Become a Teaching Assistant to the Stars

December 14, 2008

Taking the stage next to Mia Michaels or Wade Robson might seem like a total “pinch me” moment, but for teaching assistants, it’s all in a day’s work. They tour the country and fine-tune their dance skills—all while getting paid! Can you say, “dream job”? Rachel Kay (24), Sloan-Taylor Rabinor (19), Kristi Crader (26) and Ashley Godby (27) can—they’re livin’ the dream assisting top choreographers at L.A. DanceForce, The Pulse, Urban Jamm, Co. Dance and more. DS sat down with these rising stars to get a glimpse into what it’s really like to hold this unique title.

Getting the Gig

Just as there is never one “right” path to becoming a working dancer, there are tons of ways to become an assistant. Sloan was discovered by Brian Friedman at a Co. Dance convention in 2006 (see “You Should Know,” DS Nov. ’07). At each Co. Dance event, every teacher nominates one promising student to audition for the Assistant Teacher Award; the six nominees do a jazz and contemporary fusion freestyle audition—and one ATA is chosen. “When they gave me the plaque that said ‘Assistant Teacher Award,’ I started bawling,” Sloan says.

As an ATA, Sloan’s job was to assist at one Co. Dance convention during her senior year, after which she became eligible for the Apprentice Program. Each season, five apprentices travel to three cities and rotate among faculty members—including Tyce Diorio, Blake McGrath and Lauren Gottlieb. To get the gig, Sloan had to answer essay questions about her dance experience and personal goals, as well as stand out against the applications from 19 ATAs chosen in other convention cities.

Along with her apprenticeship, Sloan also earned Elite Pulse Protégé status in a similar program at The Pulse in NYC. After being picked at regional events, Protégé candidates attend Nationals where they wear bright yellow T-shirts so the faculty can watch their dancing throughout the weekend. At the final showcase, two junior and two senior Elite Protégés are announced. “This year, I assisted at 14 weekends,” Sloan says. “I feel so blessed to have assisted some of the most sought-after choreographers in the world.”

For Ashley, landing her assistant job at L.A. DanceForce was a natural next step from her scholarship at EDGE Performing Arts Center. “The year I was on scholarship, they took two students every weekend to assist at LADF,” says Ashley. “I developed a good relationship with the owners, and after graduation, they asked me to do a few more weekends to test it out, like an audition.”

Of course the chance to impress the right people doesn’t always happen within the convention setting. Kristi caught Dave Scott’s eye by faithfully attending his classes at Hollywood dance studios, while Rachel first connected with Shane Sparks when he choreographed her high school cheer squad’s Homecoming routine. Today both Kristi and Rachel are full-time year-round assistants to these high-profile hip hoppers—which, along with assisting on music videos, movies and other cool projects, means traveling with them to The Pulse, Monsters of HipHop and Urban Jamm.

The Real Deal

What does a teacher’s assistant do, exactly? Whether dedicated to just one choreographer (like Kristi and Rachel) or rotating between teachers (like Sloan and Ashley), the duties are essentially the same. Assistants help out with all aspects of a convention—from demonstrating choreography in class to performing in the faculty show. Convention weekends typically last three days, with assistants flying in Friday night and starting bright and early at 8 a.m. on Saturday.

In classes, assistants warm up the students and stand next to the choreographer during the learning process. For Kristi, teaching with Dave Scott is a huge rush—even after seven years. “Dancing with your mentor is a feeling I can’t put into words,” Kristi says. “We’ve been doing conventions for years, and I still get excited every time.”

And the assistants aren’t the only amped-up ones—the choreographers often get a rock star reception from hordes of screaming teens. Rachel says it’s not unusual to spend hours in autograph-signing sessions. (She also plays photographer for Shane’s followers.) “You walk into a room with Dave, and all the kids start screaming,” Kristi adds. “It’s really gratifying to be surrounded by thousands of kids who want to drink in his knowledge.”

Being a quick study is also key. Sloan explains that many choreographers like to change their combinations each weekend, so she often has to learn choreography for the first time in class! “The choreographer generally only does it once, then it’s up to the assistants to teach. We never know what to expect until the first count of eight,” says Sloan. “We have to get the details down fast because the choreographers and students are depending on us.”

Perks and Pitfalls

No job is perfect, and being a TA is no exception. Frequent travel and long hours can leave assistants exhausted, and starting pay isn’t always desirable. In her jobs with Co. Dance and The Pulse, Sloan doesn’t receive compensation—although she does get free lodging and travel. When Rachel was starting out, she paid her own way to gigs. (Today Shane pays her a monthly flat fee, plus commissions for special projects.)

According to Kristi, opportunities for assistants often grow along with the choreographer’s reputation: “The first few times, they were sketchy about Dave bringing someone to Monsters of HipHop, but after a while, they loved him and he was able to request that I come with him.”

As for the lifestyle, it isn’t always glamorous. Assistants often share hotel rooms on location, and while they sometimes get to go out with high-profile faculty, that’s not always the case. Even Rachel, who is close friends with Shane, encountered politics at the beginning. “They’d go out to dinner and Shane wouldn’t be able to include me,” says Rachel, “but I understand my job title, and that’s not to party with them.”

But the good often far outweighs the bad. Rachel attended a Céline Dion show in Las Vegas with Mia Michaels and “SYTYCD” producer Jeff Thacker, while Ashley landed gigs on “How I Met Your Mother” and Lifetime’s “Your Mama Don’t Dance” through LADF connections. Through her work with Shane, Rachel has appeared in music videos with Marques Houston and Angel Face, along with assisting him on MTV’s “America’s Best Dance Crew,” “SYTYCD” and You Got Served. And Kristi has worked on Step Up 2 and Coach Carter. “Learning so many different styles has helped me in the audition process,” says Ashley. “My brain is now programmed to pick up choreography fast.”

Plus, being an assistant means access to your dance idols—Sloan, Kristi, Rachel and Ashley have shared the stage with Wade Robson, Laurie Ann Gibson, Brian Friedman, Mia Michaels and many more. “When Dave isn’t teaching, I can take class with the best of the best,” Kristi explains. “It’s like having every dream opportunity as a dancer—all in one weekend.”