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How to have the time of your life | Kenny Ortega

The Dirty Dancing choreographer and director of High School Musical and The Descendants makes sure we never have to hide in the corner again

I was at an outdoor anniversary screening of Dirty Dancing recently. It was raising money for Hurricane Harvey. At the very end, the movie had finished, but the light of the projector stayed on. Two girls stepped in front of it and did the final lift perfectly. The whole place went wild. It was magnificent. I’m sure there have been more people that have failed than have succeeded in trying that.

Choreography is language. We’re not creating dance for the sake of creating great movement as much as we’re creating great choreography to create the story. Dance can become many things. It can be improvisational, explorational. Where the dialogue stops, the dance and the music has to take the story to the next place. You can’t stop the dialogue for the sake of a dance number and then continue the story after. It’s all about using dance and using music to tell that story, and grow the characters. At the beginning of a number they might be in one place, but by the end they have jumped to another place. That isn’t always physical, but the dance has allowed them to get them there, wherever it is.

For me, working with stars is always a collaboration. Everyone I’ve ever worked with has enriched my life, enriched my ideas and helped me grow as an artist. Gene Kelly taught me the art of designing dance, for the camera, for the screen. Working with him, and of course, with Michael Jackson has helped me develop my work into what it is today, with each passing generation.

I want people to feel empowered and brave and courageous. To know that they have voices and that they can be fearless and try things. That’s the greatest way to accomplish something special. Sometimes accidents occur that are better than anything that anyone could’ve come up with on a page, and things just happen in the moment.

Everyone involved in making Dirty Dancing, from the director Emilie Ardolino writer Eleanor Bergstein, Patrick and Jennifer, we had an amazing life experience. We were lost in the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina and Lake Lure in the middle of the summer. We had no cell phones, no fax machines, no means of communicating outside of where we were with anyone so we had this great bonding experience, this unbelievably magical time. I look back on it with tremendous love and appreciation that it has survived and entertained for all of its years.

Dirty Dancing celebrates its 30th birthday on 16 October. Kenny Ortega’s latest film, Descendants 2 premieres on Friday 20th October at 5.30pm on Disney Channel and DisneyLife

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