The Case of Kenny Ortega

So far this month we rocked out with The Blues Brothers, learned about John Williams, and ranked some Disney villain songs. This week we’re closing out June Tunes with an episode not so much about music, but more about dancing. 

Today we are taking a look at the career of choreographer-turned-director, Kenny Ortega! Kenny Ortega is responsible for some of the most iconic dance scenes of the 80s, from the lift in “Dirty Dancing” to Duckie’s moves in “Pretty in Pink.” He went on to direct some of Disney’s cult classics that will be remembered for generations.

Movies He Choreographed

The Rose (1979)

  • Kenny’s first chance at a movie to choreograph. Since it was his first movie he was appointed as the assistant choreographer.

Xanadu (1980)

  • Kenny had been a long time fan of Gene Kelly. Although Xanadu did not do well in theatres or by critics’ reviews you would never guess by the way Kenny speaks about it.
    • “He mentored me, and when the movie was over he continued to,” Ortega recalls. “He would invite me to his home and we would look at his films together and he would talk to me about how he designed choreography for the camera which was the greatest education I had received up until that point.”

One From the Heart (1981)

  • This movie chronicles the five-year romance of a window dresser and her boyfriend that ends with a bad break up. After mutual nights away, they begin to regret their decisions, but it could be too late. 

St. Elmo’s Fire (1985)

  • A group of recent college graduates embark on a series of misadventures in the real world. Together they grapple with adulthood.
  • Ortega was brought onto the set of the Brat Pack drama to make Rob Lowe look convincing as a saxophone-playing rocker. Ortega said “I worked with Rob and the band, helping them get into the physical side of their roles.”

Pretty in Pink (1986)

  • Andie is an outcast at her Chicago high school, hanging out either with her older boss who owns the record store where she works, or her quirky classmate Duckie who has a crush on her. When one of the rich and popular kids at school, Blane asks her out, it seems too good to be true. As Andie starts falling for Blane, she begins to realize that dating someone from a different social sphere is not easy.
  • Try a Little Tenderness
    • One of the most iconic moments in this John Hughes classic comes at the Trax record store, when John Cryer’s character Duckie commits to a spontaneous dance. However, it was partly choreographed courtesy of a young Kenny Ortega. 
    • Ortega said, “It was sort of put together after a spontaneous workshop that we did right in that record shop. I went in there in advance and played with some ideas, and Jonathan really took to them and was such a good sport and such a great collaborator and brought his incredible personality — Duckie times 10. It wasn’t traditionally choreographed. I showed him some things and he took hold of it. That was born of the moment.”

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

  • The Twist and Shout Scene
    • When Ferris Bueller played hooky, he went big. And his biggest, most over the top moment comes when he takes over the annual Von Steuben Day Parade in the streets, first lip-synching to “Danke Schoen” and then going for it with the Beatles. 
    • After Hughes worked with Ortega on Pretty in Pink, he called Ortega in again, this time to not only choreograph Ferris’ parade performance, but to direct it as well.
    • “The scene was all John’s (John Hughes) idea and then he gave me a lot of freedom in how I approached it and how I built it. He wanted Ferris to take over the streets of Chicago. We pre-shot some of the elements of that number, but we moved the float right into a real existing parade, so we had 10 to 12 cameras on it and we had one shot to get it right. If I remember correctly, I think it was sort of Matthew’s introduction to dance. I don’t think he’d ever done a musical performance in film before, and now look at him!”

Dirty Dancing (1987)

  • The famous lift
    • The lake scene where Patrick Swayze’s character lifts Jennifer Grey was tricky due to frigid lake temperatures that put Grey in the hospital for hypothermia.  Kenny is so dedicated to his craft that he was not afraid to wade out there in that freezing water with them. 
  • The influences for the dancing in this movie came from lots of different places: Street salsa, Colombian style salsa, Cuban rhythm step, R&B and street soul.
    • Ortega thought of dirty dancing as soul dancing, but with a partner. He based the moves on the original dancing of the early 60’s. 
  • He catered to specific people and would have them move in ways that complimented their own styles.
    • He hoped that Dirty Dancing would inspire people to go out and dance! Patrick Swayze himself thought that the dancing would “blow” audiences away.
  • What he did achieve with Dirty Dancing was an iconic film moment, recreated in films and TV shows for generations to come. The beloved film is considered to be a cult classic, and Kenny Ortega helped it gain that status.

