Q&A with Tony Testa
Ever read those lists of things to do before you grow old? Well, Tony Testa seems to have done them all before age 21! Choreograph music videos and performances for Janet Jackson? Check. (Tony even locked lips with the sassy star in her “Rock With U” video.) Dance in a major movie musical like Dreamgirls? Check. Share the stage with a famous pop star like Britney Spears? Check. And Tony shows no signs of slowing down: He recently choreographed Danity Kane’s concert tour. Tony is also the host of Nickelodeon’s “Dance on Sunset,” where he teaches his hip-hop moves to kids on the small screen. Want to follow in Tony’s footsteps? Check out his advice and insights below.
DS: What’s the best way for dancers to book commercial work?
Tony Testa: One of the biggest steps is to get an agent, but training also plays a huge part. Once you get to L.A., skill is what separates you. You may never go to an audition where you’ll have to bust out a bunch of ballet, but it’s important to keep taking ballet classes. Ballet is one of the foundations of dance, and it’s good for getting in tune with your body. Also, dancers who can perform (rather than just show technique) are the ones who get nabbed for jobs.
DS: What about dancers who don’t have access to auditions or agents?
TT: If you don’t live in L.A. or NYC, conventions are the best way. Studying with influential choreographers coming to your hometown is a great way to be seen. That’s how I got my first job! You have to make things happen for yourself.
DS: Getting discovered at a convention—that’s pretty cool! Tell us more.
TT: I was a total convention kid, and one of the choreographers I looked up to was Brian Friedman. I took his class whenever he came through Denver, and that was how I landed a job dancing on the Aaron Carter tour. My friends Misha Gabriel [see DS May/June 2007] and Randi Kemper were chosen, too, so it was a lot of fun to tour together.
DS: Other than Brian, which choreographers have shaped your career?
TT: One of my main mentors is [Janet’s co-choreographer] Gil Duldulao; he has taught me so much. Mandy Moore has also been incredibly influential. Both inspired me to pursue choreography—I’m now exclusively in the choreography realm.
DS: What’s your advice on making the leap from dancer to choreographer?
TT: Take risks. So many choreographers play it safe and try to imitate what’s already out there or what’s proven to work. It’s all about pushing the envelope and not being afraid to try new things.
DS: How did you first get your work onto the choreography radar?
TT: When I was 16, I made a choreography reel and gave it to Misha, who got it into the hands of Gil Duldulao. I just got some of my friends together and filmed us dancing. We did jazz, tap and hip hop—I wanted to show my versatility. We used my mom’s video camera and propped it up on a chair to shoot. It was very makeshift, but that was what was special about it. Many reels use quick cuts. I just let the camera roll and showed them what they would get if they hired me. Gil showed the reel to Janet Jackson and I was hired! When making a reel, show your choreography for what it is; don’t pull the wool over someone’s eyes by editing in a bunch of cuts.
DS: Why do you think your reel caught Janet’s eye?
TT: She liked some of the clever nuances. After I was hired, each co-choreographer was given a different area of movement to focus on. My assignment was to hone in on hand gestures that Janet had seen and liked on the reel.
DS: You’ve worked with all the divas—from Beyoncé to Janet. How does your approach differ with each artist?
TT: As a choreographer, you have to be ready to adapt. I did a music video for Miranda Cosgrove, who didn’t have much dance experience. My job is to make sure the artist feels comfortable and confident, which allows her to go for it and do her best. Something I take with me to every job is the ability to be effective and simple, yet catchy. Choreography can get so hard and intricate that it can get lost. If you just do a ton of moves, it can look like mush and won’t be memorable. I want to work on the art of making memorable work.
DS: In your opinion, what defines memorable work?
TT: Think about “Thriller”—even people who don’t dance can do that dance. The moves are iconic and catchy, and that’s the type of choreographer I want to be.
Getting corrections from our dance instructors is how we grow, and as students, it's important that we do our best to apply every correction right away. But sometimes—whether it's because we're in physical pain, or have a lot on our minds, or are just not paying attention—those corrections don't sink in. And from a teacher's standpoint, giving the same corrections time and time again gets old very fast. Here are 10 important corrections dance teachers are tired of giving. Take them to heart!
Summer intensive auditions can be nerve-racking. A panel of directors is watching your every move, and you're not even sure if you can be seen among the hundreds of other dancers in the room. We asked five summer intensive directors for their input on how dancers can make a positive impression—and even be remembered next year.
Harper Watters is a ballet dancer for today's generation. A social media maestro and a charismatic performer, the Houston Ballet soloist is equally at home in front of the camera hosting his hit YouTube series, "The Pre Show"; interacting with fans on his crazy-popular Instagram account; or showing off his beautiful classical technique onstage. It's a multifaceted identity that's proven to be invaluable to his career—and it's taking him to places he never even dreamed of.
Postmodern pioneer Trisha Brown redefined how dance is seen and felt. A founding member of Judson Dance Theater, Brown frequently collaborated with other experimental artists like Yvonne Rainer, Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, and Steve Paxton.
She embraced pedestrian movement, pairing everyday gesture with rhythm and fluidity. "It's liquid," says Wendy Perron, who danced with Brown in the '60s and '70s. "Like a river with many tributaries, water coming out of a faucet, or being on a raft and seeing the water move away in different directions." Brown also pushed beyond stages with choreography in fields, museums—even on the sides of buildings.
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We always love a good halftime performance. And we LIVE for halftime performances involving talented kids. (Fingers and toes crossed that Justin Timberlake follows Missy Elliott's lead and invites some fabulous littles to share his Super Bowl stage.)
So obviously, our hearts completely melted for 5-year-old Tavaris Jones. Tavaris may have just started kindergarten, but during Monday night's game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, the Detroit native danced with the panache of a veteran pro at halftime.
The coolest place she's ever performed:
I'd have to say the Super Bowl. The field was so cool, and Katy Perry was right there. And there were so many eyes—definitely the most eyes I've ever performed for!
Something she's constantly working on:
My feet. I'm flat-footed, so I'm always hearing, 'Point your toes!' And I'm like, 'I am!'
My hair! That, and a pair of leggings with a T-shirt or tank top.