'DWTS' Disney Night: Behind-the-Scenes with Choreographer Zach Woodlee
Updated: Apr 30
On Monday, Dancing with the Stars delivered its highly anticipated Disney Night, complete with an opening number shot on Main Street, U.S.A. and in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle. Choreographer Zach Woodlee had the honors of setting the tone for a spectacular night of dance.
Woodlee is best known for his work on Grease Live!, Glee and the upcoming Disney + show High School Musical The Musical: The Series, but DWTS was a whole different ball game for him. It's an opportunity he is extremely grateful for.
DWTS creative team, led by supervising producer Justin Mabardi and associate creative director Brooke Wendle, reached out to Woodlee's agent to see if he was interested in working on the show this season. He quickly agreed, but then understood the magnitude of the job he was about to embark on.
"I knew we were going to be at Disneyland and I love environmental numbers, so it was exciting. As we started to get into it, I was told we needed to move 708 feet from the establishing shot [on Main Street, U.S.A.] to the castle in the number," Woodlee explained to Dance Dish. "The logistics of figuring out where we could jump in time and how many camera set-ups we had in the five hours we had to shoot it. It was a giant math problem."
Woodlee had also not worked with any of the DWTS pros, aside from Alan Bersten, and the production hired the additional guest dancers for the opening number. He stepped into the unknown when it came to talent, which is an unusual position for a choreographer.
"I didn't know any of the pros. It's different when you hire dancers because you already know their capabilities and you depend on them implicitly to get the job done. So stepping into someone else's house and meeting these pros for the first time, I thought... let's see what happens," he revealed. "When I was filming them for the first time to send footage to the director, I understood why they are pros. They blew me away, watching the pros was magic!"
Woodlee was impressed by the pros' stamina as well. Not only did they have the Disneyland opening number to film in the overnight hours, but they also had to go back to rehearsal the next day with their contestants.
"The dedication they have is out of control. When I was showing them this combo, it was Emma [Slater], who suggested we double the steps up. I was worried about them dancing at 3 a.m. in Latin heels and I knew that they had a full day of rehearsals ahead of them," Woodlee praised. "Yet they made the combo harder and sacrificed their bodies for the number. They are phenomenal dancers."
The landscape of Disneyland also posed several challenges for the dancers. If you look carefully, you will see Cheryl Burke expertly dancing between two precarious train tracks.
"Cheryl is incredible. She showed up early and giving pro tips to the non-ballroom dancers. They couldn't cover up the train tracks, so we had to put her in the center of them because the double-decker bus took up half the street. She is straddling a two-inch gap in these tiny heels and it was effortless. She said, 'I got it, it's fine.'"
Woodlee also appreciated the collaborative teamwork at DWTS. He was able to do the number he wanted, but the creative team also offered their input to help make the number successful.
"They sent me a list of 27 Disney songs and let me pick what I wanted. 'I Want To Be Like You' wasn't on the list, but I have always been such a fan of that song. For me, it lined up with the show. It seemed so inclusive," he said. "With 'Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious' I wanted a feeling of running through Disney. I didn't want it to feel static and I wanted the music to drive us. The DWTS machine is a wonderful thing to be a part of."
He also credited former DWTS creative producer Mandy Moore for setting up a blueprint for all future choreographers who come onto the show to choreograph. Her legacy is felt every step of the way.
"Mandy is she's a force to be reckoned with and there is no one who will ever fill her shoes. Stepping into it for this brief time, I understand why Mandy stayed for so long. The support system and the team itself, it's a blessing for any choreographer to be able to work with. She built this system so any choreographer could come in and not be blindsided. She carved a path for success. You can't take away the fact that Mandy built this legacy."
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