How did you start dancing?
Honestly, I don’t know how to answer that question. I just knew that ever since I was little I would hear music, and I would move. Back in the day before all this technology, I would put the VHS in the video recorder and videotape all the music videos. I knew that I could mimic or copy what I saw on screen. I didn’t really have the technical vocabulary—I just knew I could do it. I would do talent shows at school, and it wasn’t until I was 18 going on 19 that I moved to New York and attended Fashion Institute of Technology. I decided to take classes at Broadway Dance Center—classes like beginner ballet and beginner jazz. That’s when I really started to love dance. My eyes were opened up. I thought to myself, maybe this is a possibility. I think you can ask any dancer—you just know.
Where are you from originally?
I am from Hartford, CT.
What made you move to New York City?
I just wanted to leave Hartford, CT [laughs]. We have family in Brooklyn, so we spent so much time in New York. New York honestly felt like home to me. There was no question about where I wanted to go after high school. I didn’t know what I wanted to do or why I wanted to be in New York, but I just knew that every time I came here, it felt like home. Not to say that I knew I was going to go to New York and be a dancer. Honestly, I didn’t. I just knew that I needed to be here. Whatever that was calling me, it was here.
It’s almost like you found what you wanted to do by just coming to New York.
Yeah, and in New York, you’re just surrounded by artists. In college, I was working at Banana Republic, and everyone who worked there was either an actor, a dancer, or a singer. You’re constantly surrounded by them. That sparked something in me. I would ask questions—when I was working there, I had good friends who danced for Dance Theatre of Harlem and who were going to Tisch. It opened up a whole new world that I didn’t even know it existed.
You gained new perspective by meeting new people.
What was the initial motivation that took you to your first dance class at Broadway Dance Center?
I asked my friend Lisa, “If I wanted to learn how to dance, where should I go?” That’s when she told me about BDC. I took my first beginner ballet class there. At the time, when it was actually on Broadway with the spiral staircases, there was something about that location. Maybe it was because it was my first time ever being in the building, but there was something nostalgic about that building. I got out of my ballet class, and across from that studio was Cecilia Martha’s class. I remember looking in the window and seeing all the dancers going across the floor. When I saw them, I couldn’t really hear what she was saying, but everyone was smiling, and they looked so free. I literally thought to myself, “I want to feel that way one day.” I remember that particular feeling very vividly. I said, “One day, that’s how I want to feel.”
When you first took those classes, did you know that you wanted to do this for life?
I was thinking, “Jess, what the hell are you doing?” Everything was so new to me. I was in class with girls who had been dancing their whole lives. It was second nature to them. I was struggling. I would cry every night, call my mom, and she’d tell me to come back home, and I’d be like, “No, I am not coming back home.” Crying to myself because I thought, when will it ever get to a point where this is going to feel easy? Every time I went to class, it was a struggle. Not only was the vocabulary new to me, the movement was new to me. Everything just felt so foreign mentally and physically. But at the same time when I finally got something, the feeling was like no other. To someone else who have been dancing their whole life it was probably nothing, but to me, I don’t even know how to explain it. It was amazing. It definitely wasn’t easy. It was a struggle.
Within that struggle and going through all of that, I am so appreciative of all the blessings that have come my way because I didn’t just step into the room and get it. I worked so hard for every big and little job that I’ve worked. So I never take anything for granted. Because it took a lot of money, sweat, blood, tears—everything.
I think it’s really cool that you started late—a lot of people who started early don’t remember the struggle they had to go through to get to the level they are at now.
There were moments where I thought to myself, “I am too old. All these girls are so ahead of me. What am I thinking? Am I ever going to make money doing this?” But then the thought of doing something else wasn’t an option. So I said to myself, “Alright, Jess. if this is what you want to do, you’ve just got to stick to it and keep pushing.”
When was the moment that you turned professional?
When I started to dance, I was going to FIT at the time and taking open classes at BDC. My friend Lisa saw me in class, and she said that I had really good lines and that I should audition for the Alvin Ailey summer intensive. I said, “Are you crazy? Are you nuts? I just started this.” She told me that I just needed to audition and that they’d put me into the level I needed to be in. She thought I’d get in.
I auditioned and got in—obviously in all the beginner levels. Once I did that summer intensive, that sealed it for me. Dancing 8 hours a day, and yeah, I was struggling, but it fulfilled something in me that I had never felt before. That’s when I knew this is what I wanted to do. After that summer, I was taking dance classes in the morning through an independent study program at Alvin Ailey and then going to FIT during the day, and then dance classes at night again at Ailey. I did the summer intensives every summer then and did the certificate program at Ailey.
