Choreography becomes mainstream -- Dance is appearing in everything from popular movies like ''Center Stage'' and ''Coyote Ugly'' to Gap commercials

By Lori L. Tharps
Updated May 19, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

Despite getting the hook at this year’s Oscars, dance — in that exuberant Irene Cara, what-a-feeling kind of way — is back in vogue. Along with Columbia’s new ballet-fabulous flick Center Stage, the recently announced Tony nominations include two nods to the heart-pumping choreography of Susan Stroman (nominated for both The Music Man and Contact). And advertisers such as Movado, Pepsi, and Visa are following in the footsteps of the Gap with dance-friendly spots. ”People [seem] really starved for dance,” says Stroman. ”It’s the perfect metaphor for liberation and freedom…that’s why people are so attracted to those Gap ads.”

Yet, unlike ’90s dance trends like the Macarena and swing, both of which involved uncomfortable levels of coordination, this movement is about sitting back and watching other people sashay. ”People are quite overwhelmed when they see the physical accomplishment of the dancer,” says Benjamin Harkarvy, artistic director of Juilliard’s dance division, where 80 percent of last year’s class landed jobs before graduation. Also fueling this renaissance is the revolutionary way dance is used in Contact and yet another Tony nominee, Swing! In both shows, it’s an integral part of the story instead of just an acrobatic showstopper. ”The audience is smarter and expects more,” offers Contact‘s Stroman. ”They’re not going to sit and watch a dance number that just entertains. It has to push the plot forward.”

To find ground — or is it, grind? — zero for this jiggy revolution, turn on MTV: Many cite the boom in bubblegum pop and the mainstreaming of hip-hop as making it all possible. According to Fatima Robinson, 28, the Backstreet Boys’ exclusive choreographer and the visionary behind the Gap’s ”Khaki Soul” ads, ”When hip-hop first started out [in the early ’80s], dance was really hot, but gangsta rap came and dance was wack…. You were soft if you had dancers. Then Puffy came on with his [mantra] ‘I Wanna Make You Dance,’ and pop artists got hot again and brought back more danceable music.” It’s no coincidence that TRL‘s hottest acts — from ‘N Sync and Britney Spears to Sisqo and D’Angelo — are the ones offering both song and dance. ”[Dance] is a very important part of the packaging,” says pop-act Svengali Johnny Wright, ”and when you find a talent that has both things packaged together, then you have a superstar.”

As a result, musicians are traveling with twice as many dancers than before (Backstreet once toured with four dancers; now they use eight). In fact, between hoofer-filled videos and commercials (the Gap’s West Side Story ads use up to 24) and the return of dance-heavy musicals on Broadway (from Kiss Me, Kate to Footloose and Saturday Night Fever), there are ample opportunities for dancers to strut their stuff. For Lisette Bustamante, 22, an L.A.-based mover and shaker who has danced with Jennifer Lopez and Aaliyah and appeared in the ”Holiday” Gap commercials, it adds up to ”a lot more work and opportunities. Six or seven years ago, it was just music videos.”