PUSH YOURSELF Adult Lessons: Ian Eastwood’s New Choreography Curriculum
The talented choreographer questioned everything but his dream, and it almost got him kicked out of the industry. Meet the kid who’s teaching the dance world new tricks.
This is not Los Angeles. This is the Valley. Gone are the tourists poring over the concrete slabs clustered in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Gone are the skyscrapers that rise out of downtown like a brigade of glittering robots. Gone is the Old Hollywood glamour that still clings to Sunset Blvd. Even the iconic palms recede, like the city knows it doesn’t belong out here, and rare deciduous trees canopy the quiet blocks. But if you listen and know where to look, the Valley is where you see stars.
The mirrored studio is tucked away in one of the Valley’s pretty, nondescript neighborhoods. Without shade trees, the sun would threaten to crisp your skin even on a mild spring day. It’s so quiet that the pulse of a house track escaping underneath the garage door feels like a heartbeat.
Inside, Ian Eastwood is moonwalking across the floor as his shoulders glide in their sockets. Although he’s only locked down a short section of choreography, his style—sharp and controlled, meshing the quick slickness of Michael Jackson and Justin Timberlake with bits of quirky marionette movement and Bob Fosse’s broken limbs—is unmistakable. His ivy cap is cocked low and the sleeves of his chambray buttondown are rolled up just enough to see the second half of the tattoo he shares with his dad: “ANCORA IMPARO,” which translates to “Still I learn.” It’s the family motto.
Suddenly he stops. Striding over to his laptop, he pops the mouse, running back a Peter CottonTale song so new, it doesn’t even have a name. He starts again, beginning with the same phrase but adding on a head dip, a double-time shimmy.
“I don’t want to get stale. I’ll watch it 20 to 30 times to see if I like how it looks, if I’m challenging myself, if I’m stepping outside my box at all,” the 23-year-old choreographer says. “I try to make it feel different every time. I like to keep my mind open as much as possible. The more I pigeonhole myself the less capable I am of creating.”
Today, that innovative mentality is why he’s at the forefront of leading choreography to a level of respect and visibility it has yet to enjoy. But only a few years ago, it threatened to end his career. Before racking up 60 million YouTube views and accumulating almost 450,000 Instagram followers, before dancing in Justin Bieber videos and choreographing for Zendaya and before releasing the world’s very first dance mixtape, Ian was alone in L.A., discouraged, frustrated and ready to give up on the industry.
“Inside, Ian Eastwood is moonwalking across the floor as his shoulders glide in their sockets.”
“I remember thinking, 'I didn’t dance and train for 10 years to be disrespected like this. I didn’t work my ass off at this craft to be treated like a piece of shit,” he says. “I was like, I don’t think this is what I’m supposed to do. Maybe I’ll go back home.”
But he had worked too hard and sacrificed too much to turn around. This was his dream. Buckle, acquiesce, follow the rules, advised his peers and his agents.
Ian had a different plan.
Earlier that morning, Ian is nursing lingering jetlag with breakfast at his favorite spot, a small diner around the corner from his apartment. It’s 9 a.m., and he’s hungry. One, he’s been up for over two hours. Two, he just returned from a quick teaching gig in Italy—each of his classes was packed with around 700 kids—and the hotel food was terrible.
“I fell in love with teaching. I take it really seriously,” he says, digging into an egg in the basket. “I felt pretty uncomfortable [when I started teaching at 15] because I didn’t feel qualified to teach. But we kinda really needed money for me to continue my training. It was a means to an end.”
Ian grew up in Oak Park, Illinois, the son of two artists who also worked day jobs as stock traders. As a gift to his mother upon Ian’s birth, his father painted a scene from the Sistine Chapel on the floor of their entryway. The sunroom was transformed to look like the sky, and amid puffy clouds, his parents wrote the lyrics to one of their favorite songs, “Summertime,” as a dedication to their little boy: “You’ll spread your wings and you’ll take to the sky.”
“He had worked too hard and sacrificed too much to turn around. This was his dream. Buckle, acquiesce, follow the rules, advised his peers and his agents.”
He had to crash a few times before he flew, however. While his parents’ careers as artists were cool, they often landed the family in a financial crunch. Ian walked dogs and watered plants, but his parents’ strategy was riskier. “We hit some hard times,” says Ian. “We were pinching pennies over everything and using the house equity to pay for my education in dance. We should not have been doing that.”
That education started early. Loving N’Sync, he created little routines for his friends, and, seeing that he was naturally talented, his parents proposed dance class. He’d never really been exposed to Michael Jackson, but his first class, the teacher taught the choreography from the “Thriller” video and Ian was hooked. “I walked out and said, 'This is what I wanna do,’” he says. He was 10 years old.
Within a few months, Ian couldn’t wait to show off in the school’s talent competition. He decided to perform a dance he’d learned in his class and his mom told him to ask permission first. The studio owner flipped out on him, but his mom shrugged it off and sent him downstairs to make up his own routine. He did and closed out the talent show to screams.
“Me choreographing started out of being told I was a thief. A lot of dancers don’t choreograph until way later in their life, but I basically started choreographing right when I started dancing,” he says. He began uploading videos of himself to YouTube, hoping to get feedback. Instead, people contacted him about teaching. At 15, he booked his first paying gig as an instructor.
By the time Ian graduated from high school, he was so in demand t hat he was scheduled to teach 54 classes in 60 days across Europe. He figured his career path was clearcut: After wrapping up his whirlwind summer, he immediately flew to the L.A. apartment he’d rented before he left the country. Grownup life got off to a bumpy start, though. Worn down from dancing for two months and traveling for 20 hours, he ended up sick and crying in the airport. Worse yet, he hadn’t had time to buy a bed for his new place. “It was so scary. I remember staring at the ceiling and being like, I wanted this so bad and I’m alone and very far from home,” says Ian.
His doubts deepened with the first job he scored. Not only was the combination beginner material, the rehearsal stretched to eight hours. The choreographer arrived four hours late and wouldn’t even speak directly to the dancers. Ian bristled at the lack of respect. Had he worked so hard just to be treated so poorly? Why were the other dancers accepting this behavior? Was this what he had to do to pay dues?
If so, he wanted out.
He sat down with his agents and told them he wanted to choreograph instead. They told him yes, he had to earn his stripes. And so Ian walked away—but not from his dream. “I’m not gonna do that. I’m just gonna be different,” he remembers thinking.
He stopped going to auditions and instead worked on his own videos, polished his choreography, danced with the Mos Wanted Crew on America’s Best Dance Crew. “I honestly felt like my work is good enough. If someone wants to work with me, they’ll figure it out,” he says. “So I worked hard on my own for two years. I didn’t do any industry work. Didn’t even try. Just tried to make my choreography as good as it could be.”
Two years later, he got the call he’d always believed in his heart would come: Zendaya, a child actress turned pop starlet, wanted him to choreograph her “Replay” video. All the disappointment, all the “no’s,” all the anger evaporated. He’d followed his passion, and he’d been right.
“All I had to do was do my thing,” he says, smiling. “You think something can’t be done? Why not?”
Rebecca Haithcoat is the former assistant music editor of L A Weekly and has been published in The New York Times, Billboard, Pitchfork and SPIN, among others. She once did tequila shots with Lil Jon in Las Vegas. Follow her on Twitter @rhaithcoat.
Alexandra Gavillet is an image maker from Chicago, living and working in New York City and Los Angeles.