Transcript, Episode 46: Dance on Skates, Crediting Commercial Choreography, and Dana Wilson

[Jump to Dana Wilson interview.]


Margaret Fuhrer:
Hi, dance friends, and welcome to The Dance Edit Podcast. I’m Margaret Fuhrer.

Courtney Escoyne:
I’m Courtney Escoyne.

Lydia Murray:
And I am Lydia Murray.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We are editors at Dance Media, and in today’s episode, we’ll be talking about Elladj Baldé, the Canadian figure skater, whose dancing on ice has become a toast of pretty much the whole internet. We’ll do some yelling about commercial dance artists not getting the credit they richly deserve for their work on films and TV shows and music videos. We’ll get into actor Mads Mikkelsen’s recent New York Times interview about his past as a professional dancer and his kind of incredible dance scene at the end of the film Another Round.

And then we’ll have our interview with Dana Wilson, who is a commercial dancer and dance maker and dance teacher, and the host of the podcast Words That Move Me. And interviewing a fellow podcast host is always a pleasure for obvious reasons, but Dana also had a lot of insightful things to say about accessibility and inclusion in dance and how we can all kind of process and then make use of the lessons that we learned in 2020.

Before we get started, we’ll do just the bare minimum version of our housekeeping duties and remind you all to give us a follow on social, we’re on Instagram @the.dance.edit, and then Twitter @dance_edit. We love having conversations with you on there. You are all so well-informed and so passionate. Let’s all nerd out together. Again, you can find us @the.dance.edit on Instagram and @dance_edit on Twitter.

So now it’s time for our weekly dance headline rundown, which is quite meaty this week. And we’re actually starting with some news that I wanted to highlight right away, because I am kicking myself for missing it in the newsletter. Courtney, go for it.

Courtney Escoyne:
All right. So Broadway musical Mean Girls has announced that it will not be reopening whenever the Great White Way is back in action. Now plans for a film version of the musical—or as we like to call it Mean Girls: The Movie: The Musical: The Movie Musical. A national tour and day run production are still in place, though those plans are currently on hold due to the pandemic.

Lydia Murray:
San Francisco Ballet artistic director, Helgi Tomasson announced last week that he will be stepping down next year after 37 years in that position. The company’s board plans to launch an international search committee for a new director in the months to come, with the goal of transitioning leadership by June of 2022. I think I can speak for all of us when I say that I thought Tomasson and would be there indefinitely.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah, this was the most surprising news. I felt like, I don’t know why, but in my brain Helgi Tomasson was going to be at San Francisco Ballet until the heat death of the universe.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Like he was just sort of baked into that institution. Very curious to see who they choose as his successor, because it would be nice to get a woman in a position of leadership, perhaps.

Courtney Escoyne:
It certainly would be. Speaking of female artistic directors, Nina Ananiashvili will head the ballet company of Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theatre in Russia, in addition to her current artistic directorship of the State Ballet of Georgia. Now, politically, this is a potentially very controversial move as Russia and Georgia do not have the most genial of relations. She cited the fact that companies in Russia are continuing to perform in spite of the pandemic as a factor in her decision, but details are still to be announced about how that division of time and workforce is going to be handled.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Curious to see how that all plays out.

Lydia Murray:
“Law & Order: SVU” is hiring unemployed Broadway actors during the shutdown. Not only does this benefit the actors, it helps to reduce if not eliminate the logistical problem of bringing actors from Los Angeles to the New York based production. And there are currently of course, no scheduling conflicts with active Broadway shows. This week’s episode features Eva Noblezada of Hadestown and Beetlejuice‘s Alex Brightman.

Margaret Fuhrer:
More of that, just more. Broadway actors can do everything.

Courtney Escoyne:
I feel like everyone’s done an episode of SVU at some point. So I feel like anyone who hasn’t yet is going to get to tick that off the list.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, tick it.

Courtney Escoyne:
A thief broke into San José Dance Theatre costume storage and stole upwards of $20,000 worth of costumes, including vintage pieces from their Nutcracker and newly-made tutus for their upcoming digital Sleeping Beauty. The company is now appealing to donors to consider contributing to their costume fund. Who steals tutus in the middle of a pandemic? I mean, who steals tutus period, but…

Lydia Murray:
Just so upsetting.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We’ll include a link to the GoFundMe page that’s been set up on their behalf in our episode description, so you can donate if you’re able.

Lydia Murray:
A team of archeologists has allegedly discovered the dance floor in a courtyard in Machaerus, Israel where the biblical figure Salome is believed to have performed the dance that caused John the Baptist his head.

Courtney Escoyne:
I need to go read more about this immediately.

Lydia Murray:
It is fascinating.

Courtney Escoyne:
WNET’s All Arts will begin airing the four-part Isolation to Creation docu-series on January 27th. It follows four bubble residencies produced by works in process at the Guggenheim last fall, and which dancers formed quarantine pods to work on new commissions. Internist Dr. Wendy Ziecheck, who we’ve talked about before on this podcast, is also featured explaining the measures that were taken to bring the dancers together safely during the pandemic.

