Lilian Manansala choreographed the Disney Channel show “So Random!”, and the show’s title could also describe Manansala’s dance repertoire.
The world arts and cultures alumna creates dance pieces concerning ketchup, zombies, dogs and puppets as a guest choreographer on sitcoms for the television networks Nickelodeon and Disney Channel. Manansala caters her choreography to diverse clients, including adult and child actors with differing levels of dance training, as well as nonhuman actors.
She has only one goal in mind when working with varying skill sets: to draw out each actor’s inner dancer.
Manansala will receive a script and create choreography appropriate to the context, music and actors of the scene. She arrives early on set to teach and rehearse the movements with the talent so they’re ready for the cameras, even for less dance-heavy shows like “That’s So Raven.”
“A scene’s context, as well as the actor’s comfort with movement, happen to be the most crucial factors in determining how production will run in order to get the final product that perfectly fits the whole vision of the episode,” Manansala said.
Manansala worked with director Eric Dean Seaton for shows such as “Hannah Montana” and “Cory in the House,” including the pilot’s opening concert scene and the Bahavian dances, respectively.
Because family sitcom shows involve working with young talent, Manansala has learned to communicate with kids in a way that is both encouraging and productive, Seaton said.
For the Disney Junior show “Choo Choo Soul,” Manansala made the younger actors excited to work by high-fiving them each time they did the movements, which included bobbing their heads to the music and pretending to play instruments, Seaton said. She would also reward them with prizes like stickers at the end of the day, he said.
“Lilian focuses on each actor’s strengths and abilities when she choreographs,” he said. “When the kids hit her with ideas or concerns, she would change the dance in a way that caters to their desires and needs while maintaining the initial vision of the piece.”
When an actor felt uneasy in his ability to perform a ballet airborne spin move, Manansala incorporated different methods to find steps he felt comfortable executing, she said.
“The actor and I came up with terms similar to ‘the sprinkler’ and ‘the robot’ that would help them visualize and remember the steps,” she said.
Working with actors such as Kira Kosarin of “The Thundermans,” who is trained in ballet, alleviates some of the pressure Manansala faces on set, she said. She can spend around an hour teaching steps to actors who aren’t trained dancers, but will complete the same task with dance-trained actors in 10 minutes, she said.
However, the non-dancers allow their comedic abilities to shine through where their dancing skills may not, she said.
Manansala choreographed a flamenco dance for the “Bug Prom” episode of the Disney Channel sitcom “Good Luck Charlie,” but the two actors involved in the dance-off did not have much dance training, she said.
Manansala suggested some simple movements, like lifting up the long flamenco skirts and quickly shuffling their feet, she said. With the steps in mind, she created a sequence of movements and the actors became familiar enough with the choreography to run the number in character, she said.
The result was a humorous dance-off between rival characters who intimidate the other through flailing arms and twirling flamenco skirts, she said.
“Once the actors internalized the sequences, they started to enjoy themselves and the choreography to the point where they would put their own spin on it, which led to an enhancement of the dance-off’s comedy,” Manansala said.
Bruce Leddy, director of shows such as “MADtv” and “Dog with a Blog,” hires Manansala because of her versatility and flexibility as a choreographer, he said.
Leddy attributes Manansala’s ability to bring out each actor’s inner dancer to her empathy and her willingness to understand those she works with, he said.
“If we have someone who really struggles, Lilian does everything she can – from modifying the steps to practicing the moves right next to them – until they feel comfortable enough to do it alone,” Leddy said.
The opening sequence for the Disney XD show “Crash & Bernstein” is proof Manansala can make dancers out of actors, Leddy said. In addition to working with young, amateur talent for the theme song, Manansala also choreographed a puppet, Leddy said.
Manansala had to consider the parts of the puppet that can fit into the frame without the puppeteer showing, as well as the other dancing actors around the puppeteer, when choreographing the piece, Leddy said.
“Everything about that opening sequence introduced a whole different level of technical difficulties, but Manansala was able to power through,” Leddy said.
Manansala performs the choreography along with actors during run-throughs and shooting to make actors of all skillsets feel more comfortable with the movements, she said.
“When you’re watching television and a dance scene comes up, all you see is a group of actors enjoying the moves they’re performing,” Seaton said. “What you don’t see are some of the actors’ eyes focusing on Lilian, who is actually also performing the choreography behind the camera for them to replicate.”
Actress Genevieve Goings, the host of “Choo Choo Soul,” watches Manansala dance behind the camera during production.
Goings was typically considered the spicy Latina who could dance hip-hop, she said. But since Manansala has pushed her to get out of her comfort zone and try ballroom, jazz and Broadway styles of dancing, Goings feels more confident as a dancer and more diverse as an artist overall, Goings said.
Manansala has helped develop her into a more versatile artist and has inspired an interest for other dance styles in addition to hip-hop, Goings said
“She had me doing things I never even thought I would be able to do,” Goings said.
Manansala and Goings have collaborated on music video remakes of classic Disney hits such as “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and “A Dream is A Wish Your Heart Makes,” in which she introduced Goings to the Charleston and waltzing.
The most rewarding aspect of being a television choreographer is when other people recognize that she not only taught the actors how to dance, but also taught them how to be comfortable with themselves, Manansala said.
“Seeing the actors enjoying the choreography makes the end result an even sweeter victory,” Manansala said.