Anything But a Backup Dancer
Dana Wilson brings personality to every performance.
Photo by Little Shao, courtesy Wilson.
Being a backup dancer usually means blending into the background. Not if you’re Dana Wilson. Even alongside such megastars as Justin Timberlake, she stands out. She’s the one who, without straying from the choreography, adds her own flair to make it just a touch more exciting. She draws you in with her addicting eye-contact and barely-there smirk, dancing like there’s a story going on inside—and like she’s someone you wish you could get to know.
Wilson has found a way to bring artistry to the world’s biggest stages without distracting from the show’s main ingredient. Whether she’s working for Wade Robson or Andy Blankenbuehler, dancing behind Justin Bieber or Florence and the Machine, or choreographing for “So You Think You Can Dance,” she does it with a performance quality that’s downright magnetic.
Dancing didn’t always come naturally to Wilson. The Aurora, Colorado, native says she never excelled technically as a student. “My sister was always recognized for her technique,” says Wilson. “Me, on the other hand, I would win the Sportsmanship Award or the Best Attitude This Weekend Award.” Nonetheless, Wilson moved to Los Angeles after high school and became dance assistant for choreographer Marty Kudelka, then got her first major gig as one of his nine dancers on Timberlake’s 2007 FutureSex/LoveShow tour.
It wasn’t until recently, she says, that she truly developed an identity as an individual artist. “I was 20 when I started dancing commercially, and now I’m 28. I’ve grown up so much, both as a human and as an artist,” says Wilson, currently performing on Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience tour. She’s fine-tuned her unique style into something she describes as “jazz-based, with a little old-school funk and new-school storytelling.”
Three years ago, she started taking acting lessons. “It really changed the way I perform, and helped me nurture myself as a creator,” she says. “My teacher, Gary Imhoff, talks a lot about navigating the industry without losing yourself. As he says, ‘If you round off all your edges, quirks and corners so you can fit in, you start losing your edge.’ ”
One challenge Wilson has had to navigate is getting typecast, or having to conform to certain identities. “I’ve been talked to about my castability: Am I the video vixen? Girl next door? Homie? Chick that dances like a dude? A girly-girl? These are all categories you’re expected to fit into, but they’re harmful to an artist. My acting class has helped me nurture my quirks instead of trying to fit in,” she says. “I’ve done better at auditions by being myself rather than trying to be what I think they’re looking for. Plus, 9 times out of 10, they don’t know what they’re looking for! They need someone to show up and dance for them in a way that says, ‘It’s me! I’m what you’re looking for. You can’t do this job without me.’ ”
When it comes to her onstage complexity, Wilson draws inspiration from everyone from Toni Basil to Japanese street crews to the classical ballet and contemporary dance worlds. In addition to her voracious appetite for storytelling (check out her daily 15-second Instagram videos @danadaners), Wilson is also a self-proclaimed emotional performer. “There’s no emotion I think is sacred, that shouldn’t be revealed onstage,” she says. “Any emotion is fair game during a performance, as long as the number calls for it.”
Still, performing the same routines onstage every night is a challenge for any entertainer. “Toni Basil told me if you’re not feeling it, pretend to be somebody who is. There are shows when I’ve pretended to be someone who’s dancing for Justin for the first time, or I’ve imagined I’m an angel from heaven, the devil himself, Cyd Charisse, Debbie Reynolds or Marilyn Monroe,” she says. “When you assume the position, your body will follow, and those shows end up being the most fun. Often the idea doesn’t last longer than a song, and I wind up being Dana Wilson again, just loving her job.”
And if even faking it isn’t getting the job done? Wilson looks to her audience and to Timberlake. “Just like for us, there are nights when he’s maybe not feeling 100 percent. Maybe he’s injured or under the weather. I think about lifting him up and backing him up so he has the energy he needs to get through the show,” she says. “I’ll also make up people in the audience to perform for. What does this person need to see today? What does this person miss in his or her daily life that I could embody right now? A woman who wants to feel sexy for her husband? A man who’s never seen a strong woman, never felt inferior to a woman? Or, of course, a little girl who wants to be a dancer.”
Alison Feller is a writer in New York City.
Making Her Mark
Dana Wilson isn’t just changing the commercial-dance game with her onstage approach. She’s also adamant about making sure dancers are treated fairly. As an active board member with Dancers’ Alliance, she played a crucial role in getting a union contract for the dancers on Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience tour and was a voice in the alliance’s 2012 music video campaign.
“I see, hear and experience poor treatment on music video shoots all the time,” Wilson says. “I believe dancers who have trained themselves to a professional level should be treated—and compensated—as professionals.” The music video contract with SAG-AFTRA guaranteed performers wage security, sufficient rest breaks and safety assurance on set.
