How Chuck Maldonado with all the right moves chased his dream and conquered the Big Screen
Inspiration doesn’t always come from a likely source. In many cases, it comes when you least expect it, and in the most unexpected ways. This was the case for Choreographer, Chuck Maldonado, whose chance meeting with a superstar recording artist, led to an unbelievably successful career in dance.
During his break between filming and rehearsals, for the February 2010 box office sequel, “Stomp The Yard 2: Homecoming,” Chuck sat down with I Am Entertainment and shared how he went from corporate America to becoming one of music and film’s most sought after choreographers.
Where are you from and what was it like growing up there?
I’m originally from Perth Amboy, New Jersey, a predominantly Hispanic and African-American community. I grew up in a middle income family to Puerto Rican parents who worked very hard to make sure I had everything I wanted in life. They were the best, most supportive parents a child could ever have, and I got to experience a lot of cultural things that really helped me when it came to the arts. Although, the schools I attended were not Performing Arts institutions, I still danced a lot. But never did I think it was something I could, or would pursue as a career.
So what college did you attend and what was your major?
I attended North Carolina A&T State University, which is an HBCU (Historically Black College and University), where I majored in Marketing Management. While I attended A&T, I marched in the band, which incorporated dance, but I still never considered a career in dance. So, when I graduated from A&T, I sought a career in corporate America, taking a position with American Express in Marketing Management.
So I read that you were a Spanish teacher for a high school in Atlanta for a short while? How did you make the transition from teaching, to dancing; and who or what inspired the change?
While I was at American Express, I realized that I didn’t want to sit behind a desk the rest of my life doing marketing, so I decided to try teaching. The reason I chose teaching was because I love helping young people, and teaching would allow me to have the summers off to think about what I really wanted to do as a career. So, I enrolled into Georgia State University and got my teaching certification. After I left GSU, I took a job teaching at Cedar Grove High School where I instructed dance teams. So during that time is when I discovered that dancing is what I really wanted to do for a living.
What various styles of dance training have you had, and how important is it for a dancer to know different genres of dance, if they’re going to work consistently in film and music?
Initially, I didn’t have any formal training. Everything I knew about dance, at the time, was just raw material that I had picked up from the B-Boys in the 80s & 90s. So I loved break-dancing, popping, and locking. Of course, I was inspired by a lot of great dancers like Michael and Janet Jackson, and various others who brought dance to video. While I was teaching in Atlanta, I met Lisa “Left Eye” Lopez (R.I.P.) of the multiplatinum group TLC, and she inspired me to go into dance. So in 1997, when the Atlanta Hawks announced that they would be adding male dancers to their dance team, I auditioned. Out of hundreds of guys, I got selected as one of the 3 male dancers, which led me to think that maybe I could be a professional dancer. So I began taking ballet, Jazz, African and all kinds of other styles. The reason I did that was because I never wanted a job to come along in
dance where I had to say “No,” because I couldn’t do the style they were seeking. It also taught me a lot about my body and finding my center so that I could be a clean dancer. Knowing these things is very important so that you can (A) work as much as possible and, (B) reach your full potential.
I heard you say Lisa “Left Eye” Lopez, encouraged you? So how did you meet her?
When I was teaching at Cedar Grove High, I was instructing a dance team there and I put on a huge talent show for the youth. One of my students in my Spanish class, Natina Reed, knew Lisa and invited her to the show. After the show Lisa pulled me to the side and said, “Look! If you can do this with young people who are non-dancers, I can only image what you could do with professionally trained dancers.” I couldn’t believe that Left Eye from TLC was telling me this, so it really got me motivated. She told me that she was working on developing a singing group called, “Blaque,” that Natina was a part of, and she (Lisa) wanted me to be their choreographer. So from there, I started missing a lot of days from work, due to dancing, and my principal (at Cedar Grove High) came to me and said that I would either have to quit my job or quit dancing. So less than a week later, I stepped out on faith and I put in my letter of resignation. Months went by, funds depleting and no way to really cover my expenses, I went to Lisa and she agreed to cover my expenses until Blaque’s album came out. She told me that after Blaque comes out, I would be okay. She kept her promise and literally took care of me for several months. When Blaque finally came out, it was really okay because, not only was I the group’s choreographer, but I was also one of their dancers, and I was Brandi’s (one of the group members) tutor. So I was earning 3 checks, which was unbelievable.
