Narrative and Interview by Taylor Snoga
Teddy Forance grew up in the dance world because his family owned their own studio, the Hackworth School of Performing Arts in Easthampton, Massachusetts. He left home around the age of 17 to begin building his career as a contemporary dancer and choreographer. At this young age he had the opportunity to travel through Greece as a dancer for international pop star Anna Vissi. In the years following he had many other opportunities, including working with well-known choreographers such as Mia Michaels, where he assisted the Celine Dion Taking Chances tour, as well as performing as a lead dancer on Cirque du Soleil’s Delerium. He has also performed with other well-known artists including Madonna, Janet Jackson, PINK, Usher, Lady Gaga, Florence & The Machine, Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, and Kylie Minogue. Teddy has performed on the Oscars, Emmy’s, AMA’s, Billboard Awards, Britt Awards, Dancing with The Stars, ELLEN, and Good Morning America. Through his work on seasons two and three of the Fox reality show So You Think You Can Dance, he received an honorary Emmy nomination. On Dancing with the Stars, Teddy not only performed as a featured artist but as a choreographer for Julianne Hough and Kenny Wormald. Currently Teddy is teaching around the world as a staff member for JUMP Dance Convention. He is also a founding member of the Los Angeles based dance company, Shaping Sound. Teddy is now back in western Massachusetts, running a dance program called CLI: A Dance Conservatory that he and his co-founder, Jon Arpino, started while living in Los Angeles. CLI Studios is a website for dancers to take virtual dance classes from top choreographers around the world. After a few years being completely virtual, they decided to open an in-person studio focused on bringing dancers to their next level in commercial, Broadway, and concert work. As you will see later in this feature, CLI Studios and the progress it has made over the years has been Teddy Forance’s pride and joy.
How long have you been choreographing and/or producing dance and what led you to this career path?
Forance: I grew up where the CLI Conservatory is now, in South Hampton Massachusetts, and my family’s owned a studio for about 90 years. My great grandfather in 1934 started his first dance studio. He ran it for about 25 years and then my nana, my mom’s mom, ran it for the next 30 years, and then my mom and my aunt have owned it for about 45 years. My mom is really creative and is an amazing choreographer, so she’s really been like my biggest inspiration. I always call her for advice and all that jazz. But essentially growing up she would choreograph my solos and we would go to different competitions. When I hit 10 years old, I saw some other male dancers like Kenny Wormald, Kyle Robinson, and others. I used to go to Dance Masters of America and American Dance Awards and other competitions and just watched the other talent. I thought, “Oh, my god, if I want to do this, I have to get into it sooner rather than later. I fell in love with it at that point. I’ve always loved choreography and seeing my mom do it and how in-depth she goes into it . . . She writes out every layer, and every count, and every step on paper so she really has a super in-depth way of choreographing. I would make up my own choreography in my room and then when a studio would be open, I would just go in and find a song. I loved the process of finding music that I really liked; that got me going. And then I would figure out the “puzzle pieces” of how to put it all together. About every month, I’d create a new combo or a new energy. I choreographed a lot of hip hop stuff, a lot of jazz early on, a little bit of lyrical. Then, contemporary started coming into the scene and I thought it was weird and I kind of liked it. So I jumped into a lot of classes and just learned and I really fell in love with contemporary dance and choreography. Throughout the years I started seeing the [professional] pathways that I could take and it just got me so amped. I study as many styles as possible because I want to do a lot of different projects in the contemporary dance world and the commercial dance world. Because both of my parents have owned their own businesses, I saw that hustle and that grind that they would never stop working. Even on the weekends. Even when we had time off, my dad would build something or do something. My dad’s into engineering sound and audio and video so he was more into the technical side of things. Producing, in general, and making things was always so fun to me so my family is a big part of that for sure.
How and where do you find inspiration?
Forance: I draw inspiration from a lot of different things, nature really inspires me. I grew up hiking a lot and being out in nature, and just that feeling of being out in the woods, having to be really aware of your senses and all that. I love trees, being outside, water; nature makes me feel inspired and really fulfilled. So, I go for walks consistently, when I’m listening to music. I love being outside.
People also really inspire me, I love getting to know people, especially creative people, dancers and choreographers. I’m always just in awe of people’s concepts and the things people create and how dance has evolved. I love that dance just pushes me to the point where it almost scares me for a moment that someone is so good. In your head, you think, “I can’t do anything that good, I need to find out how to find that feeling for myself, I need to figure that out cause if they can find it, I can find it within myself in my own way.” I love other artists, I’m constantly searching out and curious about everyone around the world and what they’re doing.
