For musical theater dancers in New York City, Billy Griffin’s class is a breath of fresh air. Amidst the daily grind of auditions, striving to achieve goals, and coping with the inevitability of rejection, he offers a space void of judgment. “I want dancers to leave having fallen in love with themselves,” he says of his class. This sensitivity, coupled with his ultra-clever choreography, has students selling out his classes more often than not.
Griffin was introduced to the world of musical theater in first grade, when his mom signed him up to audition for their community theater’s production of Cinderella. “From then on, I’d caught the theater bug,” he says. One year later, Griffin’s parents put him in tap lessons at the Luis Pabon Dance Arts Centre in Taftville, Connecticut. There, Griffin was introduced to a variety of dance styles, became a competition dancer, and developed the talent to eventually be accepted into New York University as a musical theater major.
“My ultimate goal was to choreograph and teach,” he says. “But I wanted to spend some time performing first so that when I eventually became a choreographer, I knew what was reasonable to ask of dancers.” During his junior year of college, Griffin landed the tour of A Few Good Men Dancing. He wanted to finish school but couldn’t bring himself to turn down the opportunity. So, each week of the tour, he flew back to New York for two or three days to attend class. Once he finished touring, he returned to his regular school schedule and ultimately graduated on time the rest of his class. Next, Griffin was given his Equity card by choreographer Randy Skinner while doing a production of White Christmas in St. Paul, Minnesota. “I was very lucky to get those shows my first few years out of school,” he says. His performance career took off even further with various productions, including Young Frankenstein, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, and the Mary Poppins tour.
In 2012, Griffin started focusing more of his energy towards choreographing and directing. “I could have tried to make stuff happen for myself right out of the gate, but I’ve always been someone who learns from watching,” he says. Previously, while in college, he’d reached out to a handful of choreographers and asked them to mentor him. Andy Blankenbuehler said yes, and invited Griffin to watch some pre-production he was doing at his studio for In the Heights off-Broadway. “I went just to be a fly on the wall for the first day, and then I started participating in the pre-pro work sessions when my class schedule would allow,” he says. Since then he’s assisted Josh Bergasse on a few episodes of NBC’s SMASH, and Al Blackstone on works like Freddie Falls in Love and the off-Broadway musical The View UpStairs. Griffin’s individual choreography credits include the off-Broadway and national tour of Friends! The Musical Parody, as well as work for The Drama League Gala at The Plaza Hotel (honoring Steve Martin), The Miss America Organization, The National YoungArts Foundation, New York University, Pace University and more. Last summer, Griffin led the choreography team for the revival of As You Like It for Shakespeare in the Park at The Delacorte Theater, where he restaged Sonya Tayeh’s original choreography and was given creative liberties to add his own, as well.
When it comes to teaching, Griffin started in his youth by assisting educators at his hometown studio. In college and his early professional career, he supplemented his income by teaching and choreographing for various studios around the country. Then in 2014, Blackstone offered Griffin the chance to sub his class at Broadway Dance Center. Imposter syndrome nearly caused him to turn down the job, but a pep talk from his boyfriend (now husband), Alex Puette, put him on the right path. “You have to say yes,” Griffin remembers Puette saying. “I know you’re scared, but this is what you’ve always wanted.” That sub-gig opened the door for Griffin to teach regular classes at BDC, and later Steps on Broadway.
Today Griffin’s classes are wildly popular, thanks to his teaching philosophy: “I want the dancers to transcend that voice in their head that gives them constant feedback and judgment,” he says. “I want them to be present, and to connect to the thing that made them want to dance in the first place. Before they had all that technique and training, they danced because it brought them joy.” Griffin communicates this philosophy through a guided meditation at the start of each class. His gentle, yoga-based warm-up is set to music with messages that he believes in, like “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” by Bobby McFerrin. Then, he challenges his dancers to have a sense of humor by teaching a simple pas de bourrée combination in a deceptively tricky pattern. “I do it to get the dancers giggling,” he says. “It shows that you can work hard and enjoy yourself at the same time.” Finally, as Griffin transitions into the combo portion of class, he strives to teach without passing judgment on himself. “Hopefully, that allows others to do the same.”
Griffin gleans inspiration for his choreography from the world around him. “I take note of my surroundings every day, and write down interesting or entertaining experiences and observations in my Notes app on my phone,” he says. “I’m someone who finds comedy in a lot of places that other people might not see as funny. I like to bring that into my work.” At the end of the day, Griffin just wants dancers to have a positive experience in his class. “The more people come back to my class, they start to realize that here they can be whoever they want, wear whatever they want, and fully accept themselves,” he says.
Here, Griffin shares some of his favorite teaching tools for working with professional dancers in New York City.
His go-to teaching warm-up: “I roll my feet out on a lacrosse ball because I have flat feet.”
His favorite teaching attire: “I wear a lot of Lululemon clothes. Call me basic, but I love joggers, and their joggers last a really long time. I love sweating, so I always wear a sweatshirt. Since hanging up my performance shoes, I’ve rarely put on a pair of character shoes. I just wear socks.”
Unexpected teaching tools: “I don’t condone smoking, but as a theater performer you are often asked to dance with a cigarette. (A lot of musicals take place during times where people smoked a lot.) I incorporate fake cigarettes into my combos from time to time so my [adult] dancers have practice with it.”
His secret to surviving long days: “This will sound woo-woo, but I can draw from an inner wellspring of energy. I love to dance so much that when I walk into the space, there’s something deeper than my personality and ego that I draw from. Well—that and cold brew.”
Beloved breakfast: “I really love nondairy cashew-milk yogurt and peanut butter granola with plant protein in it. I also love an açai bowl in the morning.”
Nondance hobbies: I love going to the movies. (I like to go to the theater by myself a lot so I don’t have to worry if the person next to me is liking it.) I also like walking my dog in the park.”
His ideal day off: “The perfect day off for me would be an autumnal hike upstate with my husband and my dog.”
Must-read books: “This summer I read Questlove’s book called Creative Quest, and loved it. I also recommend Bittersweet, by Susan Cain. And then every couple of years I reread The Power of Now.”
How he unwinds after a long day: “I walk my dog before rolling out, using the Theragun, and watching a show. My husband is in Hadestown, so when he gets home, we eat dinner late at night. Nothing spectacular—I love routine and simplicity.”
Items he never leaves home without: “My S’well water bottle and my crystals—I always have crystals in my pocket and around my neck.”