The High School Musical director directed the "Dance Across America" video, which aired Wednesday during the virtual Inauguration Day parade

By Sean Neumann
January 21, 2021 09:16 PM
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Kenny Ortega
| Credit: The Walt Disney Company/Image Group LA via Getty

Two weeks ago, on Jan. 6, director Kenny Ortega sat in his office and silently watched history unfold on a split-screen available only to him.

To his right, the Emmy Award-winning High School Musical director smiled as he watched children from around the country laughing and dancing in submission videos for a virtual dance performance he curated for incoming President Joe Biden's inauguration.

The resulting three-minute segment aired Wednesday afternoon during the virtual Inauguration Day parade.

But back on Jan. 6, to Ortega's left as he reviewed submission, he watched with horror as a mob of violent pro-Donald Trump supporters invaded the U.S. Capitol on live television.

"The contrast was overwhelming," Ortega, 70, tells PEOPLE now. But, says the prolific director, the contrast was in many ways "a gift."

"You don't give up, you don't give up," Ortega says he kept thinking to himself as his eyes shot back and forth between each screen. "We're going to survive this. We're going to survive anything that we face. It's who we are and what we do."

All the videos Ortega received — the more than 2,000 of them in a 10-day span — were "proof of that," he says.

Democracy had indeed "prevailed" on Wednesday, President Biden proclaimed after being sworn into office alongside Vice President Kamala Harris — the first woman, first Black person and first person of South Asian descent to hold the office.

Biden, 78, and Harris, 56, took their oaths on the same steps Ortega and the rest of the country watched get overrun by insurrectionists days earlier. The mood two weeks later — as Biden and Harris took over for Trump and now-former Vice President Mike Pence — was one of relief for many and celebration for some others. Mostly, it was one of determination.

"The spirit is so strong," Ortega says. "The soul of our nation is so strong. The imagination is so strong."

Ortega and his crew of Emmy Award-winning choreographers and filmmakers were tapped by the Biden team to capture that spirit and imagination.

Joe Biden (left) is sworn in as the 46th president of the United States at his inauguration Wednesday at the U.S. Capitol.
| Credit: Alex Wong/Getty
Vice President Kamala Harris (center) takes the oath of office on Wednesday
| Credit: Rob Carr/Getty

The "Dance Across America" video was the idea of Julie McDonald, another Emmy Award-winning choreographer dubbed a "Hollywood Dance Super-Agent."

Ortega says Stranger Things editor Brad Tobler and producer Kelly Parker, another pair of Emmy winners, were part of the project as was choreographer Paul Becker and producer Truman Alfaro.

The team combed over submissions and put together the three-minute video in less than two weeks, Ortega says, after he was invited to head the project just before the new year. The video, set to Martha & The Vandellas' song "Dancing in the Streets," features 275 everyday Americans dancing in 30 states and territories.

Ortega says the video ranks up there with his other career milestones, including the Emmys he has won for his work choreographing the 1996 and 2002 Olympic ceremonies, Super Bowls, films like Dirty Dancing and Ferris Bueller's Day Off and more.

"Dance is a language without words," he says. "It's a language that all of us understand. A dancer can express so much: pain, happiness, hope, and despair. So many things."

Most of all, Ortega says, dance "carries the story forward."

That was undoubtedly the theme at the Capitol Wednesday, where the nation turned to its next chapter and Biden, its new president, urged the country to move past ideological differences and come together.

"We must end this uncivil war," he said. "Red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal. We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts, if we show a little tolerance and humility and, if we're willing to stand in the other person's shoes, as my mom would say, just for a moment."