A dance in wheelchairs. A performance on stilts. A re-creation of iconic Madonna moves. No doubt all three would pose a major challenge for some choreographers. But for Zach Woodlee, it’s all just part of the job. As the resident choreographer on the megahit “Glee,” Woodlee creates the moves for every performance on the show. From the angsty “Bust Your Windows”—a DS favorite—to the explosive “Bohemian Rhapsody,” he makes it happen. So how does Woodlee keep the choreography coming? We caught up with TV’s hottest dancemaker to find out.
Never seen the show? Here’s what you need to know: “Glee” is about a group of misfits who make up the New Directions glee club at William McKinley High School. They were pretty bad (see the pilot episode), but with some good choreography and a few star vocalists (download Lea Michele and Chris Colfer’s rendition of “Defying Gravity” for proof), they became great. In Season 1, New Directions faced off against rival club Vocal Adrenaline at Regionals—and lost. Now, in Season 2, New Directions is ready to prove that they can beat them next time around. And that’s what you missed on “Glee!”
Dance Spirit: Start at the beginning—how’d you get to Hollywood?
Zach Woodlee: My parents owned a dance studio while I was growing up in Texas, so my three brothers and I had to take dance classes—it was cheaper than hiring a babysitter. I’d go to school, then football practice, then to the studio. Two of my brothers are now police officers and one is a fireman, but they can all still do time steps!
After high school, I went to college for geriatrics. I wanted to run recreational programs at retirement and assisted-living homes. But then I met a girl who was going out to L.A. on a studio scholarship. She invited me to go along with her, so I auditioned and got a scholarship to train for a year at The Performing Arts Center. Once the scholarship was up, I started auditioning for commercial work. I danced on tour with singer Mandy Moore, and then got a spot dancing on Madonna’s Reinvention tour.
DS: When did you realize you wanted to choreograph?
ZW: I became choreographer Anne Fletcher’s [DS May/June 2010] assistant when I was 27. My back was going out and I figured my dance days were limited. I worked with her on The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Hairspray and 27 Dresses. Eventually I told her I felt I was ready to choreograph on my own. She introduced me to Greg Berlanti, who hired me as the resident choreographer on the TV show “Eli Stone.” Not long after that, Ryan Murphy called Greg and said he was looking to hire a choreographer for a new show called “Glee.” I met Ryan, showed him my reel and here we are.
DS: What’s it like on the “Glee” set?
ZW: Crazy! The show is so performance-heavy that everybody gets involved with the dance numbers. Our crane operators and camera guys count in eights and know the dances. It’s amazing to see these 75-foot-long cranes with a guy at the end going “5, 6, 7, 8.” It doesn’t feel like a normal set, which is fitting, because it’s not a normal TV show. The pace is so fast. As we’re shooting one episode, we’re already rehearsing dance numbers for the next one. I only get eight hours to teach the choreography for each routine.
DS: Which character on the show do you most relate to?
ZW: I am Will Schuester! When we’re rehearsing or on set, I’m the teacher. I act like we’re getting ready for Nationals. I really do feel like we’re competing against Vocal Adrenaline!
DS: What are the biggest hurdles you’ve faced?
ZW: The toughest thing to do is get Vocal Adrenaline ready. Their choreography is so technical, with a lot of precision and lifting. The dancers are supposed to look like one unit—like you’re watching a kaleidoscope.
DS: We loved the “Ray of Light” routine from the “Power of Madonna” episode. How’d you come up with the idea to put dancers on stilts?
ZW: I brought in a group called Stilt World to add to the dynamic with the cheerleaders. I had some choreography in mind, so we took one move at a time to get it right on the stilts. Whereas you can normally do a fan kick in two counts, it took four on stilts. I stood really far away from them during rehearsal!
DS: Many of the cast members aren’t dancers, they’re actors. What’s it like to choreograph for people who don’t have dance training?
ZW: Anne [Fletcher] always told me to protect my actors. They’re putting themselves out there for millions of people to see, and they’re not professional dancers. My job is to take away their vulnerability and give them confidence. I’m always telling them, “This will look great, you’re going to be amazing.”
DS: Which cast members are the most natural dancers?
