Many would consider Tessandra Chavez to be the pioneer of contemporary hip hop. She founded a dance company at age 11 and has continued choreographing and teaching ever since. Her choreography has been featured on So You Think You Can Dance, American Idol, The X Factor, America’s Got Talent, Abby’s Ultimate Dance Competition, and for numerous live concerts and music videos. Chavez recently won the 2015 Emmy for her incredible choreography on Dancing with the Stars, featuring Derek and Julianne Hough. Before awards night, Dance Informa snagged an exclusive interview with our industry’s hottest choreographer.
Where did you grow up and begin dancing?
“I grew up in San Diego and began dance at the age of five.”
What was your dance training like? Did you study other performing arts such as voice or acting?
“My dance training was well-rounded. I studied tap, jazz, ballet and modern. I went to a performing arts high school, so I did dabble in voice and acting training.”
Can you tell us about Unity Dance Ensemble? How were you able to found a dance company (that is still running today) at such a young age?
“I made a decision and followed my heart. At the age of 11, I had the passion to create my own dance work and needed dancers to set my ideas on, and from that Unity Dance Ensemble was born.”
When did you know you wanted to be a choreographer and dance teacher?
“I knew when I started dance at five years old that I was in love. I knew at 11 years old I would be a choreographer for my profession.”
Your choreography has been described as ‘groundbreaking’ and ‘innovative’. Where do you find your inspiration?
“My inspiration comes from real life. I want people to feel something when they watch my work. I want to transport them to another world. That’s all that matters to me.”
Many would consider you to be the pioneer of ‘contemporary hip hop’. How would you define or describe ‘contemporary hip hop’?
“Personally, I am not a fan of labels, but I realize in this business it’s unavoidable. With that said, I think contemporary hip hop is just that — a fusion of what people consider those two forms. My work has fluidity to it, but it also has very precise musicality and sharp movements.”
Your choreography is a fusion of hip hop, contemporary and modern dance (and, often, other genres, too!). What training and experience does a dancer need to have in order to execute your choreography?
“The dancer who does my work the best has a solid understanding of tap, jazz, modern and ballet. I think it’s important to be a versatile dancer. The more versatile you are, the more employable you are.”
Congratulations on your Emmy nomination for ‘Elastic Heart’ on Dancing with the Stars. Can you talk a little bit about the piece – what inspired its creation, working with Derek and Julianne Hough, collaborating with Sia, and so forth?
“Thank you! Derek and Julianne are two of the best dancers I’ve had my hands on. They were so inspiring to create on. They are from the ballroom world and I’m more from the contemporary world, so they felt my voice would bring the song to life and help them tell their story. They brought the idea of making it a personal story about their family dynamics. The basis of the piece is that as family you can really hurt one another and take advantage of your family’s love. Sometimes you need to go back to the beginning and remember what it’s like to be kids again. Sia was absolutely genius on set. Her voice is unlike any other. She is a true artist. Working on this project was magical. We all knew something special was happening.”
As a choreographer, it seems you’ve done it all — concerts, music videos, TV, film. How do these different ‘arenas’ affect how or what you choreograph? Do you have a favorite?
“I love it all. It keeps my job exciting! Creating for different arenas calls for different ways of imagining the movement. It pushes you to think differently. I love it.”
What does it mean to be a master teacher? What makes your classes unique?
“I think the word ‘master teacher’ is used too loosely in this generation of dance. In fact, I think years ago I didn’t deserve the title myself. A master teacher is someone with expertise and experience, someone who has a refined understanding of how to teach and inspire dancers of all calibers and personalities. My classes are unique because I think one of my God-given gifts is the ability to push dancers to the next level and get out of them what they never imagined for themselves. I see diamonds in the rough, and I love turning them into stars! It’s the most rewarding feeling.”
How did that scene really go down on Dance Moms? Was it staged to happen, or were any moments cut out from the final footage?
“That scene really happened as it was shown. I genuinely thought I was coming in to do a master class for the girls and thought Abby would be in support of it, hence why I went in to say hello to her and ask her blessing. The producers would not let me speak to her off camera. I think that show is based on the chaos of Abby and the moms. That’s what drives ratings, hence the producers count on Abby having a reaction that will shock viewers. In hindsight, I should have declined the offer and known they were seeking some sort of drama; however, I was assured by production that wasn’t the case.”
What are your aspirations for the future? What impact do you hope to have on the dance community?
“I aspire to continue working professionally in the business doing a wide variety of work. I would love to do a Cirque du Soleil Vegas caliber show. The fact that I make a living doing what I love makes me so fulfilled as it is. I hope to be referenced as a legend in dance one day. I’d love to change how people view dance. I think sometimes producers and executives look for popularity rather than work that’s refined. I think the standard needs to be raised in general.
I am very blessed to be able to do what I love for a living. I live and breathe it, and I love inspiring dancers and making a difference. I lead by example and believe you can only truly succeed by giving 100 percent of yourself in all aspects. Breaking boundaries and taking risks is the only way I create. The more the line is pushed, the better.”
By Mary Callahan of Dance Informa.
Photo (top): Tessandra Chavez. Photo by Lee Cherry.