Scene Stealer: Harry Shum Jr.

September 23, 2011

He’s an amazing dancer, has a warm, outgoing personality, works hard and is simply a great guy. That description could just as easily apply to Harry Shum Jr. as Mike Chang, the character he plays on “Glee.” And like Mike, who’s gone from a quiet background dancer to a vital member of New Directions, Harry has recently stepped into the spotlight as a prominent player on the L.A. dance scene.

In addition to his role on “Glee,” Harry is one of the choreographers for “The LXD,” the online series created by director Jon M. Chu about a group of superhero dancers. He’s also a member of the cast, playing Elliot Hoo, a bumbling goofball who acquires serious dance skills when he slips on a pair of magical shoes.

In reality, Harry doesn’t need any help with his moves. He’s a gifted hip-hopper who balances grace with athleticism. His sparkling charisma gives each step a pop of excitement. Above all, he’s a confident freestyler. “He’s not afraid to take risks,” says Harry’s mentor, choreographer Chuck Maldonado. “If you want him to do something flamboyant, he’ll do it.”

Though he’s a polished performer now, Harry got a late and unconventional start. As a high school sophomore in Arroyo Grande, CA, he joined the dance team on a dare. “It wasn’t the coolest thing to do,” Harry says. (Sound familiar, “Glee” fans?) So he and his friends set out to transform the group. They learned choreography from music videos and gave it their own spin. They performed at school assemblies and put on shows in the area. “It became really popular,” he says.

After graduation, while attending San Francisco State University, he kicked up his training with classes at Dance Mission Theater. “Dance was on my mind a lot,” he says. When Jesse Santos, an L.A.-based dancer, taught at the studio, Harry reconsidered his path. “Jesse showed us his resumé and I was like, ‘You can make money dancing?’ ” Within a year, Harry moved to L.A.

Like many L.A. newcomers, Harry spent most of his time at Millennium Dance Complex, EDGE Performing Arts Center and Debbie Reynolds Dance Studio. “I bought unlimited class passes,” he says. “I was living at the studios.” Choreographers Rosero McCoy and Jamal Sims spotted Harry at EDGE and invited him do a UK tour with a pop singer named Kaci. “It was an awesome experience,” he says, “especially for an 18-year-old kid who was completely new to the industry.”

After the tour, Harry steadily built his resumé. He was one of the dancing silhouettes in the early iPod commercials, did motion capture work for the movie Shark Tale and danced with Beyoncé on the Ladies First tour.

In early 2009, Harry was called to audition for a “nameless role” on “Glee.” Harry read two scenes for the casting team, and two weeks later, he found out he had been hired as a dancer—even though he never danced at his audition. Harry had no idea what to expect. “Then, they called us for rehearsal the next week,” he says. “It just never stopped.”

Around the same time, Harry was working on the first season of “The LXD” with director Jon M. Chu, who Harry had met when he was cast in Step Up 2: The Streets. The group made its big debut on “So You Think You Can Dance” Season 6 with a hip-hop ballet conceived by Harry and co-choreographer Christopher Scott.

Today, both of Harry’s big projects are still going strong: Season 3 of “The LXD” will premiere later this year and Harry’s role on “Glee” continues to grow. This summer, for the second year in a row, The LXD opened for the Glee Live! tour, with Harry acting as The LXD’s artistic director. He also hopes to direct for the online series and says he would like to do an episode in the style of classic Hollywood musicals (he’s inspired by performers like Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor). “I’m a huge fan of old musicals,” he says, “how special it feels when you watch them and how creative yet simple they are. I want to bring that back.”

Fast Facts

April 28, 1982

Favorite movies:
Singin’ in the Rain and Good Will Hunting

Dance idol:
Gene Kelly

Dance crush:
Cyd Charisse (from Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon and more). “She was gorgeous and danced beautifully.”

Hidden talent:
“I can cook. I make up random dishes. My parents used to own a restaurant, so I learned a lot from them.”

Something people don’t know about you:
“I was born in Costa Rica. Spanish was my first language, but now I’m a little rusty.”

Harry’s Favorite “Glee” Routines

  • “Bohemian Rhapsody,” from the Season 1 “Journey” episode:
    “We saw the episode while we were on tour and that number made me cry. The way choreographer Zach [Woodlee] and the director were able to mix the number with the storyline—it all worked out so perfectly.”
  • “Me Against the Music,” from the Season 2 “Britney/Brittany” episode:
    “Heather Morris delivered in every possible way. She was powerful but didn’t overdo it. She really impressed me.”
  • “Make ’Em Laugh,” from the Season 2 “The Substitute” episode:
    “Matthew Morrison and I went to a gym and tried to learn a wall flip—they had stunt doubles, but we wanted to do it. We wanted to pay homage to Donald O’Connor because he influenced us so much. Matt broke his finger during one of the first couple takes, but he’s a trooper and kept going. It was one of the most joyous dance routines I’ve done on ‘Glee.’ ”
  • The final number in “Funk,” from Season 1:
    “It was a free-for-all. Everyone had shining moments. That’s what dance is about: letting go and having fun.”
  • “Valerie,” from the Season 2 “Special Education” episode:
    “I danced with Heather and Naya Rivera [who plays Santana]. This was a moment for the underdogs. We were newbies and it was really special when they gave us the spotlight.”

What People Are Saying about Harry

  • Chuck Maldonado, choreographer:
    “His freestyle is different—it’s animal-like and fluid. It can be weird and spooky, but it’s amazing to watch. When he started teaching, I realized that he can also choreograph. I said, ‘You’re going to make it one day. I don’t know what it is that you’re going to do, but you’re going to do it.’ ”
  • Christopher Scott, choreographer for “The LXD” and “So You Think You Can Dance”:
    “Harry is the type of leader people should model themselves after. He treats people with respect and there’s no ego, which is the only way The LXD works, because it’s so collaborative.”
  • Heather Morris:
    “Harry is the biggest dork in the whole world. I see him as a modern-day silent-film comedian. He’s so entertaining to watch. He’s also a nerd and loves technology. He likes his iPod a lot and he has really cool wireless headphones.”
  • Matthew Morrison:
    “There are a lot of people in this business who get jaded, but Harry always comes in with a positive attitude and he’s so hungry to learn. As a dancer, he has a tremendous strength in improv. Whenever he performs, my mouth is agape. I’m so in awe of him. He’s a terrific human being too, but what he can do with his body, I’ve never seen anything like that.”