Reed Tankersley thought his dance career was over before it started when he injured his knee his senior year at The Juilliard School. It turns out, the setback teed him up for something better than he could have ever imagined.
Tankersley started dancing when he was 5 years old at a competition studio in Los Altos, California, called Dance Attack. Though he dabbled in the razzle-dazzle of competitions, his primary dance teacher, Cheryl Copeland, kept him focused on concert work. “At the end of each year we put on a concert that put an emphasis on modern, ballet, and contemporary,” he says. Tankersley stayed with the studio until he was 9. He danced at various other studios, but returned around age 15 and stayed until he was 18, when he graduated high school and moved to New York City to attend Juilliard. He thrived during his four years as an undergraduate, adapting to the prestige of the school by going with the flow and finding balance outside of the program. “Enjoying your life outside of the studio will help you succeed as both a person and a dancer inside the studio,” he says.
Going back to his senior year at Juilliard in 2014, Tankersley injured his knee after a multiple-day audition process for one of his dream companies, Cedar Lake. He was devastated at the time but says the setback opened him up to new experiences he wouldn’t have had otherwise. That July, after his knee healed, he attended Twyla Tharp’s summer intensive, after which she invited him to audition for her company, Twyla Tharp Dance, and offered him performance opportunities. “I took the time to heal, and though I missed out on other auditions, I was ready in time for this job that would come to define much of my professional career,” he says. “It’s a reminder that what is meant for you will come.”
Since then he has worked on various projects with Tharp (including her 50th-anniversary tour), done a smattering of freelance work, and toured with Cirque du Soleil. During the COVID pandemic, he did a stint in California with his family to explore non-concert opportunities through his agency (MSA) with commercials and an Anthropologie Advertisement. But in 2022 Tharp came calling again and he returned to New York to perform In the Upper Room at New York City Center. Now, he’s back with the troupe working on a project that’s slated for 2024.
Here he shares the rehearsal tips he swears by, a bit about his most influential teacher, his advice for up-and-comers, and more.
The rehearsal advice he swears by “Something that always really helps me is trying things at like 70 percent when learning new choreography. If you work on something at full adrenaline before you have internalized it, it won’t turn out as well as if you go through the movement under tempo and under physicality. Take the time to really listen, follow the phrasing of the music, and visualize what you want to look like while doing it at 70 percent. Risa Steinberg taught me that in a class at Juilliard called Elements of Performing.”
On his most influential dance teacher “Cheryl Copeland is my biggest pre-college influence, and I’m still really close to her today. She is a contemporary teacher who is emotional, articulate, fast, and technical—which are all things I’m drawn to. When I was young, I struggled to get the emotion of the dance across to the audience. She helped me connect with the work by sitting down and chatting with me like a real person, and not just some kid she was teaching steps to. She gave challenging classes and taught choreography quickly, which forced me to be good at picking up phrases. I use those skills every day in my career, and I am immensely grateful for all she taught me.”
Advice for students who aspire to a career like his “Take a lot of class. Most of the work I do with Twyla is super-technical and has a lot of variety in it. I’m able to adapt to that because I regularly take a range of classes and keep up with my technique. These days I especially like to take Heather Hawk’s class at Steps on Broadway and Chris Ralph’s class at Peridance.”
His goals for the future “I’m at the point in my career where I want to have my own voice in the work. I’d love to choreograph more as well as work with different types of collaborators. The last time I worked with Twyla doing In the Upper Room, I was a coach and helped set the work on the other dancers. I worked to maintain the integrity of the original work by translating from the video to the dancers in the room. I will be setting another one of her pieces soon, and it feels like a career milestone for me. I appreciate that she trusts me. Beyond that, I’d love to explore work outside of concert dance while I’m still able-bodied. I’m especially curious about film and television work.”