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The Man Behind Your Favorite Onscreen Dance Numbers, From "Dirty Dancing" To "HSM"

Kenny Ortega has choreographed some of the biggest TV and movie performances of the past 30 years, like Ferris Bueller's epic parade lip sync and Winifred Sanderson's enchanting moves in Hocus Pocus. Right before his latest, Disney Channel's Descendants, makes its debut, he looks back on all the dances that got him there.

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1. "Try a Little Tenderness," Pretty in Pink (1986)

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One of the most iconic moments in the John Hughes classic comes at Trax record store when Duckie (Jon Cryer) fully commits to what looks like a spontaneous dance to Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness." But it was actually a partly choreographed number, courtesy of a young Kenny Ortega.

"It was sort of put together after a spontaneous workshop that we did right in that record shop. I went in there in advance and played with some ideas, and Jonathan really took to them and was such a good sport and such a great collaborator and brought his incredible personality — Duckie times 10. It wasn't traditionally choreographed. I showed him some things and he took hold of it. That was born of the moment."

2. "Twist and Shout," Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)

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When Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) played hooky, he went big and did not go home. And his biggest, most over-the-top moment comes when he takes over the annual Von Steuben Day Parade in the streets in the Chicago, first lip-synching to Wayne Newton's cover of "Danke Schoen" and then going for it with this Beatles classic. After Hughes worked with Ortega on Pretty in Pink, the iconic director called Ortega in again, this time to not only choreograph Ferris' parade performance, but to direct it as well.

"That was a really special invitation from John Hughes, the king of Chicago and the king of movies in the ’80s. We just had a really good rapport and he called me up and asked me to direct and choreograph that scene. So John Hughes got me my DGA card. The scene was all John's idea and then he gave me a lot of freedom in how I approached it and how I built it. He wanted Ferris to take over the streets of Chicago. We preshot some of the elements of that number, but we moved the float right into a real existing parade, so we had 10 to 12 cameras on it and we had one shot to get it right. If I remember correctly, I think it was sort of Matthew's introduction to dance. I don't think he'd ever done musical performance in film before, and now look at him!"

3. "The Time of My Life," Dirty Dancing (1987)

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When screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein went to find a choreographer for what became one of the most legendary dancing movies in history, she landed Ortega, who had been trained by Gene Kelly. He brought in his assistant Miranda Garrison and worked with ballroom dancer and choreographer Doriana Sanchez to help create the quick-stepping world of Kellerman's. And there's no number as memorable as Baby (Jennifer Grey) and Johnny's (Patrick Swayze) final dance to Bill Medley's "The Time of My Life."

"Having grown up in the '60s, dance was a way for us to communicate. Those were rough times, and the title of the movie came before the story. I remember being in the gymnasium at a Saturday night dance at my school and a teacher said if there was ever any dirty dancing, the lights would come on and the music would turn off and the dance would be over. And every time, the lights would come on and the music would turn off and the dance would be over.

"Dancing was a way for us to awaken and discover and to come to know one another in a different way. We wanted to use it in that respect in the movie. We didn't have to show lovemaking because dance took the responsibility for that. As this relationship built and as Johnny and Baby came together, the dance came together. We wanted 'Time of My Life' to show that. Patrick [Swayze] came to us as an accomplished soloist in ballet and Jennifer wasn't a technical dancer. I think she liked dancing, but she was more of the dancer at the beginning of the movie.

"We just went up into the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Carolinas, and we closed the doors, put on the music, and we partied.

"In that scene, Max, the owner of the hotel, says, 'Times are changing' — not just on the mountain top, but in the country. Things that were perhaps taboo or less accepted were changing. The dance stood as a symbol of that."

4. "King of New York," Newsies (1992)

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The Disney movie musical marked Ortega's feature directorial debut. The film — which starred a young Christian Bale — was a flop, but has since developed such a cult following, it's been resurrected for Broadway.

"That was a movie that people discovered, and found, and they just would not let it go away. It was my first film as a director and Peggy Holmes and I choreographed that, and she's gone on to become a director. Alan Menken and J.A.C. [Redford] had written it and because of our schedule, we had to drop some things from the movie. And that was one of the things that was dropped, and we were devastated. It just felt right, organic to the movie, to the storytelling and where the characters were, and finally the studio said, 'OK. Look, if you can rehearse it in a weekend and shoot it in a day, we can do it.' So we did and shot it in one afternoon on the stage. And I'm so thrilled we did."

5. "I Put a Spell on You," Hocus Pocus (1993)

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Ortega's second film as a director, Hocus Pocus, is another '90s favorite, and one he's game to do a sequel for ("I think it would be fun. We're all titillated with the idea and how much fun it would be"). The movie's single musical number is one of its most fondly remembered, and Ortega was thrilled to see Bette Midler recently perform it in L.A. during her current tour. "I was howling," he said. "I was so excited."

