PureDWTS Court Rants: The Argument in Favor of Outside Choreographers

Ever since the “Choreography Emmy-gate” scuttlebutt erupted last summer, there seems to be a new, controversial topic I see thrown around more and more amongst the fans: the pros using/not using outside choreographers. And there have been offshoots of that topic as well – how much credit outside choreographers should be given (if any), the contractual ins-and-outs of using outside choreographers, and whether or not the use of an outside choreographer somehow makes a pro “less talented”.  And honestly – it kinda gets my goat, because fans that know little to nothing about how choreography works suddenly have their noses in the air about some of the pros on the show using them. So I’ve been meaning to do this for awhile now: just a post setting the record straight, and hopefully addressing some of the misguided opinions I’ve heard about the use of outside choreographers on the show.

Misguided Opinion #1: A pro that uses an outside choreographer isn’t as good as one who doesn’t.

Hate to call you guys out, but this one seems like it’s being screamed the loudest by some ardent Derek fans that subscribe to the belief that Derek doing all his own choreography = Derek > everyone else. You know which other pro does all of his/her own choreography? Allison. And I would argue that she’s not been as successful as some pros that DO utilize an outside choreographer, as she got called out twice last season for having overly-complex, hard-to-follow choreography. Here’s the reality that I don’t think a lot of viewers understand: VERY FEW PROS ARE A TRIPLE THREAT. And by triple threat, I mean they dance, they teach, and they choreograph, and are proficient at all three. Why are there so few that can do all three very well? BECAUSE THERE JUST ISN’T ENOUGH TIME. This applies to dancers not on the show as well – there are very few professional ballroom dancers that have enough time (and energy) to dance professionally, teach their students, and also choreograph (either for themselves, for their students, or both). I think most are lucky if they can hit on two out of three – and I would say the one that gets omitted first when there’s a time constraint is choreography, as that’s something you can easily outsource. Most pros I know utilize an outside choreographer for their competition routines and showcase routines – and the ones doing the choreography are usually retired pros with some degree of acclaim from their professional career (i.e. Shirley Ballas, Wendy Johnson, Bruno Collins, etc.) They themselves are no longer dancing, so they have time (and the experience) to choreograph for other people.  Even the currently World Professional Latin Champions, Riccardo & Yulia, use an outside choreographer for their routines.  On top of that – some pros just aren’t natural-born choreographers. One of my friends that teaches readily admits that she’s terrible at choreographing routines – she can perform the hell out of them, and is fantastic at actually teaching students how to do them; but sit her down and tell her to actually come up with a routine? It’s just not something that comes easily to her.  It didn’t come easily to Tristan, either – I remember him mentioning in more than one interview that he hates choreographing. It’s like asking an actor to also write and direct the picture he’s starring in – just not enough time or broadness of skill, unless you’re Clint Eastwood (and he’s had a lot of practice).

In addition, with so many non-traditional ballroom dances being added to the DWTS repertoire in recent years, it’s entirely possible that a pro could get saddled with a dance that they actually aren’t familiar with – or with which they only have limited experience. Is it somehow morally superior to pretend as though you’re familiar enough with a dance that you really have no experience with (and just limp through a routine), than to admit “I need help!” and get someone who’s actually experienced enough to choreograph a solid routine for your celeb? Before the days when pros could actually call in for backup if they needed help, Derek had to resort to scouring the internet for directions on how to do a jitterbug.  It turned out alright, but when he needed help with a bhangra, he wasn’t above calling in an outside choreographer to help.  Hell, Cheryl wasn’t too proud to admit when she didn’t know squat about bolero during all-stars – she enlisted the help of Tony and 4 other pro friends to try and churn out something halfway decent for Emmitt.

Bottom line? When there’s limited time, you’ve got limited experience, and you want the best for your partner – there’s no shame in using an outside choreographer. Doing your own choreography doesn’t necessarily make you a good pro – but keeping your celeb’s best interests at heart does. Think of choreographic skills as the free gift with purchase – not the main item you’re after.

Misguided Opinion #2: Any outside choreographers used should be given recognition…PERIOD.

I have to partially blame a handful of pros that were passive-aggressively tweeting about “giving credit where it’s due” and “righting a wrong” after Emmygate for this one, as they seemed to give some fans the impression that anytime you get help (no matter how small!) with your choreography, the helper deserves credit, and you must provide it in a very public & grandiose manner.  I personally think this is a bit impractical, for multiple reasons – the chief being that often these “helpers” are not the creative masterminds behind the routines, and have really only stepped in to offer assistance with steps (Spencer Liff confirmed this in an Afterbuzz episode); to be forced to acknowledge them so publicly can give the impression that they contributed more than they actually did. Sorry, but if Sharna steps in and helps Witney with 1 trick in her salsa, I don’t think that necessitates some huge recognition for Sharna – the bulk of the choreography, the creative concept, the costumes/staging/etc. is still Witney’s. And I’ve seen a few suggest that DWTS flash something up on the screen after the dance saying that the pro “had outside assistance” from [insert choreographer here] or something, but to me – that just seems to be another opportunity to over-complicate a show that has already become increasingly over-complicated…plus, it kinda detracts from the pros, who have become celebrities in their own right and have often become the main reason viewers tune in.  If the pros are a big draw, I think it behooves the show keep up the impression that they’re all fabulous at what they do – I don’t think the average viewer needs to know that they may, on occasion, receive outside help with their choreography; it likely ruins a bit of the magic for some.  I’d prefer to think my favorite comedians all write their own jokes – to find out they had other folks doing their leg work would probably bum me out a bit.  And anything that keeps the show magical for viewers is a good thing, I think.

