Transcript, Episode 66: A Week Off, and Richard Riaz Yoder

Margaret Fuhrer:
Hey everyone. It’s Margaret here, just for a second, to introduce this slightly unusual episode. The other hosts are off this week, so there won’t be a roundtable news discussion. But we do have an interview with the truly fantastic Richard Riaz Yoder. So, enjoy that for now, and then be sure come back next week for another episode in our regular format. 

[theme song]

Margaret Fuhrer:
Hi again, dance friends. I am very happy to be here now with the multi-talented Richard Riaz Yoder. Hi, Richard! Thank you so much for joining.

Richard Riaz Yoder:
Of course. Thanks for having me.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So good to have you here. Richard is a gifted dancer and teacher with a BFA in dance performance from Oklahoma City University. He is a Broadway veteran; his resume includes Hello, Dolly!, Shuffle Along, On the Twentieth Century, and Irving Berlin’s White Christmas—shows you might’ve heard of. He is now an associate producer on Share the Floor, a new series that offers free virtual classes and interviews with BIPOC choreographers, which I’m really excited to hear more about. But actually, to get started, after my super abbreviated version of your bio, can you tell our listeners what you’d like them to know about yourself and about your relationship with dance?

Richard Riaz Yoder:
So my relationship with dance started much later than some other people. You know, some people start when they’re two or three, taking the little shuffles tap classes and things like that. I did not have that luxury. I started when I was 17. I started dancing in show choir. I had purple sequined vests. I think back about, it’s hilarious. But that was my introduction to dance, and musicals were my introduction to dance. And at one point I started to get better. My mom was like, “Let’s actually send you to an actual dance school.”

I started taking classes, and it was an interesting studio because it was geared more towards adults, so I was the youngest by like 10 years in the class. It was wonderful to be around all of these mature women and men that were so in tune with their bodies, and it gave me so much to look at, but then also aspire to be.

Then I went to Oklahoma City University, and I was a dance performance major there. I was at the bottom level of everything. I had to do basic ballet because I just had no ability to do, or I didn’t have the training, to do anything. I went there and took as much as I could, as much dance as I could, focused the whole time or as much as I could. Then after that, I went and did a tour of 42nd Street in Asia. That was my first professional gig. I was so green, when I think about it. Yeah, I was so green. Then after that, I came back to the States. I got my Equity card at North Shore Music Theatre, and then a year later I was in Irving Berlin’s White Christmas. Then the rest is history.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It took off from there. I love that you started, even as a late starter, as the youngest person in your class, surrounded by these mature dancers who were completely at ease with their own bodies. I wonder how the dance world will be different if more dancers started out that way, instead of the typical high-pressure, everybody’s striving, everybody’s trying to figure themselves out environment.

Richard Riaz Yoder:
Yeah. It was so interesting because they did it for fun. They danced for fun. It wasn’t like, just like you were saying, in these high-pressure situations where it’s everybody on the same level, trying to be better than other people. Nobody was trying to be better than anybody else. There was no competition. It was basically a bunch of moms and just people that were used to dance way back in the day. And they’re like, “I just want to connect with it again. I want to be with people that are like me again.” Because you know, performers and actors, dancers, singers, they have a different energy about them. Nothing wrong with the other people’s energy, but dancers? That energy is infectious, and the second music starts playing, dancers come alive. And so to not be around that as much and then all of a sudden be in this class, we’re all jiving together and everything… Oh, it was heaven.

Margaret Fuhrer:
You found your people.

Richard Riaz Yoder:
Yeah, I found my people, and I didn’t even know that those were my people. Then all of a sudden, I’m this young gay kid around all of these fierce women. And I was like, what is my life right now? I was in heaven.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I’m home! I love that. I’d like to get started by discussing Share the Floor, because there’s so much excitement around this in the dance world, and for good reason. Can you talk about how you got involved with the project, and what its central mission is?