Lydia Murray:
Films.Dance, a new project produced and directed by Jacob Jonas The Company, will be releasing a new free short film every week from January 25th to May 3rd.

Courtney Escoyne:
I got a peek at an embargoed release on that at the end of December, and it looks like those projects are going to be absolutely incredible, I cannot believe they got as many artists as they did.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I was going to say just the sheer number of dance stars involved, it’s pretty, yeah, pretty remarkable.

Courtney Escoyne:
And Sunil Kothari, a renowned critic, scholar and teacher of traditional Indian dance passed away at age 87, just a handful of weeks after being diagnosed of COVID-19. He was the dance critic at the times of India for over three decades and has published several books covering various genres of Indian dance from bharatanatyam to kathak to kuchipudi and beyond.

Lydia Murray:
At a recent virtual conference held by the association of performing arts professionals, Dr. Anthony Fauci said that theaters and other venues may be able to reopen sometime in the fall of this year. If and the if is important, the country reached an effective level of herd immunity, which according to Fauci would require a vaccinating 70 to 85% of the population.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, definitely a huge “if,” but: Hope! Oh my gosh, hope, much needed.

Courtney Escoyne:
Is that what this feeling is?

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s so unfamiliar!

Lydia Murray:
I’ll take any glimmer of hope there is.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Latch onto it. So clearly there was a lot of big news this week, but the most important items are, they’re mostly related to larger topics that we’ve discussed at some length on the podcast already, theater reopening timelines, dance on film. And given how overwhelming the mainstream news is right now, I think we could all use a bit of lightness.

So in this week’s roundtable discussions, rather than prioritizing the weightiest news, which would also mean re-traveling some well covered ground, we’re going to do something a little different. We’re going to get into the three stories from the past week that we, the three of us are most eager to talk about. Or to be more honest, most eager to go off on.

And the first of those is about the Canadian figure skater Elladj Baldé. Recently Baldé has pretty much taken over TikTok with videos in which he full-out dances on the ice in skates. There are backflips, there are cartwheels, he does every viral dance challenge, it is incredibly fun, it’s super impressive. But there’s a lot more to this story too. Baldé,—who by the way, he’s engaged to a dancer, to dancer Michelle Dawley—he’s been on a mission to change the way figure skating is perceived in the mainstream and to skate in a way that feels authentic to him, and dance is part of that. And there’s also a lot to discuss here in terms of the bigger picture relationship between dance and skating. Lydia, I know you are eager to get into this one.

Lydia Murray:
So, one interesting thing about his popularity is the fact that his dance moves are such a focus. And dance has been part of skating for so long, of course, but typically it’s been movements that were borrowed more from or inspired by ballet, like port de bras or there’s a move called a spiral, that’s very similar to an arabesque that kind of thing. But those sorts of movements are so deeply embedded into the form, that they don’t really stand out as dancing per se.

And also what Baldé does is so clearly dance-focused, I guess, that it’s just so new and fresh and interesting. Historically, a lot of the kinds of dancing that were outside of kind of that ballet focus, that skaters publicly did looked kind of awkward or forced, or like it was poorly adapted to figure skating or that the skater wouldn’t quite have the feeling or the flavor so to speak, required to execute certain movements, but there’s absolutely none of that here.

Of course, he has so much… As Margaret already said, when he skates, you feel that he’s really skating from his heart and from a place of authenticity. And also there’s long been a tension between the artistic and technical aspects of figure skating. What might be beautiful won’t necessarily be enough to win competitions. And speaking of which, competitions have historically been the primary avenue for skaters build their careers. They’ve been reliant on these events and on judges to make names for themselves. And I think Baldé’s success on TikTok and social media more generally speaks to that. The skaters are building their brands online, and that has been happening for a few years now, and that’s part of the reduced gatekeeping that’s occurred in virtually every industry, but it seems rare for a skater’s content to resonate with the mainstream audience in the way that his has.

And he’s also so athletic, he does backflips on the ice for example, which is a testament to how strong of a skater he is, but it also kind of taps into that segment of social media users who like to watch that kind of high intensity tricks, even though there’s of course so much more to him than that.

And also you can’t really overlook race here, Baldé is of African descent. His mom is Russian, his dad’s Guinean. And I love that the backflip is one of the things that he’s become so known for in the sense that the backflip is what Surya Bonaly famously was penalized for. She did it in the 1998 Olympics and fell to 10th place, and it was considered to be one of the things that kind of marked the end of her career.

Courtney Escoyne:
Because isn’t it technically a banned move in international competition

Lydia Murray:
Yes. And so now here we are in this totally different era, where our skaters have more control over their own careers, and you can stand out by being different. And he says in a PopSugar article, it’s not this one mold that we have to fit in, you can actually be different, look different, do different things and be extremely successful at it. And that’s kind of where my purpose lies in everything that I do.

