The Creative Process

Why Hollywood's Adam Shankman Is Jealous of Dancers

Shankman on the set of 2007's Hairspray. Photo by Daniel James, courtesy Shankman

Adam Shankman came into the spotlight in 2007 when he choreographed and directed the movie-musical Hairspray and made his first appearances on the "So You Think You Can Dance" judging panel. But he was already more than a decade into his career as a choreographer and budding director. Today, Shankman is a Hollywood mainstay who has worked on scores of movies, TV shows and commercials, including dance classics like the Step Up franchise, which he produced. Next up: Directing the film What Men Want, which opens in January.

He recently spoke to Dance Magazine about his path to Hollywood and why the dance studio remains his favorite place.


How His Reality Differed From His Dreams

"Producing, directing, choreographing—that was never the plan. My dream was to be a chorus boy on Broadway or to dance behind TV personalities. Sometimes it feels like that still is the dream!"

Adam Shankman on the set of What Men Want. Photo byJess Miglio, courtesy Paramount Pictures

His Stunted Start in Hollywood

"I went to Juilliard, but left to do regional theater and ended up in L.A. I started booking music videos—I worked with Janet Jackson, Paula Abdul. I was getting work, but I realized my look wasn't what was happening in the dance world at the time. Everyone was looking for all-American, beefier dancers. I was super-skinny."

The Little White Lie That Opened Doors

"My big opportunity was one I made for myself. I was in a production office and an assistant ran in and said they just lost their choreographer, and did anyone know someone. I said, "I am!" I had never choreographed anything. I said I'd worked with Paula and Janet, even though I had never choreographed for them. So I lied, and the director hired me on the spot. He ended up loving what I did, and started hiring me a lot."

Being in The Right Place At An Unfortunate Time

"The timing of my early career felt a little strange. A lot of my friends were getting acting work, so I would get hired to choreograph little scenes here and there. Then two big choreographers in film and TV—Michael Peters and Lester Wilson—died within a year of each other. So I ended up getting a lot of the work. Not to say I didn't merit it, but there was another hole that needed to be filled, and I was sitting there, poised, and it happened. I was still in my 20s."

How He Got Pushed Into Directing

"I was working with directors who didn't know what they wanted with dance scenes, so I was pushed to direct those sequences. I decided to create and direct my own short film, and my producer secretly submitted it to Sundance—and we got in."

What Dance Has Taught Him

"As a dancer, my role was always to make whatever was thrown at me work. That's turned into the cornerstone of my philosophy about everything. You take what's given to you and wrestle it into the ground and do the best job you possibly can. It's a service job, in a weird way."

The Studio Is Still His Happy Place

"I'm never as happy anywhere as I am in a dance rehearsal room. I have no concerns about the rest of the world except making stuff, trying stuff, being able to fail spectacularly and just creating."

The Dream That Hasn't Disappeared

"I still go to shows and see dancers onstage and get envious. That will never end. I always see myself in that role. That's always been my first love."

The Conversation
James Whiteside (Jayme Thornton for Dance Magazine)

Say you're perpetually impeccable designer Thom Browne. Say you're planning your Spring 2020 Paris menswear show along a "Versailles country club" theme. Say you want a world-class danseur to open the show with some kind of appropriately fabulous choreography.

Who do you call? James Whiteside, of course. On Saturday, the American Ballet Theatre principal—wearing pointe shoes and a glorious pinstriped tutu—kicked off Browne's presentation at the École des Beaux-Arts with a 15-minute, show-stealing solo. Whiteside choreographed the piece himself, with the help of detailed notes from the designer.

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Getty Images

I'd been a professional dancer for five years when I realized the pain I'd been feeling in my hip and down my sciatic nerve was not going away. I had been treating it for two years as we dancers do—with regular visits to my masseuse, physical therapy, baths, ice and lots of Aleve—but I never stopped dancing. It finally dawned on me that if I kept going at the speed I was going (which was, well, speedy), the pain would only get more severe and unrelenting, and I might never dance again.

I told myself I'd take two months off, and all would be better.

That first morning when I woke up at 10 am, I had no idea what to do with myself. My life until that moment had been dictated by class and rehearsal, every hour accounted for. How should I fill the huge swath of time ahead of me?

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