Aside from practical reasons for not recognizing outside choreographers, there’s also some legal reasons why it doesn’t happen.  As Spencer stated in the Afterbuzz video, many of these outside choreographers are brought in to “ghost” – meaning they know up front that they will NOT be getting recognition for whatever choreography they’re contributing. They are paid out-of-pocket by the pros themselves to meet off-site (when the celeb is not around) and help with choreography, and then they quietly go on their way. If an outside choreographer “ghosts”, I see no reason why they should get recognition later on – they’re very aware of how ghosting works, and they know that silence is kinda part of the deal. So for some (*cough*AlanSalazar*cough*) to suddenly start whining about not getting credit after the fact, it’s a little…dumb. If the outside choreographer wants recognition, then things get more complicated – a formal contract has to be drawn up between the show and the outside choreographer being used, and it becomes the show’s responsibility to foot the bill.  This is also the only way that an outside choreographer not in regular employ of the show can be recognized as a nominee, should a particular piece of choreography be meritorious enough to earn a nomination. It’s an academy rule: no formal contract = no name on the nomination. This explains why Witney’s name was the only one on the nomination for her routines with Alfonso this past summer – Alan Salazar only ghosted on those routines, so no formal contract was drawn up…and thus, the Academy wouldn’t add his name to the nomination.  But again – all things he knew up front when he agreed to ghost.  And this isn’t a new rule…not sure why some think they’re so special that a rule that has been around for YEARS should be changed for them.

Misguided Opinion #3: The outside choreographer, if used, is responsible for the whole routine.

I was fairly certain this wasn’t the case (based on dance teacher friends’ experiences with outside choreographers), and Lindsay basically confirmed it in the interview she gave us.  But I have to say I was a tad appalled at how many fans’ noses I saw in the air during Alek & Lindsay’s freestyle – I praised the creativity of the concept, only to be hit with several tweets saying “yeah, but Lindsay uses an outside choreographer” or “not her idea, outside choreography”.  Aside from the shock I still seem to get when witnessing the increasing arrogance and dismissive-ness of some DWTS fans, I was a tad taken aback that fans automatically assumed the pro had zero input in the choreography process when an outside choreographer was brought in to help.  In what world does it make sense for the pro, who is the one who best knows their partner’s strengths & weaknesses, to just say “Hi Alan.  Come up with a paso, choreograph it, come up with costumes & sets, and I’ll just sit her and tape it on my GoPro”? It makes NO sense whatsoever to completely relinquish control – and it doesn’t happen.  In my experience, outside choreographers are brought in to do just that – choreograph.  You tell them the dance, the concept, the theme, etc. and give them a realistic idea of what your partner is capable of, and they give you steps – and you work through it WITH them.  Then, once they’re done choreographing, it’s up to the pro to take the routine and teach their celeb, and possibly tweak the routine to fit them better. When all is said and done, the pro is still doing the bulk of the work – they’re coming up with a concept, they’re collaborating on the choreography, they’re teaching it to their celeb, and they’re changing choreography as necessary. All the ghost does is show up and start putting together steps – and you have to give them something to start from.  Back in my competition days, if my partner and I had saved up enough money to book a few hours with Shirley and get some showcase choreography, I’m pretty sure she would have said something to the tune of “Are you out of your mind???” if we just came in and said “Just choreograph something…anything!” and did not give her some direction to work in.  I always think of Broadway shows: the choreographer (be it Jerome Robbins, Twyla Tharp, Bob Fosse, etc.) always knows ahead of time what the storyline is, what the music is, and what the scene is – they choreograph USING THAT; they don’t completely start from scratch.

Misguided Opinion #4: It’s not fair that Witney caught flak for using one, while nobody is giving Lindsay a hard time!

This post at DWTSConfessions on tumblr that Julia shared with me seems to indicate that I need to address this. This is really kind of an oversimplification, and I don’t know that the person that wrote it really understood the full story: it wasn’t really using an outside choreographer that Witney caught flak for – it was using one and then not giving credit…which if you actually read what I said in my second point, is not really her fault anyway. And in all honesty, I think a lot of the ire that Witney drew during Emmygate was the result of some other pros (Sharna, Peta, Jenna, and probably some bitching from Val, too) throwing Twitter tantrums about Academy rules, but conveniently being vague and then letting prying fans draw their own conclusions. In Sharna’s case, she also seemed to hint that she had actually assisted Witney in some of her choreography for Alfonso, but wasn’t actually given credit – so I think that was more what got Witney in trouble than actually using an outside choreographer.  I think a lot of fans would be shocked at just how many of the pros use an outside choreographer and just don’t talk about it – there’s one former pro from the show that one of my sources swears never actually did any of his/her own choreography, and always showed up to rehearsal with ready-made routines for his/her partner from an outside choreographer.  And this pro NEVER talked about it. And to Lindsay’s credit – she’s always been pretty open about the fact that she’s used one, and really gave some great insight into the use of outside choreographers in this interview we did with her not long ago.  I’m not even sure that she was using one back during Victor’s season – if I had to guess, she probably was not super flush with cash at that point, and may not have been able to afford it. And as for this season – the fact that Wanya made a point of saying that it was “all Lindsay’s choreography” in week 1 makes me think she may have boned up on her choreography skills to the point where she might not need one for every single dance…even scheisty Alan Salazar acknowledges that Lindsay does the bulk of her own choreography. I’m guessing the post was written by a (rather immature) Witney fan, and didn’t actually take into account things like…oh, y’know, FACTS…but I still feel like a lot of shade is getting thrown Lindsay’s way without good reason…so I thought I would just clear this one up.

So what are your thoughts on outside choreographers and their use on the show? Do they enhance the show? Hurt the show? Should there be certain rules about using them?