How did you start dancing?
When I was in show choir in high school my junior year, I saw somebody doing a time step next to me. I thought, “What on earth is that?” At that point I had seen tap on movies and other things, but I never thought that it was anything I would be able to do. A lot of the tap that I had seen in movies were by people who didn’t look like me—like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, and I didn’t think that it was anything that I was going to be able to do then. So when I actually saw somebody doing a time step, it really opened my eyes. It was awesome to see how they were making rhythms and making sounds with their feet. So I started taking dance with my sisters’ dance teacher back when they used to dance. I told the teacher that I had learned this brand new step—a single time-step. She said, “Oh, that’s great—let’s actually work on it so that it’s good” [laughs]. And then I just became obsessed with it.
Tap was definitely what brought me into this performing arts world. I have no idea where I would be if it was not for tap right now.
Have you always wanted to be a performer?
I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was lost a little bit. I didn’t know what I wanted to go to school for or anything like that. But my mother—she was this force. She knew that there was something inside of me that wanted to perform even if I didn’t know that I wanted to. So she went and looked at all of these different schools and signed me up for all these classes and auditions. I auditioned for OCU and ended up going there. At one point, I thought about being a lawyer, but that is not in my personality [laughs]. But I actually thought about being a family therapist at one point.
What are you up to now?
I am in a show called Shuffle Along. We opened about a month ago. We’re currently gearing up for the Tonys. These past two years have been completely crazy. I did On the Twentieth Century last year, and while I was performing On the Twentieth Century, I did labs of Shuffle Along during the day and a show called Top Hat during the day as well. Before that, I had no money; I had just been dropped by my agent; I had a big job coming up—a movie called Broadway 4D, and all of a sudden it just crumbled. Nobody knows what happened, but I was really excited to work on it, and it fell through. I had nothing. I was working every single side job I possibly could. And then On the Twentieth Century happened.
When did you first move to New York City?
It was September 2008.
Did you move straight to New York after college?
After college, I stayed in Oklahoma to teach. From there, I came to New York for spring break and got the tour of 42nd Street with Troika. When I finished the tour, I moved to the city. I think 42nd Street was my first audition in New York. I was so terrified. At the time, I was potentially going to apprentice with a tap company in Texas, but when this tour came up, I knew that I wanted to tour. My dad also said, “You’re doing that” [laughs]. The tour was amazing. I learned so much about myself. I grew up on that tour, and getting to do Randy Skinner’s choreography everyday was amazing.
What was your first move to New York like?
I ended up staying with a family that I knew from Oklahoma. They moved to New York as well because all of them are actors. So when I first moved here, I was living with a family. It was beautiful.
One of the things I struggled with in the beginning was having no idea where anything was. My friends will tell you I have the worst sense of direction. I always have to have a map on me at all times. Now I know where everything is, but I was always going to the wrong place all the time. I was late to things all the time because I had no idea where my bearings were. That was the biggest thing for me.
It’s been quite a journey for you.
Yeah, it has. The interesting thing is when I start to talk about what I experienced in this business, there are so many other people who have that exact same things that you can relate to. Once you start opening up about it, people can relate to it.
What are your aspirations?
Right now, I am just so happy to be in the show that I am in and to be around all the people I am with. I am so happy at this moment in my life. I am looking forward to working more on taking more active roles in shows and working towards—obviously I love dancing—but more acting and singing roles. From the way that I look and in my skill set, a lot of times I don’t fit into many principal roles. So I am trying to figure out where I fit and either finding it or carving a way for myself. One thing that Billy Porter has talked about many times when he created his one man show—he said that a lot of times nobody will know where to put you. If you don’t stand up and make a space for yourself, a lot of times your talent could go unseen.
Broadway is evolving right now, and it’s beautiful. There’s so much more diversity in shows. That’s the thing I am excited about and am looking forward to. The fact that there are this many African American people on Broadway stages right now kind of blows me away. There’s a place for us. There are multiple shows with people of color such as On Your Feet!, Hamilton, and even though it didn’t last, Allegiance told a story that so many people have completely forgotten but is a part of Asian American history. I think that’s really important because it showed that all different types of people can exist on Broadway. There’s no one Broadway cookie cutter thing anymore. It can be anything.