Courtney Escoyne:
Lydia and I are both kind of closet figure skating nerds, and so we do talk about this sometimes, about watching contemporary figure skating and how much when you watch competition, very similar to dance in a lot of ways, the technical abilities, just the bar keeps getting raised higher and higher and higher in competition. And oftentimes you’re left to wonder, what about the more artistic side of the sport? And I always think of Johnny Weir, Adam Rippon, who weren’t necessarily super competitive at say the Olympic level, but were beautiful to watch and just went and did what they did so well, which was skate beautifully.

And so I think that as Lydia was saying, having these skaters be on social media and showing more than just what is calculated to get me the highest possible score based on this extremely rigid set of rules and standards and conventions is a really great way of expanding the artistry of the sport and of having a closer tie to dance.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah, I agree. And Sasha Cohen, for example, very similar, beautiful skater, wasn’t the strongest technically, but Sasha Cohen came around a little bit too soon to kind of catch the social media wave. I’m not sure if she’s active on social media right now, but in terms of having that be an option when she was more competing and kind of at the height of her career.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We need a whole bunch of spinoff podcasts now! You two need to do a figure skating podcast. We need Lydia’s BTS podcast, or just K-pop more generally. All these things—we have to get in the works.

So in our next segment, we’re going to get into one of my personal dance world pet peeves. Dance Magazine just ran a piece titled “Why Do Commercial Choreographers Still Not Get the Credit They Deserve?“, which is a rant by former Dance Spirit editor in chief Alison Feller. Hi, Alison, I hope you’re listening! And as a fellow member of the former Dance Spirit editor in chief club, I’m going to elaborate on her rant, because this issue makes my blood boil. This is not going to be joyful, I’m going to try to bring it back around to joy at the end, but it’s not going to be joyful for a while, just a heads up.

Courtney Escoyne:
Listen, I’m glad to hand the ranting mic over to you Margaret.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I hope I don’t get myself in trouble. So Alison opens her piece with a story about watching Mama Mia! Here We Go Again in the theater and loving the big dance numbers in it. And then as dance people do, immediately needing to know who choreographed them. But she had to—in the dark theater on her phone—scroll to the very, very bottom of the IMDB page to the other crew category to find out that the choreographer was Anthony Van Laast. This is a film with 16 musical numbers, almost all of them intricately choreographed. And Anthony is credited below casting directors and production designers and all these other artists, even though his work was so obviously integral to the success of the film.

Alison goes on to point out that this sort of practice is common in the TV and the music worlds as well. Like, if you’re watching a music video, the best-case scenario usually is that the choreographer is credited somewhere on the YouTube page. But most of the time—and us Dance Spirit people know this particular frustration, because we regularly write about music videos—most of the time, they’re not credited at all. It takes all kinds of sleuthing on Instagram, usually, to figure out who might’ve been involved. And oh, by the way, who are the dancers in that music video? Good luck. An Instagram tag is their best case scenario in terms of being identified.

Then there are the award shows. So nearly all the major award shows either ignore or sideline choreographers. We have an Oscar for best makeup and hairstyling, but not for best choreography. And even the Tonys present their best choreography award during the commercial break. Come on!

The work of these dance artists is also earning the other people involved in these ventures a whole pile of money, but dancers and choreographers are rarely getting a fair piece of that pie. Often dancers are paid pretty pitiful day rates for these projects, and choreographers don’t get the same financial incentives that other top level creatives are getting. That’s an issue that we touched on in other episodes, particularly when we had our discussion about JaQuel Knight and his quest to get his dances copyrighted as a way to ensure that he receives fair compensation for their use. Fingers and toes crossed that that pans out, we’re rooting for him, because that could be totally game changing.

The music industry does tend to be the worst offender here. I think that’s partly because music videos are more likely to be smaller one-off projects where it’s easier to skirt union regulations. There isn’t a big film or TV studio machine involved. But also music video artists, the dancers and choreographers, are more likely to be people of color, and that’s significant. Especially in the music industry, this is just one more example of the voices and contributions of Black and brown people being marginalized.

So, I mean, there’s a question here about why this type of disrespect has been tolerated for so long. And I think partly it’s because of this old idea that any dance that’s not happening in a big concert hall is auxiliary, it’s frosting, it’s not essential to films or TV shows the way that writing or acting is, there’s this feeling too that dancers and choreographers are interchangeable and easily replaceable, they’re just like background noise. And that kind of thinking has deep roots in dance history. Like in the entertainment world, it actually goes back to the old Hollywood studio system and the way that that was set up and choreographers would be credited. But that whole value system is clearly ridiculous, and just how ridiculous it is is only becoming more apparent as dance becomes, and dancers become, a more and more central part of pop culture. I feel like this is the inevitable example, and again, we discussed this when we were talking about JaQuel Knight, but can you really argue that “Single Ladies” is “Single Ladies” without JaQuel’s specific choreography or without Ashley Everett and Ebony Williams specifically dancing it? It’s part of the package.

