Exclusive Interview: Travis Wall on ‘SYTYCD,’ Choreographing Dances in 5 Hours

Travis Wall
Travis Wall | Bobby Quillard Photo

Travis Wall just turned 26 on Sept. 16, 2013, but already he has three Emmy Award nominations under his belt for choreography on “So You Think You Can Dance” and “Dancing With the Stars.”

He has also choreographed an Off-Broadway musical, served as one of the choreographers for the film, “Step Up Revolution,” toured with his own dance company called “Shaping Sound,” and starred in a reality TV show called “All the Right Moves” about the creation of “Shaping Sound” with fellow dancers Nick Lazzarini (winner of “So You Think You Dance” season one), Teddy Forance, and Kyle Robinson.

He assisted with the choreography for the 82nd Academy Awards and will do the same for the Emmy Awards on Sunday, Sept. 22, 2013. He is also nominated for three routines he created for “So You Think You Can Dance.” Maybe this time, he’ll take home a statue.


Travis’ journey on “So You Think You Dance” began when, at age 18, he became a contestant on season two. He was the runner-up to winner Benji Schwimmer that season and became a choreographer for the show in season five. His adopted brother, Danny Tidwell – another extraordinary dancer – came in second in the competition in season three. Their dance teacher was their mother, Denise Wall, who has a studio in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

Travis Wall
Travis Wall | Bobby Quillard Photo

Nigel Lythgoe, Executive Producer and head judge on “So You Think You Dance,” recently called Travis a genius. I’ve been a huge fan of this young man since he first appeared on the show. For this former dancer and dance teacher (see my essay, “Dance Moms Was My Life“), interviewing him was an enormous treat.

Your mother must be the best teacher in the country. The technique that you guys have is amazing.

She definitely is. It’s great how many people realize it now that she’s been given so many awards, and now she teaches at conventions. I watch teachers lose their minds every class that they have with her because it’s like, “Oh, my God, thank you! How much more information can I get from you to take back to my studio?” So, it’s really great to see this recognition happening.

That’s great! The first piece that you choreographed for “So You Think You Can Dance” was in season five. How did that happen? Did they ask you? Did you ask them?

I asked them. The minute I left the show [as a dancer-competitor], I was like, “You’re going to hire me back as a choreographer, you know this?” I’m not going to lie – it was one of the main reasons I went on the show. I knew I wanted to be a choreographer, and I wanted the exposure on the show to propel and launch my career in a way….

I tried a couple of times and submitted some things, and the producer kept saying, “Yeah, but I don’t think you’re ready yet.” Then, in 2005, which was season five, I came on to re-perform the bench piece [a dance number choreographed by Mia Michaels – see the video below], and that week, [choreographer] Wade Robson asked me to assist because Michael Jackson had died…. I pretty much just stood in for him. The whole camera blocking day and the show performance day, he really couldn’t be there. So, the producer saw me taking charge and doing it. Then, he saw a piece of mine.

Then, the next week, Mia Michaels had pulled out of the show the night before the performance, and they called me and said, “Hey, are you ready to choreograph?” And I was like, “Uh, yeah!!” And they said, “Okay, you start tomorrow morning. What song do you want to use?” I said, “Tomorrow morning?!” So, they said, “Call us back in 15 minutes with the song you want to try and clear….”

They literally got it [the rights to the song] cleared the minute before I walked in on rehearsal. I had 12 hours to figure out what I was going to do and throw it together really quickly. So, I walked into the room; I didn’t have any choreography, and I kind of just started playing with the contestants. Really, that’s how I’ve done it since then. I don’t choreograph before I walk in. I always choreograph on the contestants.

That’s one of the questions I wanted to ask you. So, you really just let it flow in the moment when you go in and use what their strengths are?

Yeah, sometimes you create something on your assistant, and it might look completely different or might look good. Then, you get in the room, and you realize you wasted so much time because none of that looks good on the contestants…. Your job is to get that contestant safe for next week and to get them voted for. If you make them look bad, at the end of the day, you look bad.

