NEW YORK — It's an unspoken rule that dancers pass on what they know, a show-biz commandment Ann Reinking has followed — feet first.
Reinking, who in the 1970s helped define what dancing on Broadway was all about, jumped into choreography 14 years ago at the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts.
Actually, she was pushed by the summer theater's persuasive artistic director, Nikos Psacharopoulos. "You just didn't say no," Reinking recalls now, mimicking his order to create the dances for a little musical about first lady Eleanor Roosevelt called "Eleanor."
"Somehow I had learned a craft throughout the years, and when Nikos said, 'Do this,' I did 17 numbers in one week. It was a surprise."
This summer, she is back at Williamstown, her fifth season there, not only making actors dance but directing them in a rare revival of three one-act plays by Noel Coward — "Red Peppers," "Star Chamber" and "Shadowland," that go under the umbrella title of "Tonight at 8:30."
This is Reinking's first opportunity to direct plays. Her stars are clown supreme Bill Irwin, dancer Charlotte d'Amboise and Terrence Mann, veteran musical comedy star and husband of d'Amboise.
"I've loved Noel Coward all my life," Reinking says. "One of my audition songs was 'Someday I'll Find You.' These plays are like three-penny valentines — sweet, melancholy and dear. They illustrate Mr. Coward's character."
At 50, Reinking is at a point in her life where she can be selective, choosing jobs that don't keep her away from her 10-year-old son.
"It's lucky because I am at the end of my career as a dancer — well, as a certain type of dancer," she says with her signature throaty laugh. "You can always schmooze on stage — stylish walking."
What gave Reinking the freedom was the Kander and Ebb musical "Chicago," first done in a concert version at City Center's "Encores" series in 1996 and then moved to Broadway, where it is still running.
Reinking co-starred in the production, along with Bebe Neuwirth, and created the choreography "in the style of Bob Fosse," the show's original director and choreographer.
The musical turned out to be something of a growth industry for Reinking. She got to replicate its choreography in productions all over the world — England, Australia, Austria, Sweden, the Netherlands and elsewhere.
Two years later, she co-directed "Fosse," a salute to the man who had the largest influence, both professionally and personally, on her life.
Reinking's career began in Seattle, where she grew up. In the beginning, she wanted to be a ballet dancer, "Like all girls," she says. As a student, she won a scholarship in San Francisco with the Joffrey Ballet, but at many of the students' after-hours improvs, she would just sing and not dance.
Robert Joffrey said that with her outgoing personality and other abilities, she should pursue musical theater. "I waited tables to save up enough money to get here," she says of New York City, where she arrived with a roundtrip ticket back to Seattle and $500. She didn't go back.
"You wouldn't get into this if you had a guarantee. People who get into this have a certain sense of the high stakes," she says. "You need the break and when you get it, you'd better be ready for it."
Reinking's break was strung out over several shows. It began in 1972 in the chorus of "Pippin" and its director and choreographer, Bob Fosse.
"He utilized the chorus in such a way that we did all the backup singing, all the small parts and, obviously, most of the dancing."
The ensemble was so small — there were only eight — that the dancers were really seen.
Choreographer Pat Birch was one who noticed and in 1974 put her in "Over Here," a World War II musical starring two of the three Andrews Sisters and featuring another unknown, John Travolta.
It led to a starring role in "Goodtime Charley," a musical about Joan of Arc opposite Joel Grey. The musical was not a success, but it did make theatergoers look at Reinking as a principal performer and not just a member of the chorus.
Her other big break, she says, was in 1978 in "Dancin"' — "because I realized you had to be in an original part and that show has to be a hit." It was, running more than three years.
Reinking also gained experience — and stayed in shape — by replacing stars in hit shows: Donna McKechnie in "A Chorus Line," Gwen Verdon in Fosse's original "Chicago" and Debbie Allen in the 1986 revival of "Sweet Charity."
And she embarked on an eclectic film career — from Fosse's "All That Jazz," in which she was Roy Scheider's lover, to the screen version of "Annie" to Blake Edwards' "Micki and Maude."
"If there is a heaven, I think Bob can look down and be satisfied. He really did have an exponential effect on the next generation of choreographers and dancers," Reinking says.
"He demanded the best from you and you wanted to give it. So you got better. All great directors — however, they do it — make you want to be good.
"I hope I do it. It's like being a parent, a psychiatrist, a disciplinarian and a friend. You really have to know when to hold them and when to show them."
After "Eleanor," offers to choreograph "kept falling in my lap," Reinking says. She created dances for a revival of "Pal Joey" at Chicago's Goodman Theater and a pre-Encores "Chicago" in Long Beach, Calif., with Neuwirth and Juliet Prowse.
She also spends time on the Broadway Theater Project, based in Tampa, Fla., which works with young people between the ages of 14 and 22 who are preparing for a life in the theater.