Music is also a big thing for me. I’m constantly searching on Spotify. I love my Discover Weekly channel and my Release Radar channel on Spotify. It gives me all the algorithms I need in order to find the music I need. I choreograph a lot, so new fresh music is big to me. I don’t like repeating myself and doing the same combo for weeks or months at a time. I usually teach it once then it’s in the archives. Trying to create new movement and not doing the same habitual moves is inspiring because it takes that digging and that search of how I can find new movement. It really is hard to do, especially when your body over the years continues to do that same arm path and you’re like, “Oh, I’ve done that like 500 times. What if I went a bit of a different direction?” So, that search and curiosity to find new things-music, movements, musicality, context, story.
My family inspires me, we have two little kids, we do dance parties in our house and listen to really funny songs like *NSYNC and Spice Girls and they do really abstract movement. Sometimes I think, “I’ve spent four hours in the studio today trying to find something that is released and carefree, and then they just do it because they’re kids.” They don’t care and they don’t have technique or anything built around that. Sometimes I’ll video them [because] I want to learn how to do what they do. My kids are a big inspiration and just motivation for me to continue building my career and building a life for us. I wake up every day really motivated, seeing them and getting to be inspired by not only their movement but just them in my life and my wife as well.
What are the steps you take in making a new dance?
Forance: Usually it’s music first, I’ll find a song then dissect the music like a surgeon. I listen to every little sound and figure out what I was talking about before: how to find something new in movement so I’m not repeating myself. The music is really what it’s all about. Sometimes it will come really easy and I’ll just see the move and go with it, and other times I’ll have to create five different options and then end up going with option three or five, or sometimes I’ll go back to option one. It’s good to go through those options as far as creating a piece of choreography for a group or for other dancers. I learned because I used to over-choreograph and choreograph a whole song of dense choreography and really intricate stuff. Then I realized it was too much and there was no breathing room. Then, I thought, I needed to create all the formations first. So, zero to 20 seconds I write out a formation, 20 seconds to 25 seconds there’s just a transition, and I’ll write out X’s and O’s and names to represent the dancers onstage. I’ll write it out like they’re crossing through formations, almost like football plays. I really stage my pieces because my mom would always say, “Your pieces are pretty good, but there’s no staging, they all just stay in the same formation. That’s boring and there are no levels or dynamics to the whole piece, it just looks like a long combo.” So, I focus on the staging now, and probably every like 10 seconds I change the formation. I’m constantly trying to figure out if it is downstage, right, left, and when I’m hearing the music, if it sounds like the frequency is low or high or right or left or the full group or just a solo or a duet or a trio. I’m really thinking about the staging nowadays because when I watch a good piece, I feel like my eyes should go there and that’s where you want them to go, like a movie. I love film, like dance on film, so creating a focal point, I think, is super important-giving an audience a place to look instead of it being convoluted. Then refining it and really asking the question, “Is this the best work that I can put out?” and “Would I be proud of this?” I do layers of recalibrating and taking a day to consider if I should change that one count, that one transition that is still not fully right. It’s the balance of making sure it feels good for the dancers and that it looks really good. There’s a lot of balancing in the whole process and recalibrating. Sometimes I’ll message the studio that I work with months later and say, “Let’s actually change this eight-count [movement phrase], or I’ll hear critiques from judges and think, “They’re right let’s change that part.” How do we get better? There’s always that question, so that’s really what I’ve tried to do especially over the last like five years.
What is your process for selecting and working with dancers or dance students?
Forance: I can usually tell within 10 to 15 seconds of watching a dancer if they have the talent and movement quality. Just like people describe that “it” factor of that hunger and fight and curiosity. I don’t want to say it’s black or white, but it always kind of clicks. Like when you see a good actress or a good movie, it makes sense. When something makes sense, that’s when I know pretty instantly that I want to work with them. There are some students I see that maybe at the beginning aren’t as naturally talented or gifted, they aren’t at the level that maybe other students are. I can tell that they want it so badly, that they will grow a lot, whereas maybe 10 years ago I didn’t have the wisdom to see that quality and potential. Now I can see clearly, they have potential and the work ethic I think they are capable of. This is my biggest thing when I’m in class, seeing someone’s work ethic and someone’s eyes light up.
