Narrative and Interview by Melissa Casillas
Kristal Tan is a choreographer, dancer, and producer based in Los Angeles, California. She started dancing at the age of 7, training in San Antonio in a studio called Studio 10 Dance Center. She was also part of the Co. Motion dance company competitive team and, in high school, was a principal dancer in the Brandeis Ballet Company.
After her high school years, she attended Pace University’s Commercial Dance Program in New York City. She describes it as an amazing freshman year experience, but later returned to Texas sophomore year because of personal financial decisions and finished a BFA in Dance Performance and Choreography at Texas State University. She chose this career path because she loved dance and, at the age of 14, learned people could dance professionally.
According to an interview of Tan with Voyage Austin, she states that when she was younger, she choreographed her own solos as her parents could not afford to hire a choreographer. This made her upset because she felt she was missing out on that experience, but little did she know it was a blessing in disguise for her because it essentially sparked her entire choreography career.
While in college, she began her choreography work at a studio called First Class Dance Center in San Marcos, Texas. There, she also worked as a ballet and contemporary resident. This is when she learned about her passion for teaching. After graduating from college, she was invited to choreograph the center’s officer routines and elite senior routine, as well as to teach in multiple studios in the area.
Although she felt wanted and accepted in this place in her career, she knew something was missing. So, she moved to New York City to continue her training at the Broadway Dance Center’s Professional Semester Program, where she trained and worked. Ultimately, she decided that the New York pace of life was not for her. While her days there were filled with work and dance-which she liked-she knew it was not the life she could enjoy or want. So, she moved to Los Angeles to experience the West Coast, hoping it would be a more affordable lifestyle.
Tan was the first person in her family to receive a university degree while also being the only child to be involved in the arts. She mentioned her parents did not understand and did not accept her career until she started continuously booking work in her mid-twenties: “My mom was supportive in a way of telling me to follow my passion and attending all my shows and helping me navigate life as an artist. But she certainly did not understand why I was putting myself through the “dancer life,” and would often suggest alternatives. My dad was convinced it was a hobby that I would grow out of, even when I was in college studying it, and living in NYC and LA.” (Tan, Kristal. Interview. Conducted by Melissa Casillas. October 10, 2022).
Although Tan’s parents didn’t understand her career at first, she’s now been in L.A. for six years and has taught and choreographed for over 40 high schools, middle schools, and dance studios in Texas, California, Hawaii, Mexico, Thailand, and Malaysia, offering choreography services to drill teams while receiving awards such as “Best Artistry,” “Choreography Recognitions,” “Top 10 Hall of Fame,” “Best Technique,” “Best in Category,” and “Highest Scoring Number” in dance competitions. She specializes in many styles, including contemporary, modern, lyrical, ballet, jazz, jazz funk, hip hop, musical theatre, and tap.
She is also “currently signed with Luxe Talent Agency and had worked on set for companies such as DreamWorks, Apple, Dance Spirit Magazine, and international music artists; Pedro Reis, JOKA, Megan Tibbitts, INAS X, and Arman Hovhannisyan” (Tan, 2022) and appearing in productions, music videos, films, and commercials such as Thoroughly Modern Millie, Psycho Beach Party, Jamanakn E, “If You are Not My Lover,” “Loca,” and many others.
She continues her dance training in the Lume Dance Collective program under Mary Ann Chavez and Monika Felice Smith, as well as through a work study at Playground LA under the direction of Kenny Wormald and Robin Antin. But most recently, she moved back to Buda, Texas and began working for a company called FLY Dance Competition as an adjudicator and regional director. She has also accepted a full-time position as Assistant Company Director at Dance Unlimited Buda.
Tan maintains her own freelance choreography business, Kristal Tan Creative, where she is known for brining award-winning, dynamic, and “never disappointing” choreography; being organized, positive, flexible, and friendly; and including great storytelling in her pieces, all of which make her a great choreographer to work with, according to her clients.
I had the chance to talk one-on-one with Kristal Tan in 2022. Here are some highlights from our conversation:
Please share how long you have been choreographing and/or producing dance and what led you to this career path.
