An Open (Love) Letter to Kenny Ortega

My feelings can no longer be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love Kenny Ortega’s directing, choreography, and, perhaps most importantly, ponytail (RIP).

If you don’t know who Kenny Ortega is you should quit your life and start over. Or if that sounds too drastic, here’s a brief primer on the man who has been behind every movie worth watching since the 1980s.

According to his Wikipedia page (for some reason he hasn’t responded to any of my tweets), Kenny grew up in Redwood City, California and was a cheerleader even though others teased him for it. So his life was basically the plot of Bring It On except more fabulous.

His dancing and choreographing chops got him hired as the choreographer for Xanadu where he became close with little known dancer Gene Kelly and ended up choreographing a bunch of other classic 80s movies like Pretty In Pink and Ferris Buellers Day Off. He also choreographed Dirty Dancing even going so far as to get in the lake with Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey to make sure the infamous water lift was just right.


I could go on about the tours and concerts Kenny choreographed for Cher, Michael Jackson, and Miley Cyrus, but here’s the point: Kenny Ortega is a genius and should be recognized as such.

The core of this brilliance resides in his ability to turn simple, underdog ideas into films so enjoyable people can’t help watching them over and over. Kenny has a knack for directing box office flops with staying power. He’s the king of the cult classic.

This may be in part to what Disney Channel executive Gary Marsh has coined the “straddle.” The Kenny Straddle is an attempt to describe the director’s ability to straddle the whimsical world of musicals with the groundedness of traditional films. His talent for intertwining the two seamlessly by using music and dancing to create moments of pure joy and hilarity make his films get better with age and repeated viewings.

One of Kenny’s biggest flops (which has the notable distinction of being the “lowest grossing live action movie in Walt Disney studio history”) is the 1992 film Newsies. Despite its failure at the box office, the DVD release was well received and gained a cult following over the years. Case in point: after seeing Newsies I devoted the next several years of my childhood to dressing and acting like a boy.

Somehow Kenny managed to convince a 17-year-old Christian Bale to play the lead in this musical about a newsboy boycott in 1890s New York City even though Bale couldn’t really sing and had no interest in doing a musical. (Side note: If you haven’t seen Christian Bale sing a ballad while lassoing alone then you haven’t really lived.)

Here’s a taste of the fun that occurred on set. Warning: it will probably take at least ten minutes for the epicness of that ponytail to really sink in.

The story and music were still so popular twenty years later that Disney made it into a Broadway musical so good it inspired my sister to make this face after she saw it:


If you’re a cold hearted monster unmoved by the plight of newsboys in the 1800s or my sister’s hysterical reaction to seeing any celebrity, there’s also Hocus Pocus.


For reasons unexplained this Halloween classic was released in the summer of 1992 instead of the fall and was a box office dud. But then the Kenny Straddle kicked in and turned the movie into a staple of the Basic Girl’s Fall Accessory Kit. Bette Midler—who has won approximately a million Grammy’s and been nominated for multiple Academy Awards—still says this is her favorite of the many movies she’s starred in.

I know you’ve probably already stopped reading this so you could look Kenny up on Instagram and write him a classy Thank You note, and I don’t want to sound like an infomercial, but wait there actually is more. Three words: High School Musical.

What started as a simple Disney Channel Original movie became a national phenomenon under Kenny’s direction. There was singing, there was dancing, there was basketball, and then there was all of the above done at once in such painfully pubescent glory that it spawned two sequels, not to mention the dreams of a million teenage girls.

See Also
people sitting on a couch watching

Zac Efron, the male lead of the trilogy, has said of Kenny: “What he did with his aura and positivity and reinforcement — he was able to bring out something special,” he says.

So basically Kenny is the man to thank for Zefron’s aura. And also, what is arguably the greatest solo ballad song ever choreographed on a golf course, Bet On It.

As if all of this wasn’t enough, Kenny also directed what is objectively the best episode of Gilmore Girls, “They Shoot Gilmores, Here, Don’t They?”, which took the glories of a 24 hour dance marathon to new heights and taught me everything I know about dancing.


He also directed the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, choreographed the dancing fountains outside the Bellagio, and directed Fox’s TV musical remake of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which premiered last week. Not to mention The Descendants and The Descendants 2 which are basically the High School Musicals for the new DCOM generation.

There’s a rumor (perpetuated mainly by the trivia section on his IMDB page which I am a frequent visitor of) that Kenny charges cast members a dollar every time he catches them yawning on set and then at the end of production donates the money to the Make a Wish foundation. This is because he’s the best man who’s ever lived.

Basically all I’m saying is that the only movies worth watching are Kenny Ortega movies and he’s the greatest director of all time. The only mistake he’s ever made is ditching his ponytail, but the rest of his career is so perfect that I don’t even miss it that much.

If you’re still unconvinced of Kenny’s greatness check out this Instagram photo of him holding a stick while standing next to a creek. Still have doubts? Yeah. Didn’t think so.


Scroll To Top