How crazy is it normally when you’re putting these pieces together? How fast do you really have to put it together with the dancers?

Pretty fast. You have an hour on the first day, and you have four hours on the second day. So, within five hours, they have to have the routine pretty well because they come and record it for the director so they can start already making up the camera shots. You can’t change anything too dramatically because there’s so much that goes into it.

So You Think You Can Dance
Amy Yakima and Travis Wall on “So You Think You Can Dance” | 20th Century Fox Television / Dick Clark Productions

Wow! Do you decide on a storyline beforehand, or does that also come in the moment?

I definitely have my concepts planned. I definitely have a playlist of music. I’ve already had songs roll over from this year that I didn’t use, so I know what songs I’m going to use next year…. Or you have a cool idea with a prop or a cool concept, and then, you try to find the song that will go to it….

It’s fun sometimes just to do a routine without a story, but I just feel like the reason why people watch dance on television or why they’re such big fans of the show is that they somehow find a connection to the dance. And I feel like either it’s something that really touches them or it makes them think or it makes them feel. I think people like to be affected.

Travis Wall
Travis Wall | Bobby Quillard Photo

There’s such a maturity to your work that’s beyond your years in terms of how the emotion is expressed through the body. I think that’s why people respond to it. But do you ever get the choreographic equivalent of writer’s block?

Oh, yeah, all the time! I call it brain farts. It’s hard, too, when you’re working so fast and you realize that you can’t just walk away from it. At times, when I have the option if I’m working in the studio with assistants or with a group of kids, I’m like, “You know what? Let’s just do this one more time. Let me film it, let me go home, and let me think about it. Let me sleep on it. When I walk [back] in, I’ll have a better idea where I want to go next.”

But sometimes, when you’re in the moment, you can’t waste any time. You just have to go with it. You just have to hopefully trust and hope that in two days, it’s going to look a lot better. But I definitely get brain farts a lot.

It doesn’t look like it! Have you started rehearsing the Emmy’s?

Yes, we finished the number yesterday all together. It’s all choreographed. There’s a lot of logistics going on…. Some of the costume changes are 20 seconds. It’s pretty rowdy back there. So, it’s not smooth yet, but I think it’s going to be pretty entertaining.

What’s happening with “Shaping Sound”?

We actually have a meeting tonight about the next step, which is doing a couple of shows in L.A. in December. Then, we’re showing at APAP [Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference] in January in New York, and we’re just trying to get the show picked up by a bigger buyer so that we could tour Europe and do another tour here and maybe possibly do an extended run in Vegas….

When we were on tour [this year], we had the best time, and the response we got and the crowd and the standing ovations every night – we just realized that this is possibly bigger than we ever thought it would be. There’s something to be said about the type of show we’re releasing; it’s truly never been done before. So, we want to grow with that.

I want to see you choreograph a Broadway show.

Yeah, absolutely. I had a taste of that last year. I choreographed a musical.

Yes, “Bare” Off-Broadway. I went to see it.

That’s amazing! It was an interesting experience. I learned so much from those three months of creating. It was a completely different environment than I’ve ever choreographed in. There were maybe two dancers. The rest were actors. So, there was never a dance number. It was never, “5, 6, 7, 8, let’s dance.” It was always about trying to find this spoken vocabulary of movement.

I think definitely the next thing I really want to do is what I do but on a Broadway stage. Even taking “Shaping Sound” to Broadway…. Of course, I’d love to do a big show – a big classic musical with amazing costumes and staging and sets and things. I think that’s down the road, but I really want to do what I do best.

"Shaping Sound" during their first national tour
“Shaping Sound” during their first national tour

And you’re going to keep dancing yourself, right? Promise!

I usually dance in things that I choreograph. I can’t really go out and audition for something. My body isn’t capable of being a complete blank canvas for a choreographer to work on. I definitely have limitations…. There’s a lot of injuries and a birth defect that I found out about later in life. So, I quickly transitioned into choreography when I was about 18 just to have longevity. I realized my dance career was probably short-lived.

