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Getting Up, Stepping Up: How Travis Wall Went From Dancer To Choreographer

Wall talks about coming back from an injury and his path from dancer on So You Think You Can Dance to choreographer.

Toddlers tend not to be the most dedicated dance students, but Travis Wall, who started taking classes at his mom Denise Wall’s Virginia Beach dance studio as soon as he could walk, was an exception. “I would behave in class. Sometimes you put a two-year-old in a class, and they’re screaming and kicking. I was so focused and ready to go. I wanted to learn so much,” Wall tells Co.Create.

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Wall was a natural–as well as a ham, too, he says–who put in the time to perfect his steps, and a childhood spent dancing in his mom’s studio, studying everything from contemporary to lyrical to jazz, led to a role in The Music Man on Broadway when he was just 12 years old.

Travis Wall

By 15, Wall was already choreographing for dance competitions, and at the age of 18, he competed on the Fox series So You Think You Can Dance, which has young dancers performing all sorts of styles, ranging from ballroom to Bollywood, in the hopes of being named America’s favorite dancer.

He was the runner-up during his season but proved that winning isn’t everything–Wall used the exposure to launch a career as a choreographer, and he has gone on to score all sorts of major gigs in the last eight years from assisting Adam Shankman with the choreography for the 82nd Academy Awards to serving as resident choreographer for the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards.

Wall’s work has also been seen on Dancing with the Stars and in the movie Step Up Revolution, and he still maintains ties to So You Think You Can Dance, now in its 11th season, as a resident choreographer, orchestrating some of the most memorable and breathtaking routines, including, most recently, the first-ever contemporary/ballet duet to be featured on the show. (See routines he has choreographed for the current season of So You Think You Can Dance throughout this story.)

Here, the 26-year-old, who has earned four Emmy Awards nominations for Outstanding Choreography, talks to Co.Create about the highs and lows of his career thus far–and there was a doozy of a low when he was just a teenager that nearly derailed him from dance–and explains the moves he made to get to where he is today.

A Childhood Dream Is Nearly Shattered

Wall didn’t just like to dance and perform, he knew from a young age that he wanted to make a career in the entertainment industry. He got his first big break when he was just nine years old, appearing in a Dr. Pepper commercial, and he moved to New York City when he was 12 to appear in the Broadway show The Music Man. But when he was 14 and in the midst of a growth spurt, he suffered a serious hip injury during a performance. “I was in the middle of a number, and I was front and center, and there was a double pirouette into a planche, and I went down. I literally ripped the tendon right off the growth plate. I pretty much just dragged myself off stage, and they put me in a car and took me right to the hospital,” Wall recalls. “It was pretty intense.”

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It was devastating for Wall physically as well as emotionally because he was serious about dancing and couldn’t imagine doing anything else. “I needed to dance, but I was sitting on my butt. I was so crazy to get back into dance. It was bananas,” he says.

Wall, who had been living with family friends, made a very grown-up decision at a young age, deciding to go back home to Virginia to focus on his recovery. “I was 14, and I had been away from home for two years, and I was kind of starting to get lost in the city, and I was like, ‘You know what? I need to move home. I need to go back to my mom, and I need to train, and I need her to get me back where I belong as far as dancing,’” Wall says, noting, “I had a huge dream, and I was not going to achieve it in New York. I needed my mom to do it.”

It took nine months of painful physical therapy and lots of work in the dance studio, but Wall got his groove back.

Don’t Take No For An Answer

When his best friend Nick Lazzarini competed on the first season of So You Think You Can Dance (he ultimately won the competition) a few years later, Wall visited the set of the show and decided he was going to try out for season two. He had strategic intentions. “It wasn’t for me to do the competition to win but to do it to get my face on TV, to get my name out there in the dance world, especially in L.A.,” Wall says, noting he really wanted to build a career as a choreographer.

Wall auditioned at the Los Angeles tryouts with a few friends, and he was confident he would be cast but was surprised when a producer who selected the dancers that would audition in front of the judging panel, which includes So You Think You Can Dance executive producer Nigel Lythgoe, cut them all. Wall was dejected at first, but then he got mad because he knew he was talented and should have been put through. Determined to get on the show, which travels around the country holding open casting calls, he flew to Charleston, North Carolina, to audition there.

Bonnie Lythgoe, Nigel’s wife, was supervising the auditions in Charleston, and couldn’t believe this amazing kid had been cut in L.A. after she saw him perform. She sent Wall to audition in front of the judges, and while it wasn’t shown on TV, Nigel Lythgoe was also perplexed when he learned that Wall didn’t make it through the cattle call in L.A. to dance for the judges, according to to Wall.

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Lythgoe asked the dancer who had cut him, and Wall pointed to the producer, Jeff Thacker, who happened to be standing in the room. Thacker, who Wall says is like a father figure to him now, acknowledged his error and wrote the word “Words” on a piece of paper and ate it. “He pretty much ate his words,” says Wall, who appreciated the gesture.

A Lesson Learned: Being True To Who You Are Is Freeing

Wall continued through the audition process and was chosen to compete on season two of So You Think You Can Dance. While he capably tackled an array of dance styles, figuring out how to act on camera was not so easy.

Wall, who is gay, didn’t feel like he could truly be himself. “They wanted me to be myself, but then I really couldn’t be myself because they didn’t really want me to come out about my sexuality. They didn’t want that to be a thing,” he says. “Back then [Wall competed on the show in 2006], it was, you know, you want the girls to fall in love with you–they’re the ones voting. So I didn’t know how to act, and it seemed to the judges and everybody that I had a wall in front of me. They were saying, ‘You’re not connecting with audience, and you’re not showing your personality. People think you’re arrogant because you’re not really emoting.’ But it wasn’t that. I just didn’t know what to show of myself. It was hard battling that.”

When Wall later came back to the show to work as a choreographer, he was out of the closet and didn’t have to worry about how the public would handle his sexuality. “I could really be true to myself because I didn’t have anyone voting for me,” Wall says.

Be Ready To Step Up

Wall didn’t waltz right into choreographing for So You Think You Can Dance. While he asked for an opportunity to choreograph for season three, fresh off his run on the show as a contestant, the producers didn’t think he was ready. They later brought him on board for season four but only to choreograph the pieces dancers have to perform at auditions for the show.

During season five, Wall got to assist Wade Robson, who was choreographing a piece for the show. But then Michael Jackson died, and Robson couldn’t be there for the camera blocking or dress rehearsal or even the live show. “So I stepped in and took care of Wade’s number for those two days, and Jeff [Thacker] saw how I was acting with the contestants and how responsible I was being with somebody else’s number,” Wall says. Soon after, Wall got called into action when choreographer Mia Michaels had to back out of an episode.

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There was little time to prepare. He had to immediately tell the producer what song he wanted to use–Wall chose his favorite Jason Mraz tune “If It Kills Me”–and he was in the studio working with contestants Jason Glover and Jeanine Mason the next morning, constructing an emotional contemporary routine.

Wall will never forget the amazing reception the piece got and its significance in his career as a choreographer–if there was a defining moment, this was it. “When they performed it–this was when the show wasn’t live–the audience just erupted, and the judges were on their feet, and that pretty much started my path on the show. They kept asking me back, and I kept trying to prove myself to them,” Wall says, “and, now, I’m here.”

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About the author

Christine Champagne is a New York City-based journalist best known for covering creativity in television and film, interviewing the talent in front of the camera and behind-the-scenes. She has written for outlets including Emmy, Variety, VanityFair.com, Redbook, Time Out New York and TVSquad.com

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