I told my mother that I wanted to be a dancer, and she thought I was crazy. She was like, “What are you talking about? How are you going to make money?” I was like, “I don’t know, but this is what I want to do. I need your support.” She said I was too old—everyone starts when they’re so much younger. I didn’t care because it was what I wanted to do. Obviously she was being a mom and being concerned, but I knew in my heart that dance is what I want to do. So I did the certificate program.
In my last year at Ailey, I auditioned for the Knicks City Dancers. I didn’t get it initially, but half way through the season I got in. That was when I realized you could make money doing this. I started to meet other women in the industry and that just opened up doors. This was before there were agencies for the commercial dance industry in New York. Of course there were agents for musical theatre, but the industry I ended up being in, there were no agents. The dancers were their own agents. When I started working, I was going to the record labels and dealing with A&Rs, and getting my check. There was no middle person to deal with all the negotiations. It didn’t come until much later. That was my first experience realizing that you could make a living through dance.
Obviously as artists, we’re always about the art. We don’t realize what we do—we have a career. We can make money doing this. A lot of money if we’re smart about it. I realized that after working for years. People ask me what I do, and I say, “I am a dancer.” They say, “Oh no, but really what do you do?” And I reply, “No, I’m a dancer.”
I think everyone has that conversation at least once [laughs]. So what was the moment that made you feel like you were making a living as a professional dancer?
One time was when I auditioned for Honey. It was right after 9/11. I had just finished the tour with 98 Degrees [laughs]. I was out of town when 9/11 happened. I went home to my mom’s house in Connecticut. I came back to New York to audition for Honey. My mom came into town with me because she drove me in. She asked me if she could come to the audition with me. I told her I didn’t know how long it was going to be or how many dancers will be there.
We get there, and there are probably about 700 dancers—men and women. They sign in, and they booked different rooms so we all learned the choreography in different rooms. My mom sat in the corner as we learned the routine. Audition started at like 10 in the morning. We’re going through the process, learn the choreography, and they start calling us in groups. I was like number 200-something. My group finally went—my mom came in the room with me, and she sat in the corner and watched the whole thing go down. She saw the process throughout the day—we’d dance, they’d cut people, and they were cutting, cutting, cutting, until the final group of about 40 dancers. From 700 to 40 dancers, it’s a whole day. My mom witnessed the whole thing from top to bottom.
At this point, we were in the room, we did the choreo, learned more, freestyled, did it in groups—the director was there, and it was a whole thing. My mom was still in the corner watching the whole thing. They thanked everyone for coming and told us that they’d call our agents and let us know. We finally left at about 6 in the evening. On our way home, my mom looked at me and said, “Jess, I will never question what you do ever again. I didn’t realize what you had to go through just to get one job. I respect you so much. I am so proud of you, and I realize all the hard work you’ve put in is paying off. I will never question you again.”
She finally saw what we go through every single time we’re up for a job. It’s not like a 9-5 where you have job stability. Even when I am on a job, I am thinking about the next job.
But in saying all that, I’d never trade it for the world. I love what I do, and I love knowing that I’ll get to work with new people, with new production companies—something new after this is done. Is it scary? Yes. But has this industry taught me to be very faithful? Yes. Super faithful.
So I got the call, and not only did I book it as one of the principal dancers, but they wanted me to be Jessica Alba’s dance double. Since Flashdance, I’ve always wanted to be someone’s dance double. I know that sounds crazy—but Flashdance is my jam. I love that movie. When they asked me to be both, I was over-the-moon happy.
Happiest moment as a dancer?
When I was younger, I was so worried about working and making money. Not that you’re not enjoying what you do, but you’re so focused on the hustle of it all. My mom used to always say, “Jess, you have to take the time to look at what you’ve done and just be thankful and know that even if you stop dancing today, you’ve done so much in such a short period of time. Just take the time to enjoy it.” It’s now that every time I work as a dancer, I sit back and think to myself, “Wow, I am 42, and I am still doing this.”I still wake up every morning and get to do what I love to do even with the heartache it comes with because a lot of blessings come with it too. I don’t know if I can remember one moment—I just think that I am at a point in my life where I am looking from the outside in and enjoying even the annoying shit because I chose to dance. I am happy that I chose to dance.
It’s not one moment, but it’s the realization of—I think the toughest part about being in this industry is being a woman. I know it sounds silly, but it’s such a male-dominated industry. I don’t just mean the dancers. Production, creatives, management—I think the toughest part is that as a woman, you’re asked to wear certain things, to be a certain way, and to be okay with it. There are many times where I have been in positions where I had to stand up for myself—letting the men that I am working with know that this isn’t a hobby for me and that this is work. Whoever they think I am on that stage is not the person I am off-stage.