Richard Riaz Yoder:
Vasthy Mompoint, she was the main person. She’s the host of the show right now. Her, Christopher Gattelli, and Phil LaDuca in, I think it was the summer… It was last summer. Chris was feeling like he wanted to do something else. He wanted to do something more to help people of color, BIPOC people. He wanted to showcase them more. He wanted to give them a voice more. He wanted to do something so he could give back to people, and this started. It was him, Vasthy, and Phil LaDuca, and then Vasthy asked me to be one of the people that she interviews and to potentially give a class, too. Now this happened back in, I think, September or October. So we did an interview during that time. So it was—

Margaret Fuhrer:
Oh, that far back?

Richard Riaz Yoder:
Yeah. Me, her, and Savion Glover. It was everybody kind of, interviews one of their mentors. That’s how it started. It was Vasthy interviewed Savion, and then she interviewed me, and then me and Savion did an interview together. All of us did one together. That’s how it started. Then it kind of just went away for a bit, because things were starting to open up a little bit, and life happens. Then two or three weeks ago, they were like, “Okay, this is a go.” And I was like, “Oh, we’re doing this. We’re doing this next week.” They had me come on, and they asked me to also be an associate producer and run our social media, and be our first teacher. I was the guinea pig teacher to make sure we could figure everything out, and then also I’m running their social media and working with them as an associate producer, which has been an eye-opening and learning experience.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So you’re involved on many different levels. That’s so cool. Can you talk about teaching that first Share the Floor class, which was back on International Dance Day? It was kind of a great moment.

Richard Riaz Yoder:
Yeah, it was, because that was one of the first times I’d been able to be in the studio with a bunch of friends for a while, and just to see Chris there, I was having so much fun. To be in that room, it was just electric. It was a little bit last-minute, so we were rushing to get things together, but we knew we wanted to do this on International Dance Day. I actually saw the interview portion of the class for the first time with everybody else.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Because that airs right before the class starts.

Richard Riaz Yoder:
Yeah, it airs right before the class. It was so nice to see that. And then to give the class, I modeled my class after one of the great tap dance, legends, Jeni LeGon. Jeni LeGon didn’t really get her dues because of racism and segregation and even the movie musical industry, so my class was dedicated to her. I took some of her steps, remixed them, and I put the style that she has in her dancing, and I put it into the class. I was able to give them a little history lesson as well, which I think is important because we’re sharing the floor, but we’re also sharing the experiences of everybody that came before us, and we’re also giving thanks to those people.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I love that idea of integrating dance history in that very complete and organic way. It’s not like you give a lecture at the beginning of class, and then we have class. It’s no, I’m teaching you through my body—from her body, to your body, to the students’ bodies.

Richard Riaz Yoder:
Exactly. Yeah. I’m not very good at giving speeches and all that stuff. So I’m like, listen, I’m just going to speak from the heart, and my heart is telling me that we need to do this class and honor Jeni. Robert Reed, who was my teacher at Oklahoma City University, he always said, “Respect the dance.” Tap is a dance form that doesn’t truly get its dues as well, I believe, even though it’s one of the most American art forms. It was through, mainly through Black people that this, that tap dance, as we know it, came to fruition. Always giving back to tap dance is one of the things that I think about as much as I possibly can.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, respect for this history, the often forgotten history of artists of color in dance, and that that is foundational in tap. I actually think that tap does a better job a lot of the time at recognizing its own history and teaching that to the next generations, but I love that that’s built into your approach.

You have been for a while a vocal advocate for equity and inclusion in dance, and that, of course, ties into Share the Floor’s work. It’s also particularly noteworthy because you’re involved in these two parts of the dance world that aren’t exactly known for their diversity: Broadway, and then also the competition dance scene. So first of all, can you talk a little about the ways that racism shapes and warps the professional musical theater world as you’ve experienced it?

