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The Story Behind The Latest Dance Show to Hit Netflix
Even as a teen, Vandana Hart knew she wasn't headed for a cookie-cutter dance career. "Growing up with a family that really cared about social change, pursuing dance as a standalone career—without linking it to something more—felt like I wasn't completely fulfilling my purpose," she says.
Linking dance to "something more" is just what she did: In her downtime from her role as a coordinator for UN Women's "safe cities" initiative, she has choreographed and taught dance around the world. Now, she produces a Netflix series called "We Speak Dance," in which she travels the globe to learn new dance styles and the deeply human stories behind them.
Vandana Hart. Image courtesy "We Speak Dance"
Hart's life has been multicultural from the start. Born in Moscow, her mother is Russian and her father is an American who worked to free political prisoners during the Cold War. After living in Sweden and India (she was raised Hindu), her family moved to California and later Oregon.
Her early dance study was no less eclectic, ranging from ballet to Afro-Caribbean. Though she was accepted into the Ailey/Fordham BFA program, her academic pursuits led her to switch to the certificate program at Ailey before entering New York University the next year to pursue a BA in global politics.
During this time, she was also getting into New York's underground hip-hop scene and was taken under the wing of legends from the Moptop/Elite Force crew. "I was getting classical training during the day at Ailey, then going to dance parties at night," she says.
Upon graduating from NYU, she took an internship at the United Nations and was hired after a month. A few years later, after receiving a master's from the London School of Economics, she took a risk that would change her life. "I had been to Kenya as a tourist and fell in love with it," she says. "So I got a one-way ticket and moved there. Without a job."
Once in Kenya, she picked up consulting work for the UN—but dance found its way back into the forefront of her life. "The first question I ask everywhere I go is, 'Where do I find the best dancers?' " she says. This led her to board a bus for a two-hour trek to a neighborhood in Nairobi, where she met a crew that asked her to choreograph and dance in their music video the next day. Little did she know that this crew was actually pretty famous—and the song would be number one in East Africa for most of that year.
Image courtesy "We Speak Dance"
Hart received calls to choreograph for many other groups and was asked to judge "So You Think You Can Dance" in Africa. During one trip to South Africa, she received an invitation to a house dance party and traveled an hour out of Johannesburg to a harsh township built during apartheid. "They never have foreigners come there, and did not want to give me any trust—which is understandable given the history," she says. She decided to just observe, but soon became so overcome that she jumped in the circle. "It became very bright, and I looked up, and everyone was filming me," she says. "They were like, 'Move here!' "
The experience reconfirmed Hart's belief in the power of dance. "That was a pretty monumental moment of how dance can overcome boundaries, class divides, all these things," she says. This power is what Hart hopes to bring to the world through "We Speak Dance," which features interviews and performances from dancers across the globe, and follows Hart as she learns their traditional and urban styles.
The show was born when Hart received a grant that enabled her to hire a team and film pilots in Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya. After shopping the show in West Africa, every network she approached made her an offer. She then shopped in the U.S., looking for the right outlet to bring her multicultural passion to American audiences. "All of the dance shows have been competitions," she says. "Not about culture—about how dance brings us together." And for Hart, that's what her career is all about.
"We Speak Dance" airs on Netflix on January 1.
One of the biggest myths about ballet dancers is that they don't eat. While we all know that, yes, there are those who do struggle with body image issues and eating disorders, most healthy dancers love food—and eat plenty of it to fuel their busy schedules.
Luckily for us, they're not afraid to show it:
Looking for your next audition shoe? Shot at and in collaboration with Broadway Dance Center, Só Dança has launched a new collection of shoes working with some pretty famous faces of the musical theater world! Offered in two different styles and either 2.5" or 3" heels, top industry professionals are loving how versatile and supportive these shoes are! Pro tip: The heel is centered under the body so you can feel confident and stable!
When I wrote about my struggle with depression, and eventual departure from dance because of it, I expected criticism. I was prepared to be challenged. But much to my relief, and horror, dancers from all over the world responded with support and stories of solidarity. The most critical response I saw was this one:
"Dance isn't for everyone."
This may as well be a mantra in the dance world. We have become entrenched in the Darwinian notion that the emotionally weak will be weeded out. There is no room for them anyway.
Growing up in a family-owned dance studio in Missouri had its perks for tap dancer Anthony Russo. But it also earned him constant taunting, especially in high school.
"There was a junior in my sophomore year health class who was absolutely relentless," he says. "I'd get tripped on my way to the front of the classroom and he'd say, 'Watch out, twinkle toes.' If I raised my hand and answered a question incorrectly, I'd hear a patronizing 'Nice one, Bojangles.' "
What does a superstar like Carlos Acosta do after bidding farewell to his career in classical ballet? In Acosta's case, he returns to his native country, Cuba, to funnel his fame, connections and prodigious energies back into the dance scene that formed him. Because of its top-notch, state-supported training programs and popular embrace of the art of dance, Cuba is brimming with talented dancers. What it has been short on, until recently, are opportunities outside of the mainstream companies, as well as access to a more international repertoire. That is changing now, and, with the creation of Acosta Danza, launched in 2016, Acosta is determined to open the doors even wider to new ideas and audiences.
There's so much more to the dance world than making and performing dances. Arts administrators do everything from raising money to managing companies to building new audiences. With the growing number of arts administration programs in colleges, dancers have an opportunity to position themselves for a multifaceted career on- or offstage—and to bring their unique perspective as artists to administrative work.
While Solange was busy helping big sis Beyoncé give Coachella its best performances of all time, an equally compelling project was quietly circulating on Instagram:
New York City Ballet continues its first year without Peter Martins at the helm as our spring season opens tonight.
When he retired at the start of the new year, we plunged headfirst into unknown, murky waters. Who would the new director be? When would we know? Would we dancers get some say in the decision? Who would oversee the Balanchine ballets? Who would be in charge of casting? Would a new director bring along huge upheaval? Could some of us be out of a job?
In the world of ballet, Arcadian Broad is a one-stop shop: He'll come up with a story, compose its music, choreograph the movement and dance it himself. But then Broad has always been a master of versatility. As a teenager he juggled school, dance and—after the departure of his father—financial responsibility. It was Broad's income from dancing that kept his family afloat. Fast-forward six years and things are far more stable. Broad now lives on his own in an apartment, but you can usually find him in the studio.
Bales of hay, black umbrellas, bicycles—this Midsummer Night's Dream would be unrecognizable to the Bard. Alexander Ekman's full-length, inspired by Scandinavian solstice traditions and set to music by Mikael Karlsson, is a madcap celebration of the longest day of the year, when the veil between our world and that of the supernatural is said to be at its thinnest. The Joffrey Ballet's performances mark the seductively surreal work's North American premiere. April 25–May 6. joffrey.org.