Growing up, when a teacher was on stage at a convention or I was taking a class, my whole body felt electrified, I just wanted to learn everything they had to give. You can tell in someone’s eyes that sparkle and shine of they really want this. Sometimes the most talented people don’t have that, and I don’t want to work with them because they’re probably not going to end up being successful because they don’t love it enough. It’s that balance of talent and hunger, figuring out when I’m watching dancers and recruiting for conservatory if they have both or where they are mentally, that gauge of potential talent and hunger. We go back and forth with asking if they are they ready for this. If you’re not ready for the conservatory, it could scare people because it’s so intense that it can just freak people out. When I’m choreographing for a music video or something that is specific to what the director and what the casting agents are looking for, we need these certain things, a certain number of boys, a certain number of girls, the vibe of this song. Also whether these dancers feel like they’ll be fun to work with and are good people; reputation really matters, too. I know a lot of different choreographers and dancers and I’ll reach out to people to ask if they have ever worked with this person, what’s the vibe, how they are in rehearsal, whether they are they going to cause drama, if they are going to show up on time, all those things. Professionalism is key. No one wants to work with someone who’s rude or disrespectful. Reputation goes a long way, so I always talk to my friends and ask about their experience. If it wasn’t a good experience, sometimes I’ll take a little bit of a risk if they just fit very well in a certain project. I challenge myself to see if I can help them on their path and change the trajectory of where they’re going.
What does success mean to you in your role as a choreographer/teacher/producer?
Forance: If I was choreographing a music video or tour, something important is really respecting the artist and making sure that they get what they want out of it, really getting to know their needs, and asking what their vision is and how I can bring that vision to life. Having a lot of clarity for the song, the whole direction of the tour, where the piece sits inside of the tour, what this music video’s intention is, what the story is-really indulging in that so that it makes sense.
When I’m choreographing at a studio my goal is to bring out the best in the dancers and make sure they feel confident yet challenged and make sure the studio owner is getting what they want out of it. I know they bring in a lot of different choreographers throughout the season, so making sure this piece isn’t too similar to another choreographer’s is important. It’s really getting to know what they want out of me because I have a few different styles of my choreography, a kind that is more hard-hitting or something smoother or using different types of music . . . Before I go to a residency, usually I send some music options. Then I rely on getting to know the answers and making sure that I’m prepared going in. Being prepared is a big one-making sure that the experience for all of the dancers is good. I like to work fast so we can have time to not feel rushed, so a lot of pre-production and learning dancers’ names is key to me. I really study the dancers and try to know what they want to do in their futures as well. I can help by curating Q&A sessions and conversations about the dance industry.
As for producing, I love bringing people together. It’s my favorite thing in the entire world. I started a workshop about 12 years ago called Generation IV here in Massachusetts. It started out as a way to help my mom’s studio stay open because it was a hard time where there weren’t enough students. I called my friends and told them we needed to raise some money for my studio, and would they be down to volunteer and help us. We raised enough money to keep the studio open and a local theater in town asked if we wanted to put on a show with all of these big celebrity choreographers coming in to help produce it. I had all of the choreographers sleep on air mattresses at the studio, we had about 75 dancers, and we just created a show. It was so exciting, so nerve wracking, so much fun. The audience went berserk and that was kind of the beginning of my producing. I loved it, but this was the scariest thing I’ve ever done and there obviously were challenges and problems. However, the outcome was so invigorating and so exciting.
Then we started Shaping Sound Dance Company, then we started CLI studios. That feeling of running your own company, producing work, exploring how to connect to other artists and the amount of people I’ve met just by reaching out to people. I’m just constantly on the grind of how we can make something happen and I think that’s what a producer really does: make it happen. As much as I love dancing and choreography, I’d say producing and being the director of the conservatory has been so much fun and we’re just getting started. I’m really excited to continue to produce and create the best program possible.
What have been your biggest challenges as a choreographer, teacher, and producer?
Forance: As a choreographer it’s finding music that really inspires me because that’s my first and foremost goal. And breaking out of the habits of the movement. Challenging myself to build a little bit more storyline or formation work. That’s taken me many, many years to hone. Also, the efficiency of it-how to choreograph for a studio that I feel confident leaving after two days.
As a teacher I think about creating a well-rounded class and finding a balance. I used to get so hyped in class that I used to scare people. Finding the perfect balance as a teacher of what the room needs, how to read a room, and giving the dancers what they actually need is important. Some people have told me in the past that I’m really intense. I’m a morning person so I wake up really energized. Over the years I have found that balance of reading the room and seeing what people need, as well as inspiring them and motivating them to get on my level.
As a producer, challenges are daily: first flight gets canceled and we have to figure out how to change the schedule and move things around, or if I’m running a video shoot and makeup took an extra hour, we have to figure out we need to shoot this in 30 minutes and move on to the next set for lighting to change over. It’s always being on your toes, ready to go. Challenges are fun because they make you creative and it’s one of the parts I like the most. When there’s no challenge, I feel like there should be or that it’s too easy. I love putting myself in situations that are challenging and then we figure out how to do them. There’s that reward at the end of a process that was almost impossible, and we did it. That’s what CLI is all about-how to create online content, how to get people to dance online or just learn online. Now we’ve moved our entire company to East Hampton, Massachusetts to create an in-person experience. We’re really about challenges and living up to that for everybody on our team and our investors. Our investors challenge us on the daily to keep them in line with us, but I’ve learned so much in those challenges and I can’t wait for more.