I think overall as dancers, we fight the stigma of, “Oh, they love what they do.” You should love what you do, but at the end of the day, it’s still work. It’s your career. It’s what you do to make money. Gaining the respect of men in the business has been the hardest thing. Sometimes we’re just objects for them. Honestly, that’s the hardest part. Before you even set foot in this industry, you really have to understand who you are because there are a lot of people who will take advantage of you if you don’t have a strong sense of who you are and of the things you will do and will not do. There have been incidents where I’ve left jobs because I just wasn’t going to do certain things. I’ll do some things if artistically it makes sense. Always. I have no problem being nude, but it has to make sense artistically for what the project is. If it’s just something that you want aesthetically for no reason, I can’t. You have to find your voice. There’s no stability in this business, so you don’t want to burn bridges, but it’s okay. It’s not going to be the first job, and it’s not going to be the last.
I think that’s really important to share—especially from somebody who has a lot of experience.
It’s scary. It’s scary because you want to establish yourself as an artist and have good relationships with people you work with, but you also have to demand a certain level of respect. You have something that they need, and you deliver it every time. You should be respected for it. As artists, we love what we do so much that we’re not good at understanding the business side of it and understanding how to marry both. I was having a conversation with a friend the other day and he was working on a project and didn’t know what to charge. Sometimes that’s the thing with us—how do you put value on art? I told him, “If you compare your work to having degrees—you have your Bachelor’s, Master’s, Ph. D.—for every degree you have, you get paid more. You’ve been working for the past 20 years. That’s a Ph. D in most worlds. You’re a doctor.” We don’t see our experience like that because there’s no paper saying that this is the amount of knowledge you have. For artists, it’s hard for us to say how much we’re worth. And sometimes I feel like we underbid ourselves a lot. I wish there was a business course for artists.
What is it like to be an older dancer?
What I tell my students a lot—because that’s the question I get a lot: “How’s it that you’re 42, a mom, still relevant in the business, still working?” I book gigs with girls who are 18-20. I am 20 years older than these women. I do know that the reason I still continue to work and still do what these girls do is: 1) I have experience, 2) I maintain physically, 3) I have a really good reputation in the business, 4) those who have hired me, they know what they’re going to get, which is professionalism—showing up on time, getting the job done, knowing my boundaries and understanding how to be in a professional environment. When you’re placed in an environment with other people, there’s a certain way you need to be able to speak. I take what I do very seriously. not to say seriously in an it’s-not-fun kind of way. It’s my career. Just like a teacher, or a doctor, it’s my career. This isn’t just a hobby.
My advice to young dancers is to start to understand that what you do isn’t a hobby. If you want longevity in the business, you have to start thinking about it as a career. Take it very seriously and understand how to dress, how to be, how to speak in certain environments. Don’t just think of the now. Think about the future. There’s so much you can do. Not everyone wants to be a choreographer. That’s not the next step for everyone. Of course you love it, and it starts out as a passion, a dream, a goal. At some point, you have to understand how to make it into a career.
What are your aspirations?
Right now, I am passionate about teaching. It’s funny because for years my mom used to suggest that I open up a school, and I never really wanted to. But I actually want to open up a school [laughs].
You’re finally listening to your mom now.
I know. I think I want to open up a school in my area in the Bronx. I want it to be a place where dancers really understand how to marry both the business side and the artistic side of it. In any other field, there are things like internships and training that helps you transition from college to career. I want artists to feel empowered and not come into this business so blind. I think that’s my biggest thing with starting a school.
Is there anything you’d like to share with the world?
This is something I tell my students all the time. It pertains to anybody. For me, I’ve had to learn to stop asking for permission. I want artists and people in general to stop asking for permission when it comes to really fighting for your dreams. At some point you have to own it. You have to own and not wait for somebody else to give you the OK. You have to just start and do it. Because I feel as if we wait for somebody to be like, “Okay you’re ready now.” But you just have to jump and hope that you’re going to land on both feet. If you don’t, you gotta figure out what happened and jump again and figure out how to land on both feet. Stop asking, stop wanting, stop needing permission from anyone. It took me a very long time to learn that, but had I taken that power back when I first started, what would I be doing now? We never want to step on people’s toes. But people who are successful, they just do it. Even if they’re not the most knowledgeable. There’s a fear. Everyone is scared. But fuck it. Just jump. Just do it. The worst that can happen is you fail. If you fail, you figure out what happened and try again.