Born and raised in Norwalk, Connecticut, Richard J. Hinds began dancing at his aunt’s and uncle’s studio at a young age. His mother wanted him to head to college after high school, but this small town boy had another plan in mind. Ricky packed his bags, headed to New York City, and booked his first professional job, a European tour of the musical Grease, after just three months. Since then, he has toured with national and international companies, choreographed, and most recently, became the Associate Director for Disney’s Newsies National Tour! BDC got the chance to talk with Ricky about what he looks for in a dancer and his advice for people who are trying to” make it” in this crazy business.
What was your dance training like growing up? Did you always know you wanted to dance?
My aunt and uncle own a studio in CT where I grew up. They pulled me in at a very young age, and I never looked back. We were a competitive studio so performing was a big part of our education, and I absolutely loved it. As I got older, I started realizing that I actually wanted to pursue this as a career, and began to take steps towards pushing myself even further.
I attended a summer dance program at Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan, and when I heard they had a year -round program, I begged my mother to send me there. I ended up going my sophomore year and continued through the rest of my high school education. It was incredibly inspiring being surrounded by such talented people who were also as serious as I was. After I graduated, I made the move to NYC and that is where I have been ever since.
When did you start teaching and auditioning?
My mother wanted me to go to college after I graduated high school, but I was ready to take on NYC. We made a pact that I had one year in NYC, and if I didn’t get a performing job I would go to college. Lucky for me, I booked my first professional job after only 3 months, a European tour of the musical Grease. I shipped off to Europe, and continued with the show for 10 months where I was a dancer in the ensemble and understudied Eugene. After I returned from Europe, my mother had accepted that college was not in the cards for me.
Throughout my professional career I developed an interest in choreography and teaching. I started reaching out to different studios and teaching some master classes while I was traveling the country with the tours of Cats and Fosse. Some of those studios asked me to do choreography for their competition programs, and I began flexing those muscles as well. I reached out to my mentor, Andy Blankenbuehler, and asked him about transitioning to being a choreographer. He told me to really make sure it was a path I wanted to take. He said it had its own challenges, and because I was so young I needed to go at it full force so people would take me seriously. I thought long and hard about it and went back and told him it was what I wanted to do. Shortly thereafter, he offered me my first Associate Choreographer job working with him on A Wonderful Life at Paper Mill Playhouse. The experience was incredible and within two years, I had completely stopped performing.
What is it like being the Associate Director for Disney’s Newsies National Tour? How did you land that job?
I have been working with the Director Jeff Calhoun for several years now. Some projects I had been his associate on include High School Musical, Jekyll and Hyde, 9 to 5 and Pippin with Deaf West. After he was approached by Disney to direct Newsies for the stage, he asked me to be a part of his team. It was truly a dream come true. I grew up watching the movie, and it taught me that it was OK to be a male dancer. Jeff and I approached the show from two very different perspectives. He had never seen the movie before, and I had seen it so many times I could sing every song by heart. It was the perfect balance of old and new. Together with our amazing team, we began the journey of transforming Newsies to a stage show. I couldn’t be prouder of what our entire team created.
We saw you on the Bethenny show teaching a dance to Coco Austin. What was that like?
I got the call the night before the filming, so it was fast and furious! They weren’t exactly clear on what they needed, but knew I would be teaching a dance to Coco and Bethenny. When I arrived on set, I met the creative team who were incredibly warm and friendly. They quickly ushered me to my dressing room. I soon discovered that Coco had no idea I was there or that she was going to be taught a dance. I had a camera blocking rehearsal with 2 stand-ins on the set, and then I went back to my dressing room and waited. Once the show began filming, they snuck me down behind the set and had me get into place behind a door that opened onto the set. Once Bethenny revealed to Coco that she was about to get a dance lesson, the door swung open and off we went! Once it was over, I really couldn’t remember a thing that happened. It all went by so fast.
You’ve choreographed for commercials, theater, television, and live events. Which do you prefer?
I would definitely say theater. I love the process and collaboration that comes with directing and choreographing for theater. I have found in the commercials, television, and live events I have worked on, the process can sometimes feel rushed. Also, it happens once and that is it. With theater, you can continue learning and discovering throughout the journey. Nothing is more exciting than having a live audience experience your work, and then know you still have time to go back and make it better.
What has been your favorite project that you’ve worked on?
There have been so many that have changed my life, but if I had to pick one, it would be Newsies. I grew up watching the movie and being a part of the team who helped it come to the stage was a dream come true. Throughout our years on Broadway, we have discovered so many young performers who have launched a professional career in theater. The response we have received with the show was more than any of us thought could happen. I am so happy that we will continue telling our story with the National Tour that is about to launch. We have an incredible new cast that will be carrying the banner across the country.
Where do you feel most comfortable: on stage performing or behind the scenes choreographing and directing?
I feel most comfortable behind the scenes choreographing and directing. It has been so long since I have been on stage that it has given me a bit of stage fright. I just directed and choreographed a production of Smokey Joe’s Cafe. They asked me to go on stage opening night and give a quick speech before the show. I thought it was going to be easy. It certainly was not! My mouth was so dry and I was sweating uncontrollably. Once it was finished, I couldn’t help but laugh. I had performed for years and now this quick two minute speech almost caused me to pass out.
Who has been the biggest influence in your life?
Jeff Calhoun. He took me under his wing as I began my journey choreographing, and was instrumental in my shift into the directing world. What I love about our collaboration together is he always wants to hear my opinions and ideas. I have worked with some people in my life who prefer their Associates to sit next to them, take notes, and be more of an observer. From day one, Jeff has let me be very hands- on with any projects we have done together. He brings such history and knowledge with him, and nothing is more intriguing than story time with Jeff.
What is your advice for dancers who are trying to make it in this career?
I think one of the toughest things for dancers to learn is how to handle rejection. No one likes being cut from an audition, but at the end of the day, if you’re not right for something, you are simply not right. We don’t want to waste anyone’s time. People forget sometimes that everyone in the room wants you to book the job. It is so exciting for us to see who shows up to our auditions. None of us enjoy cutting people; however, it is all part of the process. Sometimes getting cut can be based on technical needs, sometimes it’s your look, and sometimes it’s your height. You will never know, and it is simply not worth trying to figure out. As long as you can walk out of the room and feel that you have done the best job you can, that is the most important thing.
What qualities do you look for when hiring dancers?
Of course the technical elements are very important but more than that, I look at the energy and demeanor of the individual. I really study people as they are learning material in an audition room. I watch how they interact with other people in the room, and their behavior on the sidelines. It’s someone who is a true team player, not just someone who can do four pirouettes. If I am going to hire someone, it has to be someone that I am excited to be working alongside and someone that brings a great energy to the room.
If you hadn’t chosen dance where would you be right now?
I honestly can’t imagine my life without theater. I have always had an interest in set design, and think I would have looked into that if I didn’t go the route I went.