Many little girls fantasize about graduating from ballet class to the big stage when they grow up; Marguerite Derricks is not only living her childhood dream, she’s helping some of Hollywood’s legends find their inner dance diva–and even changing lives in the process.
Derricks is the award-winning choreographer whose work includes films such as “Showgirls,” “Donnie Darko,” “Little Miss Sunshine” and the “Austin Powers” franchise, as well as TV and stage productions. Dance is Derricks’ longtime passion not only because she loves to do it. As a choreographer, she finds ways for people to connect to something in themselves that they might never have known or experienced.
That’s why actors like the legendary Diane Keaton consider Derricks more than a professional acquaintance. For her Academy Award-winning performances, Keaton creates a physical presence, to be sure, but dance has never been a significant aspect of her characters. Working with Derricks on the upcoming comedy “Poms” (in theaters May 10) gave Keaton a chance to tap into something she had never done before.
Keaton’s grateful voicemail following their work together is one that Derricks (a huge fan) treasures. It also speaks to the film’s message underpinning the plot, which is based on a real-life story of women in a retirement community who formed their own competitive cheer squad.
24Life caught up with Derricks on her way to a rehearsal for the Broadway production of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” to discuss the magic of movement and “Poms.”
Leaping from ballerina to the big time
The legendary choreographer Bob Fosse once said that “dance expresses joy better than anything else,” and Derricks realized she wanted to translate that joy into a career at an early age.
“My mother put me in ballet class when I was just four years old, and my dream was to become a ballerina,” says Derricks. As a teenager, she began to study jazz in addition to ballet, and moved to New York to pursue a career.
“After a few years of studying and auditioning, I got my chance at the big time,” Derricks continues. “A friend told me that [dancer/choreographer] Debbie Allen was looking for one dancer to join the TV series, ‘Fame.’ There were 80 people competing for that one spot—and I danced my heart out, got the job and moved to Los Angeles to do the show for three seasons.”
Then, suddenly, her life took a different turn.
“After a few seasons on ‘Fame,’ I got pregnant, coincidentally, at the same time Debbie did,” says Derricks. “After I had my son, I realized I needed to make a change—one that would allow me to do what Debbie was doing, and be my own boss. So I stopped dancing, started teaching, and eventually that led to opportunities to choreograph music videos.”
Without a film credit to her name, she was unable to break into film. Then she was invited to choreograph a routine a film producer’s daughter’s birthday celebration. She so impressed the family that she was invited to work on a dance scene in Ivan Reitman’s comedy “Junior,” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito—and that paved the way for a chance to work on “Showgirls.” More movie offers started to roll in, as well as opportunities to do choreography for various stage productions, awards shows, and commercials for brands like The Gap, Target and Pepsi.
Turning “monkey mind” into momentum
When she is working in New York, Derricks still teaches. “Teaching is like my lifeline,” says Derricks. “I love my work as a choreographer—I get so much joy from it and I feel like I’m changing peoples’ lives.”
How does Derricks teach newbies how to dance? As in other areas of life, fear is often the greatest barrier to movement, so Derricks’ first lesson is advising students to “get the monkeys out of your head.”
“We all have those monkeys in our head that crowd our brain and tell us ‘you can’t do that,’” says Derricks. “I think musicians and artists especially are so riddled with fear that they just can’t move forward. I tell them the minute you can let go, stop judging yourself and just have fun with it, that’s when the enjoyment begins.”
Derricks’ recent work with Diane Keaton in “Poms”, was a perfect example of the benefits of letting go and having fun. “The first day I met Diane on set, she said, ‘I dunno … I’m not gonna dance…I really don’t wanna dance.’” Derricks says once Keaton got out of her head at the first rehearsal, she moved like a natural—and she was an incredibly dedicated student. Derricks adds, “I wish I could live the process with her all over again because it was so delightful!”
Working on “Poms” helped Derricks put her own monkeys in their place, as well.
“I still have monkeys in my head,” says Derricks. “Every time I get a job the monkeys start to talk, and they say ‘Why are you doing this, why did they choose you?’ It never goes away, but now that I’m older, I recognize the fear and move past it. Now I just tell the monkeys to shut up!”
Making movement a lifelong joy
For Derricks, dancing is only one expression of her larger message about the joy of moving and being grounded in body, mind and spirit.
“My grandmother lived to be 95 years old,” says Derricks. “She was one of the most vibrant women I have ever known. Every single day of her life, regardless of weather, she got up, got dressed, took a long walk, and then she stretched.” Derricks says until her grandmother had a stroke, she could bend over and touch her toes. She adds, “I know the consistency of her routine and the satisfaction she got from it helped her live better.”
So what is Derricks’ own prescription for a happy, healthy life, given the physical and mental demands of directing choreography for celebrities and other students?
“I have a crazy work schedule, so yoga is good for both stretching and stress relief,” says Derricks. “Whenever I feel tightness in my body, I start doing some Downward Dogs, and it just releases the tension immediately. I go nuts when I don’t get to work out, so I try to hike or do Pilates or yoga on a regular basis.”
Derricks is mindful of the importance of specific types of movement to her well-being, as well. “Now that I’m in my 50s, I make sure to include some weight work when I’m at the gym, so I can maintain my muscle mass. I would love to run, but I’ve had [dance-related] injuries, so my cardio is usually the bike or the elliptical machine.”
Beyond physical activity, Derricks relies upon meditation and social connection to fill her soul’s cup. “I have affirmations and spiritual readings that I do in the morning,” Derricks says, “And then at some point during the day, I try to do a half–hour meditation that centers me and brings me back to focus.”
Doing the dance of life together
And of course, fulfilling social connections are important as well—a major message she took away from her work on “Poms.” Derricks says, “For me the film is about female friendship and the bonds these women formed as they created their dance team. I didn’t have those connections for the longest time when I was a single mom and starting my career, but now I have a strong group of female friends that are in the business, and even though we’re all busy, we all take time to check in with each other and get together when we can.”
And sometimes, the relationships formed on the movie set extend to real life. Keaton called Derricks several times. “One of the messages she left for me was about how fun the project was and how they couldn’t have done it without me—I got my son to save that one, so I could keep it forever,” she says.
“To have one of my favorite female actresses in the world say that just reinforces the bonds I built with the women on that set,” Derricks adds. “Since it’s a movie about empowering female friendship, I think that’s just really great!”