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They say that in the hierarchy of the entertainment business, dancers get stuck in the shadows. Earlier in his career, Harry Shum Jr. didn't do much to dispel the notion—he literally was a shadow, a free-stylin', headphone-wearing silhouette in those manic iPod commercials. But the 29-year-old Costa Rica native has become much more than an amorphous shape against a neon backdrop. On FOX's pop-culture phenomenon Glee, Shum plays dance wonder boy Mike Chang, a.k.a. "The Other Asian," whose insane, joint-defying moves warrant their own solo numbers and whose even-more-insane abdominals have inspired their own Tumblr blog, Fuck Yeah Mike Chang's Abs. (Really.)
He catches his breath as he chats by phone during a short rehearsal break in Las Vegas, where the cast kicked off "Glee Live! In Concert!" The exclamation-point-worthy summer tour reinvents Glee's most memorable covers ("My Life Would Suck Without You," "It's My Life," and the show's anthem, "Don't Stop Believin'") for squealing mobs of proud Gleeks and those they dragged with them. "I believe it's one of the hardest jobs," Shum says of dancing, still panting away. "You're using your whole body, throwing it around, expressing yourself. Dance is musical comedy. It's storytelling. There's so much about dance that people don't see or understand."
At first, Shum didn't really understand it either. He just did it, mirroring the fancy footwork in hip-hop videos such as Aaliyah's "Are You That Somebody?" and Usher's "You Make Me Wanna" and joining the dance team at his high school in San Luis Obispo because it seemed cool. He went on to study acting, and in 2001, he moved to Los Angeles and snagged roles in dance-centric films such as You Got Served, Stomp the Yard, High School Musical 2: Dance Along and Step Up 3D, along with the coveted gig of dancing on Beyoncé's tour with Missy Elliott and Alicia Keys. All the while, without any formal dance training, he armed himself with a fake-it-till-you-make-it mentality.
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"I had no clue what people were telling me to do," he recalls. "Even simple things like a pirouette or a pas de bourrée—I'm like, 'What is that?' But I'm a good mimicker. First and foremost, I'm an actor. And when I'm under pressure, I'll do anything I can to get it right. I'm not afraid to look like an idiot. My philosophy is that I'll suck until I'm good at it."
During the first season of Glee, Shum was brought in for a one-time role, playing a high-school football player who happened to be able to spin through the air with beautifully pointed toes. He thought that was it for his Glee career, but then his manager called and told him to go back the next week, and then the week after that. It's now been two years.
Mike Chang fits in quite well with New Directions, the school's drama-filled glee club made of misfits (and some ulterior-motivated cool kids) who routinely get slushied in the face in the campus halls. He's starred in some awe-inspiring numbers, such a tap duet with his onscreen girlfriend, Tina Cohen-Chang (Jenna Ushkowitz) ("That was hard, so hard—I've never tap danced in my life," Shum says), and a tripped-out dream escapade with glee-club coach Will Schuester (OC's Matthew Morrison). His biggest breakthrough came this season with his lyrical dance solo to Jack Johnson's "Bubble Toes." The song choice and most of the choreography were his own. "I've loved that song for so long and always wanted to do something with it," Shum says. "Yes, it's a mellow Jack Johnson song, but the drums and the guitar are so great and no one would expect you to dance to it. But I feel that you can dance to anything. Dance is what music looks like."
Of Mike Chang, Shum adds, "I hope to see more of how he functions in his life outside of school and learn more about him. We've seen a bit of his relationship and how he stands up for his friends. But I'd love to have it dive deeper. There's definitely room to grow."
Opening for "Glee Live! In Concert!" is the LXD (The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers), one of Shum's other projects. The brainchild of director/filmmaker Jon M. Chu (Step Up 2: The Streets, Step Up 3D), it's a viral web series that depicts dancers as superheroes squaring off in an epic battle. Shum served as artistic director for the concert opener, which incorporates all forms of the art, from ballet to krumping.
"Usually, dancers are in the background and don't get the spotlight," he says. "I'm so happy and thankful that I get to help bring it to the forefront."
This article appeared in print as "On the Good Foot: AsGlee's poppin'-and'-lockin' 'Other Asian,' Harry Shum has stepped out of the shadows."