"That was just the perfect song for that movie. And we were looking for a song that would enable Winifred to cast a spell on the entire Halloween party. Bette helped create those wonderful lyrics — the spell — we threw that number together in a rehearsal. We had a rehearsal and an afternoon to shoot that. The girls are all musical, all stage performers, and everyone had a lot of fun with it."

6. "Strut," The Cheetah Girls 2 (2006)

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The second film in Disney Channel's Cheetah Girls franchise brought Ortega to Europe and inspired this number featuring Raven-Symoné, Adrienne Bailon, Sabrina Bryan, and Kiely Williams.

"We were actually in Barcelona. My grandparents are all from Spain, and I'm a huge fan or Europe and Spain. To be able to go to Spain and do a movie was truly a dream come true for me. I wanted to get outside, expose the environment, remind people where we were, and to use the talent of our Cheetah Girls. Raven was great fun to work with on that, as were the other girls. We were out there with very little time, but for me, it was just fun because I was dancing in the streets in Barcelona!"

7. "Get'cha Head in the Game," High School Musical (2006)

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The movie that introduced Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, Corbin Bleu, and Ashley Tisdale to the world allowed Ortega to combine his love of sports and dancing, and no dance captures that more than this one.

"That was one of the first production numbers that we did in making High School Musical. We rehearsed a lot, we rehearsed everything, but it was one of the first ones we shot in the gym with Zac and Corbin and the Wildcats. The way that came together, and using sport as art, sport as dance, was so extraordinary and what that did to bond these young men."

8. "We're All in This Together," High School Musical (2006)

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The franchise's most memorable dance number comes at the end of the first High School Musical, and even when filming it, Ortega knew they were onto something.

"That was a really special moment. I remember when we were shooting that musical number, it was toward the end of the shoot. We were nearly finished with the movie, we only had a day or two left after that. But we had been through this experience together and as I turned the camera toward them, I felt something that I hadn't felt before when I was working on a film project. I believed what we had was gold and had the potential to really make some noise. I said, 'If everyone gets behind this movie, lives are going to change. You guys get ready for it.' It was a perfect song and a perfect moment because we really were all in this together."

9. "I Don't Dance," High School Musical 2 (2007)

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The sequel to HSM gave Ortega the opportunity to continue exploring dance and athletics, as perfectly captured in this duet with theater kid Ryan (Lucas Grabeel) and basketball star Chad (Corbin Bleu) on the baseball field.

"Ever since I was a young guy, I was in track and field, as was my father. I played baseball and I loved dancing. And I always felt a special connection between dancing and sport. Frank Sinatra learned how to dance by using sport, baseball, as a way of introducing himself to movement. So I just thought it'd be really wonderful because we had such success with 'Get'cha Head in the Game' in High School Musical. All the choreography involving sports, we were able to bring in athletes and dancers. And the dancers became stronger dancers and the athletes became stronger athletes. The basketball team who appeared in High School Musical said they felt the season after they did the movie was their best season yet. Working on the movie really elevated them. There was a little trepidation and insecurity because some of the dancers didn't have much of athletic experience and the baseball players came to us quite shy, wondering, Can I even accomplish this? But the dancers helped the athletes and the athletes helped instruct the dancers."

10. "I Want It All," High School Musical 3: Senior Year (2008)

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Theater lovers Ryan and his sister Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale) were definitely the most over-the-top of the HSM franchise, and their passion for all things musical showed in this number in the final film — and the first theatrical release — of the series.

"That was all about just getting inside of Sharpay's brain — that wonderful, wonderful colorful brain. That was fun, imagining what's going on in there, what she's seeing for herself at 17 years old, and how she draws her brother into it. I love those characters, love her needs and what she's motivated by. Years and years and years ago, I worked with a rock ’n’ roll band called The Tubes and they had a song called 'I Want It All Now,' and it's about wanting it all right now, at this young, special time in your life. So that served as a little bit of inspiration, but shifting it for a high school character."

11. "Rotten to the Core," Descendants (2015)

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Now, Ortega is back with the Disney Channel, directing and choreographing Descendants, a movie about the children of some of the most evil villains in Disney history. And just a few minutes in, this musical number from those evil offspring kicks things off.

"With all of the work, I'm always looking for a way tell a story through music and dance. I thought we had a real great opportunity, because it happens so early in the movie, to introduce our audience to our main characters and the world in which they live. We take them through the twist and turns of the streets and use the choreography to bring them through the marketplace and over the rooftops and between the alleys. My partner, Paul Becker, and I were really inspired by the '70s-style musical. Some people said it was reminiscent of Michael Peters and Michael Jackson's 'Thriller.'"

Descendants premieres Friday at 8 p.m. ET/7 CT on Disney Channel.

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