Okay. Try to bring it back to joy. So one of the things that gives me hope here is that a ton of these dancers and choreographers are now stars in their own right. As Lydia was saying, thanks to the rise of social media, they have more of a voice, they have more visibility, and that means they have a little bit more agency. They have some bargaining power, which might help them advocate for the credit and the money that they deserve. And hopefully, too, the people at the top of the entertainment industry wake up and realize that, Hey, not only is recognizing these dance artists the right thing to do, it’s also just good marketing. They have huge fan bases that we should be engaging, it’s a win-win.

And I’m wondering if there might be a revolution starting from the ground up, specifically from places like TikTok where the creators’ rights movement is pretty well underway. Like now, crediting dance creators is pretty standard practice on TikTok. I mean, TikTok dance creators are some of the most influential entertainment choreographers of our current time. I was realizing the other day that it’s sometimes easier to figure out who choreographed a song’s TikTok dance challenge than to figure out who choreographed that song’s official music video. And that’s totally bananas. But I’m trying to take comfort in the fact that there are some signs that that might not be the case for long, but it will work its way up the chain.

Lydia Murray:
I don’t really need to add anything, but I will anyway: To kind of go into that part of the article where she said, growing up in the MTV “Making the Video” era, she really enjoyed watching the behind the scenes looks at her favorite music videos and seeing how everything was made and getting to know about choreographers like Wade Robson and Fatina Robinson. And I can relate to that. And I hope that the next generation will get to have that experience, maybe on TikTok now, getting back to that idea of choreographers getting credit in these emerging forums.

Margaret Fuhrer:
There really was a brief shining moment there in the early aughts when dance and choreography—MTV in particular put them center stage. And people loved it! Those shows were so popular. Bring them back, there’s evidence there that it works.

Anyway, moving on, because we must. So in our last roundtable segment—actually this one isn’t all that roundtable-y either, this is basically, Courtney asked for the floor here and we’re going to give it to her. So the New York Times just published an interview with Mads Mikkelsen, pegged to his new-ish film, Another Round, which concludes with this fantastic dance scene. And the interview discusses the creation of that scene, which is great, but it also gets into the fact that Mads was a professional dancer for nine years. There are so many gems. I mean, go for it Courtney.

Courtney Escoyne:
So I’m a huge Mads Mikkelsen fan, and I don’t understand how I only learned this week he used to be a professional dancer, actually some friends of mine who are not dancers, I asked them, I was like, were you guys ever going to? Did you guys know this? And they’re like, Oh yeah, we thought you knew. And I was like, what? So I didn’t think I could love this actor anymore than I already do, and then I found out that he used to be a professional dancer from this article in the New York Times. He describes in it spending a couple of summers at the Martha Graham School here in New York and how Martha actually came to the studio during one of his classes one day. And I’m just going to read the quote, because it’s such a gem. He said, “She had all the boys come really close, because she didn’t speak up loudly. She said, ‘The boys must jump in the air.’ And so we went in there and we jumped and jumped and jumped, and then we looked at her and she had fallen asleep.”

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s too good.

Courtney Escoyne:
I just love it. It’s a fantastic gem. And the whole article is lovely. He came to dance from, he started in gymnastics when he was 17 or 18, he basically was asked to do some movement when he got hired to do a particular show where they just wanted people doing flips. The choreographer on that show was like, Hey, you have a talent for this, you should invest more in it. And he spent eight or nine years working as a dancer and doing musicals, and then from there got into acting.

And now knowing that he has that background is definitely making me look at his work in a different way. I kind of feel like, Oh, of course you’re a train… you were a trained professional dancer. Of course you were. There’s this expansiveness and a sense of presence in his carriage and a full-bodiedness that is so recognizable I think to us dancer people.

I have been a fan of his since he played Hannibal Lecter in NBC’s “Hannibal.” Which I will just, I will tell you guys like that show is not for everyone, it’s a lot, it’s really intense, but it was a show that relied very heavily on subtext, the audience picking up on what was being said when nothing was being said. And he doesn’t dance in that show, but I am not sure I can think of another actor who uses stillness in such a deliberate way. And he’s so intentional in the way he takes up space, so that there’s this sense of there’s something stirring deep beneath the surface and you don’t quite know what it is and you can’t quite see it, but you know that it’s there. And then when he was asked to move, there was this tightly coiled lethality to the way that he would move. And I am now realizing so much of what made his Hannibal effective was in the way that he used his body and his physicality.

I would like to recommend everyone go on YouTube and watch the closing dance sequence that’s like the last four minutes of this film Another Round that came out at the end of last year. He’s outside, he’s drinking, he starts dancing a bit to some music and it’s the most beautiful, joyous thing. And there isn’t that thing that you see sometimes when actors get handed choreography where they’re not quite expanding through their arms all the way, and you can tell that they think they are, but they’re not. Everything about it is so purposeful and well done, and he doesn’t look like a professional dancer, he looks like a dude who can move. And that’s purposeful and that’s wonderful. But then also there’s moments in it where he does like a barrel roll. And then all of a sudden they’re like rolling on the cobblestones out of it, like any modern dancer. And it’s just absolutely incredible, and it gave me so much joy to watch. And I just, I love Mads Mikkelsen a lot and I don’t know, I almost want to say, can we get him into some sort of show or movie where he can play an artistic director or a choreographer, but I’d want it to be a show that’s actually wherever you have his talent as an actor, so I don’t know if it exists.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Can we write that show? Courtney, get on it!

