How did you start dancing?
I started dancing when I was two. I pretty much always had a knack for it. I literally came out of my mom’s stomach, dancing [laughs]. She was like, “We’re going to put her in dance classes.” I started dance in Philadelphia, where I was born, at a little studio. I just remember being at recitals, and my mom was like, “You’re the only one dancing. You’re two years old, and you’re the only one dancing.” I would be front and center with a big personality and a big smile, doing all the moves. She said, “You never had to look at the teachers. Never. You always knew what you were doing.” It just stuck with me. Now 22 years later, I am still dancing.
I started going to PHILADANCO, a prestigious dance company in Philly, when I was five. I took classes at their studio. I took everything there--jazz, tap, ballet, hip-hop. And my brother took classes with me. The atmosphere was very professional there. They teach a very strict curriculum. You wear ballet tights and black leotard for ballet. You’re in class. There is no non-sense. You’re there to learn how to dance.
How was the transition from Philadelphia to New York?
My family actually moved from Philadelphia to Delaware when I was 11. We moved because it wasn’t getting nice in Philadelphia. There was a lot of crime and a lot of gun violence. My cousin was actually murdered in Philadelphia. That was a time where it was like, “It’s time to move.” My family wanted to have a better life, and my parents wanted to get better education for us. We went from living across from the projects to beautiful Delaware, where there are cows, trees, and grass everywhere. It was a complete difference. I was used to the city, but I loved being in the country. I loved being in the suburbs. I knew it was a better life for us, and we got better education. I lived in Delaware for about 14 years.
I was deciding what college I wanted to go to, and I was going back and forth on whether I wanted to become a heart surgeon or a dancer. I laugh at that because my heart was saying that I wanted to dance. But I also wanted to have that security--because nobody in my family is a dancer. I was going into this completely different path where you don’t know if you’re going to be making money or not. I was going back and forth for a short period of time. My parents contemplated if they wanted me to go to school for dance and said, “We need to let her do what she’s gonna to do because she’s going to shine. If she’s focused, just like any other career, she’s going to do well.” So I applied to a bunch of different colleges.
It just so happened that I applied to Temple University in Philly and University of the Arts. I had two auditions there. My teacher always told me that your audition is what your four years are going to be. If you go to a school and your audition sucks, you don’t want to go to that school because your four years will suck. I had my auditions at U of Arts and Temple, and they were both great, but Temple just stood out to me. I knew my four years would be great. I ended up back in Philly where I didn’t really think I’d be back in. It was great. I had family there that’s close to me. I had so much fun at Temple. I wouldn’t have picked anywhere else. It was good being in a city again. I learned how to be in a city. When I transferred to New York, I knew how to live and was not scared to be out here..
I feel like a lot of people dance throughout high school, and they don’t really know what the life is like as a professional dancer, so they choose a different route. What was the big thing that made you choose dance, although you didn’t have people in your family who performed professionally?
When I was in high school, I did a lot of musical theatre and a lot of singing. I also took dance classes at a studio in Delaware. I didn’t necessarily know that I wanted to be a performer at that point. I think I was just doing it because I loved it. I didn’t see myself doing anything else as far as extracurricular activities. I played basketball, football, and soccer. My parents put me in everything. What stuck to me the most was dance. After high school, when I started applying for colleges, it was just something I knew I was good at. And you have to know that you want to work for it. If you’re not going to work for it, there’s no point in getting into this career. It’s just like every other career.
I am already used to starting at the bottom of the totem pole and working my way up. I’ve always had to do that since I was little. I’ve always been the only black girl in the studio, or the only black girl at this dance company, or the only black girl at competitions. I was always the girl that had to prove herself on why she was good. It was no hesitation to me that once I decided to be a dancer and be in this world, I knew I was going to work my butt off to get where I wanted to be. I always had that drive and ambition.
That’s why my parents were not scared for me. They knew that they raised a girl who was going to go for her dreams. My parents are go-getters themselves. My entire family are go-getters. My family makes a lot of money [laughs]. I can’t even put it lightly. They’re very successful. They came from being poor and having no money to coming up and being successful. I’ve already had that ingrained in my DNA. That’s when the fear went away, and I wanted to be a dancer. I didn’t need to think about anything else. Will Smith has this saying--he doesn’t have a plan B, because he won’t focus on his plan A. That’s something I follow. I can’t have a plan B. My plan B can’t be a heart surgeon, because I am not going to focus on being a dancer. I need to focus on something first and go from there and see where it takes me.
So it was really your parents--what you’ve seen from your parents--that made you realize that you can make something happen out of nothing.
Absolutely. I wouldn’t even say just my parents. Everybody in my family. Everybody in my family is from Philadelphia. I didn’t really see the changes in the city, but my parents saw the changes--what it’s like living there when you’re younger and growing up there and the hardships that you have to go through. My parents have seen a lot of people come and go. They didn’t want that for them, and they didn’t want that for us. I’ve had a great support system, and I am very, very, very blessed to have the family that I have.
How long have you been in the city?
