Cheryl Baxter On a 30-Year Career and Working with Kenny Ortega

Choreographer Cheryl Baxter has been working in the industry for over thirty years, in everything from movies to television to the stage. She chatted with DancePlug to talk about how her dance career started, why she thinks was successful, and the importance of knowing our history. Stay tuned for more interviews like this one as we continue our new series, "Dancing Ahead," where Laura Fremont will interview dancers who have gone before, either leaping down a traditional path or turning along a road less traveled.

How was a young, pretty, mid-western, girl-next-door type able to hook her first big job as assistant choreographer to Kenny Ortega in a film with the legendary Gene Kelly directed by Francis Ford Coppola?

Who watched the New York stage production of 42nd Street where half the ensemble were graduates from her UCLA tap class?

And whose current goal is to continue in dance for as long as her dynamic, seventy-two-year teaching careered mother?

Finally, what’s it like to have 69.5k followers on Instagram?

Oh,” a glinting smile peeks through dark hazel eyes, “It used to be 70k. I’m down 500. My son’s off tour!” She laughs, then winks. “That’s bragging, isn’t it?

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Raising a healthy, level-headed, pop-star son (the drummer for R5) Ellington, is one notable aspect of our guest’s accomplishments. Another is her low-key, Wisconsin sense of humor. Both bespeak family ethics: industry, mentorship, history, and say “yes,” to working.

I want to know why Cheryl Baxter-Ratliff, aka @ratliffsmomr5, is a dancer that always works. I’ve never known her to have “down time.” We joke that when she walks in to an audition, I know I’ve lost the part to her.

Cheryl is a performer, choreographer, producer, and mentor unsurpassed by few. Her resume of a thirty-plus year career is pages and pages long with name-drops like Meryl Streep, Steve Martin, Olivia Newton John, Sammy Davis, Jr., the Nicholas Brothers, Gregory Hines, the Muppets, and all the leading choreographers and hundreds of dancers and stage actors that she maintains a close and friendly working relationship. Her list of credits balances seamlessly between film, television, stage, and teaching. Her latest accomplishments are producing the World Choreography Awards with Allen Walls and being nominated by 5-Star Theatricals for a Broadway World Award; Best Choreography category for Beauty and the Beast.

At that time, the playing field wasn’t level, I had the advantage. It’s more difficult for the kids today. They’re all at the same, amazingly skilled level.

There is a reason this woman prevails in the commercial industry. Without mentioning a specific decade, Cheryl explained it all started at her mother Betty’s dance studio in Wisconsin. Back in a time when most kids spent their after-school hours riding bikes and watching black and white re-runs of old Hollywood films on Million Dollar Movie, Cheryl spent every day at the dance studio. She began lessons at two and a half years old with studies in ballet, jazz, and tap. By twelve years of age, she was assisting and teaching for Betty. Cheryl’s commitment to the studio environment was outside of a kid’s normal activity. It was extra-ordinary. It would distinguish her throughout her career.

Cheryl explained she would stand out from the other dancers at auditions. “At that time, the playing field wasn’t level, I had the advantage. It’s more difficult for the kids today. They’re all at the same, amazingly skilled level.

Cheryl Baxter

Let’s back-track a second to see how Betty’s insight and methods of training ensured Cheryl and her students gained a strong and versatile foundation in dance. Often, Betty took her students to New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles to study with Luigi, Gus Giordano, Chuck Kelly. They followed the only dance convention to exist at the time, Dance Caravan. Cheryl and Betty’s students gained experiences outside of their Wisconsin environs that lead to in-depth study and even a performance for the Ted Mac Show’s final airing at the Ed Sullivan Theatre on Broadway between 53rd and 54th streets. During her last year of study at Betty’s, Cheryl drove three hours into Chicago for class with Gus Giordano once a week “I remember, it was a Tuesday class at 1:00 and I’d take the material back to teach mom’s students.

Why choose Los Angeles over New York for a career? Simply put, “I wanted to dance on the Carol Burnett show.” Her quick smile confirms the straight forwardness of it. “And it was Joe Tremaine who said I was ‘ready to audition and work.’ Unfortunately, when I got to L.A., the Carol Burnett show had closed. But I did eventually work with my dream-team – Tony Kay, Sandy Johnson, Bobbie Bates - on the Academy Awards show choreographed by Walter Painter. Those women mentored me just by my being able to watch the way they worked.

There were no agents back then. You’d find auditions through Backstage or Variety. There were around seven hundred dancers auditioning for Xanadu. All the girls wore high legged, stripped leotards. I opted for a different look, a black leotard with a red belt – just to be seen.” Cheryl chuckles at her strategic planning. “It worked. I heard, ‘Girl with the red belt, stay.’ Kenny Ortega choreographed. Because I’d assisted and taught for mom, I was pretty confident. Kenny invited me to assist him for One From the Heart with Gene Kelly and directed by Coppola.

Cheryl Baxter and Gene Kelly
Cheryl Baxter and Gene Kelly

Cheryl remembers getting a commercial job because the director showed up to a class, stood in the doorway, spotted the dancers he liked, then invited her to audition.

Foundation, confidence, and timing worked together on Cheryl’s behalf, but it was mostly her willingness to say, “yes,” – “a lot.” Cheryl was invited to perform in Hollywood Dancin’, a low-paying live show at the Wilshire Ebell that other dancers turned down. “But the choreographers were all there. They came to know who I was. And I met a million people. The second time I did the show, people from Bill Moyer’s Eye on LA spotted me and decided to do a segment, "The Day in the Life of a Gypsy." They followed me around with a camera to class and all. It aired on TV and upped the scope of who wanted to work with me. I was working with Gene Kelly on One From the Heart at the time. He called me to say he liked the show. Imagine that?

Cheryl’s long-standing and close relationships in the industry with personable and constantly working choreographers and dancers such as Michael Rooney, extend far. Her associations, friendships, and willingness to reinvent herself, “Madonna-izing,” and keeping her hands in “different pots,” has kept her busy. “I’ve always had a lot of balls juggling in the air.

I’m passionate about teaching our history. History is good for the community of dance. There is no mentoring from an eighteen-year-old choreographer to an eighteen-year-old performer.

Where work has rarely been thin, not all gifts of timing have been generous. Cheryl’s mid-way “climbing the ladder” to become the next in line as a working choreographer came to a halt. The “world changed,” dance redirected its taste in form and performance. The Industry hired the new, young and upcoming hip hop artists to satisfy the choreographic commercial industry.

In discussing how the newer generation engages with peers as their teachers and choreographers, Cheryl believes there is a loss of history and the deeper gratification of the mentoring process. “I’m passionate about teaching our history. History is good for the community of dance. There is no mentoring from an eighteen-year-old choreographer to an eighteen-year-old performer. It’s a different relationship.

If there are any current struggles, they are experienced within the community’s efforts to gain traction and recognition in the larger industry of film and television. She credits her work by paying respect to the creatives before her. “I teach the history of dance, the richness of all those numbers choreographed by the greats and Gregory Hines, Michael Smuin, Henry LeTang.” This plays hand-in-hand (or toe-to-toe) with her disappointment that the industry and awards given by the Academy, Golden Globe, Emmy, etc., to this day, do not offer choreographic awards. In co-producing the World Choreography Awards, she maintains the honorary element with Debbie Allen being the most recent recipient. “I try to make sure our history is presented at the ceremonies. The young dancers should know what others have accomplished.

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.