I would never have known that.

Thank you.

What else do you aspire to?

I would love to choreograph a live show for an artist like Beyonce or something like that where you do a spectacular production. You can say, “I want to do this,” and they say, “Okay, we have the money for it….”

I feel like every time I go to a new job I’ve never experienced before, I get a notch on my belt, and I learn so much more about Broadway, movies, television, stage, music videos. There are so many opportunities, and I definitely want to be able to do all of them.

Below is one of Travis’ Emmy-nominated pieces. Enjoy!


12 responses to “Exclusive Interview: Travis Wall on ‘SYTYCD,’ Choreographing Dances in 5 Hours”

  1. Jane Boursaw Avatar

    It’s so fascinating to learn what goes on behind the scenes. I had no idea they had so little time to choreograph the dances for SYTYCD.

  2. Jane Boursaw Avatar

    Oh, and he must have had a major adrenaline rush when he got that call the night before! Talk about working under pressure.

    BTW, my 16-yo daughter just walked by while I was putting together his photo gallery, and she said, “Hey, what are you doing with Travis Wall?”

    Apparently, he’s big with the teen crowd, too, which is so cool.

  3. Sue Avatar

    Great to see Melanie Votaw talking to the wondrous Travis Wall. His dancing is sublime, his choreography……..makes me lose my chocolate cravings. (That is high praise indeed.) He’s genius.

  4. Melanie Votaw Avatar
    Melanie Votaw

    I’m so glad to hear your daughter knows who he is! He’s a cutie, no question. Love the photo gallery.

    I knew they put the pieces together fast on the show, but I didn’t know it was THAT fast either. As a dancer, I never had to learn something quite that fast (except in auditions, in which case it was a relatively short combination), so I just can’t imagine reaching that level of excellence in such a short span of time. When you add the fact that they’re doing partner dances with difficult lifts, as opposed to solos, and often working with complex sets and props, it just blows my mind.

  5. Joan Price Avatar

    I’m a huge Travis Wall fan (and a huge Melanie Votaw fan!), and this was fascinating. He should have won the Emmy. His choreography is unique and compelling. I find myself holding my breath watching his pieces.

    1. Melanie Votaw Avatar
      Melanie Votaw

      Thanks, Joan! I’m a fan of yours, too. I agree that he should have won the Emmy, or at least Mia or NappyTabs. While I certainly think Hough is a good choreographer, I was puzzled by his win. I also don’t understand why “Dancing With the Stars” is such a popular show since the choreography is inferior to “So You Think You Can Dance,” and the dancing most CERTAINLY is inferior. They have to “dumb down” the choreography on that show for non-dancers. As a result, I don’t enjoy it much when I watch it. That said, I do think Travis’ time at the Emmy’s will come. What he did in this season of SYTYCD will be hard to beat, I think (at least if the voters have any clue what they’re watching).

  6. Joan Price Avatar

    I agree, Melanie. I love SYTYCD because of the creative choreography as well as the dancers. DWTS is hackneyed, dumbed down as you say.

  7. @K_N_Ife Avatar

    http://t.co/vBVujCUBpr Wade Robson asked me to fill in on SYTYCD because MJ had died and he really couldn’t “be there”

  8. @K_N_Ife Avatar

    @caramelicedtea another witness to add to the list if you don’t have them yet. http://t.co/vBVujCUBpr

  9. Exclusive Interview: Travis Wall on ‘#SYTYCD,’ Choreographing Dances in 5 Hours http://t.co/gWwDj4cJX5

  10. Exclusive Interview: Travis Wall on ‘#SYTYCD,’ Choreographing Dances in 5 Hours http://t.co/laKbblSOPN

  11. […] Travis Wall is captain of Team Stage this season on “So You Think You Can Dance.” He is an Emmy-winning choreographer on the show and was the runner-up in Season 2 of the dance competition. […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *