ORLANDO, Fla. – Amanda Plesa is a choreographer and creative director. She has been a part the professional dance industry for more than two decades. She has worked as a professional dancer for Walt Disney Entertainment, made her Broadway debut at age 21, and has been seen in numerous television commercials and specials. While still continuing to dance professionally, Amanda and her husband of 15 years, Api, started their In Motion Dance Project dance studio located in Orlando, Fla.
In Motion Dance Project is currently in its 14th dance season, and is considered to be a top dance studio to train young dancers in North America. Amanda has choreographed for Walt Disney World, SeaWorld, Disney Event Group and Viking Ocean Cruises. She currently resides in Orlando with Api, and is a proud mommy of two small children.
Q: Where did you grow up?
Amanda: Sparta, New Jersey
Q: What college did you attend, and what was your major area of study?
Amanda: I was a dance major with a minor in broadcast communications at Point Park in Pittsburgh, Pa. I never graduated because I received an offer from Disney to do the “Lion King” show when Animal Kingdom opened. My parents encouraged me to follow my dream because I could always go back to school.
Q: What dance classes did you take while growing up, which was your favorite, and which proved to be most beneficial in your professional career?
Amanda: We had to take everything: tap, jazz, ballet, lyrical, basic modern. It was more of a jazz/musical-theater-based school. I stopped dancing when I was 12. I wanted to try something else. I needed a break.
Then I started dancing again and trained at another studio my sophomore through senior years in high school. From ages 3 to 18, I got the best of both worlds from two different studios. I was able to fill in the holes with all the great teachers I had.
Ballet was always a necessity and helped me for longevity and for injury prevention, but anything that had rhythm to it was more beneficial for me. I didn’t have natural turnout.
Q: What is your process for creating choreography? Which comes first: the song, the movement or the message?
Amanda: I love problem solving. That’s what choreography is for me.
Sometimes I have an idea, or sometimes I find the music or have a story to tell. I don’t write down choreography; I notate music in a book. When I get into the studio, it’s all trial and error. Whatever comes to me is what I give to them.
In a professional setting, I’m at the mercy of someone else’s schedule. I go in there with a majority – three-quarters of what needs to be done. I spend a whole week preparing for the rehearsals, wherever I can find a spot: in the kitchen, bathroom, hallway.
Then I walk into rehearsals and set the choreography on them. It’s so fast paced; it’s not artistic. Five pieces, three days of rehearsal and crank it out. It’s such a different creative process for me.
Convention–wise, it’s one shot, all of my eggs in that basket, but if I’m choreographing for a theme park or a cruise line, I have to take into consideration one cast then another cast: How can I create something that can be done over and over? They’re performing five times a day, so I try to think about balance and utilizing both sides of the body.
Things are different now. We used to have a trainer to make sure we were healthy for six- to eight-month contracts.
Q: What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
Amanda: Keeping the pace and making sure everyone gets their time, keeping it balanced is always a challenge. My kids, my husband, the studio kids, the parent who has a question, the show director, producer or casting director that needs an answer quickly to meet a deadline.
Q: You and your husband are co-owners of the studio. What’s it like working together?
Amanda: Sometimes, it’s the best feeling to accomplish something together, like, WOW! But we don’t get to leave [the not-so-good things] at the office.
It’s made our family stronger. It shows our kids how to stand up for what’s right. Knowing that we built the studio together and we’ve had a dance studio business for 13 years … we started with eight students, and to go into the studio now and have 400 students? It’s crazy to me.
Without my studio support team of teachers and office staff, IMDP would not be what it is today. I am the core, but they are the layers of our studio world and they are very important to me. They are amazing at what they do, and I trust them completely. Because of them I can still be a studio owner, teacher and mommy and go off and do outside choreography for Disney, Viking, etc.
One thing that scares me is the economy. What if it drops? What if people don’t want our product anymore? That’s a scary thought. As a mom and dad (Amanda and Api have two children: Mali, 2, and Taye, 6), we’ve really tried to make sure the pressure isn’t there, but it is there. As of November, Api and I will have been married 13 years and have been together 18 years. We realize the history that we built.
