Paying it Forward

October 20, 2015

Galen Hooks’ big break came earlier than most: Her dance group was named “Junior Dance Champion” on “Star Search” when she was just 7 years old. Since then, Hooks has made a habit of exceeding expectations. As a young teenager, she assisted choreographers Marguerite Derricks and Michael Rooney, and it wasn’t long before she started choreographing on her own. Now 29, she’s performed with artists including Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus and Rihanna, and on “Glee,” “So You Think You Can Dance” and the Grammy Awards. She’s choreographed for Justin Bieber, John Legend, Ne-Yo and Ciara, as well as “The X Factor” and The Oscars. Next year, she’s set to choreograph a major motion picture that blends Bollywood with hip hop.

In addition to dancer and choreographer, Hooks has long had another title on her resumé: advocate. When she was 17, she attended her first meeting of the Dancers’ Alli-ance, an organization that fights for dancers’ rights. “It was the first time I’d seen dancers getting to have an opinion and to see top choreographers discussing issues I also cared about,” Hooks says. “I’ve been emotionally invested in dance since I was 7 years old, and I realized that it was my responsibility to take that passion and use it to make a difference.”

Since attending that first meeting, Hooks has made activism a big part of her increasingly busy career. She earned a degree in pre-law at Pennsylvania State University in 2008, completing online classes while in rehearsal for Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl halftime show or backstage while on tour with Snoop Dogg. She now puts that knowledge to work as chair of Dancers’ Alliance and as a board member at SAG-AFTRA (the merged labor union of Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists). “My degree taught me to be a critical thinker and problem solver,” says Hooks, who doesn’t see her education as a backup plan, but as something to complement her dance career. “I understand the importance of reading contracts, and I know how to present a cohesive argument.”

In 2012, Hooks was instrumental in one of Dancers’ Alliance’s biggest successes, winning a union contract for dancers in music videos. The contract set guidelines for quality working conditions, including rest breaks, wage security and safety guarantees. While the deal was going through, Hooks was acting as lead choreographer for Nickelodeon’s “How to Rock.” “It was such an emotional roller coaster. We signed the contract at 3 or 4 in the morning after about 14 hours of negotiations, and then I was back on set at 7 am,” Hooks says. “If I’m passionate about something, I’m going to make it happen.”

Her next big project with Dancers’ Alliance is well on its way: a fight for a similar unionized contract for dancers on concert tours. “We’re fighting for higher pay, better protection and better contracts for dancers,” Hooks says. “At our events we’re educating dancers on how to back that up with professionalism, or ‘act their wage.’ We’re working toward an environment in which dancers aren’t afraid to speak up for themselves, and they’re working with agents to negotiate a fair fee instead of doing jobs for free.”

Choreographer Brian Friedman says he’s been impressed with Hooks’ commitment to sharing her talent since she started attending Dancers’ Alliance meetings as a teen. “In an era where so many are consumed with self-promotion, Galen is standing up as a positive role model and an advocate for change,” he says. “Galen’s drive for excellence in our craft and the way she shares her knowledge with the younger generation is extremely admirable.”

Her newest pay-it-forward venture is a two-day workshop, Behind the Audition, that Hooks hosts sporadically throughout the country. Her goal is to give dancers the chance to get honest audition feedback on everything from their technique to their wardrobe to their atti-tude. “I tell dancers, ‘You can be you! We just have to find the most bookable, professional ver-sion of you,’ ” Hooks says. “I’m so happy to be able to lift dancers’ spirits in an industry that’s so hard. If I’d had this tool when I was just starting, it would have changed everything.”