A Study in Seamlessness
One-time Erieite Stephen Galloway recounts a career of creative movement
Stephen Galloway has never been one to shy away from an opportunity. He is a creative movement director, a dancer, a choreographer, an art director, a costume designer, and an organizer of fashion shows. To say that he is singular would not be hyperbole. Galloway is also easy to talk to, a trait likely very useful in his line of work. Although we've never met, we slide with familiarity into conversation as I ask him about his life, his career, and his humble beginnings in Erie when he was merely a neighborhood kid learning not to ignore his curiosities and how to recognize when an opportunity was presenting itself.
"I just remember Erie being the gateway," he says, reflecting on his long career in the arts. "It was just incredible."
He's been described as an "artistic polymath" by models.com, someone whose unique skills have "allowed him to work across creative disciplines like ballet, fashion, and rock n' roll." The Wall Street Journal nicknamed him "The Model Whisperer." Just this past year, Wallpaper Magazine included him on a list of people "defining America's creative landscape" by "contributing to the aesthetics of popular culture."
Speaking with him though, Galloway is humble. He clearly enjoys conversation. He listens intently and laughs often. Each time that I bring up one of his accomplishments, he pivots to the people who helped get him there: family, friends, and mentors who influenced, inspired, and encouraged him at different points throughout his life. Despite having worked with the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Mick Jagger, Eddie Murphy, and Naomi Campbell, he not even once namedrops during our conversation — although fortunately, when I do it for him, he's happy to share his memories and experiences.
The conversation frequently returns to his roots. In a 2016 interview with Erie Times-News, his mother, Gwendolyn Galloway, noted how proud she was that anytime her son was interviewed, he made sure to mention his childhood in Erie. Galloway was born in Columbia, Tennessee, but he moved to Erie at a young age when his mother accepted a position as a school teacher. His parents were separated, something his mother viewed as tragic, but she also reflected later in life how the move to Erie changed her son's entire life trajectory.
Galloway stayed close to his Tennessee family. He visited often. His dad, Ronald, was a musician. He's described him as personable and very funny. His Aunt Melba, with whom he was very close, was also a visual artist who traveled the world and disclosed to him the wonders of Soul Train, Prince, and more. "That side of the family was hyper, hyper creative," Galloway says. "There was always music, there was always art. We were also encouraged. We weren't pushed away in any shape or form from that artistic side."
His grandmother and great-grandmother were seamstresses, so the garage was full of their work. Galloway would raid the garage and organize fashion shows with the neighborhood kids for his grandparents to watch.
"I'd dress all the kids up in my grandmother's clothes and we would have fashion shows in the backyard," he says. A cobblestone path served as the runway. He says he ran a tight ship and would get upset if kids showed up late or if they left the cobblestone during the show. "My grandfather and dad used to say, 'You'd be so mean to those kids!' … It's kind of embarrassing and crazy, but it still warms my heart."
Meanwhile, back in Erie, Galloway's introduction to dance was serendipitous. At 10 years old, he began spending a significant amount of time at the Martin Luther King Center, specifically for their Culture House, an artistic space designed for city children. He was initially focused on painting. Dance hadn't crossed his mind. Then one fateful day, the dance program needed a few boys for a short performance at downtown's Perry Square. The role was simple: walk out, lift the girls, and walk off. It was enough for the dance teachers to notice.
"One thing led to the next," he said. Before long, he was excelling as a dancer. He was still dabbling in painting, drawing, photography, ceramics, and acting, but dance, specifically ballet, began to take up more and more of his time.
"I think that really did plant in me this curiosity that I've been able to nurture ever since," he says, adding with a laugh that he was there so much that he might as well have been ordained King of the Culture House. "[The Culture House] provided so many opportunities to so many kids."
These were formative years. He recently reconnected with Marta Peluso, a former photography teacher from the Culture House. Their conversations made him recognize how important those years were, the countless hours spent with all of these incredibly creative and curious young artists, many who had moved from all over the country to teach these neighborhood kids of Erie.
Their wanderlust must have been infectious too. Galloway increasingly had the desire to get out and experience the world. It wasn't about leaving Erie. He loved Erie and had a great childhood. He never found it uninteresting or boring. "I just had such distinct dreams," he explains. "It was like, 'OK, I gotta do whatever it takes to get to these dreams, to get to New York, or to get to Europe, or to get wherever I needed to go to get to that next step."
He emphasizes the trips arranged by the MLK Center. "Those field trips that we used to take, you know, putting 12 neighborhood kids in a van to go to — as exotic as it sounded then — Cleveland for four days, you know what I mean? To see the ballet and museums and to stay in hotels. My first trip to New York City was courtesy of the Culture House and King Center."