When I walked into “Lion King” so many years ago, the first person I met was Api. Like a nice-to-meet-you thing. He was at the show for 16 years. If my parents hadn’t told me to go, if I didn’t meet him, none of this would have happened. He has been my biggest supporter. He’s the one who has said we can do this. I went into it thinking he was out of his mind, crazy. Because of him I had some amazing experiences, together and apart. He pushed me to get to that point. It’s our life and we love it.
I believe in a higher power. Whatever you believe in, it does have a path for you.
Q: What have been the highlights of your career?
Amanda: Everybody thinks it would be when I was on Broadway in “Saturday Night Fever.” But my studio’s been national champions for the past five years. We go in, we stay humble. For the kids to finally receive that recognition and win this huge top award – three of the kids who were in the number were my first students – and we finally won it their graduating year.
Disney choreographer. Api said, “You need to try out for the choreographer’s bench at Disney.” I did, and I got the job as a contract choreographer.
The show director who hired me the first time around was Mr. Mark Huffman. He is Disney. He just brings out the absolute best in every person.
We had six singers, eight dancers, one actor and got it done in five days. It was my first professional choreography gig. Seeing it live onstage, with the music … I’m so grateful for that moment. I know someone up above was looking out for me.
Q: What percentage of your job is devoted to business and marketing?
Amanda: I tell the kids: You’re the person who’s going to go out there and get yourself a job. I’ve gotten my business degree by being a business owner. I should be a professor in business by now. If they want to do anything in life, they have to be able to present themselves in a professional manner.
I don’t do a lot of marketing. I do one ad a year. We’re on Facebook, and we have a website. Everything for us is word of mouth. We teach them to have a proper headshot if they want to go into this business.
We have improv nights where we switch subjects in dance. It’s important to me that they’re academically sound. We want them to be prepared for their future, even if it isn’t dance. I have a few students who are now on academic and dance scholarships in college. One received an $80,000 academic scholarship to go to Pace University as a dance major, which is pretty amazing. Another one is majoring in biology at University of Miami. Two others are dance majors at University of Florida and Alvin Ailey. I have a lot of smart kids and think they’re not going to go to school for dance, but they love it and they do. Stay humble and you can do it.
Q: How many trophies has your studio won, and are there any that stand out as the most meaningful to you? If so, which one(s) and why?
Amanda: Thousands and thousands. I display them that year, and at the end of the year, I call Give Kids The World or Special Olympics and I pass them along or they go into the dumpster. In the end, it’s not about the medals, the piece of plastic, it’s about the special memories you have. The bigger the trophy doesn’t mean the kids are better people. We’ve been very fortunate from the beginning to be a winning studio. And the majority of our studio kids are ages 11 and under.
Q: In how many competitions a year does your studio participate? How do you select which ones to enter?
Amanda: We typically do three regional competitions within a 1 ½- to two-hour distance and one mandatory national for the entire company of 130 kids. Others are optional. I’ll recommend about 10 competitions, and some kids (who eat, sleep and breathe dance) will go to every one. It’s about where the kids are going to get the best experience, training and learning.
Q: How often do you hold company auditions? Who can audition for the company?
Amanda: Once a year. Anyone ages 4 to 18 can audition. They don’t have to be current students at the studio. Auditions are usually at the end of May/beginning of June, and we send out notifications the first week of July.
Q: To what or whom do you give credit for your success?
Amanda: My grandfather was always such a prominent person in my life, my biggest supporter. He owned three supermarkets, was an excellent businessman. He always said: “Be the phoenix. Rise from the ashes. Dust yourself off and fly again.” It’s gotten more prominent as I’ve gotten older. You’re going to have good things happen and bad things happen. Something great will come of it.
He would be at every dance recital, and when I was working at Disney, my grandparents would come and sit in the front row. He was like my guardian angel. I looked up to him.