Richard Riaz Yoder:
So the way that it shapes and warps… I think that you said that perfectly… the way that it shapes and warps is, it gives people of color the idea that they shouldn’t be there or that they are not traditional. That’s one of the things I have probably with nontraditional casting. It makes it seem as though it’s going out of the box to ever cast anybody of color in anything, even though, if we’re really talking about theater, we’re creating a world onstage. The idea that it has to adhere to some strange idea of whiteness doesn’t make any sense, because how often are people literally tap dancing and singing during their everyday life? Unless you’re a dancer or singer, that’s not going to happen. That’s one of the things that it does. It makes us think that we are not able to be in that space and that we are not welcomed in that particular space and that we should be lucky to be there.

Another thing it does is that… I have seen this with so many different people… is that we have white counterparts that soar and rise so quickly, even though the skillset of some of the other people that they are “equal” with are actually greater. We see this happening. Then it also puts us in a mind frame of, maybe I’m not as talented as I thought, maybe there’s something—

Margaret Fuhrer:
Gaslighting.

Richard Riaz Yoder:
Yeah, maybe there’s something wrong with me. That’s one of the things I think a lot of people have had to deal with. What we have to do is we have to stand up and say, no, I am going to go full throttle with my skillset, my abilities, and if I don’t look like that person, then I’m breaking a mold. That’s the other thing, there’s always the first person to do this, the first person to do that. How on earth is it at this point right now in history and music theater that we have so many firsts when somebody of color wins a Tony or somebody of color wins any of these awards out there? That’s kind of how I feel where it comes from in music theater.

In the competition dance world, I was judging this past weekend, and I was looking at how white everything is, everything, from the studio owners, to the dancers, to the competition owners, to pretty much everybody. If you are a person of color and you’re going to see these, you’re going to notice that, that there’s nobody that looks like you onstage, that there’s nobody that looks like you behind the scenes.

Also, you’re going to notice that they’re not going to be using a lot of the music that you listen to. One thing that I noticed is that almost every time that there was a song that was recorded by a Black artist, it was redone by a white artist, almost every single time. Anytime that there was a Beyoncé song, it was redone with a white voice. The soul was taken out of it. And this happened, it kept happening so many times, and I only realized it this past weekend, but it’s almost like people try to erase Black culture to a certain extent, even though they’re taking the music. Even though they’re taking the rhythms, even though they’re taking these things, they’re trying to do that as much as they can to make it seem like we were never there. So that’s kind of the thing that I find in those particular areas, because the thing is, everybody will want to do things as a Black person—like the skillset, the singing—but they won’t give the honor or the jobs to those particular people, which is what I find is such a frustrating thing that happens.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Right, where it’s a hundred percent appropriation instead of appreciation. Yeah.

Richard Riaz Yoder:
Yes! Boom.

Margaret Fuhrer:
You recently wrote this great piece for Dance Teacher about your experiences at dance competitions, and you described one piece that you saw as a “modern day blackface performance.” We’ll link to that story in show notes. I hope people read it. But can you talk a little more generally about how that type of… the “modern day blackface” things that you’ve been seeing—how do they relate to these larger dance-world debates that we’re having about appropriation versus appreciation?

Richard Riaz Yoder:
Thank you, because that’s why I wrote that article, because it’s not just about the competition thing. It’s about a much larger scale than that, because if we can teach people at a young age that this kind of action is wrong, then they will continue through their lives thinking that that is wrong. What happened was, I saw some of these numbers and what they were doing was that they were stealing from a particular culture, either their generational pain, when it comes to racism, or sexual issues. They take that, and then they dress them up as those particular people, and then they do a dance about it. The thing is, if they are not of that culture, they are only using that culture’s ideas to create a number on stage.

What happens is a lot of… because I’ve been having a lot of talks with studio owners and dancers, choreographers, and they say that they’re trying to give honor to those people. But the thing is a lot of these people will never speak out on social media or speak out in any public setting in favor of those people. The thing is, if you’re really trying to honor somebody, or if you’re really trying to honor a culture, you will be talking about that more often. You will be talking about how Black lives matter. You should be talking about how to stop Asian hate. You should be talking about how we need to protect those people. But if you only use them and their styles and use their likeness as a caricature, then that’s when I call it. I’m like, no, let’s be honest about what this is. You’re using them to create a number, to stand out in a competition, and now you’re trying to backpedal.

