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Dancing in Music Videos: Expect the Unexpected

© Pavel Losevsky | Dreamstime.com © Pavel Losevsky | Dreamstime.com

By Stephanie Wolf of Dance Informa

While the music industry - including how people get and hear new music - has changed in the last decade, recording artists are still utilizing the visual appeal of music videos to excite fans and reach a larger audience. From hip-hop to contemporary to pop-infused jazz, dance continues to be a hot commodity for this medium. Several choreographers, directors and dancers give their insight on dancing in music videos, covering aspects of the preparation, filming and wrapping it all up into a finished product.

Jennifer Sydor, who has been working with notable choreographers and venues in NYC for more than 10 years, enjoys dancing in music videos, but admits it’s a lot of hard work. A very involved process, the workday often begins bright and early with hair, makeup and wardrobe; and can be a 10 plus hour day of shooting movement multiple times. It is grueling on both the mind and body.

Leading up to the shoot, there typically isn’t a lot of rehearsal time these days, averaging one to three rehearsals - allotted rehearsal time has decreased dramatically since the days of some of the industry’s most iconic videos. “These rehearsals involve working out choreography, spacing and stylization,” explains Sydor.

Jennifer Sydor dancing in a music video

Jennifer Sydor dancing in Avan Lava's "It's Never Over" video shoot. Photo by Ian Pai.

Vanessa Walters, who has choreographed music videos for the likes of Kings of Leon and Har Mar Superstar and has performed with FischerSpooner, says that due to the current “economic strain on the industry,” there is definitely less time for rehearsal and filming - it never feels like enough. Now, many music videos shoot in a single day. But Walters enjoys these challenges, saying she likes working within limitations of space and time as well as developing very detailed movement crafted for a specific project - crucial aspects of the industry.

Gil Duldulao, a faculty member for The PULSE on Tour, knows a thing or two about the industry. He first experienced the music video world when he booked a gig for Prince, with choreography by Tina Landon and Jamie King. Since then, he went on to dance and choreograph for Janet Jackson, Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Lopez, Tina Turner and Nicki Minaj, to name a few.

As the choreographer, Duldulao helps bring the creative team’s vision to life. He thrives on the behind-the-scenes role, participating in the staging, makeup, fashion and creative process. But, the choreographer’s involvement in the process is specific, and he or she usually doesn’t get to be a part of the editing process. There is always the possibility that a significant amount of choreography won’t make it into the final cut. “That’s frustrating to me,” says Walters. But she understands many of the final decisions aren’t up to her. Duldulao sums this up in saying the process is about teamwork, “egos aside.”

With commercial work in his dancing roots, Brian Thomas prefers being involved in the bigger picture of the process. He started working in music videos in 1994 as a dancer, eventually going on to choreograph for them and now promotes himself primarily as a director. “The director is basically in charge of getting the message through,” he says. The look and the feel of the video are on the shoulders of the director and Thomas thrives on this responsibility.

Dancing for the camera rather than for the stage can be a different animal. “There is a lot of stopping and starting,” says Sydor of the process. “You may work on a short take, then have several hours of waiting around.  It takes a lot of focus to stay warm and be able to pop back in after a long break.” Duldulao agrees, saying the dancer’s role is taxing and an individual has “to be on it and ready to perform, even if you are going on the 23rd hour of the day.” Additionally, the performance spaces for a music video aren’t always ideal for high impact movement. From dancing outdoors, to concrete, to even water, a dancer has to be prepared to perform in any possible space and condition. Often, the dancers don’t get enough credit for the work they do.

Thomas adds that there is often more of an emphasis on arm movements rather than footwork. The camera is also capable of catching tiny, intricate steps and shapes, opening up a whole new possibility of movement vocabulary for the dancers and choreographer. Because of this, Walters’s self-described “extremely eclectic” style lends itself well to music videos. Sydor also stresses the importance of facial expressions because the camera will catch every little nuance.

It can be a challenge to perform for the camera rather than having the powerful energy of a live audience to feed off. Therefore, Thomas always works with professionals, who understand that “video is forever. Once it’s cut it’s cut and if you mess up or aren’t giving full energy it’s going to read.” He asks his dancers to perform for the camera as if they are in front of thousands of people. Sydor agrees and adds that dancers are also “at the mercy of the video editor.” She explains that it’s crucial to give 100% for every take because it’s impossible to predict what will make it into the finished product.

All four agree the music industry has changed drastically since the 90s. Unless the music video is for a big name like Beyoncé or Katy Perry, budgets are shrinking, making the medium not as lucrative as it once was for either dancers or choreographers. Thomas also says the market has shifted from NYC to LA, due to Manhattan’s rising costs. However, there is still work to be had.

It’s certainly an exciting industry to be a part of, but with the country’s ever-changing economic and digital landscape, keeping career options open seems to be key. Dabbling in music videos, both in the U.S. and overseas, while continuing to explore concert and live dance will keep a dancer busy and dancing - what more can a dancer ask for?