Breakin' Out

February 23, 2009

“I am the one.
They don’t know yet, but I’m going to change the world.” Make no mistake about it. Shane Sparks is on a mission. The hip hop choreographer who has helped thrust this genre of dance into the mainstream spotlight is on a roll. And his whirlwind of success has happened in only five years.


A compact powerhouse, Sparks can talk the talk and dance the dance. When a beat of music is in the air he starts to feel it out, popping and locking to hip hop old and new. And though he has a style all his own, he can become a chameleon, shakin’ it in Beyoncé’s style to Single Ladies on set of a photo shoot, bringin’ it hard with choreography to Flo Rida’s Elevator, or taking us back a few decades with old school hip hop to Bell Biv DeVoe’s Poison.


At 34, Sparks has worked on music videos, commercials, films, TV shows, and is now about to add Broadway to his credits. He came to the East Coast in November to choreograph the musical Dreamgirls and attend the open auditions at the Apollo Theater in Harlem (where the story itself takes place and where the revamped Broadway version plans to open in 2010). Broadway is not where he would have expected to land when he left his home to pursue a career in dance. But with a dream and determination, this self-made dance man is unstoppable.


“I was born to dance. I don’t remember ever taking a lesson. It was just something I was around.” Sparks grew up in Cincinnati in the 1970s and ’80s. “At the time there were so many dance crews. We would meet on the weekends and dance and create.”


A street dancer had to be prepared. “When I was a teenager, every day of my life I wore a pair of kneepads. No matter where I was going, in my mind and in my heart, I was going to battle that day,” he says. “If anything came up, we’d pull up our kneepads.” Though it started as a hobby, Sparks eventually wanted more. He says his parents, who are both police officers, were not entirely supportive of his aspirations to make dancing his career. “Saying to my mom ‘I wanna be a dancer’ was almost like saying ‘I’m gonna drink all the water in the ocean.’ ”


Sparks moved to Los Angeles in 1993 with a singing group called Cold Premiere. “I never wanted to be a choreographer. My goal was to dance in movies, like Breakin’.” Cold Premiere worked on a movie and some photo shoots, but the record label dropped the group. Sparks wasn’t ready to go back to Cincinnati so he stayed in L.A. He says he was dancing in a club next to very different kinds of dancers than he was used to—more elevated, less grounded. “I come from that booty-shakin’, poppin’, droppin’, and all that. A friend said I need to get to a dance studio, they teach hip hop. Which was so funny to me, we never called it that. You wouldn’t say ‘I’m about to go do hip hop.’ You just did it.” But he took his friend’s advice and started taking class.


A case of mistaken identity got Sparks his first teaching gig at one of L.A.’s largest commercial dance studios, Millennium Dance Complex. “One day this guy was late for teaching class, I took over his class, and to this day I still hold the biggest class-size in L.A. I started taking it more seriously then.” In 2003 he was approached to choreograph for the Chris Stokes film You Got Served, which brought battling—a street dance competition where two hip hop crews battle to determine who has the best moves—to movie theaters. You Got Served paved the way for the slew of battle films to follow and piqued audiences’ interests in this form of street dance that replaced violence with a test of skills.


In 2005, Sparks was called to judge and choreograph for the show So You Think You Can Dance alongside Mary Murphy and Nigel Lythgoe. “And I’ve been there every episode since,” he says. The fifth season of the show begins this spring.


Lovers, robots, nerds, Matrix-style fighters—Sparks builds characters in his choreography for the TV show and gets the dancers to commit. He might have a guy simply pointing to different parts of a girl’s body, causing sharp pops of hips or butts or shoulders. He mixes a fast, synchronized duet sequence with a slow, sensual touch of the cheek.


“He has mad character,” says Season 3 contestant Lauren Gottlieb. “He taught me how to keep in character and get the audience to believe you’re actually a badass Matrix chick,” she says, referring to her lead role in his group dance to Flo Rida’s Elevator. Regarding the Emmy-nominated Transformers dance to Pitbull’s Fuego that she performed with Pasha Kovalev, she says, “Shane changed a lot with that dance. He knows how to be creative and what works on TV. He left that dance in a lot of people’s hearts.”


Though there was never any doubt that he could make a fierce and fast pop-and-lock piece, Sparks brings new slants on hip hop to the stage. When he choreographed a slow hip hop love ballad to Sexy Love for Allison and Ivan in Season 2, Adam Shankman, who did the choreography for the movie version of Hairspray and was on the judges’ panel, called it a breakthrough for the whole field of hip hop.


Sparks says TV has always been a source of inspiration for his choreography. “My mother got on me about watching too much TV when I was young, but I draw from TV every day of my life.” And now, with the slew of reality TV dance shows that exist, Sparks says they’ve upped the ante in a good way. “They changed the game. They made hip hop dance respected like ballet and jazz. They put ballroom and salsa on the map.”


Last year Sparks got the call to work on a new version of Dreamgirls with director Robert Longbottom. Though Sparks has never choreographed for Broadway before, “I’m always putting something theatrical behind everything I do.” The original choreographer for Dreamgirls was Michael Bennett (creator of A Chorus Line), but Sparks is starting fresh, with brand-new choreography. “There will be an old-school vibe with a touch of what Dreamgirls is about,” Sparks says. “You have to be an entertainer. You have to put a show together that makes people want to see it over and over again.”


The musical is not taking the usual route to the Broadway stage. The first stop is Korea. The Seoul Theater Association will present the show in South Korea and make an investment of approximately $4 million in the Broadway production, slated to open fall 2010.


Sparks culls ideas for Dreamgirls from his choreographic influences, which may seem out of the ordinary for a hip hop dancer. Among these inspirations are Fred Astaire and Bob Fosse. “Fosse thought out of the box,” says Sparks. “He was not somebody who created because you told him to. He created because that’s what he wanted to do.” As part of his research, he watched Busby Berkeley films for a glamorous, over-the-top look. Sparks says the first person to intertwine the street dance style with Broadway was Wade Robson (see cover story, March 2008), Sparks’ colleague on So You Think You Can Dance and The Pulse Tour.


In addition to SYTYCD, Shane is also a panelist on Randy Jackson Presents: America’s Best Dance Crew, now in its third season. With two successful TV shows and a landmark hip hop dance film, Sparks’ new projects include a sequel to You Got Served called Back Down, as well as another film called Boogie Town, a futuristic hip hop take on West Side Story.


With such variety on his resumé now, Sparks wants people to know he’s more than meets the eye. “I was just a hip hop teacher to everyone. That’s the only thing they expected,” he says. “But I have so much more to show everybody.”


Emily Macel is an associate editor of
Dance Magazine.