Is honing your technique, perfecting your craft, and getting signed by a top dance agent enough to book jobs and develop your career? Or are there intangible skills you need to develop as well?
If these are questions you’re asking yourself, Icons & Instincts, the new book by legendary dancer, choreographer, and director Vincent Paterson has all your answers. His new book explains what it takes to make it and stay there in the commercial dance and choreography business.
“Artistic talent is about 40%. Personality is another 20%. And the rest is your ability to solve problems,” says Paterson. Vincent started out as a dancer on tour with artists like Olivia Newton-John and Shirley MacLain. Next, he choreographed music videos for Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Sir Paul McCartney. Vincent choreographed the movies The Birdcage, the musical Evita, and Dancer in the Dark. And he was the director of the Madonna Blond Ambition tour and the LA Opera’s production of Manon conducted by Plácido Domingo.
Vincent Paterson was the choreographer of Smooth Criminal, one of the most celebrated music videos of all time. The video features the Paterson-inspired Michael Jackson “Ooooo!” crotch grab. It has since evolved into the almost universal dick pinch that rappers do with their free hand when they sing directly to camera. But before it was the equivalent of a kickball change, it appeared first in Smooth Criminal by choreographer Vincent Paterson.
Unfortunately, in the world of commercial dance, there’s no one place where credits are listed. Believe it or not, IMDB lists choreographer’s under additional crew, if they’re even credited.
Recently, the popular television show Dancing with the Stars goofed and attributed Smooth Criminal to another choreographer. But as you already know, Vincent Paterson choreographed Smooth Criminal.
Dancing with the Stars not only misled audiences. They also ignored MSA talent agent Julie McDonald’s request to make a brief on air announcement, setting the record straight and giving Vincent the credit for his work. And it happened again on the show two years later. Music, images, words, and filmed entertainment are protected by copyright laws. Dance steps are not.
It is also “…the reason that the Choreographers Guild was founded,” says Paterson. “It starts with education. I don’t think it’s always done intentionally. I think it’s done because of a lack of knowledge. Choreographers are rarely credited. Unless you have a great choreographer’s agent who can negotiate that for you, or you have a track record or a relationship with the producers or directors with whom you’re working,” says Vincent.
We launched this website to set the record straight on Who Choreographed which show for whom, and when.
“It’s all about problem-solving. And that takes patience. It takes kindness. And I think it takes honesty. Those are three traits that I’ve tried to live by,” says Vincent Paterson, who has managed to solve problems on shows with some of the biggest personalities in the business without blocking the gateway to the creative process.
You can learn every street dance style. You can perfect your technique. But unless you can think on your feet and problem-solve in real-time, you could be the best dancer on stage and still get released for saying the wrong thing or looking at someone the wrong way.
“When you’re on the inside with celebrities, you see a whole different thing. They could be egomaniacs. They could be mean. They could be nice. But you realize that so much of it is based on the pressure that they’re constantly under. They have to keep topping themselves to stay fresh. Topping themselves to stay popular,” he says.
“Michael Jackson asked me not to impose my ideas on his music. Instead, he asked me to really listen to the music and let it tell me what it wants to be. That advice has served me well. He was basically saying throw your ego out the window, be a pure artist, and trust your instincts. That became the guidelines by which I choreographed,” says Paterson. “Michael and Madonna always want to create something that the world has never seen before.” Which is why they’re considered trailblazers.
To earn respect from powerful people, you have to speak to them at their level. Most people kiss their ass. When you walk into the room – of course, treat everyone with kindness – but you have to be their equal. Collaboration is about surrendering control, so you have earned their respect, and they trust you as a member of their creative team.
“If you’ve mastered an art, that means you’re an expert at doing it. At performing, it. But there’s a big difference between mastering something and being able to communicate that something to someone else. That’s what choreographers and directors do. I’ve always believed that theater, even more than film and television, is a sacred venue where the director and choreographer serve as a kind of shaman. Our position is to decipher the project and interprets it for the dancers or actors. You’re the high priest who guides the performers,” says Paterson.
“I look at 10 choreographers’ showreels, and I can’t tell the difference from one to the next. Everyone is in second position through 90% of the dance, standing there in a formation that Michael Peters created back in the 80s. They still haven’t yet found a way to change it. And I just see movement that’s non-narrative. Sometimes it’s unbelievably technical. But it’s so aerobic that it doesn’t have any emotion attached to it,” Vincent says.
“So many aspiring choreographers today are dance teachers who think that since they have a following of students, and they can put a combination together, they consequently are choreographers. That’s a new idea. Choreographers are another realm.” An acting teacher is not a director.
Vincent Paterson’s new book Icons & Instincts is a must-read for anyone interested in what it takes to create entertainment that results in magic moments.