its highest point. Whatever project it is, I hope that it challenges me. I hate replication. I don’t want to repeat myself. I always want to find something different. Once you find a groove, it stays in that groove, so I get really bored. I have to break out of it.
I want Broadway, music videos, tours, all that stuff. I am headed in that direction. It’s been a very slow, consistent climb. I’ve never had a big boom, which I am thankful for. I’ve noticed that the people who had the booms—all of a sudden they’re done. That always scares me. I don’t pray for the boom. I pray for the step by step and earn each step. What I aspire to be is to have excellence in everything that I do but also respect the journey while I am doing it. Not just be focused on followers and likes, which we get really wrapped up in.
What was it like growing up in the city?
The 80s were really different. For some reason, my parents let me travel all the time. I went to high school in the city, and Brooklyn was pretty far out. It was about an hour-20-minute to an hour-30-minute commute. The city was dangerous back then. Trains were really, really unsafe. I was mugged twice during my high school years, which was insane. One at gunpoint and one who said he had a knife—I didn’t see it, but it was my second time being mugged, so I was like, “You can have whatever you want.” It was difficult. It was a different city. Now I feel like it’s safe for the most part but there are always crazy people.
I am just lucky to be from New York. I’ve traveled all around the world, taught in every continent, and visited most major cities, and I’ve never found a city like New York. Even though it’s disgusting, dirty, and loud, what I love about it so much is that the entire world’s demographic is represented. You can’t really even tell who’s a tourist and who’s not unless they have a camera around their neck. Even then, it could be you just walking around doing photoshoots. You never know who you’re going to meet, where they come from, what their life story is. There’s so much diversity here. Every single country is represented here, and I think it’s such a cool place for inspiration. I’ve had so much inspiration from the city, so I consider myself lucky. Teaching at BDC and seeing so many international students come through—they’re living their dream when they come here and start dancing in New York. I am just lucky enough to have been from here all my life.
I lived in LA briefly in 2002 for 4 months. I hated it. It was awful. I had an agency, a job, a car, an apartment, friends, but it was just too much of being in a car. I like being able to walk. LA was just sitting in your car and sitting in traffic. It felt very isolated, and I didn’t necessarily believe everyone’s intentions out there. It just felt cutthroat—not that New York isn’t, but in New York you’re going to see the cutthroat, but in LA they pretend that it doesn’t exist. I’ve taught out in LA and love the students there, but it’s not a place where I want to live. My agency is out there and has asked me to come out there, but I won’t do it [laughs]. Jobs I would go there for. I wouldn’t want to move out there.
Why did you move out to LA when you did?
One, I was trying to distance myself from a relationship that went sour. Two, I always wanted to give it a shot. New York wasn’t necessarily a place to make a music video or have a concert career. Growing up with Michael, Janet, Paula, and Madonna, all that stuff was out in LA. It was frustrating to be in a city where auditions were not happening for the people that you wanted to work for. I just remember being 14 and 15 years old and watching everything from “Rhythm Nation” to Paula Abdul’s “Cold Hearted,” and Michael Jackson. I was just talking to Slam, one of Madonna’s Vogue dancers, the other day, and I told him about how frustrating it was to be 15 and watch that tour and think about how you’re not old enough. The second I turned 25, I thought that it had been too long, and I needed to do it. So I just left everything that I had built up here, which was so hard. I was doing well at 25 in New York, and then I said, “I just gotta go to LA.” I learned that sometimes you need to let everything go so that you can see what life lies before you. I felt like it allowed me to come back fresh. I got rid of all my belongings and severed all ties with most organizations and things, and it was actually the best thing I ever did. I came back focused to get shit done. That was probably the best decision I ever made.
Would you say the New York scene is different now than what it was before?
Me and other teachers talk about this a lot. I don’t feel like people are training the same way they were before. That bums me out. I feel like people are more interested in celebrity of everything now. Everyone wants the quickest way to the dollar, but there’s so much responsibility at that level and so much expectation at that level. You can just be a regular dancer, and no one knows you and be happy and do your thing, but once everyone knows you, they expect so much from you. I am pressured to churn out choreography that’s amazing all the time. And sometimes it’s not amazing. Sometimes it sucks. Sometimes I am horrible; sometimes I am amazing. It’s just so much pressure when you’re teaching at the biggest dance institution in the world, and you feel like you can’t deliver every single time. I think it’s harder now because work is immediately published everywhere. But trends come and go. That’s why I prefer a steady climb rather than to be blown out of nowhere and disappear. I never want that. I am happy to learn and change—that’s why I do collaboration classes because they stop me being myself all the time. I don’t want to be me everyday. I want to see how I can pick up other things and infuse it to become stronger, better, more knowledgeable than the Derek-oh-he-did-that-five-years-ago. I always want to shift and change and grow.
What would be the biggest challenge you’ve had?
I love challenges and when people say no because it makes me work harder for a yes. But what I don’t love is people talking about you behind your back without knowing who you are. That’s been the hardest struggle for me. I do want to please everybody, and I want everyone to be open and giving, but when you meet that resistance—the dance community can be so amazing but so awful at times. When I find myself around people that love to tear others down, it’s so ankle-biting. I hate when I find out that some people who were my friends end up talking about me behind my back. That’s not what we’re supposed to be doing. I feel like there’s work for everybody, and tearing people down is never a good thing. When I see people’s rants on Facebook every single day, it makes me not want to be in the industry, but I remind myself that you have to do you, and you have to stay with your vision. Sooner or later the right people will connect to your message if it’s clear enough.
What would be your number one advice for dancers?
Think longevity, not the moment. A lot of students say to me that they want to book Gaga and Beyonce, and I am like, “But then what?” They’re always about that one gig. I’ve worked for Madonna, but I want to work for Madonna in a choreographic way, and I am still convinced that that will happen at some point in my life. But I also know that it’s not the be-all and end-all. I still want to choreograph for a Broadway show, a movie, and be at the helm of so many different projects. I don’t have this one specific thing that I like—that’s the cherry on the cake.
Be as versatile as you can be, so when something goes out of style or trend, you still have a backup and won’t be a blip. You should have a foundation. You want to be able to do so many things in your wheelhouse so that you’re not a one-trick pony. For example, I would say to breakdancers to learn choreography too. If you’re just a trickster, you can only be used for a certain amount of things. You might be used for a lot of things and luck out, but sooner or later, someone’s going to expect you to learn a combination. If you can’t pick up choreography, it limits you and it limits your viability in this business.
What is your favorite moment from your career?
One of my favorite moments was choreographing for So You Think You Can Dance. I just remember thinking that this is exactly what I want to do. I want to travel the world, choreograph for a major program, and I want to tell a story that I really believe in. It was a culmination of everything.
Being on the cover of Dance Teacher Magazine was a huge one. I wasn’t expecting that at all. When that email came in, I was really surprised. I thought that kind of recognition was something that you get when you’re 50. I couldn’t believe that I got that. It was one of those moments when I was screaming from excitement. The only thing that took it away was that my mother had died three months before that news came in. I know she knows it, but that was the only thing that tinges that memory. I wish she had seen that because I know it would’ve just made her so happy. But that was a really cool moment. She was an actress. I get most of my drama from her. Although my dad is dramatic too [laughs].
Any last thing that you want to share?
New York City is a training city. You should come here to learn how to dance. Some of the best teachers in the world are here—Sheila Barker, Sheila Barker, Sheila Barker. One of the most amazing teachers that dance has to offer. Sheila is my number one recommendation for anybody who wants to dance. She’s just unbelievable.