Wow, talk about a blessing! So tell us about some of the film projects you’re working on now?
Well, currently I’m working on “Stomp the Yard 2: Homecoming,” which is my 19th movie, by the way. This is the movie that I’m most proud of because I’m bringing a lot of me with the dance. Like the characters in the film, I too attended an HBCU, joined a fraternity (Kappa Alpha Psi), so I understand the culture behind the movie’s story. But I’ve also done other dance movies like “You Got Served,” and musicals like “Disney’s – Camp Rock 2,” “Dreamgirls.” I have also been fortunate enough to cross over into motion capture as the body of Garfield the cat in the movie “Garfield,” as well as choreography for the animated film “Shark Tales.” Not to mention films like “Collateral,” with Jamie Foxx, and “Indiana Jones 4,” a Spielberg film. All of this is proof that if dancers train hard and hone their craft, they can do a multitude of things outside of just music tours and videos.
How important is it for dancers who don’t live in LA, to establish relationships through networking, before moving to Los Angeles?
It’s extremely important. The one thing I had to my advantage was the fact that I was able to work with a lot of music artists like Pink, Kelly Price, Left Eye, and Blaque. So they helped me meet and establish relationships with people in LA, through the various award shows and videos I did out there (LA). So when I got to Los Angeles, in 2001, it was an easy transition. Just like LA, Atlanta has a lot to offer dancers, because there are a ton of recording artists, film producers and directors, and the talent pool isn’t as big as it is in LA or NYC. Also, there are a lot of workshops for dancers in Atlanta, for example, Travis Payne (Michael Jackson’s choreographer) just came here (Atlanta) and taught a class at Dance 411. All of this creates a great opportunity to network and meet people who could help you advance your career.
How important is it to have a dance agent, and how has it helped your career?
Having an agent, as a dancer, is a must have in this business. Agents are good for many reasons, but some of the top reasons are: (1) agents have the inside track on what auditions are going on in your area so you can get out and be seen, (2) they are able to negotiate for you and make sure you get paid, and they have lawyers who are in place to protect your interests, (3) agents will handle invoicing for you as well, so you can focus on your creativity and your craft. Make sure your agent is aggressive and good, because not all agents are good agents.
With this industry being so competitive, in your opinion, what is the key to booking on a consistent basis?
For me, in the beginning, I trained and networked a lot. I also tried to be the best person that I could be so that people would like me, because your reputation is all you have in this business. A few other things I did, was I made sure that my resume was up-to-date, I was available and flexible, and I also made sure I was visible to my agency so they knew I was ready to work as much as possible. Another important thing is to not burn bridges. Debbie Allen is a legend and a really good friend of mine, and she said to me, “Chuck, what you have to understand about this industry is that, you must be a man of your word. You may have this $5 job today, and then tomorrow someone may offer you a $1 Million job. But if you said yes to the $5 job, you need to honor that, no matter how tempting the $1Million job is.” So you have to be a man or woman of your word.
If you could change one thing about the entertainment business, what would it be and why?
I wish they would focus more on talent and less on image. I understand they want the prettiest people on film, but sometimes you have to look beyond that and give people an opportunity. There are some superstars who aren’t the best looking people, but they are doing a great job and fans love them. There are so many talented people from various cultural and ethnic backgrounds, so it’s not helping the industry to only seek out people who only look one way physically. So it would be great to see the focus shift to talent more so than image.