Could you tell me a little bit about Shuffle Along?
Shuffle Along at first was a revival, but now it’s a new musical. In 1921, Shuffle Along became one of the first all black-helmed shows. One of the things that made the show really special is that it told a love story between two African American people and them actually embracing each other, which was something so tabooed and so forbidden.
Also, many people know the chorus of dancing women as a common thing in shows, but Shuffle Along was the first one to really showcase female dancers—especially women of color. Once people saw how good they were, they had those female dancers teach performers in other shows how to dance. It became this huge phenomenon. It showed producers that they could make a lot of money off of “colored” shows, and it became a standard for a lot of shows that we now have today. Things like Dreamgirls, Showboat, My Magnolia, Big River—all these different shows might not have existed if people didn’t know that they could make money off of African American shows.
Shuffle Along was also the first show to incorporate syncopation and jazz music to a Broadway stage. Most of the time it had been either marches or arias on Broadway. People loved it so much because it was something people had never seen before. Since then, people have copied it and turned it into different things. Basically, what we’re doing now in the show is telling what happened before and what happened after—how these characters came together and sadly, how they all came apart towards the end.
What’s been the toughest time you’ve gone through in your performing career?
I took a break a little bit from performing because my mother was very ill. I had other jobs, but I just had to go home and be with her. I am happy that I did because she ended up passing away. I just didn’t care about missing out on work. I wanted to go home. After she passed, I didn’t have that much love for performing anymore because performing reminded me of her. She was there at every show that I had ever done (besides the one in China). She came to everything—same with my dad. He still comes to everything now. But yeah, I took a break.
That really made me fall out of love with performing. She was always the person I thought about when I was performing. It’s just hard once you feel like you don’t have that love for performing. Then going on stage feels very strange. It feels almost foreign. But getting that back has been such a gift. I am happy that I stuck with it.
One of the things that helped me get it back was having people around me who are so dedicated to honing their craft. Some of my friends like Vasthy Mompoint, who got the gypsy robe for Soul Doctor a couple years ago, and Drew King, who was one of the Porters with me on On the Twentieth Century, they were always in class. Any time something is going wrong in their lives, they’re in class. They’re focused, and I think having people like that around me helped me. For every bad situation, the solution was always going to class. When I was at my low, I knew that I can either be sad about everything or keep working harder. If you keep working harder, it’s going to work out.
One of the happiest time for me was when I was doing all the labs during the day from 10-6 and then doing the show in the evening. Even on two show days, I would do rehearsal, show, go back to rehearsal, dinner break, then do a show. I had no social life. I was barely getting any sleep, but I was so happy because I was working with people and working on things I really cared about. And then, after that, you should know when to take a break. I just completely broke down. Once On the Twentieth Century ended, I just didn’t do anything for two whole weeks. I was exhausted.
Number one advice?
Surround yourself with people that will be able to uplift you and also tell you, “Yo bro, you need to get in class” or “Why don’t we take this class together?” I know some people that are very much loners, and I can’t do that anymore. I don’t constantly need to be around people, but just surround yourself with positive influences on your life. And then take it easy. Everybody is going through some bad time. Just relax. Push through it and keep going. I don’t even know how many times my friends have been dropped by agents. Every time a friend gets dropped by an agent, they get a show right afterwards. It’s all good. Do whatever you need to do to relax. Just chill out. Everything will end up the way it’s supposed to as long as you really focus on what you’re passionate about. Something will happen.
Is there any last thing you want to share with the world?
One thought that I have is that I hope Shuffle Along re-energizes tap on Broadway. There are so many fantastic shows that have come through—I was actually just talking to Savion Glover about this, and he believes it as well—but I don’t think tap hasn’t really gotten the amount of respect that it should. Tap is just as a technical art form as ballet, modern, jazz with just as much difficulty. But for some reason, people haven’t given it the same amount of excitement that it deserves. I think things are happening—with Michelle Dorrance and everything she’s doing right now—I mean, she’s literally a genius right now. I think that tap is coming to a really great place, and I am hoping that people really look towards this show not just for our sake but for the sake of tap on Broadway and say that tap can tell a story. Tap isn’t just about spicing up a show, rattling, or anything like that. Tap can really tell a story if it’s done correctly. I hope to share that with everyone.