Ever wonder how the characters from Nick Jr.’s The Backyardigans — Pablo, Tyrone, Uniqua, Tasha, and Austin — do their incredibly cool dance moves? Look no further than Beth Bogush, the show’s choreographer and former director of the First Steps Program at New York’s Alvin Ailey School. Together with composer Evan Lurie and creator/exec producer Janice Burgess, Bogush is inspiring a whole new generation of twinkle toes. We pumped Bogush for info on how she works, her favorite dances, and when she thinks little ones should start dance training. (Don’t forget to check out a very special Backyardigans Oct. 9 at 10:30 a.m. EST, ”Mission to Mars,” which features the voice of Alicia Keys.)
Entertainment Weekly: What kinds of dance has the show covered?
Beth Bogush: We’ve done hip hop, country western, samba, salsa, ’50s, ’60s, jazz, swing, Broadway. We’re going to do flamenco this season — the list goes on and on.
Are real people doing the dance moves?
Yes. There was a lengthy discussion of what we wanted the characters to look like and how we wanted them to move, what their attitude was. So when I went and had my auditions for the dancers, that was one thing that I really kept in mind. And I went back to Alvin Ailey because that’s where I was the director for years and I taught in not only the preschool program but also in the professional level. And each dancer was picked because of what they kind of brought to the character. And that’s worked pretty well. It’s funny when people meet the dancers in person, they say, ”Oh my god, he looks just like the character.”
Describe for us the characters and the way they move.
Pablo, because he’s a penguin, moves a little differently because he has a large belly, but we’ve been lucky in that the animators have been wonderful in really getting past the physicalness of the characters and allowing me to really go out there. And then you have Tyrone, who’s kind of like the big moose, and his moves are always bigger, bolder, he’s got great big jumps. He’s got great turns because the way the antlers are, it really looks sharp when he turns so that dancer has to be able to turn quickly and have a lot of strength, and also be able to have that hip-hoppy, kind of down low when we need him to be. Uniqua is the other lead character. Hattie May Williams, she’s Uniqua — if you’d see her in person, you’d say, ”Oh my goodness, she looks just like Uniqua.” We did an episode, ”The Lady in Pink,” where Hattie does a kind of saucy jazz number, she comes down the steps like the old-time jazz with the gloves on, mimicking kind of a jazzy, sexier walk. It came out really very cute. We also have good old Tasha, the big hippopotamus, who’s absolutely full of herself all the time. She’s the know-it-all, she’s hippy. So for her I have the hips move a lot, she’s always got an attitude, so it comes off really cute with that big character with the big head and the big body. Then we have Austin, who Kristen Troff plays. She’s taller and she can move like a boy and she has that whole laid-back attitude. Austin’s usually the one pulling up the rear, but he’s usually the one who’s right, the silent one who’s the brains of the situation. He’s kind of a get-along guy, and Kristen is kind of like that in personality also, more like a Bob Marley kind of deal.
Do they have to wear blue suits?
No they don’t. What we do is we film live footage in the studio and then they send that off and they do a leica, and then they send it to the animators. And the animators just watch, and they’re pretty precise. What we film for that day is pretty close to what you see in the character. That’s a quick turnaround, but once the animators have it, that’s a long process. We usually film five of them at a time and take a couple of weeks off.
Where there any genres you weren’t familiar with?
I think the hardest one for me, as a 55-year-old woman, is hip hop. I call it ”the down low,” and the dancers laugh at me. I know the moves that I want, but when I do it, and they do it, it looks totally different. I’m really happy when we have a hip hop one week and then the next week we have like a Fosse jazz, because then I don’t feel like a dope anymore.
Where do you pick up your hip hop moves?
I do research a lot. I don’t research jazz and ballet because I’ve been doing that for years. I’ve choreographed a lot of things all around here and there through the 30 years of all different types so I’m familiar with it, but I do go online, I do rent videos, I do all of that. I try to go in and find two or three things that are going to be easy for the children to mimic, number one, and number two, that will give the flair of the dance. It’s not necessarily exactly how the flamenco is done — we have to adjust it because of the animators.
What would you say is the ideal age to start dance training for kids?
It depends on what your goals are for the child. If you think they have an aptitude for dance, for instance in a conservatory school, then starting in a good preschool program is important. You want to make sure that those first couple of years isn’t just, Oh, let’s go in and run around the room. Dance is a great thing for kids in all aspects — it teaches them discipline, it teaches them not only movement and physical applications that they can use but it’s a good learning tool for school. And believe it or not, dance is all muscle memory, so the earlier you start with it, the better. So I’d say if you’re serious about keeping your child in dance rather than sports, find a good one right from the very beginning. That makes a difference.
And you can’t force their interest, obviously.
You can’t force it, no. But I always tell parents, give it a little time, because children often don’t like things in the beginning. I say after four to six weeks, if they’re not liking it, they’re not liking it. Then find something else. But give it at least a month, even if they’re only in the class for 15 minutes, make the attempt to get in there.
Can rhythm be taught?
It absolutely can. I often say to all young teachers, you’ve got to teach rhythm before you ever teach dance. Even if you spend three weeks teaching rhythm. The quickest way to teach rhythm is to sit children down and play all kinds of music, with all tempos, and just listen to the music and count the music. You might sit on the floor in a circle and everybody counts the music, and then you start adding clapping. But you just don’t clap. You say, let’s clap eight times; let’s listen eight times; let’s clap eight times; let’s listen eight times. It’s that anticipation you build for them to know when the eight-count comes, and that’s something that all kids can learn.