Courtney Escoyne:
Can I write something for Mads Mikkelsen set in the dance world? That’ll be my next project, I guess. I don’t know.

Lydia Murray:
I would watch that immediately.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Right? I’d watch the heck out of that.

All right. You know what? We are way over time. So we’re going to take a break, and when we come back, we’ll have our interview with Dana Wilson. Stay tuned.

[pause]



DANA WILSON INTERVIEW

Margaret Fuhrer:
We’re officially rolling.

Dana Wilson:
Oh my gosh we’re doing it.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We’re doing it. Today our guest on the podcast is the wonderful Dana Wilson. Hi Dana.

Dana Wilson:
Hello, hello. Thank you so much for having me. I’m really jazzed about this and there’s kind of a role reversal, I’m usually the interviewer so I’m excited to be in this position.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Flipping the switch today. Dana has a very impressive résumé, which now includes, as she has mentioned, podcast host. She’s the host of the excellent podcast Words That Move Me. But that’s actually all that I’m going to give you of her bio, because on her show she likes to have her guests introduce themselves, to highlight the things that they think are most important about their careers and their lives. Dana, I’m going to ask you to do the same thing. Tell us about you.

Dana Wilson:
Oh my gosh. I might reconsider doing this to my guests now—this is tough. I’m always shocked at how few people lead with their professional credits. Usually people will say, I’m a person who—I’m a student, I’m a lifelong learner, I am an artist, I am a human being on this earth. I’m all of those things, but I’ll give you a couple of the credits too, because I know that that’s a lot of what listeners tune in for. I am Dana Wilson, I am a lifelong learner. I am an artist. I am a movement enthusiast. I am a recently certified life and career coach. I am a podcast host. I am the wife of Daniel Reetz, and that makes me more proud than almost, no than actual anything.

I’m also a dancer, choreographer and movement coach. Recently I movement coached an actor for pre-production for Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming Elvis biopic. I was one of the associate choreographers on the feature film adaptation of In The Heights, which I’m jazzed about. I’ve done a couple of—three world tours with Justin Timberlake, performed at the Super Bowl with him, countless music videos. You name it: commercials, TV shows, movies, La La Land—that epic opening scene on the freeway, I was there for all 102 degrees Fahrenheit of that for several days in a row.

I simply love sharing. Whether it’s words, whether it’s movement, whether it’s information, that is what I’m about.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Clearly we have a lot to talk about. But since this is a podcast, I want to start with Words That Move Me, that particular way of sharing. Because you have a really distinctive voice. I mean literally, you have a distinctive voice. But also more broadly, voice, as a host. Can you talk about what inspired you to start podcasting, and what you would say your mission is for Words That Move Me?

Dana Wilson:
Absolutely. Thank you, that’s a great question bundle. Regarding my voice, I have it because of teaching—the nodules as well as the information. I’ve been told that I’m a very entertaining teacher, and it is one of my many great objectives in life to disguise education as entertainment. One of the ways I sought to do that always was through teaching. I’m a really animated teacher, and I’ve gotten the feedback that I talk a lot. Some people say I talk too much.

I do like to try to separate and keep the moves in the dance room. I wanted another place to put all my anecdotes and thoughts and lessons. Several years ago, I think three years ago, I decided I would write a book, and the book was called Words That Move Me. It was a collection of quotes and short stories that I had accrued along my journey. Some of them in person—like famous film director David Fincher, who I worked with on Justin Timberlake’s music video for “Suit & Tie,” just like in passing would say things that I was like, oh my God that’s so good, I gotta write this down.

I had this massive collection of quotes, so I decided to write a quote book. I got the ISBN numbers, got an illustrator, hired my friend to edit. Then I also got a lawyer who informed me that intellectual property would be a sticky, sticky patch. Anyways, I asked every single person that I quoted, including the estate of Kurt Vonnegut, for permission. I heard back from exactly two people: my mom, who was like, “Honey, can’t I just give it to you when you come home for the holidays? Do I have to write it? Do I have to…” Okay. Then another one was my friend who in an email was like, “Do whatever you want with my words forever.”

But anyways, I got kerfuffled in the caution tape there. I left the project on pause, worked on a couple of films. I have a coach as well, a career coach, and she asked me one day, “What is something you’ve been putting off?” I knew the answer to that question was the book. I revisited the text, and I tried to not have any judgment as I read it, not to make any edits while I read it. I just read and read and read and re-read. I was like, holy smokes, this is not a book. This is a podcast. That’s where the podcast began, and it is now a series of those quotes, short stories and explanations, but also of conversations with guests. My mission is simply to move people into action with all of the information and inspiration that I have gained during my career.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I love that you mentioned that teaching was really one of your ways into podcasting, that you have this experience where you’re used to commanding an audience with your words as well as with your body. Can you talk a little bit about—a little more, rather—about your approach to teaching, your philosophy when you’re at the front of the studio?