Tan: I’ve been choreographing probably since 2014 and I started down this path because I needed a job during college. So, I started working at a studio, they had me start as a ballet teacher and then I though contemporary class and then they asked me to choreograph company routines, so I did that, and we competed. I went to Texas State and it’s a very small city area. In Buda, San Marcos, Austin, San Antonio, we all just know each other. And so, we just started to talk and see each other’s work and then I was invited to teach workshops and master classes after that.
A local high school director asked me to be there as assistant, so I would come in the mornings to help with the drill team. Then she asked me if I would choreograph their officer routine and their elite senior routine and that got me more into the drill team world. So I started out in studio world and then I got into more like officer routines and drill teams after that.
How/where do you find inspiration? And how is your choreography process?
Tan: Usually, it’s just listening to the music over and over. Sometimes I’ll see things like an improv class, and I’ll be like oh! I got to keep that in my back pocket but most of the time it’s the music that kind of drives everything I kind of build from there.
Usually, I will look at other people’s work that I that inspire me like Talia Fabia’s or Dana Foglia’s. Not only do I watch their choreography, I see how they work in class [Tan smiles] and then it kind of makes me think, “Oh, what is their intention whenever they put this part of this movement to this part of the song?” Things like that. Sometimes even when I watch movies [nervous laughter] . . . It sounds weird, but when you can see the protagonist, see their journey internally, it kind of makes me think about a movement. How would that drive this part of the song? I guess that could help with storytelling.”
What is your process for selecting or working with dancers or dance students?
Tan: Well it’s a little different with adults and kids. With adults you almost do have to kind of take anyone who will work with you unless you have a budget, which I didn’t. I just have some amazing friends, and the first thing I think of is reliability with the adults. So, within that short amount of time [that I need to make a dance] I know they’re not going to bail rehearsal at the last minute. The second thing is whether they would be able to pick the choreography up in the minimal rehearsals that I’ll have. And third is whether they would be able to pick up this style along with the choreography. Actually, one more! Whether they’re collaborative and able to work with other dancers.
With kids around 18 and under, when I’m working with drill teams in studio, most of the time I’m a guest teacher, so I’ve never seen them dance before. The first thing I’ll do is figure out who in this group is a strong turner and who has strong lines and who has a tumbling skill or something like that. I’ll just ask for a show of hands. Then I’ll ask them to show me and I’ll write down tally marks: five people can do aerials on the right, one on the left or something like that. And then I’ll teach the entire group four eight counts of movement. They spread out and I just kind of see from there who the strongest is, and then I’ll set a formation from the beginning. With the younger ones, 18 and under, I typically don’t have a say in who is cast in the dance. I just know where to place them.
What are some challenges while placement and staging choreography?
Tan: It takes some time getting used to, but my first few years I was always worried about making the wrong decision. Like, “Oh what if I put this girl in the front and she ends up being a strong turner, but she needs to do this other section? She can’t do it.” And then I was like, “It’s not a big deal I will figure it out as it goes and, if anything, the teachers always make changes.” I used to come into choreography with a plan to have all my eight [count movement phrases] written out. All the steps and the formations were set. And then I would try to place them onto every school and studio. Then I realized that something was off. It just wouldn’t mesh well and it’s because . . . Well, it works for some people, but for me, it didn’t because I’m working with a different set of dancers every time they have different skill sets. Now, I just come into [rehearsals] with a general idea and I know like by count one everyone needs to be here [gesturing to a place] and I just kind of fill in the blanks with what I have. That’s what I’ve kind of learned works best for me.
What does success mean to you in your role as a choreographer, teacher, and producer?
Tan: That’s a hard one because a 21-year-old me would have defined what I’m doing now as success, but then then me like a month ago? . . . I wouldn’t have seen that as success. I feel like I have bigger goals with choreography. I love working with kids, but I think I want I want to work more with adults and creating work that would be used commercially. For me, that would be my success-directing and choreographing for adults. As a teacher in the studio that I just started working at, I have become the assistant director of their company. My goal is for them to have a solid foundation and be mentored to exhibit professional behavior, so they can pursue dance [seriously] if they want to.