Also it’s like, why don’t you go from your own experiences in your life? Why don’t you perform things that are important to you? Why don’t you perform some of the pain that you have felt? Why do you have to go over to another culture and take their pain and use it as yours, and also put it under your idea of what their pain is? You don’t know what their pain is, so why are you feeling like it’s okay for you to do that?

The other thing is, a lot of people have never been told no. A lot of people feel, I can say anything. I can do whatever I want. We have to be able to say no. And we have to call people out. And I don’t mean everything has to be a social media post or anything like that. But what I do have to say, is people have to say, “No, you can’t do that,” or “This is not right.”

It also segues into “classical dance” and music theater dance. Even from my experience in college, I remember people putting on blackface to be in numbers. I remember a teacher saying that you needed to draw your eyes a certain way to look Oriental, which is terrible, which is terrible and very offensive, but they had no idea. They had no idea that it was offensive at all because nobody else ever said anything. I think the world had needed a timeout to be like, oh, this is what’s happening, and this is what has been happening, and this is how we need to change.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. And I think in a lot of these white-dominated dance spaces, a lot of people sort of assume, oh, we’re artists, we have a progressive worldview, we get this whole diversity thing. But being socially liberal doesn’t mean you’ve taken a hard look at your own biases and the ways that you might be contributing to this broken culture. If your greatest engagement with an entire culture and its pain is using it as a hook to hang a dance on, that’s not it.

Richard Riaz Yoder:
You said it perfectly: a hook to hang a dance on. Exactly.

Margaret Fuhrer:
In the Dance Teacher essay, you also talked about how difficult it can be to speak up in these environments where you’re one of the only people of color, especially if you’re discussing race specifically. Then you also said that you walk this tightrope in those kinds of situations, because if you are the only person of color in the room, there’s sometimes this unspoken expectation that you will be the one to identify diversity, equity, inclusion issues. What needs to change to stop that burden from falling over and over again on dancers of color in these predominantly white spaces?

Richard Riaz Yoder:
Yeah. I’m so happy that you brought that up, because I was in a dance rehearsal for an upcoming project recently, and the choreographer or the director of that particular number said, “If I say anything racist or sexist, please don’t go away being angry about it. Let me know.” Right there, that let me know that the homework has not been done. That lets me know that people think that they’re doing homework, but it’s not happening, because the thing is, that automatically made it my job to police them rather than them policing themselves. So what has to happen is—

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s an abdication of responsibility.

Richard Riaz Yoder:
Exactly! Still pushing the responsibility on somebody else. That that person can be completely free. That person can be completely free in what they do, but now I’m the one that has to look out for that. That’s actually also happened in another studio that I was working at. They were worried about one of the numbers being racially insensitive, and they reached out to me. The thing is, I’m like, I am a fellow teacher, I am a fellow choreographer in your school. It is not my responsibility to be the advocacy director for an entire organization.

But that’s what people do. Rather than doing the work themselves and really think about, what am I doing? Am I putting forth something that could possibly be racist? Or am I really looking at myself honestly, and thinking, just like you said, these are my biases that I have? This is the lens that I’ve been looking through. Do I need to change that lens? I’m going to push the burden onto people of color, which that’s what America has always been: pushing the burden onto somebody else or taking advantage of somebody else.

We’ve got to get to that point where people do their own homework. We’ve done enough. People of color have done enough. It’s time for a white cis people to stand up and be like, okay, I’m going to do this. I’m going to work towards making sure that I don’t create a space that is of that way.

Speaking as a person, that’s… I mean, a lot of my career has been the one person of color in an ensemble, and the things that you hear sometimes on a regular everyday basis, you know it’s wrong, and you know that it’s racist and full of microaggressions, but we’ve been conditioned to just take it. We’ve been conditioned to absorb all of that negative energy, all of that racism. We just lock it inside, and then we release it when we get to see each other again, when we get to other people of color or we’re having to be like, can you believe so-and-so said that? Whereas now, I feel like we’re moving into another world where we don’t have to take that anymore. I think that this respite from performing in a way has been good, because it’s made people really, really think about what they have to put up with. Because I know, in my opinion, I think that things have completely changed, completely, as in the mindset of being able to speak up.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Here’s hoping, here’s hoping that’s one of the silver linings of this pandemic pause is just brain space to process all of that. Speaking of pandemic pause, I’m going to make the understatement of the century, which is that it has been a strange and difficult year for dance artists. So how have you made it through? What’s kept you going—both professionally, and then also just from a mental health perspective?

Richard Riaz Yoder:
Yeah. Professionally the fact that teaching has come back into my life. I’ve always been a teacher. I’ve always been… as soon as I got out of college, I started teaching at a theater that was right around the corner from me, Lyric Theater of Oklahoma. I started teaching there right away. Then when I came to the city, I started teaching at Broadway Dance Center and Steps all the time. Then once my performing career picked up, I started doing that, but then I would always teach any time that I got the chance to do it, or judge a dance competition. The fact that that has come back into my life and to my soul, the thought of being able to see people change, see people grow and being able to see the joy of people getting steps or even the frustration people feel when they can’t get a step, but then they finally get a step, I love that kind of thing.

I love being able to be somebody that you might not normally see teaching a class. Because a lot of the times, especially at in these schools in New York, you’ll mainly get white people, which…I think it’s so important—not to discount their ability at all in any way, shape, or form—but I think it’s important that people see people of different colors teaching classes, people of different sexual orientations teaching classes, so that it gives somebody else somebody to look up to. That is the main thing that I’ve gotten professionally during this time.

Mentally, I would say it’s been the amount of time that I’ve spent with my family and friends. I visited a friend in Pennsylvania. I stayed with her family and I was like, I’ve been alone for quite a bit of time, and then getting to be around her family and everything, it was… Oh, I had the best time. And then I got home to St. Louis and I got to be with my family, which, I spent almost four months with them, which would never happen. So given that’s kind of what’s gotten me through. Then coming back to New York, mentally what’s helped me is being in my own space, and then also just being around other artists. Oh! One of the first times that I went into a studio again with some of my friends, it was like something just like came back to life. I think it’s a thing that we quite often take for granted, but I definitely will not anymore. The thought that I didn’t take 5 billion classes before all of this started… I mean, oh, if I could have!

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah… that energetic connection that only happens in the studio with other dancers, it’s just…

Richard Riaz Yoder:
I keep thinking about my classes that I used to take with Max Stone and Jana Hicks. Oh, their classes! I just remember taking their classes, and then seeing people go through emotional journeys while they were taking their classes. That’s one thing that I miss so much, and people that aren’t dancers don’t quite understand. But when you are really living in a piece that somebody set that day, that you can feel like you can release all of your emotions, there’s nothing like it. It’s like, when I used to take Derick Grant’s class, too. His class was just, you would work so hard and you would laugh and you would have…I mean, it was just, it was everything. To be able to be a part of that for somebody else, hopefully be a part of that for somebody else is just…I love it.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Dance class as catharsis. Yup.

I’d like to talk about Marcella, about your alter ego, because she is wonderful. Who is she? How did she come to be? Tell us more, please.

Richard Riaz Yoder:
Would you like to meet her too?

Margaret Fuhrer:
Um, yes!

Richard Riaz Yoder:
She can come out.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Oh, listeners, he’s getting the wig.

Richard Riaz Yoder:
Yes. Oh yeah, I have a wig wall. Anybody that comes into my house always will end up in a wig at one point. It’s going to happen no matter what.
Marcella started in Hello, Dolly!, the guys dressing room in Hello, Dolly! Robert Hartwell was auditioning for I think it was Moulin Rouge!, and he had to have a wig. He was putting all of these wigs on the dressing room table. Then of course, a bunch of gays in a dressing room, everybody was snatching these wigs and putting them on. I put this wig on and it all of a sudden just morphed. As soon as I put this wig on, I started talking and acting in a completely different way, and that’s when Marcella was born.