Dana Wilson:
Yes, that is a great question. I think much like my choreography, my teaching relies on imagery a lot. It’s all about imagination. I’m using really strange anecdotes. I’m having to conjure up worlds and explanations for things that are completely in my head, and I’m asking my dancers to do the same. I’m essentially asking them to meet me there in this imaginative place. I think because much of my teaching isn’t hands-on, and because my style itself is a combination of many, many things, in a way I think I’ve been forced to get really good at explaining it with words, because it’s not as easy to simply mold it onto a body. I say simply, I know it’s not simple, even in really structured styles like classical ballet. But I think that’s where that came from. I rely a lot on imagination, on visualizing things first in your mind and then in your body. I think that’s where those two things are linked. I try with my moves to make something invisible visible, and I try with my words to make something that’s inexplicable explained.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I love that. As somebody who comes out of ballet with its highly structured vocabulary, I’m always endlessly impressed by the ability of people like you, who are working in forms that are less vocabulary-based, to articulate what it is that you are doing.

To be honest, we need to have more people from the commercial world on our podcast. You’re one of the first people from that world that we’ve talked to. I think a lot of people struggle to find their place, their role, kind of their groove in the commercial dance scene. How did you find yours?

Dana Wilson:
That is a really awesome question that has a lot of twists and turns and bends in it. I’ll give a little backstory. I grew up at Michelle Latimer Dance Academy in Colorado. Michelle has a great way of bridging the gap from dance studio world to professional world. This goes back years and years, before there were a billion dance conventions—she always had guest choreographers coming to the studio to do master classes, intensives. I was exposed to a lot of L.A.-based choreographers before I actually got there. The convention circuit was definitely heating up towards my senior years, there were several per year, but nowhere near as many as there are now. Every fall, we would take a trip to Los Angeles with Michelle and a couple chaperones and train at EDGE and Millennium and just get in as many classes as possible. I started doing those fall immersion excursions when I was 15, I think, every fall.

By the time I decided, at 18 years old, that this is what I wanted to do, by the time I moved here, people like Marty Kudelka, Brian Friedman, these working people already knew my name. I started assisting both Marty and Brian when I was just a tiny little sapling here, a new transplant. I also worked a full-time job at Urban Outfitters, folding that t-shirt table to keep my rent paid. My beginning was really as an assistant. I was assisting Marty on a project, a commercial actually for Reese’s Puffs cereal. We were organizing some little ones around some freestyle. That was when he got the call to choreograph JT’s FutureSex/LoveShow tour. He turned to me and asked if I was ready, if I was ready to help out.

So my intro to the industry started in the role of an assistant. But that’s certainly not the case for everyone. Even since then, I went through patches of assisting a lot and then not assisting a lot but dancing a lot. Then not assisting or dancing a whole lot, but choreographing a lot. There are different degrees and roles that you can explore within the commercial scope for sure. But mine started by making really solid relationships with people, a solid reputation for myself—that I’m dependable, I’m smart, I’m professional, I’ll be on time. I will remember your counts and I will learn them quickly, and I’m a good teacher so I can dispense the moves efficiently and accurately. I suppose that reputation kept up and then the skills enhanced, so I got even better at doing all of those things. I learned so much just by being there, just by being around. But yeah, the in for me was really facilitated by Michelle and the relationships that she helped me cultivate, and being a person who loves to learn.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Loving learning, that’s a big part of it.

Dana Wilson:
Mm-hmm. Recipe for success.

Margaret Fuhrer:
You’ve had such an epic run with Justin Timberlake in particular. What are some of the biggest lessons that you’ve learned just from working consistently alongside somebody of that stature, at that level?

Dana Wilson:
I suppose this one’s a combo. One of the things that I’ve learned from Justin is that it really pays and it’s cool to care about things. He cares tremendously about the quality of his work, about the people that work for him, about anyone that enters into that sphere. I’m including audience members and people who listen as well. He really cares. I think that that’s the reason that he’s so good at so many things, is because he cares a lot. The other thing that I would say is that there’s no detail unworthy of some amount of attention. I guess that folds into the first answer, but he knows the dancers’ cues. He knows lighting cues, he knows arrangements, he knows all facets. I think he can get interested in damn near anything. The thing that I learned most about him is that there’s no detail too small to care about, and that caring more does help you achieve and receive more.

Margaret Fuhrer:
The importance of caring deeply about things, that’s actually a nice segue into my next question for you. Because in our pre-recording emails, you were mentioning that you’ve been thinking a lot recently about inclusion in the dance world, inclusion in terms of language and access and credit. That’s a topic that I think has definitely been on a lot of people’s minds. Can you elaborate on—well, first, what precisely you mean by inclusion, since precision of language is part of the issue here? And then also, why you think those issues are especially urgent right now?