As a performer, he danced with the Erie Bayfront Ballet under Charron Battles, Kathleen Green, and Barbara Priestap. Battles immediately noticed how much control he had over his body. She, like many others, knew he was destined for greatness in the dance world. Galloway also began working with Jean Marc and Dafna Baier at Mercyhurst College. In many interviews over the years, Galloway has praised the joy and love that they all led with in their teaching. In a 1993 interview, he noted how these mentors not only instructed him in dance, but also encouraged the curiosity that he now nurtures. He was further also reminded that change is good, not something to be feared.
That change was about to occur for Stephen Galloway.
In the mid-'80s, at age 17 and freshly graduated from Strong Vincent High School, Galloway used an art scholarship to purchase a one-way ticket to Europe. He planned to audition for numerous ballet companies. One of those was Frankfurt Ballet in Germany under American choreographer William Forsythe. In a 2015 interview, Galloway said that he didn't even know who Forsythe was at the time, but he was known as "the bad boy from America who was shaking everything up" with his unique approach to ballet.
Galloway was initially uncertain. At first, Forsythe was rarely even present. Galloway was frustrated and was only going to give it one more day. That next day though, Forsythe arrived, viewed the rehearsal, and asked Galloway to stay afterwards. Soon, he had a contract in hand and was officially the youngest principal dancer in the Frankfurt Ballet. Forsythe quickly became one of his most important mentors and collaborators. In a 1989 profile, Galloway said he connected with the "maverick" choreographer due to both being proponents of "ballet without rules." The two simply clicked. Galloway would dance with the company for the next two decades.
"My work with William Forsythe with the Frankfurt Ballet truly made me the man I am today," Galloway reflects, then adds, "That and my foundations in Erie, Pennsylvania."
Early on, a Frankfurt arts magazine called Galloway "elegant and charismatic." By 1992, he had performed all over Europe and was the company's head costume designer and style coordinator. In 1993, his resume expanded when he was hired as creative director for fashion house Issey Miyake. Soon after that, he began staging runway shows for Versace, Yves Saint Laurent, and Costume National. Then in 1997, The Rolling Stones came knocking. Mick Jagger wanted to hire Galloway as a creative consultant working with him directly on dance moves, staging, and even music videos. He also found the time to record two albums, something he's described as a "very brief (but successful) summer fling" in the German music industry. Eventually, he left the Frankfurt Ballet in 2004, but maintained his connection with Forsythe, his "creative father," as he entered this next phase in his career.
I bring up a recent Instagram post of his. "Everything is an opportunity," it read. That mantra seems to be the trajectory of his entire career, I say.
"I've always had a very strong inner voice, for some bizarre reason, and I do listen to it," he admits. "Of course, at times throughout life, it can become more and more challenging to listen to that as your circle and your work expands and everyone has an opinion on how you should do things." He pauses. "But I've had some of the best teachers and examples placed before me."
I'd watch a Stephen Galloway biopic, I tell him. He's had quite a journey.
"It's been kind of incredible," he acknowledges. He laughs and adds with an air of surprise: "It just keeps getting better too. That's what's so exciting about it. Each year, the world expands and I just keep listening and the universe keeps talking."
This photo, tweeted by music superstar Taylor Swift (pictured center, believe it or not) in February of 2020, shows Stephen Galloway (left) along with Spenser Theberge (right) on the set of her music video for the song "The Man." She tweeted, "Stephen Galloway and Spenser Theberge were my movement coaches and taught me how to smoke, slouch, walk and act like a toxic bro." (Twitter/X)
I bring up Vanity Fair's 2020 Hollywood issue photoshoot for which he was the creative movement director. Just a few of the names involved include Alfre Woodard, Antonio Banderas, Daniel Kaluuya, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Eddie Murphy, Florence Pugh, Jennifer Lopez, Jennifer Hudson, Laura Dern, Renee Zellweger, Taika Waititi, and Willem Dafoe.
"That's one of the highlights," says Galloway. As for Eddie Murphy? "Mr. Murphy is the coolest," he confirms. "He's so smooth."
It's important to note that this particular job — officially called a "creative movement director" — really didn't exist before him. "We kind of came up with it in order to justify my day rate," he says. We both laugh. He's also not really joking either. He credits acclaimed and iconic Dutch fashion photographers Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin for welcoming him into that world. They were already mutual fans of each other's work and when the photographers were hired for a Calvin Klein campaign, they had the idea to work together. Soon, this concept of the creative movement director, someone who could work in tandem with the photographers and the models, was born.
"Now, it's incredible, it's everywhere," he explains. At first, he just used the term choreographer, but producers wondered why a choreographer was needed for a still photoshoot. But Galloway would show up, they'd see what he brought to the table, and they'd understand. The title change made it easier for people to grasp his role. "What I do as a movement director is much more nuanced," he adds. Movement, he believes, is itself a form of communication. While every individual has a physical vocabulary, there is also the need for play and improvisation. The nuance is about capturing the snapshot of a moment that will never be replicated.