ZW: Naya Rivera (Santana) can retain the choreography and sell it so naturally. You’d never know she wasn’t a professional dancer. She’s a dream. And Amber Riley (Mercedes) really knows how to move her body. Her energy and style are infectious.
We’re like the Bad News Bears. We have some of the best singers and some of the best dancers. My job is to fuse it together to make it seem like a unit.
DS: Tell us about the “Safety Dance” flash mob scene from the “Dream On” episode.
ZW: Kevin McHale (Artie) is not only the nicest, coolest guy in the world, he’s also an incredible learner. We always wanted him to dance, but since his character is in a wheelchair we also wanted the scene to be believable. So I created choreography to make it look like a discovery of your feet and legs. It started with the dancers moving their feet, then bouncing their knees and then gliding across the floor. It was like they were going through physical therapy. And we filmed it in a real mall during working hours!
DS: What has been your favorite episode so far?
ZW: The pilot. I was so emotionally invested in it—we all were. The show was a major passion project from the start. I did high school theater, and two of the show’s creators, Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan, were both in the glee clubs at their high schools. I remember going to the studio for the first time to meet the kids, none of whom were dancers [Heather Morris, Dijon Talton and Harry Shum Jr., all trained dancers, joined the cast later]. We had no idea how big the show would become.
DS: How have the cast members changed during the course of the show?
ZW: Their language is progressing into a dancer’s language and it’s fascinating. When we were rehearsing “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” for the Season 1 finale, Lea Michele (Rachel) and Cory Monteith (Finn) were working out some choreography with me. Cory says, “Well if I turn in and go up, I can be there by count 4, and it would work if Lea follows me.” I said, “Oh my God, Cory—you just did a formation change!” They’re developing spatial awareness and really learning how to dance.
DS: What is your advice to readers who want to work in the commercial dance industry?
ZW: As a choreographer, it’s nice to see a face twice. Get to know people who know people. I still call other choreographers when I’m hiring dancers. I’ll say, “I need three girls, do you know any of these names?” Then they’ll say, “Yeah, the first two are great but the third won’t work for you.” You want people to recommend you.
Also, don’t be afraid to try everything. But remember that when you get a job, that is your job, so commit yourself 100 percent. You don’t need to try to double book yourself. In the dance world, I’ve found that when it rains, it pours. So you will probably get three jobs at one time. But you need to pick one, stick with it and do your best. There will be more jobs and opportunities in the future.
Fun Fact: Zach paid homage to his parents’ studio, Just Dancin’, in the “Acafellas” episode of “Glee.” Dakota Stanley, the Vocal Adrenaline choreographer, drove a Corvette—the same car Zach’s parents drove—with a license plate that said “DANCIN.”
Dishing With New Directions
We know how Zach feels about working with the über-talented cast of “Glee.” So how do they feel about taking direction from him?
"I was surprised by Zach at first. I was expecting a choreographer like the evil 'spirit fingers' one in Bring It On. But Zach skipped in wearing Converse sneakers, shorts, a baseball cap and a huge smile. He's like a human border collie, bouncing around the room being everyone's loyal best friend. It's like he's herding us—and some of us dance like sheep—when he's watching us run a routine. His routines are genius. None of us know how he manages to continue to top himself. Zach is just one of those people you love to work hard for." —Chris Colfer (Kurt)
"Every day that I work with Zach I still don't feel like I'm worthy of working with such an amazing person. I lost my father at a young age and although I could never replace him, I look up to Zach as a father figure." —Heather Morris (Brittany)
"I love just being around Zach. He's like the popular kid on set! Everyone loves him, and we wouldn't be New Directions without him." —Amber Riley (Mercedes)
"I always know exactly where Zach is emotionally. He's completely transparent—it's all in the eyes. When we're shooting a number and the chaos of being on set gets to be too much, he'll just say, 'Good luck to you,' and walk away." —Jane Lynch (Sue Sylvester)
"Zach will be remembered as one of the greats. His vision and the speed at which he puts his numbers together are incredible. He cares so much about the actors, the dancers and the overall product." —Dianna Agron (Quinn)
"I adore Zach and love working with him. He makes learning the choreography fun. And on top of that, he's a fantastic person." —Naya Rivera (Santana)