Shea Sullivan has build a dynamic and varying career for herself over the years. She’s a Carbonell winning and Drama Desk Nominated theatrical choreographer, she’s choreographed all over New York City and regionally, was the protege to Tony-Award winning Choreographer Henry LeTang, done tons of television shows and films— including work with Mr. LeTang on the Showtime film Bojangles starring Gregory Hines— live shows for John Legend and the New York Knick’s Dancers, she has her own production company, and more.
Along with all of her work across all the mediums of dance, Sullivan has made a successful name for herself choreographing for pageants— specifically, the Miss America pageant. Since 1998, Sullivan has been a top choreographer for Miss America contestants, and in 2013 choreographed Miss America winner Mallory Hagan’s tap performance. Throughout her tenure as a Miss America choreographer, Sullivan has also worked with a myriad of other contestants, including a second runner-up, two third runners-up, and two fourth runners-up.
Mallory Hagan. Photo Credit: Pinterest
The style of dance in which Sullivan has found success choreographing for these contestants is as varied as her resume itself. She’s built numbers in almost every style one could think: lyrical, acro-jazz, contemporary, Irish step, Broadway, tap, baton twirling, and even Ballet en pointe.
After the Miss America competition aired this passed Sunday, September 10th, Dance Network had the opportunity to chat with Sullivan. Shea was nice enough to speak with us in between tech rehearsals for her new Off-Broadway show at the Atlantic Theatre Company called Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical.
Dance Network: Thank you so much for taking some time to chat with us, you got so much going on! So, along side your successful theatre choreography career, you’ve been working on pageant competitions for a while now— how did you find your way into choreographing for these sorts of competitions?
Shea Sullivan: When I was in college, I was 1st runner up to Miss Oklahoma. A few years later when I was starting to get my feet wet as a choreographer, the reigning Miss Oklahoma was a tap dancer, and they asked me to choreograph her routine for Miss America. She went on to win talent at Miss America, and so, the next year I got more inquiries and it just kinda took off. Next year will mark 20 years that I have been choreographing for contestants in the Miss America system. As of this year I have choreographed for over 100 ladies that have placed in the Top 10 or higher in the Miss America system.
A few of Shea’s dancers in action. Photo Credit: Shea Sullivan
Dance Network: Wow! That’s incredible. When you’re working with these women on their
talent portions, especially for a competition like Miss America, where do you come up with the choreography? How much of it comes from them and how much comes from you?
Shea Sullivan: It really varies. Sometimes they will have strong ideas of what they want to do and we use that as a jumping-off point. and other times they leave it completely up to me. It’s really important to me, in either case, to make sure I am bringing out their strengths. I never come in to the room with choreography already done. It is always created in the moment.
Dance Network: In 2017 Top Seven finisher Miss Texas, Caroline Carothers, and this year’s Miss Colorado, Meredith Winnefeld who won a non-finalist talent award performed baton twirling numbers… so, are you a baton twirler, yourself?
Shea Sullivan: I am not! (Laughing) Well, I can do two moves…..and not well, but I absolutely LOVE working with baton twirlers. My strength is helping them craft a 90 second number that will be entertaining to an audience that isn’t made up of those in the baton twirling world. It’s about making the style more accessible to a wide audience and still keeping with the traditions and integrity of the art form.
Dance Network: What do you like most about choreographing for Miss America contestants, and, in a nutshell, how does your process differ between theatrical choreography and pageant choreography?
Shea Sullivan: Honestly, it’s is very similar. With pageant choreography, I like the challenge of creating a sort of mini-musical in the 90 seconds they have for their presentation. Similar to theatre choreography, there's storytelling, music to arrange, collaborations with costume designers— I also love all the different styles I get to work with because it challenges me and keeps me on my feet and growing as a choreographer. Tap, Jazz, Lyrical, Modern, Theater Dance, Irish Step, Clogging, Baton, Gymnastics are just some of the styles I have worked with. I also work with vocalists and musicians on their staging and presentation.
I really love that I get to expose the ladies to a version of my New York City life; whether it’s with an assistant joining us who's in a Broadway show, or just simply being in one of the New York rehearsal studios that are full of action.
Dance Network: We know you have to run back to tech rehearsal, so, lastly, we can only imagine how thrilling it must be to see your work performed in such an enormous forum. What is it like to see these women dancing your choreography in such a big competition?
Shea Sullivan: It’s absolutely awesome. My favorite part is seeing the ladies realize their dreams. I’m a proud mom!
For more on Shea’s theatrical and pageant work, how you can keep up with her work, and find out which contestant she’s choreographing for next, check out her website at www.sheasullivan.com