When he passed away 12 years ago, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through in my life. On the way to the funeral, I looked out the window and saw a butterfly. It was cold that day, so I was surprised to see it. Then at the funeral service, I looked up at the stained glass window, and there was a butterfly next to Jesus. My grandfather had crystal blue eyes; when we went to his house afterward, I saw this crystal blue butterfly on his calendar.
It was one of those moments when I got involved with my life. I was unsure if I was stable. What is my place? Am I going to be a studio owner? Am I going to be a performer? And I’m walking into Animal Kingdom, up to the gate, and all of a sudden there’s a crystal blue butterfly. I’m so glad you’re here on my first day; you never missed a first day.
Be humble, be kind, believe in the impossible. When Api and I put together the studio and the logo, I said I didn’t want a dance image. We both wanted an infinity sign. It’s forever changing, it’s forever growing. It says what we do and who we are. That’s what we say to the kids, and they believe it. They take it to their school, they take it to their home, they take it to their friends, and that’s a pretty powerful thing.
Q: Who were your mentors and what did they teach you?
Amanda: I’ve had so many amazing dance teachers in my life, but there’s one person who was the reason why I kept dancing. I was an insecure kid, and George Lon was so supportive of everything I did. Going into my sophomore year of high school and wanting to quit dancing, I thought, “I don’t know if I can get through this.”
I was in a jazz class with him, and I just loved his energy because it just made me feel good. We were doing the combination, and he stopped the music and said, “Amanda, I want you to do it by yourself.” I did, and then he said to the class, “I asked her to do it again because she smiles even when she’s facing away from the mirror. That’s how I know she loves it.” That made me believe I could do this. If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be dancing now. When I lived in New York, I called him and he bought a front row seat to see me in “Saturday Night Fever.” Because of him, I was there.
He passed away not long after. Because of his legacy and what he did for me, we give out scholarships every year in his name and my grandfather’s to kids in need who’ve gone above and beyond. Somebody changed my life, and it’s our turn to pay it forward. He’s definitely the mentor who’s made a complete difference in my life.
Q: How important is diet for dancers, and do you have conversations with your students about weight issues?
Amanda: It’s always a touchy subject. I grew up in the generation where you got weighed every Saturday. It’s a very different generation where you really can’t discuss those kinds of things. I tell the kids a strong body is a healthy body. If you want to be strong and accomplish the rigorous strain you’re putting on your body, you have to put food into your body. My kids are solid, pure muscle.
Go for the Greek yogurt and the apple at McDonald’s because it will give you the fuel you need. A cupcake is OK, but don’t eat a whole dozen. Kids have eyes, they know. I know who I have in a group number; I know who a solo kid is. I find something that’s flattering and comfortable for them. If someone’s looking especially thin, I say, “Hey, are you eating?”
Q: What should dancers wear to auditions?
Amanda: NOT street clothes, absolutely not. They need to wear dance clothes. People come with tennis skirts now. What is that? You’re never going to wear a tennis skirt in a dance number.
Wear something that’s going to make you stand out so I can see your body in a flattering color. Please do your hair and please do your makeup and pull your hair back off your face. I have to see what you look like.
If you’re auditioning for a show, you have to bring every pair of shoes you own. You have to be able to dance in heels. You’re not going to be performing with one sock on your foot. You are advertising yourself to get a job.
Your resume has to be on point. Don’t be embarrassed of where you started out. If people know where you started, they know how hard you’re going to work. Always give your teachers credit. If you studied with someone, say you studied with him. If you didn’t, don’t lie. They deserve the credit.
Your headshot has to be on point. You can’t just take a selfie. Go and spend the money and have a professional headshot done. You have to look like you; it has to be current. Make them want to look at you. Fifteen years ago, my friend Eric Esteban told me: “Go in there and make them want to take you to lunch. Let them get to know who you are … that they want to be your friend.”
Bring your best attitude. Put your best self forward.
Q: What is next for you? What goals have you not reached yet?
Amanda: We always wanted to open a satellite studio. We’d like to grow and expand through Central Florida and be able to give our message to more kids. I have kids who drive an hour to come to the studio.
Q: What advice do you have for parents seeking the perfect dance studio for their children?
Watch the video below to hear Amanda’s answer.
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