Helene Phillips - Be Devoted to Your Dance Training, Not Instagram

Those who are looking for hard-core dance training know where to find their commercial dance fix. Helene Phillips is a world renowned jazz dance teacher, choreographer, and performer most noted for working with Michael Jackson, Madonna, and is the perky blonde with lioness-locks on Solid Gold; but her strength, compassion, and selfless dedication to engage and contribute to our community and new generation of dancers is what drives her teaching.

Helene’s resume is as commercially pleasing as it gets, with world tours and stage productions that include Captain EO, Who’s That Girl, Levi’s U.S. Tour, LA Gear, as well as top film and television productions of Stayin’ Alive, A Chorus Line, Airwolf - not to mention multiple commercial and music videos with various artists.

Helene Philipps on Captain EO set with Francis Ford Coppola and Michael Jackson
Helene Philipps on Captain EO set with Francis Ford Coppola and Michael Jackson

Eagerly, she started dancing at age three. Early on, it was clear Helene was not only a natural dancer but eager, dependable, gifted, “stubborn and feistier than I think.” She stood well ahead of the class. At eight she was demonstrating proficient technique; at twelve, her uber-strict teacher, the “Debbie Allen ‘you want fame’ type,” created an advanced program for her and one other classmate. Helene was a dynamo!

With continued dance studies at UCLA - and somewhat dissatisfied with the content being offered - she rerouted her studies to London’s Pineapple Studios, only to return home and join LA’s earliest scholarship program at Dupree Dance Academy. “The power of teachers!” Helene said, sharing stories from her Dupree-days. “Like Carol Connors who pulled me aside one day and said, ‘Honey. If you actually wear jazz shoes instead of ballet shoes in a jazz class, you’ll feel better’, ” and Roland Dupree, “gave us, ‘you just get there. I don’t [care how,] just get there!”

But it was Rick Milland, a former ice-skater turned pro-dancer “who could hit a line!” whose teaching style influenced her work in class to this day. “He was the first to say, ‘Okay, does anyone have a question?’ He made it okay for me to be a student and learn. He didn’t try to scare me out of my mind. And I thought, ‘I’m going to do that’.”

do you want to work at having your careers or do you want to work at having Instagram followers?

And it was Jerry Grimes “wearing sunglasses and a scarf around his neck, jumping around the room [energized]. He put on Stevie Wonder’s song As. We’d all only trained with [traditional] jazz music. I thought, ‘I will do whatever you want ‘cuz this is rockin’ my world!’ “

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Helene’s first job was in a disco. “I’m nineteen and trying to be sexy - not understanding what that means…and as a dancer when you try to be sexy, your chin goes down and…” her voice deepens, “…you give this look. Anyway, after the show, some guy comes up to me. He’s probably just flirting with me, but I’m nineteen so I don’t even recognize what that is, but he says, ‘why don’t you smile? You have such a nice smile. How come you’re not smiling?’ I remember it like it happened yesterday…” Helene’s smile widens with compassion for her younger self. “It stopped me in my tracks…I thought ‘oh, I can be me and still be sexy. I don’t have to try to be sexy if I’m just me.’ “

Helene Phillips on the set of Solid Gold
Helene Phillips on the set of Solid Gold

This first professional disco-experience informed Helene’s dance ethic: to be herself when dealing with others. Within it all, from her television persona and genuinely forthcoming energy of the Solid Gold days to her hard-driving teaching style that engages honesty from her dancers, Helene presents her truer self. “Sexy is as what sexy does. It’s a feeling inside and you define it. No one else. If it’s real, it comes across.”

Helene expressed the discipline it takes to be present and move a career forward. “I worked my butt off to do what I did. I wanted it bad and I figured it out.” Her process is best demonstrated when she worked on the set of Stayin’ Alive. She wasn’t the choreographer’s first choice and worked to become his go-to person. She positioned herself proximally close, stayed focused, learned quickly and was ready when the choreographer asked, “what were we doing here?” Helene was first to respond. Eventually, the choreographer’s questions were prefaced with, “Helene. What were we doing here?”

During filming of A Chorus Line, Helene called the choreographer four times asking to assist. With assistants already lined up for the job, the choreographer declined but invited her to New York to dance, “All right. Get yourself on a plane and come dance with us.” Her persistence paid off; as filming continued, the assistants eventually dropped out and Helene was invited to assist.

the new generation trains through YouTube and gives away the soul of their work to a classroom video

After a solid career that embraced performing, assisting, and choreographing, Helene began her teaching career by giving an advanced level jazz class opposite the more classical, lyrical styles being offered at the time. “I came on the scene and I’m a bit of a thrasher – a kind of rock-n-roll – boom! I had a core of fifteen kids who were the best dancers in LA. Most of whom were doing Fame at the time. It became this kind of cult thing. I was turning them on, and they were turning me on.”

“Back in the day, dance was well defined. [You took] jazz class, a tap class, a ballet class, a modern class, and you worked your way up a ladder. You understood what was expected of you every step of the way… We had the same goal, we wanted to work as a dancer.”

Helene is a lioness; ready, persistent, bold, and always true to herself - and her true self is concerned about the future of dance. “If I’m in a world where I’ve been dancing since I’m three, and all of a sudden I can’t figure out how to define dance, then what are the people that are trying to have a career, doing? I’ve got all these people saying ‘help!’ We need to make a shift.”

Helene Phillips
Helene Phillips

She is concerned the new generation trains through YouTube and gives away the soul of their work to a classroom video that is a marketing tool for someone else’s career, just to be seen. “The few of us who train dancers – at the moment – are left behind because the majority are not training dancers. For me, I teach an advanced jazz class. If you are in a career where you don’t warm up and you do things where, pretty much both feet are planted on the ground, there’s no way you’re going to get into my class… We can train you how to work but from my perspective, there’s a responsibility to train, to deliver, and to look good in your skin doing it.”

With an open heart, Helene does not shy away from speaking to today’s dancers. “[There are] so many people choreographing and teaching master classes that just have a huge following. They don’t know what they’re doing, and nobody seems to care because they have a million followers.” In the spectrum of training dancers, the fundamentally sound elements of technique to support style has fallen away. The landscape has changed, and the young dancer’s professional path is obscure. Helene is passionate, “You all need to decide – do you want to work at having your careers or do you want to work at having Instagram followers?” With the heart of a lion who watches over her pride, she states clearly, “Any legitimate job, to this day, [will not] ask you how many followers you have.”

Helene is a lioness; ready, persistent, bold, and always true to herself

Helene’s current artistic goal is to write. “I’m not done. I look at my life as a bit of a ladder. I’m not good at walking on a [single] level. I’m hard on myself and want to walk up… And I’m just as frustrated as the eighteen-year-old dancer who wants to work. I feel for them and have this same stuff going on, just in a different level… Every day, I only give myself two choices, I can give up or I can keep going. To me, I want nothing to do with giving up… and somehow I end up crying just like everyone else but then I get back up and on my feet and say, ‘ok, who do I need to call, who do I need to see?’ “

About the author

Laura Fremont’s Dancing Ahead interviews dancers who have gone before, either leaping down a traditional path or twirling along a road less traveled. For more than thirty years, Laura’s dance work as a performer, choreographer, and educator has connected her to an industry of talented and passionate fellow professionals in film, television, and stage. These closely held associations offer rich insight to our newer generation of dancers, to help guide their success, give support, and offer confirmation for their dance journey.