What have been your biggest successes?
Forance: I would say the conservatory-it’s all the work that I put in over 27 years since I was 10 years old. I get emotional when I think about it. The second I posted that Instagram post saying I was going to do it and move to Massachusetts and train for nine months, I thought, “This is crazy.” The Conservatory I genuinely feel the most proud of because it’s involving so many people moving and uprooting their entire lives to do this.
As a performer, Janet Jackson was probably my favorite thing that I booked. It was a three-month rehearsal process. I was brought on to be a soloist at first, to dance while she was changing in the show. I had three solos on the tour which was cool because I got to freestyle with the band. Then, she was having auditions for the music video for the song “Feedback” and she invited me to audition. I had trained my whole life in hip hop and I thought I was going to smash it. I got up and felt really good about it, then they hired me to do the music video and then let me do 25 other pieces in the show. I did “Rhythm Nation” and “If” and “Feedback” and all the classic Janet pieces. Standing beside her on a tour stage . . . There are flames going off and we’ve got these crazy costumes and gear on, and the audience is going berserk. I was 19 at the time, and it was really incredible to experience that with her.
Why is dance important and what are your hopes for the field and for yourself?
Forance: Dance is important because it heals people, it gives hope, and brings culture to the world. I think dance was the first form of communication in a lot of ways, building rhythm even just by clapping. Dance was always first and foremost a unifying social gathering thing or a ritualistic thing, so I think there’s something so human about rhythm and movements and connection. I think that when anybody sees dance you can’t not be affected by it. Even if you’re not a dancer. It has to do something to you because it’s a part of our makeup. In our DNA is movement and music, so I think that’s natural.
I see the dance industry continuing to grow like it already has been-a wide variety of opportunities for dancers, choreographers, and teachers. You can become an actor, create your own clothing line, get paid for social media or to be an influencer, get paid to choreograph or creatively direct tours. There are so many routes for dancers and I love seeing dancers continue to branch out and try new things-directing, videoing, choreographing, all these different things. I hope the dance industry just continues to flourish because it’s such a big part of our culture. In all social media platforms, dance and movement is at the forefront. Even commercials and TV shows. More things than we think are choreographed by a paid choreographer. I did a Nissan commercial assisting Michael Rooney and we had to choreograph how people got out of the car and waved. Just the simplest of things involve a choreographer. Dance is embedded into everything we see nowadays. I think it will increase more and more because it’s so eye-catching when you see something to music that works.
Takeaways: Teddy Forance’s Impact
Teddy Forance is extremely talented and passionate about the work he does as a dancer, teacher, and producer. While talking about the opportunities, success, and challenges he’s faced leading up to where he is now, his eyes lit up and his tone was one of pure joy and excitement. It was clear he could not be happier about all the experiences he has had and is looking forward to experiences to be had in the future. Listening to the knowledge he had to share and the stories about everything he has been a part of creating was very inspiring. His producing career came about from the idea of simply wanting to raise money for his mother’s studio. A local theater got wind of all the well-known choreographers in town and took a chance on Forance to put on a show. From there he had the courage to start the dance company Shaping Sound, which led him to take a leap and start CLI Studios. This continues to evolve from a solely virtual platform to being in the process of also having an in-person platform. He shared that challenges are something he welcomes; if he thinks something is going to be hard it makes him want to take it on even more. Challenges are something people tend to shy away from, so hearing his thoughts on them may give others a different perspective or encourage them to embrace challenges. Many of his successes and the amazing opportunities he’s had, have come from his motivation to just go for things. His choice to continuously put himself out there made a way for many doors to open working with Janet Jackson. I felt very inspired while listening to everything Teddy Forance had to say in our interview, and I hope readers feel the same way.
Forance, Teddy. “Teddy Forance.” Broadway Dance Center, 11 Sept. 2020, https://www.broadwaydancecenter.com/faculty/teddy-forance.
Nepm. “Choreographer Teddy Forance Opens Cli Conservatory.” Connecting Point, 18 Mar. 2022, https://connectingpoint.nepm.org/choreographer-teddy-forance-opens-cli-conservatory/.
“Teddy Forance.” Creative Arts Academy, http://www.creativeartsacademy.net/teddy-forance.html.
Hilton, Haley. “Teddy Forance Discusses the Origins of CLI Studios, and the Launch of Its New Conservatory.” Dance Teacher, 19 Nov. 2021, https://dance-teacher.com/teddy-forance-discusses-the-origins-of-cli-studios-and-the-launch-of-its-new-conservatory/.