The Great Outdoors (1988)

  • It’s vacation time for Chet Ripley along with his wife, Connie and their two kids, Buck and Ben. But a serene weekend of fishing at a Wisconsin lakeside cabin gets crashed by Connie’s obnoxious brother-in-law, Roman Craig, his wife Kate, and the couple’s two daughters.
  • Ortega has a way of finding the dancer in everyone, and the ending of The Great Outdoors was no exception. If you look closely, you might even notice Dan Aykroyd reprising some steps from his days as Elwood Blues!

Salsa (1988)

  • Robby Rosa by day is an auto-mechanic, but by night is drawn to the dance. He believes the title of Salsa King at the nightclub La Luna belongs to him. He proceeds to practice with three women in order to win the contest. 
  • In this movie Kenny was not only the choreographer but the associate producer. It was a grueling job but he wanted to be able to have more control over this movie than, for example, Dirty Dancing.
  • The album contained music by Tito Puente and Mongo Santamaria, Michael Sembello and Miami Sound Machine, Celia Cruz and Charlie Palmieri. It was a beautiful merging of old and new music that Kenny was happy to be the executive producer for.
  • While he admits that the writing is not the best in this movie he feels that the music and  movement really give the characters depth as people.
    •  Since this is all about Salsa Kenny wanted passion in their dancing. He said “Like me, these young men and women are using dancing to flee the things in their cultures they don’t like. But they also love their families and their culture, too. That great contradiction makes me want . . . fire from my dancers.”
  • This movie gave him a chance to produce positive images about Latinos and because of this was given an award from the Nosotros Organization because of it.

Shag (1989)

  • A coming of age story that revolves around four young women who want a final adventure together after high school before going their separate ways in life.
  • Shag which is not in reference to a haircut or carpeting is actually a reference to a 60’s “cut the rug” southern dance craze. It was called the Carolina Shag and is rightfully displayed within the movie.
    • Scott Coffey, one of the stars, said that they practiced for three weeks, six hours a day, and six days a week for the final contest scene. 

Newsies (1992)

  • Newsies is a movie musical starring Christian Bale, David Moscow, Luke Edwards, Max Casella, and Bill Pullman.
  • It’s loosely based on the Newsboy strike of 1899.
  • The songs were composed by Alan Menken with lyrics by Jack Feldman.
    • Ortega counts working with Alan Menken as one of his fondest memories. He said that Menken came in with an open mind and heart.
  • Newsies was his directing debut, and the gateway to his next film: Hocus Pocus!
  • He put the actors through two months of intense musical boot camp. They sang, danced, did gymnastics, martial arts, and spoke in New York dialects. 
    • In order to bond the young actors pranked Kenny with anything from squirt guns to filling his trailer with newspapers. 
  • It is reported that Kenny’s old mentor Gene Kelly stopped by and complemented the progress that the young actors were making in their dancing.
    • Kenny became really good at shaping young stars that had no dancing or singing background. For Newsies he had to convince the young Christian Bale to star as Jack Kelly. After seeing Bale in Empire of the Sun Kenny felt he would be perfect for the role even with no musical theatre experience. Although it took a lot of convincing and training Bale did a stellar job. Kenny Ortega has a way of seeing the talent in people and bringing it out to the forefront. He would do this again for the Descendants movies.
    • He was impressed with how Bale threw himself into the role and made Jack Kelly come to life. 
    • He says Newsies is one of the great experiences of his career in general. 

Hocus Pocus (1993)

  • We brought this movie up in our October episode last year.  This was Kenny Ortega’s second film, since he started in the industry as a dancer and choreographer, he wanted there to be a fluidity in the movie. He choreographed the musical number, but also just the regular scenes. 
    • Bette Midler pointed out that she had never acted as part of a “trio” before, and liked that she felt as if she was part of a unit instead of a single actor. 
  • When Kenny Ortega first thought of putting a musical number in the movie David Kirschner, who is the creator and producer of the film, did not like the idea. He had the thought that it would ruin the movie. He said that quote “This is a movie that puts you on the edge of your seat and you’re going to stop it for this musical number?” “And yet,” he said, “I’m a billion percent wrong. I love seeing how wrong I was about it.”
  • Ortega said of having Bette Midler in the film, “It’s the most fun that you could possibly imagine and it’s why I said yes before I even read the script.” 
    • He also said that he tended to stay out of the way, which he believed was the best thing to do when you work with such talented people.