Dana Wilson:
Thank you for bringing this up. You know what, I was scrolling through Instagram like you do several days ago, and I don’t know how this came across my feed, but there was a person teaching teachers, I think he’s a kindergarten teacher. He was like, “Listen folks, it’s really important when you’re teaching young ones to consider that some of them don’t have parents at home. When you ask them, ‘Ask your mom and dad for help,’ you might consider, ‘Ask the adult for some help.'” A really simple language change that all of a sudden isn’t reminding people of, Mom is somewhere else or I’ve never met Dad, or this person is adopted, this person has grown up with Grandma and Grandpa perhaps.

This was a while back, definitely during the quarantine, when I’d been thinking about dance and accessibility and inclusion. Up until that point for me it had mostly been about money as an entry point, not so much about the language. I teach for a convention—I have for more than 10 years. I know the amounts of money I make as a convention teacher, and I know the amount of tuition those kids pay, and I know how much my mom paid for dance when I was young. I cannot imagine being able to afford that for a kid, let alone more than one kid, in this world today. One of my favorite things that’s happened in this COVID era is that the cost of entry to dance right now is almost only the internet and a device with a screen. That started many, many, many years ago with YouTube and the popularity of dance videos on YouTube, people were learning from that. But I mean really structured learning environments, like CLI or other Zoom classes, even those IG lives that were really popular at the beginning of the lockdown. These are people who are usually busy on tour, or they’re principal dancers of world-renowned companies, and now they’re teaching you dance for free on an IGTV? Let’s go. I think I became very enamored with how technology can lower that cost of entry. I say that full knowing that as a dance convention teacher that might hurt me in the long run. I’m okay with that, let it hurt me in the long run, let it help dancers in the long run. Dance has done plenty for me. Let’s give it now, let’s give it to people.

On the subject of training and the cost of training, I’m really, really surprised and delighted to see companies like CLI doing so well. So many studios are really getting hip with it and adjusting to the digital space. Of course, I am heartbroken at the closure of so many dance studios, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think there is a replacement for the walls that hold the dance space, but I do know that there’s no shortage of buildings. There will be buildings forever, and we will find them and we will fill them with dance if we are so determined. That’s what I think about training and space for training. I’m glad that dance is so available right now and high-quality dance too, so that’s incredible.

Regarding language, this is new to me—like, relatively new, I’m in the podcast business for 50 episodes now. But every episode I’m like, I should’ve said that differently. Okay, I’ll change that about next time. I’m constantly learning how to re-explain things to myself and to other people in a way that makes them were kind, more welcoming. I was a student—I graduated in 2004. I remember some things that my dance teachers in the past have said to me about my body. I think we’ve come a long way, that’s all I’m trying to say. I think we’ve come a long way in our awareness, socially, the importance of words and the effects that they can have on especially young people and their mental health. I’m working to be conscious, I’m working to be more inclusive. One of the things that the podcast is about is being welcoming. That’s always the aim and I’m always looking at how I could do it better.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I’m going to go deep again this next question, too. This is airing in January, so we’ve finally put 2020 behind us in terms of the date on the calendar. But last year, the emotional scars that it left, especially on dance students, dance teachers, dance artists who’ve been unable to practice their craft in the way that they need to fundamentally, those are deep scars. You’ve said before that it’s important to embrace the full spectrum of our emotions, including the really dark ones. Why is that so critical, especially in this moment, and how have you been doing that yourself?

Dana Wilson:
Thank you for this. As you were asking that question, I thought of four supporting conversations that I’ve had about this. But the place I’m going to start, before I get too much into embracing negative emotions, like actually being cool with being upset: I want to talk about the interview that I did with Tiler Peck. She was talking about an injury that she’s now recovered from, but in the process, as you can imagine, it was super dark. She explains in the episode how she went from thinking, Why did this happen to me? To, How has this happened for me? I think that if we all look at the pandemic through that lens—how did this happen for me? What did I gain from this? What’s the competitive edge that I have right here? With that, I’m not suggesting that you voodoo your thoughts to think on the bright side, but that is a really powerful shift. I love presenting that as an option. It doesn’t have to be what you choose. You could just choose to think, You know what, this is awful and there’s no getting out of that. But you could also choose, Wow, look at how many people I’ve been able to train with this year! Remember when so-and-so said that? I wouldn’t have heard that if I wasn’t in that Zoom. Remember when I did my first triple pirouette? That might not have happened if I had…whatever. I would like to just present that as an option. This happened for us, not to us, 100%.