I started to bring her out every time that we were in a long weekend, or if everybody needs a little boost, all of a sudden, it’s like she would just come out. What I would do is sometimes I would put her on—because I was the horse. I was the pivotal role of the horse’s rear end in Hello, Dolly!

Margaret Fuhrer:
I was going to ask, which end were you? [laughter]

Richard Riaz Yoder:
Yes. Oh, yes. I got to see the beautiful backside of Ryan Worsing every day. What I would do is sometimes I would put the wig on underneath it and then I would just pop out as this character. So, yeah, that’s pretty much how it’s been.

[in feminne voice] Oh my goodness. Yes. It is so nice to meet you.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Oh my gosh. Hi, Marcella.

Marcella:
Oh, goodness. I was not prepared for an interview today, but I’m just so happy to be here.

Margaret Fuhrer:
You look gorgeous.

Marcella:
Oh, my goodness. Stop. Keep going.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Marcella, tell us about your life in theater.

Marcella:
Oh, my goodness. Yes, I am one of those, what they call, Broadway starlet? My Broadway debut was in Hello, Dolly!, the pivotal role of the horse Patricia. I got to meet so many people. They were so happy to meet me because I’m a star. Miss Bette Midler loved me. Yeah. And Mr. David Hyde Pierce was a very big fan of mine. He loved me so much, and, oh, Bernadette Peters, she is like my cousin. Oh! It was so wonderful, and I even interviewed Kate Baldwin. Oh, Miss Kate Baldwin, she’s just the most glorious voice on this earth.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Agreed. Agreed. Congratulations on all your successes, Marcella.

Marcella:
Oh, thank you so much. Goodbye, everybody.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Thank you for humoring me. That was great.

Richard Riaz Yoder:
Oh, of course. I love it when I can bring her out.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Richard, we’re just about out of time. Thank you so much for sharing your perspective with us, for your candor, I deeply appreciate it. Can you talk about what’s on your creative horizon that people should keep an eye out for, and also where they can follow you to keep up with everything you’re doing?

Richard Riaz Yoder:
You can follow me @richardriaz on Instagram and Twitter. A couple of things that I’m working on right now: I’m working on a story for Dance Magazine, and it’s focused on the relationship with choreographers and dancers, mainly choreographers and dancers. It’s about how this new world has created a space that dancers, I feel, should be able to speak up a little bit more when it comes to racism or when it comes to abusive relationships that some choreographers can set up. Some choreographers can set up a very specific, slightly abusive relationship, right at the very beginning of a rehearsal. It’s one thing to be hard on somebody to try to bring something out of them, and there’s another thing about trying to break somebody’s soul so that they can do your work or whatever like that.

That’s one of the things I’m going to talk about, and how to set up one of those relationships that dancers will keep wanting to work for people. Because there’s some people that dancers want to work for because they know that they’ll keep working, and then there’re some choreographers that people want to work with because they make you feel good. They make you feel good, and they get a good product out of you through rehearsal. I think that’s the most important thing. You feel comfortable saying, “You know what, I don’t know about this.”

Also, Gibney Dance Studio just awarded me with a rehearsal studio space. Right now I’m trying to get things together to work on a reel for my choreography. Because I kind of feel like after this particular time, I’ve found that that’s where—I’ll always be a performer, but I feel like that is where the world is taking me. I want to be able to move tap forward as well, or be one of the people that helps move tap forward, because I think it’s becoming a lost art form in theater, and especially the skill level. What I really want to do is just honor tap, like I was saying before, and try to bring it back to more Broadway shows, because it can actually tell a story within a show. That’s what’s really neat.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It can be the main event. It should be the main event. Yeah. Oh, looking forward to seeing and reading all of that. Thank you again, Richard. A real pleasure talking with you, getting to know you a little bit—and Marcella!

Richard Riaz Yoder:
Yeah! She loves you.