He's since acted as creative movement director for Miley Cyrus, collaborating on music videos such as "Flowers," "River," and "Jaded." He described her to Billboard Magazine as endlessly curious, incredibly bright, and someone who is always questioning. He's collaborated on photoshoots, advertisement campaigns, videos, and other creative ventures with artists as wide-ranging as Adriana Lima, Björk, Elle Fanning, Elton John, Emma Stone, Erika Alexander, Gisele Bündchen, Issa Rae, Kate Moss, Lady Gaga, Lil Nas X, Lupita Nyong'o, Monica Bellucci, Rihanna, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Zendaya.
Before long, he was involved in so many projects that there simply weren't enough hours in the day. While working on the music video for Taylor Swift's "The Man," for instance, he collaborated with Spenser Theberge for the movements. In the video, Swift portrays a man, a full beard and muscle suit included, so nailing the mannerisms was important. "I was so stoked to have a movement coach help me with things," Swift later said, adding in a tweet: "Stephen Galloway and Spenser Theberge … taught me how to smoke, slouch, walk and act like a toxic bro."
As the demand of creative movement directors increases across industries, Galloway finds himself mentoring more and more "acolytes," as he calls them, who understand the nuances of the job. He also notes that, if he and they do their job well, nobody should even notice them in the final product. The movements should be seamless and refined. "Some of my favorite images or favorite videos are when you don't even know I'm there," he says.
I bring up a video that I saw of him directing Oprah Winfrey and Gayle King. He recalled running into Winfrey later at a gala. "We didn't even know that job was in existence," she told him. She asked for his business card and was shocked when he didn't have any.
"Don't you know, the next week on Monday I had business cards made up immediately," he jokes. "When Oprah Winfrey asks for your business card and you don't have one, something's wrong."
I say that I'm not one to get starstruck, but I imagine that I just might if Oprah Winfrey was asking for my business card.
"I say this in the most honest way possible, we're all just trying to do a job," explains Galloway. "I think some of the reasons I'm hired are because of what I can do and what I can give, but I also think I have continued relationships with my clients and companies because I don't get starstruck."
At this point in our conversation, he gets a push notification on his phone: Broadway icon Chita Rivera died. Once I process what he said, it shifts the conversation. Hilton Battles, the original Scarecrow on Broadway's The Whiz, had died the previous night too, he says. So many of these communities are connected, he continues, and it can be intense and overwhelming when you hear about so many deaths across the industries, especially when the news comes at you so abruptly on a device.
"When people die, it gives me an immediate confirmation about how important it is to actually live," he reflects. "Whenever I think about this, it's nothing but a reaffirmation about how important it is to continue to make the best of this life that we're living right now."
It's been a challenging few years in that regard. His mother Gwendolyn passed away in 2017. His father, Ronald, passed away in November. At one point during our conversation, he says he's looking at a photograph of dad. They look a lot alike, he says.
"The older you get — and I'm about to turn 56 this year — the more you are able to make it a habit to not look over your shoulder. I'm always just looking forward," he continues. "I always say, I'm closer to 100 than I am to zero. It's always important to look at those things [from our past], but it's more important to look forward. But there's a joy in glancing quickly over your shoulder, because often you learn so much about where you want to go by looking where you came from."
Galloway still gets back to Erie and Tennessee when he can. His younger sister Lenita lives in Tennessee and his younger brother Scot is in Erie. This past October, he was invited to speak at the Community Health Net gala in Erie, where his mother was honored. After teaching, his mother was employed there as the director of administrative services.
Since 2018, he's been living full-time in Los Angeles. Before that, he was bouncing back and forth between Los Angeles and Germany. His Aunt Melba was living there and they'd discussed it many times. Sadly, she too passed away shortly after he moved.
"I just fell in love with the city," he says. "I was always coming here for work. Everybody loves to shoot in L.A., so I was here quite a bit. Every time [that I visited] I was like, 'this is so magical.'"
As I reflect on our conversation, I'm reminded of something he told Dance Magazine. "Always ask questions. Know everything and nothing at the same time," he'd said. "That's where my happy spot is: right in the middle."
All these years later, he's still driven by that curiosity. He still knows when an opportunity has presented itself too, whether it's choreographing a rock ballet set to The Rolling Stones for the Boston Ballet (the first and only of its kind), on set for a music video shoot, or, as he did for the recent Grammy Awards, working with Miley Cyrus on her live performance of "Flowers." This act, as fate would have it, had even Oprah Winfrey out of her seat and singing along.
"Things happen the way they're supposed to," believes Galloway. "If you listen to yourself and your heart, it leads you in the direction of where you're supposed to be."
Stephen Galloway, it seems, is exactly where he's supposed to be.
Jonathan Burdick runs the public history project Rust & Dirt. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org