Then the other thing is I really believe, and I’m open to debate on this, but I really believe that as far as our emotional experience of life as humans it’s going to be 50/50. There is a natural distribution of good and bad, like a bell curve, if you could imagine a bell curve. Down at the negative end there’s just a very few, but terrible, experiences, like death of a family member or a spouse, getting fired maybe, some terrible things. Then up at the positive end of the spectrum, there’s a couple of really, really great things, like your wedding day, or your first show on a tour, or your red carpet premiere of your film or whatever, great days. But most everything else falls somewhere in between. Like a really good cup of coffee or a parking ticket, or your pants got a hole in them: Most of it falls in between. I love to know, even in the bummer, bummer moments, that there’s an equal and opposite bright one that either already happened. and I can own that and hold that, or it’s coming for me. The same thing for my bright days—I’m like, I’d better soak this up because surely, even in my accomplished state, it’s still 50/50 out here. Even when I become even more of my actualized self, it’ll still be 50/50 out there. When I’m doing all the cool things that I dream about today, when I’m actually doing them, I’ll still have a fight with a friend, or I’ll still get a parking ticket. It’s always going to be 50/50. So as long as you know that you don’t have to change that.

But our culture really, really emphasizes that happiness is important. It’s hard to believe and accept that being unhappy is actually part of the deal, it’s part of the plan. When you can accept that it’s part of the plan and not resist it or react to it by lashing out, you just feel it and then you move on. I think a lot of those negative feelings aren’t actually as bad as we think, and they’re certainly not as bad as avoiding them.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, and they’re part of the richness.

Dana Wilson:
Dynamic range.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, exactly, which can help you as an artist too. Going big again: What do you think are some of the biggest lessons the dance world has learned from the dumpster fire that was a lot of 2020, and what are some of the biggest obstacles that we still need to overcome to keep moving forward?

Dana Wilson:
Great question. Some of the biggest lessons learned are that if you have been a person in the past who relies on external validation or motivation to learn, you have probably struggled a lot during this time. I think what the COVID crisis helped us do is be personally accountable. It’s no longer about the awesome feeling you have when you’re around a bunch of people in class, it’s about the awesome feeling you have when you are an individual every single day of your life. I think it’s helped us to be okay with being with ourselves. I think when people talk about end of life—I mean talk about going big—when people talk about end of life, they’re like, “It’s about being okay with yourself, making peace with yourself.” I think in some small way, we all got to do that this year. Who am I? Do I like me? Do I like being with myself? Am I doing what I want to be doing? Does this make me happy? Answering those questions—I’m talking on a personal level, but I think the industry has been having to ask themselves that, too. Is this important? Is the way we’re doing it the best way to do it? Are the systems that we’ve had in place the systems that are going to get us forward?

I think the answer overwhelmingly to most of those questions is no. And so we make new systems. That’s fine, because we’re creative people and we can make things. I think the systems that didn’t work will be restructured, hopefully, some from the ground up. The things that worked, I think a lot of this virtual learning, I think we’ll see it get even better. I think certain things—like in the commercial industry specifically, video submissions for auditions. I think in a lot of ways that’s a really smart use of time and talent. I think it could save money that hopefully later could go into the pockets of the talent or go towards maybe even outreach. Maybe this is my rose-colored glasses hoping for all of that, or hoping that that money doesn’t just go directly into the pockets of the guy at the top. But I think that our systems will get restructured, because I think that what got us here won’t get us there. If we have big dreams and big goals for this upcoming year, we’ll have to do something different than what we did in the years before. I think this past year was sort of a demolition so that we can build up anew.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I was just going to say it basically wrecked everything. So as we rebuild, it’s a moment to think about what was working and what wasn’t working. That’s exactly it. That’s a nice note to end on.

Dana Wilson:
I love that. Yeah. Rebuilding. It sounds hard, doesn’t it?

Margaret Fuhrer:
It will be hard, but it’ll be the best kind of hard.

Dana Wilson:
The rewarding kind! Yes, when you have something at the end to step back from and look at and go, Oh my God, I was part of what built that, or I was what built that.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Dana, thank you again for your openness and your candor. Please everyone be sure to check out Words That Move Me wherever you get your podcasts, and to follow @wordsthatmovemepodcast on Instagram. And Dana, what upcoming projects or events do you want to call out? What’s on your horizon?

Dana Wilson:
On the podcast front, actually, I am starting a membership community for my podcast listeners. Without going into too much detail, one of the ongoing projects that I suggest to my listeners is an activity called “doing daily.” This membership will provide a lot of support for my daily doers. But even if you’re not a person who is creative every single day, the membership gives a lot of important tools for daily creative living, whether that manifests in a dance or not.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Where should people go to find out more about that?

Dana Wilson:
Thedanawilson.com/workwithme.

Margaret Fuhrer:
There you go. Thank you so much Dana, it was a pleasure.

Dana Wilson:
Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me.

[pause]

Margaret Fuhrer:
Thanks again, Dana, that was so much fun talking to her. In addition to following her podcast and checking out that new membership community that she mentioned, please make sure to keep up with Dana herself on Instagram. She is @danadaners, as you can probably guess, after listening to that interview, she is a really fun and informative follow.

All right. Thanks everyone for joining us. We will be back next week for more discussion of the news that’s moving the dance world. Keep learning, keep advocating and keep dancing.

Courtney Escoyne:
Mind how you go, friends.

Lydia Murray:
See you next week.