Michael Peters: BDC celebrates Black History Month

Broadway Dance Center is celebrating Black History Month by honoring some of the Black dancers, choreographers, and educators who broke through barriers and transformed the industry. 

Next up is Michael Peters.

Who is Michael Peters?

Michael Peters was an African American director and choreographer best known for his work creating music videos for pop stars like Diana Ross, Pat Benatar, and Michael Jackson.

A born and bred New Yorker

Peters was born in 1948 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to an African American father and white Jewish mother. From an early age, he loved musicals like West Side Story and My Fair Lady. As a teen, Peters attended the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High school of Music & Art and Performing Arts and trained at the Bernice Johnson Cultural Arts Center in Queens. Early on in his career, Peters danced on Broadway in shows like The Wiz and Purlie and worked with modern choreographers including Alvin Ailey and Talley Beatty. 

The “Balanchine of MTV”

Peters got his big break choreographing Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You, Baby.” He went on to choreograph music videos for other famous stars like Lionel Richie, Pat Benatar, Diana Ross, Billy Joel, and Michael Jackson. Peters makes a few cameos as a dancer in many of these videos, too. He quickly became known as the “Balanchine of MTV.” Beyond the world of music videos, Peters choreographed and directed for both stage and screen. He won a Tony Award for Dreamgirls (with co-choreographer, Michael Bennett), staged live shows for Aretha Franklin, Ben Vereen, the Pointer Sisters, and Earth Wind and Fire, worked on films such as “Sister Act II,” “13 Going on 30,” and “What’s Love Got to Do with It,” and directed episodes of popular shows like “New Kids on the Block,” FAME,” and “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”


In addition to his Tony for Dreamgirls, Peters won two Primetime Emmy Awards (“Liberty Weekend” and “The Jacksons: An American Dream”) and the American Choreography Award for Outstanding Achievement in a Feature Film (“What’s Love Got to Do with It”). He was a strong advocate for choreographers’ rights and started a campaign for an Academy Award to acknowledge choreography. Peters died of AIDS in 1994 at the age of 46.

Watch Peters’ work here:

Michael Jackson “Beat It”

Michael Jackson “Thriller” rehearsals

Francis Morgan and Michael Peters on Soul Train

Standing Out to Stand-In

So here is an account of my series of rather crazy-amazing events:

I submitted to a post on Casting Networks calling for background extras for a new MTV commercial for the European Music Awards.  Later that evening I received a phone call from the casting agency…

“Are you really 5’10” and blonde?” asked the woman on the phone.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Would you be interested in doing stand-in for the lead?”

“Of course!”

I showed up at the Broadway Stages in Brooklyn at my 9:30am call-time the next morning.  I had no idea what the project was, what exactly a stand-in does, or who I would be working with.  Turns out, I was the only stand-in, not to mention the only actor there for the day because it was more of a set-up/rehearsal for the production crew.  We were in a big gray warehouse where nearly forty crew members were building the actual set which resembled a “backstage” (ie. dressing rooms, lighting fixtures, musical instruments, etc.).

I was introduced to the director, producers, and camera crew who immediately put me to work.  I would stand in a “scene” (ie. dressing room, by piano, etc.) and walk a designated path (straight, curved, diagonal, etc.) towards the camera.  They would shoot these scenes with a small camera in order to set the camera angle(s), walking speed, frame of the picture, and where the background actors would be.  The “plot” is pretty simple – the “crew” (actually background actors) on camera start to mess up (spill coffee, drop a grand piano, etc.) because they are distracted by the star walking past them.

This took much longer than I had expected – we were pre-shooting these scenes “on set” until nearly 6pm (where I was free to leave but the crew had to continue setting up).

I overheard the director say, “We’ve got to keep working.  Heidi’s only here for five hours tomorrow and we can’t waste time working through the shots.”



Heidi Blickenstaff? No, this is MTV, not Broadway.

Heidi Montag? Blonde, yes. But not 5’10”.



