360i #SideHustle: Tony Landa Makes a Difference With His Choreography

Welcome to the 360i #SideHustle blog series, where we showcase the totally awesome side projects, start-up businesses and other ventures created by the always-curious and entrepreneurial crew of employees here at 360i.

Programmer by day, choreographer by night – it’s all in a day’s work for 360i Senior Technical Director Tony Landa. From building Voice apps for smart devices to choreographing 42nd Street (twice!) Tony has led a life of technology and dance for more than two decades. How? We sat down with him to find out.

360i: When did you start dancing?
Tony Landa (TL): “I didn’t start dancing until I was in musical theater in High School. As I got older, everyone said the sensible thing: ‘Don’t go into theater unless you want to starve,’ so, I went into engineering. But I went to college and auditioned for shows in college and still got into them, even as an engineering major. I quickly realized it wasn’t because I was a great singer or actor, it was because I was a guy who could dance. I decided to capitalize on that and really, really focused on dance. When I graduated, people thought I was a dance major. My junior year in college, I auditioned for a dance company called the Jump Rhythm Jazz Project (they’re still around). I got in and I toured with them all over the United States after college, and we even did a couple gigs in Finland. My 20s were spent dancing and running a little web consulting business on the side.”

360i: What’s your earliest “dancing” memory?
TL: “When I was a kid, on the Fourth of July, my mom would always make these routines for me, my sister, and cousins to do. We did Neil Diamond’s “Coming to America” on the Fourth of July.”

360i: When did you start teaching dance?
TL: “While I was in college, my old theater director moved on. His wife took over the program for one or two years, and then my sister took the program over. That was around the time that I had graduated and was dancing with the dance company, so my sister asked me to come in and be a choreographer. The first show I choreographed was Working at St. Joseph’s High School in Wisconsin. We did the spring musicals every year, we did Working we did The Wizard of Oz, we did How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, 42nd Street, Hello Dolly!, and Cats. Hello, Dolly! was an interesting situation.”

360i: Tell us more about Hello Dolly.
TL: “I had moved out to New York at age 29 and I got married. And St. Joe’s, back in Wisconsin, decided to do Hello, Dolly! that year. They had hired a different choreographer, and the new choreographer was not gelling with the kids – they were nervous if she’d pull it off. Someone called me and asked if I’d just fly back and finish choreographing the show! Of course, with a new job and a pregnant wife, I couldn’t do it. Instead, I flew back and helped out where I could. I even put together one of the numbers. It all turned out OK. The next year they wanted to do Cats and one of the parents had all of these frequent flyer miles – he had so many miles that he bought tickets for me for eight weeks in a row to fly out to Milwaukee every Friday night and fly back to New York every Monday morning. I would leave work Friday, I would go straight to the airport, I would get into Milwaukee at 11 o’clock at night, and I would run a 6-hour rehearsal on Saturday and 6-hour rehearsal on Sunday. And that’s how I choreographed Cats, which was pretty cool.”

360i: What is your favorite style of dance?
TL: “My favorite is tap dance. I think because I’m a mathematical person. I love rhythm and I find it to be very mathematical. I like to dance to live music, so I like a live jazz band. I like the fact that I can talk to the drummer in the drummer’s language. The only part I hate about tap is the arms. One: They’re hard to remember. Two: I feel like they’re cheesy!”

360i: Do you have a favorite show you’ve choreographed?
TL: “I’m most proud of 42nd Street.”

360i: Why?
TL: “The progress that the kids made. Both times that I choreographed it, I choreographed it for mostly kids who had never tap danced in their whole lives. To see that progression from not even being to shuffle in the audition to the final show where all of them are perfectly synchronized… When I’m in my down moments of life when I’m like “I haven’t done anything with my life!” — I realize no, I taught those kids how to tap dance!”

360i: What keeps you doing it?
TL: “Definitely my wife and the fact that she’s part of it. When I moved here, my wife got a job at Ridgewood High School as a dance teacher. They have a terrific theatre program called New Players Company that does at least two musicals every year. We frequently team-choreograph the shows at the school, and we’ve been doing that for 10 years. It’s funny because back in Wisconsin I was team Landa with my sister and now here I’m team Landa with my wife. At this stage in my life with a job, with two kids, with the commute… I would not choreograph with anybody else or for anybody else.”

360i: What do you look for in students?
TL: “I look for personality and teachability. A positive attitude. Sometimes I misjudge who can be taught and who can’t, especially with tap dance. Teaching someone to have rhythm is difficult. Not impossible, just more difficult. It’s easier to teach tap to someone who has rhythm, but doesn’t have coordination, than someone who is, say, a tremendous ballet dancer, but doesn’t have that rhythm. I taught at this dance school once, and the owner of the dance school was this incredible modern dancer. She danced with Paul Taylor. She would sometime take my tap class or substitute for my tap class. I remember being surprised someone so accomplished didn’t have the same sophisticated sense of rhythm I was used to training with. And then I realized that modern dance and its accompanying ethereal music enabled her to have a career without, frankly, ever needing it. She’d say, “I prefer to teach tap dance without music.” And I think that’s an important story, because people say to me all the time, “Tony, I can’t dance.” And maybe it’s because they aren’t flexible, or they can’t remember steps. But, ultimately there are a lot of different styles out there. If tap and ballet aren’t your thing, maybe it’s hip hop or ballroom.”

360i: How has your role at 360i influenced your side hustle, and how has your side hustle impacted your role at 360i?
Well, my mom used to say, “the computer screen is just your other proscenium.” Computer programming is my left-brain activity and choreography is my right-brain activity – it keeps me balanced. I’m not going to go home from work and watch Netflix all night. I have to be active.

The great thing about having a technical job is that coding can be done from anywhere – either from the office, home, or rehearsal. The other nice thing about coding is that it doesn’t have to be done during business hours, so I’ll get home from rehearsal at 10 o’clock and start working again.

I also think I bring some of the “technical” work stuff to the theater. For me, I come into the theater saying, “Where are your spreadsheets? How come there’s no project management going on?” I’ve helped streamline some rehearsal processes as well. Instead of emailing schedules back and forth, we’ll use Google Docs, or schedule video conference calls.”

360i: Anything else you want to share?
TL: “I love that dance makes a difference. There’s a girl I taught private lessons to all the way back when I was 23 – and she’s a professional dancer now. Laura Kaeppeler, who won Miss America, was one of my tap dance students in 42nd Street when I choreographed it. At the end of her reign they did a photo montage of her year as Miss America and she only picked 20 photos, and she picked a photo of me and her. It was really amazing.”

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