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Amy Marie McCleary and the vocabulary of movement

Southwest Florida theater lovers know the name Amy Marie McCleary. Prather Entertainment resident director and choreographer has staged more than 50 productions, including "Chorus Line," "Saturday Night Fever," "The Wizard of Oz," "Escape to Margaritaville," "Singin’ in the Rain" and "Sounds of Christmas," which she created specifically for Broadway Palm. Her incredible success as both a director and choreographer reflects her gift for storytelling, for which McCleary credits her mom.

“My mother writes children’s books, so I think I sort of come by that fairly naturally," said McCleary. "Do you know what I mean? Having just been around her. She’s written my entire life.”

Instead of words, McCleary uses sets, actors and dancers to tell the story in each script. Her work starts months before rehearsals with intensive research.

“When I did "Singin’ in the Rain," I watched the movie a zillion times, and then I was reading books about the birth of talkies and film," she said. "When I first choreographed "Swing," I read a bunch of books and I watched so many how-to videos and all of that stuff. Watching all of those swing dance competitions and gathering a vocabulary for myself and learning all of those moves.”

McCleary is not merely referencing pertinent background. She is studying how people danced and moved during the time period involved in the show so she can formulate a "movement vocabulary" she can teach to her actors and dancers once rehearsals start.

“The biggest show that I did that capitalized on that was "The Wedding Singer," she recalled. "So, I choreographed that national tour. And I just watched 1980s music videos over and over and over again to get that movement vocabulary into my body so that I could tell the story through that movement vocabulary."

McCleary’s research often compels her to expand her own dance repertoire. For "Evita," she took Argentine Tango classes. She watched and practiced the moves from the television show “So You Think You Can Dance.” And she surveys Tik Tok, where dances are choreographed to fit within the confines of a tiny viewing screen.

“I’ve always like, loved arms and very specific arm movements. I have dancers who’ve worked with me and they’ll say ‘Oh, this is an Amy section’ because, like in "Oz," we did all that sort of stuff. But TikTok has affected that in that it’s very arm-y and there’s not a lot of travel any more," she continued. "So I like to use that, but I also have to make sure my dancers travel because I want people to come to the theater and see something they don’t see on a screen.

The next step in McCleary’s story building process is the set, where all the action takes place. Once that’s been designed, she is ready to decide how to employ her actors and dancers in aid of telling the story. Each dance number is intentional. Jumps, rolls and kicks are included not just to dazzle and impress, but to express and amplify the story’s emotion and energy. But not every actor or dancer has the same capabilities.

But not every actor or dancer has the same capabilities.

“Once I have my cast list, I’ll usually start … I call it stalking them [laughing] online because a lot of times now dancers have reels so I can sort of see what their specialties are.”

For McCleary, storytelling is a highly collaborative endeavor. She adapts the dance vocabulary from the show to each dancer’s skill sets. Since most shows are put together in as little as two weeks, quick decisions are often required.

“Especially in a rehearsal period where you have a week to rehearse it and a week for tech, you have to really quickly see, 'oh, that move is not going to work on this person so I’m going switch this person out.' Or you have to think, 'Oh that attitude turn does not look good on them, let me make it a pique turn and that’s going to look cleaner and prettier on this body.'"

In the end, it’s about enabling her dancers to tell the story through their movements while making them look amazing in the process -- which is why actors and directors love working with McCleary.

Looking ahead, Amy will be directing and choreographing several shows in the 2023-2024 season, including "Elf" in December and "Beautiful" in February, followed by "Swing" and "Addams Family." McCleary's already in research mode for "Beautiful," which tells the Carole King story.

“I think that her story is really fascinating because she started out so young and she was writing for other people, and then she found her own voice. So that really connects to me as a woman in the arts. I think that we’re frequently serving other people’s vision, and then you get to have your own vision and it’s really exciting.”

Amy Marie McCleary has that vision for every show she takes on, so make plans to see whatever show she may be directing or choreographing.


  • In addition to research, McCleary is a devoted musical theatre history buff. She comes from a ballet/Bob Fosse tradition, but is an apt student of Agnes de Mille (the trailblazing dancer and choreographer who revolutionized American ballet and musical theater) and more contemporary choreographers such as Mia Michaels (who not only judged So You Think You Can Dance, but has worked with such stars as Celine Dion, Gloria Estefan, Madonna, Ricky Martin, Prince and Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Sonya Tayeh (whose choreography in Moulin Rouge created a spectacle that married different dance styles, from cancan and jazz to classical musical theater).
  • One of McCleary’s strengths is her ability to contextualize a show’s movement vocabulary within far-reaching historical periods that range from burlesque (such as Chicago, Cabaret and even Singin’ in the Rain) to street dance (as seen in Hamilton and In the Heights and incorporated by McClearly in shows like Mean Girls and Footloose).
  • Since McCleary views choreography as the process of telling a story through actors and dancers, she routinely reminds her casts that “You’re your character before you’re a dancer.”
  • McCleary cites The Wedding Singer as an example of a show in which she became engrossed in research. “I just watched 1980s videos over and over and over again to get that movement vocabulary into my body so that I could tell properly tell the story.
  • For Escape to Margaritaville, McCleary’s starting point was the story’s location in the Caribbean. “I watched a lot of that movement style, which is low and grounded,” McCleary relates. “But then I watched a lot of country swing dance because Jimmy Buffet has that element in his music as well, that country style.”
  • McCleary is not alone when it comes to using movement to tell the story, regardless of genre, period and location. Sonya Tayeh once remarked that her greatest challenge in Moulin Rouge was “how to build the movement that moves the story and stays clear within the story.”
  • When the topic of choreography comes up, Sweeney Todd is not a show that springs to mind, and yet, the choreography included in the vignette performed at this year’s Tony Awards provides a classic example of the way movement can be used to tell a story even in the absence of technically-sound dancers. “They were dipping. People were popping up behind them,” recounts McCleary. “That was my favorite choreography even though it wasn’t difficult dance from a technical perspective. But it told the story, and that’s what I want to do.”
  • In addition to placing character ahead of dance moves, McCleary stresses quality of movement with her dancers. “There has to be dynamics in your movements,” McCleary observes. “A lot of my choreography is very fast. I like to hit every single beat. So I constantly remind my dancers that it’s okay to keep things small. If you get too big, it can get loose and sloppy. But if you keep your movements really small and specific, that’s going to keep the choreography tight.”
  • Just as McCleary took Argentine Tango lessons to tell the story of Evita, Andy Blankenbuehler (who has been nominated for the Tony Award for Best Choreography five times, winning thrice, for In the Heights (2008), Hamilton (2016) and Bandstand (2017)) took street dance and Salsa classes before working on In the Heights and Hamilton.
  • Many theater-goers have seen other performances of the productions she’ll be directing and choreographing in the upcoming season, such as Elf the Musical, Swing and Addams Family. But that should not deter them from coming to see the show again. “Each show is going to look different because the story is adapted to the set, actors and dancers included in the show. One performance is even different from the next because of the way the cast responds to the audience’s energy.” So if you think, “nothing new here,” think again. “It’s not like watching a movie for a second or third time,” she chuckles. But even there, the viewer has changed and often takes something from the experience that they may have missed the first time or last time they saw the film.
  • Other stories about Amy McCleary include Amy Marie McCleary redefining next generation of performers and Celebrating Amy Marie McCleary’s ‘Sounds of Christmas’

To read more stories about the arts in Southwest Florida visit Tom Hall's website: SWFL Art in the News.

Spotlight on the Arts for WGCU is funded in part by Naomi Bloom, Jay & Toshiko Tompkins, and Julie & Phil Wade.