High School Musical (2006-2008)

  • Kenny Ortega began as a musical theater guy at the young age of 13 by being in the professional touring production of Oliver as a teenager and a touring production of Hair. These beginnings led him to High School Musical (2006). The casting process was very similar to a live musical, as the actors had to have a variety of skills from basketball playing to singing and dancing. 
    • Zack Efron stood out and was cast in the star-making role of Troy Bolton at the age of 16.
  •  “I think what Disney and the networks are doing is a return to the beginnings of what made television so special.  Disney Channel — not only with High School Musical but with The Cheetah Girls & Camp Rock, and artists like Miley Cyrus, Jonas Brothers, Selena Gomez — and even before that with Brittany (Spears) — has found a young, family audience that really enjoys music storytelling that can suspend their disbelief.  I think adults have a little more of an issue with being able to suspend their disbelief of a story suddenly breaking into song.”
  • Get’cha Head in the Game
    • This was one of the first songs shot with the Wildcats team. It was an interesting and unique blending of sport, art, and dance.
    • This style was continued when he explored baseball and dance in the 2nd movie with the Song “I Don’t Dance.”
      • When Kenny explained why he used baseball for the second movie he talked about how Frank Sinatra had used baseball as a way to become familiar with movement. 
      • They used a combination of dancers and ball players. Both groups reported improvement in their respective fields the following year after this scene was shot.
  • Fun Fact: His dog Manly was Sharpay’s Dog in the High School Musical Series.
  • In an NPR article Efron said, “Kenny is the kind of mentor and sort of friend that never shows any limits. He never lets you know your limits.” 
    • He really impacted a lot of the kids and so there is a thank you video where a lot of the cast said their personal thank yous to him.
  • Kenny recounts that when the first High School Musical was released to TV it would bring opportunities for him to be given another chance to do a movie set for the theatre. He never thought it would be High School Musical 3 that would bring him back.

This Is It (2009) (The Michael Jackson Movie)

  • Kenny Ortega worked with Michael Jackson on a few of his tours such as Dangerous and HIStory. He also collaborated on his This Is It tour which abruptly ended when Michael Jackson passed away in 2009.
  • Ortega went on to direct this movie, which was a compilation of rehearsal footage from the This Is It tour. 

Descendants 1,2, and 3 (2015-2019)

  • Peter Pan was Kenny’s favorite movie as a kid so being able to do the musical number from the second called “Going Down” on the ship with all the pirates was like reliving childhood for him as he choreographed the sword battles.
  • “Chillin Like a Villain” was tricky because they did not have long to shoot it. The last day they were on set to film this dance number a typhoon was happening. They had to try to keep everyone calm and safe. It was shot in Vancouver and as they were dancing props and sets were flying away and the rain was coming down immensely. 
  • He made the conscious decision to have Mitchell, who plays Ben, the son of Beauty and the Beast, not be an experienced dancer in order to give him an everyman charm.
  • Sofia Carson who plays Evie from Descendants “Kenny’s Choreography is just out of this world. He really has stepped us up to our game. He has this passion that he gives us every single day.”

July 24, 2019 he was given a Hollywood Walk of Fame star by the Pantages theatre. In his speech he honored the young Descendants actor Cameron Boyce who died earlier that month. “Cameron said we can’t take it with us, so it’s about what you leave. With this, I promise Cameron that I will carry this goodness with me in all the days of my life.”

He was also honored with the Disney Legends Award in 2019 alongside Bette Middler 

“Not everyone is blessed in this world to be given choices but those of us that are given choices, those choices can determine, you know, who we become, what our destiny is and the choices that I’ve made have landed me in some pretty fantastic places, places that have been fantastic enough to keep my fire burning, to keep me excited, to keep me wanting to continue doing what I’ve been doing for all of these years.”