Wilson pursued a union contract for the tour because she wanted the dancers to be eligible for health care and pension benefits associated with work promoting an album recorded under the SAG-AFTRA contract. “I was concerned about potentially losing my job to a dancer who wanted a spot on the tour more than she wanted health care and pension, but I felt very strongly supported by my fellow dancers, the choreographer and the community at large,” Wilson says. “I know this cause is bigger than me and my career.” In the end, it wasn’t just Wilson’s comrades supporting her and the cause: Timberlake got on board, too, and his management agreed to the contract. Now the goal is to make this the industry standard. —AF
Alicia Alonso's famed ballet company in Cuba has a new leader: the beloved hometown prima ballerina Viengsay Valdés.
Ballet Nacional of Cuba just named Valdés deputy artistic director, which means she will immediately assume the daily responsibilities of running the company. Alonso, 98, will retain the title of general director, but in practice, Valdés will be the one making all the artistic decisions.
I'm terrified of performing choreography that changes directions. I messed up last year when the stage lights caused me to become disoriented. What can I do to prevent this from happening again? I can perform the combination just fine in the studio with the mirror.
—Scared, San Francisco, CA
From the angles of your feet to the size of your head, it can sometimes seem like there is no part of a dancer's body that is not under scrutiny. It's easy to get obsessed when you are constantly in front of a mirror, trying to fit a mold.
Yet the traditional ideals seem to be exploding every day. "The days of carbon-copy dancers are over," says BalletX dancer Caili Quan. "Only when you're confident in your own body can you start truly working with what you have."
While the striving may never end, there can be unexpected benefits to what you may think of as your "imperfections."
It's the second week of Miami City Ballet School's Choreographic Intensive, and the students stand in a light-drenched studio watching as choreographer Durante Verzola sets a pas de trois. "Don't be afraid to look at the ceiling—look that high," Verzola shows one student as she holds an arabesque. "That gives so much more dimension to your dancing." Other students try the same movement from the sidelines.
When Arantxa Ochoa took over as MCB School's director of faculty and curriculum two years ago, she decided to add a second part to the summer intensive: five weeks focused on technique would be followed by a new two-week choreography session. The technique intensive is not a requirement, but students audition for both at the same time and many attend the two back-to-back.
On a summer afternoon at The Ailey School's studios, a group of students go through a sequence of Horton exercises, radiating concentration and strength as they tilt to one side, arms outstretched and leg parallel to the ground. Later, in a studio down the hall, a theater dance class rehearses a lively medley of Broadway show tunes. With giant smiles and bouncy energy, students run through steps to "The Nicest Kids in Town" from Hairspray.
"You gotta really scream!" teacher Judine Somerville calls out as they mime their excitement. "This is live theater!" They segue into the audition number from A Chorus Line, "I Hope I Get It," their expressions becoming purposeful and slightly nervous. "Center stage is wherever I am," Somerville tells them when the music stops, making them repeat the words back to her. "Take that wherever you go."
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Dance artists, as a rule, are a resilient bunch. But working in a studio in New York City without heat or electricity in the middle of winter? That's not just crazy; it's unhealthy, and too much to ask of anyone.
Unfortunately, Brooklyn Studios for Dance hasn't had heat since mid-November, making it impossible for classes or performances to take place in the community-oriented center.
So what's a studio to do? Throw a massive dance party, of course.
As winter sets in, your muscles may feel tighter than they did in warmer weather. You're not imagining it: Cold weather can cause muscles to lose heat and contract, resulting in a more limited range of motion and muscle soreness or stiffness.
But dancers need their muscles to be supple and fresh, no matter the weather outside. Here's how to maintain your mobility during the colder months so your dancing isn't affected:
A newly launched initiative hopes to change the face of ballet, both onstage and behind the scenes. Called "The Equity Project: Increasing the Presence of Blacks in Ballet," the three-year initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is a partnership between Dance Theatre of Harlem, the International Association of Blacks in Dance and Dance/USA.
"We've seen huge amounts of change in the years since 1969, when Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded," says Virginia Johnson, artistic director of DTH. "But change is happening much too slowly, and it will continue to be too slow until we come to a little bit more of an awareness of what the underlying issues are and what needs to be done to address them."
From the outside, it seemed like the worst of New York City Ballet's problems were behind them last winter, when ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired amid accusations of abuse and sexual harassment, and an internal investigation did not substantiate those claims.
But further troubles were revealed in August when a scandal broke that led to dancer Chase Finlay's abrupt resignation and the firing of fellow principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro. All three were accused of "inappropriate communications" and violating "norms of conduct."
The artistic director sets the tone for a dance company and leads by example. But regardless of whether Martins, and George Balanchine before him, established a healthy organization, the issues at NYCB bespeak an industry-wide problem, says Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founding artistic director of Urban Bush Women. "From New York City Ballet to emerging artists, we've just done what's been handed down," she observes. "That has not necessarily led to great practices."
If you've ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes at Dance Magazine, now's your chance to find out. Dance Magazine is seeking an editorial intern who's equally passionate about dance and journalism.
