Doriana Sanchez may be best known for being the girl in the polka dot dress in “Dirty Dancing,” but behind the scenes the actor-turned-choreographer has made her mark on live stage shows, including Cher’s Las Vegas residency, as well as quite a few reality competition series. Most notably, she is “So You Think You Can Dance’s” choreographer. After starting on that Fox series in its first season in 2005, she has gone on to work with finalists on standout numbers, including last season’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” performed by Madison Jordan and Ezra Sosa.
Once a song for the show has been cleared for you, what’s your process in working with the dancers?
I’ll go into the studio and create a routine with my assistant. On the first day with the contestant, I’ll spend three hours with them — 90 minutes of interviews and the other 90 minutes is actual dance. The next day, we’ll work together for four hours. And in between, they’re working with costume and makeup because part of what we create is this design template that involves creating color, hair and costume. We do camera blocking the following day where we have 30 minutes to clean the routine and block it. And finally, it’s the shoot day. These dancers are learning four or five pieces: They’re preparing a group number, a solo and duets. It’s like the Olympics of dance.
There are viewers and dancers out there who face social stigmas but find hope in the show, what advice would you give them?
Be your authentic self. Dance is your soul coming through and being shown to the world. The more you can be your authentic self, the greater artist you will become. You can’t judge yourself on another or how many followers you have. Work hard and learn everything you can about dance and be versatile. A choreographer wants to hire people that can do everything.
Did you ever face any social stigmas being a young Latina dancer?
I was the Latina dancer and my best friend, Wanja McIntyre, was the Black girl and we could dance circles around the other girls who were white, blonde and blue-eyed, but there was a stereotype happening in the dance world at that time. One day, Kenny Ortega came and saw me in a drag show at Peanuts. He said, “I want to work with you one day.” I didn’t know who he was — he was at the beginning of his career — but he saw the essence of who I was. I really credit Kenny with seeing who I was as a Latina and seeing Wanja as a gorgeous African American woman. He gave us the chance to really break the mold.
On that note, what do you look for in dancers you hire?
I look for technique. If a person has great technique, they can do anything. I also look for personality. I can look at a room filled with 200 people and certain energy pops happen and you know that they are the ones that have it.
How has dance helped you?
In 2011 when we were at Caesar’s Palace with Cher, I fell on a prop. I was getting treated, but it kept getting worse. What happened was that I became paralyzed on my left side. Cher kept saying I wasn’t getting any better. I kept saying I was OK because that’s the dancer way and we have a high tolerance for pain. I went to her spine specialist who gave me an MRI and he found a massive brain tumor. I had 19 hours of brain surgery. UCLA, Cher and dance saved my life. My mantra was, “I walk, I run, I dance.” That’s how I healed. If we’re not moving, we’re not breathing.