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.