What have been your biggest challenges and successes as a choreographer/teacher/producer?
Tan: I think my biggest challenge is having to adapt to a few different levels. It takes some time [to work with dancers at such varying levels]. I would prefer to work in chunks so we get in the groove of things together, but working with different levels . . . In that case, success is being able to travel and teach and just kind of work with different dancers and in different areas. I noticed the biggest difference when I was working in Asia. Working with those students. That was just kind of cool to teach in my mom’s hometown in Malaysia and I don’t know I just thought that was cool for her, and for me.
Why is dance important and what are your hopes for the field and for yourself?
Tan: I hope we grow out of doing trick after trick after trick. I judge [dance competitions], so sometimes it gets a little old after a while. It’s not a big deal because their kids want to show off stuff, but in a way, it makes me think, “How we are skipping some block in between levels of movement? Like, this dancer can’t do a double pirouette, but she can do a back handspring-tuck, so I hope teachers will implement the fundamentals more.
I feel like it’s important to realize what dance can do for your mind, body, and soul. How movement can affect and how it can be therapeutic, but to continue to train in it, I think it teaches us discipline. And, at the same time, it creates these individuals who are creative and passionate and if they can see it through, they can make some very impactful things happen. Whether a performer or a creator, I think especially as a teenager or a kid, you realize you have the ability to do that just from your craft. It kind of changes your mindset on things. You can apply this kind of mentality to anything. Or, if you quit dance when you get a different job or in college or if you join a different extracurricular. I read this quote forever ago. I’m going to butcher it, but it said something about how it was important to pursue the arts because it creates critical thinkers who are creative problem solvers and I feel like that’s exactly what we do, especially with choreography.
Takeaways: Kristal Tan’s Impact on Dance
It’s clear that Kristal Tan has worked diligently and consistently to get where she is now, living in many different places and learning about the dance industry in each one, and learning and growing from each experience. What I found the most impressive in her career is how young she learned her passion and talent for choreographing, as this skill is not for everyone in the industry. And it takes many people a long time to be good at choreography, so the fact she has received many awards for it is admirable.
Hearing about her choreographic process was interesting. I hadn’t thought about using a movie monologue to be the inspiration of a piece and I would definitely try it. She shared video of her amazing work. She also shared that coming into any choreography space or experience with an open mind and a general idea of a choreographic topic or content made things a lot easier.
Tan has a strong online presence including a clear, organized professional website and social media presence. This underlined the idea that she is very organized, and knows what it takes to be part of the industry. When interviewing her she showed up present and kind-a genuine person-so it was a lovely talk.
When asking about the children she had taught, I could tell how passionate she is for them to succeed and continue in careers in dance. She invites guest choreographers for her students to learn form and mentors them about the opportunities a career in dance could bring them. I love these approaches-and that she in impacting the lives of these children who aspire to the industry in such a positive way. I also appreciated how she envisions that in the competition world, choreographers should implement the fundamentals more, and not focus solely on “tricks.” She claimed this can be an interesting-yet controversial-subject among competition judges, but she is as interested in dance as art as she is dance as sport.
Even though she is very successful overall, she contends she still faces some challenges and difficulties when choreographing. She mentioned adapting to different levels has been one of the biggest challenges, as she has to make her choreography a little easier for some so everyone can adjust to it. But she is hopeful it will become easier in the future as she gains even more experience.
I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Kristal Tan, as she has a fascinating perspective of the industry, she makes a positive impact on so many, and has accomplished so much already.
Videos of Kristal Tan’s work:
Tan, K. “Kristal Tan Creative”. https://www.kristaltancreative.com/. Accessed 11 December 2022.
Tan, Kristal. 2022. “Meet the Dancemaker Interview”. Conducted by Melissa Casillas. September 28, 2022, and October 10, 2022. Audio, 24:53
Voyage Austin. 2022. “Daily inspiration: Meet Kristal Tan”. 21 June 2022. http://voyageaustin.com/interview/daily-inspiration-meet-kristal-tan/?fbclid=IwAR02k6Ah-fYDZODRkyuOGz9PEOBtVGKJUFYaMU92wKVZc7U-2cpMHzxptEk.