I’ve only been in the city for three months. As I graduated from Temple, I worked at an arts camp in Maine for three months, and I came back to Delaware. I was searching for auditions on websites, just coming out to the city and commuting back and forth from Delaware. I used to take the Greyhound bus first. My typical day would start at 4am on the Greyhound bus--I am not joking--I would get up at 3 o’clock in the morning, and I will go to the Greyhound bus at 4, and I would take the bus to get here at about 7:45, so when the doors open at Ripley and Pearl at 8, my name can be first on the list and make sure that I am in and out, because then I would have to get back on the bus. I never bought round trip tickets because I never knew how long the process was going to be. If you don’t buy a roundtrip ticket, that means your tickets are going to be more expensive, but I didn’t care. I would come up do my auditions, and later on that night, because I didn’t know anybody in the city yet, I would go home. I didn’t get home until 10pm. After making dinner, I would go to sleep around 11 or 12. Then I would be back up at 3 o’clock in the morning and catch the bus again.
How often did you do that?
Five times a week, for three months. I wanted to do this. Nothing was going to stop me. When Greyhound started not arriving on time, it was the worst. My mom would help me get on Amtrak trains--Greyhound cost $10 and Amtrak cost $82. I was spending close to $500 a week to come to the city to audition. That’s when I booked my first tour. I was like, “Halle-freakin-lujah [laughs].” It all paid off. It was a show that I didn’t think I was going to do at first. I wasn’t sure if I was going to take the opportunity. My parents were like, “You’re going to take this opportunity. You’re going to take this now [laughs].”
The first show I ended up doing was Sid the Science Kid Live. It was Jim Henson show. I was in full-body costume. I did that for 8 months. John Tartaglia was my director--from Avenue Q. Shannon Lewis, who was in the original Broadway cast of Fosse, she was my choreographer. My parents were just like, “It’s going to be something different, but this is going to be your step in the door.”
I came back to Delaware, spending time with my family after the tour. I started commuting back and forth into the city again. I had a lot of money saved up from the tour, and it was all gone because I was commuting. I made the decision to move to New York. I came home one day and told my parents that I was going to move to New York. My parents asked me how I was going to move. I asked one of my friends at the audition if they were looking for a sublet, and they found somebody and got me in. I was there on Friday, and I moved in on Monday. All I had in my bag was air mattress, some food, two suitcase, and a backpack. That’s when I ended up moving over here to 147th. My roommates are a blessing. They’re great girls. They just saw me in my room, my little corner with my air mattress, sleeping and just getting up to go to auditions. I didn’t care about my body. I didn’t care how I was feeling. I knew I was going to get up and go to auditions.
In your experience, what’s it like being a minority performer?
I always feel like, as African-American dancers, we always have something to prove. We can dance, and we can look elegant. We can be in certain time periods, even though it might not have been the reality--but we can still fit in, unless there’s a story that separates races. Of course, if you’re doing Memphis, you’re going to do African-American roles. But there’s no reason why I can’t be in Thoroughly Modern Millie. There’s no reason why I can’t be in Hello, Dolly!. I am just trying to prove to them that I can do that stuff.
I think it’s very different for me being a African-American dancer in this business. There’s not that many of us. There’s a sense of community in African-American cast because we’re all trying to work. We all want to see each other being successful. it’s just beautiful when you see black dancers get together. It’s a beautiful moment. But I’ve met some great dancers out there who are white, Asian, Latina, and they’re all amazing. I get my energy from them in the room. If I see them being fierce, I am going to be just as fierce as them. In my eyes, it doesn’t have anything to do with race, but to producer’s eyes or choreographer’s eyes, to director’s eyes, it does. There is a stereotype in this industry, and we have to live with it. I am not giving up. I love what I do. I am going to be on a stage with everybody else. I’ve been on that stage with everybody else. I was a black girl and was on West Side Story, and I am getting ready to do it again.
Is there anything you’d like to share with the world?
Anybody can do this. You just have to find the fire within you to be able to do it. I find that with a lot of people who want to get out here and be in the dance world, there’s a lot of fear. There’s a lot of intimidation. To any dancers that feel as though they can’t do this, you can. The tools and the resources are out there. I can’t stress how many times younger dancers have come up to me and asked me how I do this. My answer is, “I look up auditions, get on a bus, and go to an audition. You can do it too. I don’t know what else you want me to tell you.” I hate to be so blunt about it, but it’s the truth. Everyone goes to the auditions the same way I go to auditions. There’s nothing different.
For African-American dancers, there’s a place for us out there in this industry. I am very blessed to have gone to auditions and have people see something in me. I am a performer, and I’ve always been a performer. Even if I go to a room, and I mess up a technique, I’ll perform and show you a smile. That’s what people like to see. That’s what directors and choreographers like to see--your personality. I’ve had auditions where I messed up bad, but still got to final callbacks.
Remember what we love to do and remember why we’re here. Just keep that same strength throughout everything that you do. Don’t stress about things that are not coming to you. When one door closes another door opens. That is the truth. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stressed about a job and wanted this job so badly, and I don’t book. But the minute that I stop stressing, I start booking. That’s how I am going to live my life here in the city. I’m gonna go in there, and I’m gonna do me. People are going to like me if they like me, and if they’re not going to like me, it is what it is. You go on to another audition. There are thousands of auditions. It’s not the end of the world. Keep going. Keep pushing. When we watch the Tonys, and they go up on that stage and say anybody can do it, they’re telling the truth. They were here at this point. Everybody has their own story, and everybody has their own side of the story. It’s about your progress and your process to get there. Don’t compare yourself to anybody else. Do you. Stay true to who you are. That’s what I do everyday of my life. I stay true to who I am.