Through March 1, we are accepting applications for a summer intern to assist our staff onsite in New York City from June to August. The internship includes an hourly stipend and requires a minimum two-day-a-week commitment. (We do not provide assistance securing housing.)
For the past few months, the dance world has been holding its collective breath, waiting for New York City Ballet to announce who will take over the helm as artistic director.
Though former ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired over a year ago after accusations of sexual harassment and abuse (an internal investigation did not corroborate the accusations), the search for a new leader didn't begin until last May.
Nine months later, the new director's name could be released any day now. And we have some theories about who it might be:
Some people take this profession as just a chapter of their life. They feel like dance is a job—a fun job, but a job. Other people live their life through dance. I never considered being a ballerina a profession. It's a lifestyle.
If I don't have a performance, I feel like a tiger trapped in a cage. I have so many emotions, I feel I need to give them to somebody, to exhaust myself—I need to cry or laugh, or else it's suffocating. Other people might scream or throw bottles into the wall. We dancers scream onstage through our movement. For me, it's like sweeping off the dust in my soul.
Back in 2011, Yale University's dean of science was thinking about refreshing the program's offerings for non-majors when he happened upon a Pilobolus performance. A light bulb went off: Dance is full of physics.
That realization led to what has become an eight-year collaboration between particle physicist Sarah Demers and former New York City Ballet dancer Emily Coates, both professors at Yale who were brought together to co-teach a course called The Physics of Dance. Their partnership has involved everything from directing a short film to presenting a TedX Talk and performing a piece that Coates created, commissioned by Danspace Project. This month, they're publishing a book about what they've discovered by dialoging across two seemingly disparate disciplines.
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
Though Polunin has long had a reputation for behaving inappropriately, in the last month his posts have been somewhat unhinged. In one, Polunin, who is Ukrainian, shows off his new tattoo of Vladimir Putin:
Watching Bohemian Rhapsody through the eyes of dancer, there's a certain element of the movie that's impossible to ignore: Rami Malek's physical performance of Freddie Mercury. The way he so completely embodies the nuances of the rock star is simply mind-blowing. We had to learn how he did it, so we called up Polly Bennett, the movement director who coached him through the entire process.
In a bit of serendipitous timing, while we were on the phone, she got a text from Malek that he had just been nominated for a Golden Globe. And during our chat, it became quite clear that she had obviously been a major part of that—more than we could have ever imagined.
Sebastian Abarbanell remembers being asked as an undergrad at Trinity Laban in London to perform wearing only a dance belt. "I said no," he says, "because I felt uncomfortable." Now a performer with Sidra Bell Dance New York, he's performed partially nude several times, without reservation. The difference? "It comes with more experience and maturing as a dancer," he says. "When you see a dancer living in their skin, you don't need to put anything else on them. When I said no in college, I wasn't in my skin yet."
Getting in your skin—and getting comfortable wearing only your skin onstage—requires a particular alchemy of vulnerability, agency, preparation and practice.
Birmingham Royal Ballet announced today that international star Carlos Acosta will be taking over as director in January of 2020. Current BRB director David Bintley will be stepping down this summer, at the end of the company's 2019 season, after a 24-year tenure. "It is a tremendous honor and privilege to have been appointed to lead Birmingham Royal Ballet," Acosta said in a statement.
Since retiring from The Royal Ballet in 2015, Acosta has focused much of his attention on his native Cuba, where he's proven his directorial abilities at the helm of Acosta Danza, the contemporary company that he founded in 2016. In 2017 Acosta also opened his first Dance Academy through his foundation, which provides free training to students. We don't yet know how Acosta will balance his time between his projects in Cuba and his new role at BRB.
My personal life has taken a nosedive since I broke up with my boyfriend. He's in the same show and is now dating one of my colleagues. It's heartbreaking to see them together, and I'm determined never to date a fellow dancer again. But it's challenging to find someone outside, as I practically live in the theater. Do you have any advice?
—Loveless, New York, NY
The inimitable Carol Channing, best known for her role as the titular Hello, Dolly!, passed away today at 97.
Though she became a three-time Tony winner, Channing was born in Seattle, far from the Great White Way, in 1921. After growing up in San Francisco, she attended the famed Bennington College, studying dance and drama. She later told the university, "What Bennington allows you to do is develop the thing you're going to do anyway, over everybody's dead body." For Channing, that meant decades of fiery, comical performances, bursting with energy.
Something's coming, I don't know when
But it's soon...maybe tonight?
Those iconic lyrics have basically been our #mood ever since we first heard a remake of the West Side Story film, directed by Steven Spielberg and choreographed by Justin Peck, was in the works. THE CASTING. THE CASTING WAS COMING.
Well, last night—after an extensive search process that focused on finding the best actors within the Puerto Rican/Latinx community—the WSS team finally revealed who'll be playing Maria, Anita, Bernardo, and Chino (joining Ansel Elgort, who was cast as Tony last fall). And you guys: It is a truly epic group.