Emmy Award nominated and celebrated dancer and choreographer Stacey Tookey taught several master classes at the Department of Theater and Dance this fall. Tookey brings her vast experience working as a choreographer for the hit television programs So You Think You Can Dance? and Dancing With the Stars and her extensive expertise as a teacher of dance.
With an unbelievable career as an Emmy Award nominated choreographer who has worked on So You Think Can Dance, a choreographer on Dancing With the Stars, and dance professional who has worked with artists such as Celine Dion, and countless others, how have these experiences helped you as a teacher?
I have always loved teaching. Even while dancing professionally, I continued to teach dance to students all across North America and other parts of the world. It’s a part of me. I feel all experiences, both good and bad, have given me insight to help guide dancers I come in contact with. It’s all about passing on information, training and inspiration to the next generation.
How many years have you been teaching dance and choreography?
I started assisting my mother in her dance studio when I was only thirteen. Watching and learning from my mother, who is incredible, really sparked my love of teaching and instilled some foundational habits and training as a teacher of dance for twenty-three years.
As far as choreography, my mother also encouraged us as students to do student choreography at an early age. The first solo piece I performed and choreographed was at ten years old, one I entered in a competition, and I have been choreographing professionally for over twenty years.
How did you come to teach at Montclair State? As your first week teaching has already begun, what has your experience been like?
I moved from L.A. to New Jersey! It’s how it all happened. Jorge Arroyo who was my lighting designer for my dance company Still Motion in New York City, introduced me to the Deputy Chair of Dance Prof. Lori Katterhenry, and the rest is history.
I have enjoyed teaching at Montclair State very much! I love working with college-level students because they crave information and direction. I try to remind them that in addition to all the training and information they also need to find their artistry, and to explore who they are as performers.
Of all of your professional experiences, can you share a memorable moment that greatly affected you as a dance professional?
I was twenty-five years old when I was cast in Celine Dion’s show A New Day in Las Vegas. There were fifty dancers from all over the world spanning the ages nineteen to forty. We had a huge range of cultures, ages, looks and experience and it was life-changing. We had an entire year of creation period for the show and half of that time was rehearsing and living in Belgium. Our director was the incredible Franco Dragone who was the creator and mastermind behind Cirque Du Soleil. His reputation proceeded him and we were all over the moon to get a chance to work with him on creation of his latest show.
I remember the first day like it was yesterday. He came to our rehearsal space and in the darkness over the microphone, in a strong Belgium accent said, “Girls on the left, boys on the right.” We sat down accordingly. He proceeded to ask one girl to stand center stage and she did.
A spotlight around her was the only light in the room from the darkness we heard, “Show me who you are.” It was as though he was saying that no triple classical pirouette or improv would do. It seemed he wanted to see far more than anything I could comprehend as he asked us, “Show me who you are.”
It was in this moment I realized I had no idea who I was as an artist because I had been busy trying to be “perfect” and please everyone else. In that moment, I was so nervous I felt like I was going to pee my self!
How do you feel teaching students of dance has informed your work as a choreographer and as a professional dancer?
I believe teaching students has kept me working my craft constantly. Having to teach technique, movement and performance quality forces you to break it down step by step and analyze in a way I might have not done if I was just performing. In some ways it keeps performing or creating fresh for me, surrounding me with constant new energies and inspiration and it pushes my limits and expectations.
What projects are you currently working on, or looking forward to working on in the near future?
There are so many things in the works! I am really excited to be working on a brand new musical called Dancer opening in Toronto next year using all classical and contemporary dancers. It’s a very unique and magical piece about a famous racehorse in Canadian history, Northern Dancer.
The story is told mostly through dance and music and the dancers are strong, majestic powerful horses throughout the show. I’ve been working with the creative team for the past 5 years and its finally opening. I’m very excited to be involved with a creation of such a special production from the ground up.
If you have any advice to share with a current student of dance, what would it be?
Surround yourself with inspiring and good people. This industry can be tough and having inspiring friends and or mentors can help you believe in yourself during those low points and get you back to a positive place.
Always remember what made you fall in love with dance in the first place, if you stay true to why you are doing it, you will always find your way. Don’t dance to become rich or famous, dance because your heart says you have to and there is no other possible thing you could be doing.