Arlene Phillips CBE is a British choreographer and theatre director.
She rose to fame in the 1970s after founding the dance group Hot Gossip.
She went on to choreograph numerous West End and Broadway musicals, films and television shows and has been a judge on both Strictly Come Dancing and So You Think You Can Dance.
Here are her top 10 tips for being a choreographer.
1. Be determined and prepared to make sacrifices
It is absolutely vital to be determined from the start. You have to know that you want to dance as much as you have to breathe if you want to make a career of it.
You have to truly know that and you have to be prepared to give up everything to make that career happen. It really is tough and there is so much competition. You will face rejection all the time and you have to make yourself strong enough to deal with that and keep going.
2. Start young
I grew up in Manchester and I started dancing when I was only two years old. By the time I was eight, dancing was all I could think about and it was all I wanted to do. My parents couldn’t afford all the ballet lessons that I wanted and it wasn’t easy.
Arlene Phillips says: ‘The way that I discovered I was not continuing on Strictly was not the way I would like to have found out’
You could always hear ballet music in our house being played on scratchy records on an old gramophone.
My mother died when I was 15 and it was her love of dance and ballet that inspired me and in some way lives inside me. She was so proud, but I don’t think she ever thought that my dancing would build into the career that I have had.
3. Hold your head up and don’t be afraid to be different
We lived in Didsbury and I’ll always remember going to buy my first pair of ballet shoes with my mother. I can remember shelves and shelves of beautiful pink ballet shoes, but we just couldn’t afford them.
And then on the bottom shelf, there was a pair of bright green ballet shoes. They were very cheap and they fitted me so I had to get them! That was fine with me, but I definitely wanted pink ones.
When I walked into my very first class, it was filled with little girls all in pink. The whole room stared at me in my green shoes, but I just held my head up and walked in. I sort of figured that if I could do that, then I truly did want to dance and nothing was going to stop me.
4. Don’t take no for an answer
When I was 16 I wrote to Manchester council, to see if I could get a grant to study dance.
They only gave grants to girls who were going to the Royal Ballet School in London and I wanted to know why they wouldn’t give a grant to someone who wanted to study in their home town.
I fought very hard and with the help of my aunt, I eventually did get my way. After four years of studying, I started to teach in Manchester. When I was 23 my boss sent me to London for a week to spend time at a new dance school.
On my last day, I saw a sign for a class up on the wall that I’d never seen before, it said ‘Modern American Jazz, Molly Molloy, 8pm’. That class changed everything, and was the day my new life in London began.
5. Don’t give up
When dance came on television it seemed that every dancer had a fixed smile glued on to their face. I was making my living by teaching American Jazz and Rock Jazz in London, and I decided to form my own dance group that would have the voice of the street, and the voice of the clubs, sexy, moody, and hot, hot, hot.
I took the best students from my class, turned them into what I thought was the hottest group in London, and for three years, despite having a cult following, could not break into TV, everyone thought they were far too sexy. It took one photograph falling into the hands of one director looking for something new, and everything changed overnight.
6. Learn from your mistakes
Arlene Phillips partnered comedian Ed Byrne for Let’s Dance for Comic Relief If I could go back in time and give my younger self some advice, it would be to be a little softer and kinder. I was so ambitious for many of the students I worked with and so determined for them to succeed, that I demanded everyone worked and pushed themselves in the same way I pushed myself.
Looking back I realise, it worked for some of them but not others, but I think my attitude in the way I deal with people has changed after having my children, and now I search to find another way to discover how to bring out the best in those around me.
7. Realise what’s truly important
The way that I discovered I was not continuing on Strictly was not the way I would like to have found out, however, I had far more important things to deal with as my manager was very ill and passed away the day before the news broke.
He wasn’t just a manager of 30 years, but a close friend and someone I depended on so completely that it really put everything into perspective. Sometimes one has to close doors on things and not allow yourself to think about them.
8. There’s always a way
I like to get the best out of people, and strive to use very different methods to do this, depending on how and what we are working towards.
I often find that people react in different ways to the same instruction, and if something isn’t working I will often find outrageous or unusual ways to make it happen.
Dancing isn’t just steps, it’s using the body to tell a story with the movement. I like to develop characters and use any ingenious idea I can to bring them to life and get what I want.
9. Really listen to your music
I spend my life listening to music, and I’ve been very lucky in working with so many different stars from when music videos first began and one could invent and create extraordinary ideas.
Arlene Phillips says you have to be ‘ready for anything’ as a choreographer I worked with Aretha Franklin in Detroit, Robbie Williams here at home, Whitney Houston in New York, Elton John all over the world, and with Queen in the strangest of places; one being with 350 dancers in Canary Wharf when it was a wasteland!
Music is so emotive, and I think the one video that always brings back the strongest memories and still takes my breath away today was working on Duran Duran’s Wild Boys, trying to create a strange world of the future. Let music take you to where you want to be.
10. Be ready for anything
I’m passionate about working in musical theatre, and I’ve had some very tough task masters, but I’m always grateful to work with those I respect and can listen to and learn from. Andrew Lloyd Webber truly is a creative genius, working with him is like being on a roller coaster, but I love being on the ride.
As a choreographer, you have to be ready for anything, and I’ve been rollerskating for Starlight Express, head banging for We Will Rock You, jiving for Grease, pole dancing for Flashdance, disco dancing for Saturday Night Fever, ran down a mountain for The Sound of Music and danced down the yellow brick road for the Wizard of Oz, and that’s to name a few! So my advice is, be ready for anything…!
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