The day of the shoot my call time was 7:00am.  As I walked through the Broadway Stages I passed a dressing room marked “HK.”  Yep, it was true – I would be standing-in for Heidi Klum.

At 7:30 sharp we began walking through the scenes again, now with full lighting and background extras serving as makeup artists, backup dancers, welders, and electricians.  We would shoot a scene 8-10 times, with the director, camera man, and producers each giving me feedback (sometimes conflicting feedback, even) between shots – “Walk a half-a-second slower,” “Speed up along the curve,” “Keep your eyes to camera right.”

When all was “good” the director would call in Heidi from her dressing room and I would sit off to the side of the set while Heidi ran the take once or twice, with thunderous applause thereafter.

“Mary, back in!” the director would call.  Then Heidi would head back to her dressing room and I’d start walking through the next scene.

This went on for a good four and a half hours before we broke for lunch.  As I was gobbling down my chocolate cake for dessert, a production assistant came up to me.

“We want to fit you into Heidi’s dress.”

I literally froze for a second, with a bite of cake in my mouth.  I had forgotten that Heidi Klum had to leave early – it was Fashion Night Out after all.  But I look nothing like Heidi, despite the fact that I’m tall and blonde.  Nonetheless, I threw away my last bit of lunch and headed to the dressing room.

There was the dress – a peachy gold sequined custom-made Vivienne Westwood mini dress.  I was in seventh heaven.  I reached for the hanger and turned to walk to the bathroom.  “No, no,” said the dresser.  “We need you to try it on in here.”

It was literally out of a book: I had to strip down to my skivvies and slowly pull on the teeny-tiny gown all while four “Heidi-people” were watching me, poking me, and prodding me.  I “sucked in” as much as I could while they zipped the dress from behind.  I could feel my face turn pink. It didn’t fit.  No matter how hard I tried, my ribs were too big for the bodice.  I could tell the dressers were frustrated, which only made me feel worse.  They ended up having to pin the dress with giant black paper clips…classy.

Next, a woman helped me try on Heidi’s bronze Jimmy Choo heels because I couldn’t sit down in the dress.  They fit like Cinderella’s glass slipper!

“No, no,” said the same woman as before. “You’re not going to wear the shoes.”

Darn. Instead, though, I ended up wearing my own gold, glittery pumps that I had brought just in case – 10 points for Mary! (But I must admit that I did feel pretty rebellious pairing a couture Vivienne Westwood dress with Payless Shoe Source heels!)

Next stop was hair and makeup.  Hair was surprisingly easy since my hair is the same length and color as Heidi’s- just a quick curl here and there.  Makeup was quite another story.  I must confess that I am not a glamorously tan German supermodel.  I am a pale, freckled little Irish girl.  There was no time for a spray tan, so that meant: foundation.  Foundation and bronzer all over my body – face, neck, arms, legs, you name it! And to make you laugh even harder, the woman reminded me, “This is a couture gown.  Do not get any makeup on it!”  Stress much?  The makeup “gods” completed my look with some dark red stick-on nails and voila! J’étais Heidi Klum!

For the next three hours we did much of the similar thing: walk through shots for timing and camera angles before shooting some final takes.  But these were shots that were not focused on Heidi herself (ie. camera on face of electrician, etc.).  All you really see of me is the side of my leg and hand as I brush past the camera.

Here’s the final clip (that’s ME at :13 and :14!):

I don’t know if there’s a real moral to my story, but maybe there is a little message hiding in there.  See, the week before this gig I’d been pretty down on myself; I would go to audition after audition and felt like I was often cut because of my height.  But when you just stay open and say “yes” to new experiences and opportunities, fate has a way of working out.  Heck, if I didn’t “stand out” at 5’10” I would never have been able to “stand in” as Heidi Klum!  C’est la vie!

Stand-in work is a great way to get your foot in the door if you want to pursue TV/Film work.  Plus, as dancers we’re used to taking lots of direction, which is an important skill for stand-ins.  For “stand-in” casting notices, check out http://www.castingnetworks.com.  Just think, nearly every TV celebrity and movie star uses a stand-in, why can’t it be you?