Find Out What Inspires Choreographer Tessandra Chavez

January 19, 2022

It’s safe to say that choreographer Tessandra Chavez is a living dance legend. Not only has she offered her knowledge as a teacher at countless dance studios and conventions around the world, but her work has graced the stages of nearly every dance TV show you can think of, from “So You Think You Can Dance” and “Abby’s Ultimate Dance Competition” to “World of Dance” and “Dancing With the Stars.”

Tessandra’s creativity is appreciated by dancers and non dancers alike, which would easily explain her two Emmys for Outstanding Choreography. Having choreographed for world-renowned artists like Paula Abdul, Janet Jackson, and Justin Bieber, and having founded her own dance ensemble, UNITY LA (at the mere age of 15!), she’s undoubtedly inspired dancers of all styles and all ages.

Witnessing Tessandra’s movement choices always seems to make me feel something, so I was honored to have the chance to pick her brain and learn about everything from her journey as a choreographer and what inspires her in and out of the studio, to her advice for dancers who’d like to one day become a choreographer.

—Nyamekye Smith

Emmy-Award winning choreographer Tessandra Chavez lifts her hand as she directs two dancers in her choreography.
courtesy Chavez

What Inspires Her In the Dance Studio

“I’m inspired by dancers who are fully committed, invested and present. I love when dancers verbally react to energy in the room. I think we sometimes forget that dance should be fun.”

What Inspires Her Outside of the Studio

“Outside of dance, I’m inspired by nature and animals! I think the simple things in life are so important. We are surrounded by a beautiful world that can teach us so much outside of our cell phones.”

Her Advice to Aspiring Choreographers

To students who’d like to one day become a choreographer, I’d say never give up. It takes perseverance to become a successful choreographer. You will hear many no’s, but they will only teach you, build your character, and set you up for the yes’s. Don’t take things personally. Also, remember to train in many styles to build your vocabulary of movement and most importantly, be authentic! There is only one you, so there’s no point in trying to emulate someone else. Stay true to yourself and trust yourself. Focus on progress over perfection. You can tell yourself you want to do better, but also tell yourself “good job.” Put your work out there as much as you can. Create even when it feels hard or you feel blocked. You’d surprise yourself with what you can create when you think you have nothing to give.”

Leaning against a studio mirror, choreographer Tessandra Chavez smiles as several students sit on the floor in front of her.
courtesy Chavez

How She Selects Her Music

“When it comes to selecting music, most times, many of my past and current dancers send me music. I love music that resonates with the masses and has powerful universal messages. I love soulful music that brings emotion out of me when I move to it. I also love music that has intricate musicality to play with as it challenges my mind.”

An Interesting Story

“One surprising story I think other artists would love to know is that one of my 2019 Emmy winning pieces was to a song I did not choose. In fact I was not very fond of the song when I first heard it. I originally created the duet to another song that I was truly in love with and NBC couldn’t get clearance for it. The producers basically told me it wasn’t going to happen and they presented me with a song that was cleared and said I needed to make it work due to time restraints. I truly had an internal battle trying to find inspiration and once I decided to accept reality and accept the change, the piece turned into magic. For me this was a big lesson in letting go and realizing that sometimes what seems like a curse is actually a blessing. We sometimes get in our own way of receiving some beautiful gifts. The universe is always speaking to us if we’re open and listening.”

Her Most Memorable Moment As a Choreographer

“I have so many memorable moments as a choreographer which I’m so grateful for, but a recent one was when I created a piece for Justin Bieber’s tour. I had come in to set the piece on a day that Justin was out of town. He came in the day after I finished setting the piece and he went to sit in the front of the room to watch it, and the supervising choreographer called me after to tell me that I made Justin Bieber cry from watching the piece. That really touched me deeply because that is the biggest compliment to me. He was emotionally affected by watching the work I created. That is a true testament of authenticity of the choreographer and the dancers executing the vision. Such a cool moment.”

Choreographer Tessandra Chavez guides the leg of a dancer as students hold a position on the floor with their left legs lifted behind them.
courtesy Chavez

Her Creative Process

“I always like to come prepared with choreography, especially if it’s a group piece, but there are instances when I simply am not given time for prep and I have to create on the spot. There’s also times when it’s better to create on the dancers in front of me. For example, if I’m creating a duet, it’s better for me to experiment in the room to get the best out of the dancers. It’s more organic that way. I think it’s important for choreographers to have the ability to both plan choreography and be able to create on the spot. I also think if you’re the type to always want to come in prepared, you should be open to making changes because sometimes what you prepared doesn’t work. Adaptability is such an important and useful skill as a dancer and choreographer.”

On the Difference Between Choreographing for TV Show vs. Live Show

“When creating for TV it’s important to remember that it’s the camera that will be helping tell the story. There are lots of angles and layers to play with. When choreographing for a live show, it’s all about what you make the audience feel. Staging can really play a part in driving emotion.”

Choreographer Tessandra Chavez teaches a class with a big smile on her face.
courtesy Chavez

On How to Become a Successful Choreographer

“In order to become a successful choreographer, it’s important to train in all styles so that you can build your vocabulary. The more options you have of movement, the more ways you can tell a story. Being vigilant and watching how other choreographers work and lead is also important so that you can develop your own way of doing those things. The basics of being on time, prepared, organized and kind are also crucial!”

What She Loves About the Process

“My favorite part about the choreographic process and being a choreographer in general is creating and exploring new ways to express dance. I love pushing boundaries and challenging what my body and brain naturally want to do. I love the process of exploration and development more than I do watching the final result. I’m constantly looking for ways I can be more masterful in how I structure dance. Knowing that I can always be better keeps me intrigued in dance. I also love bringing out the best in the dancers in front of me. I love when I can push them to the next level of their potential. It’s so rewarding to witness.”