Anything But a Backup Dancer

December 31, 2014


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