Why I Dance: Daniel J. Watts

June 30, 2014

Daniel J. Watts has an impressive range of Broadway credits, from
In the Heights to The Little Mermaid, and is currently featured in the critically acclaimed After Midnight. He grew up in Indian Trail, North Carolina, and earned his musical theater BFA from Elon University. Watts also moonlights as a spoken-word artist (sample his work at wattswords.com).

I remember wanting to take tap when I was 6 or so, having fallen in love with it somewhere between Sammy Davis Jr. in Alice in Wonderland, Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins and Savion Glover on Sesame Street. My mother, feeling I wouldn’t stick with it, vetoed that. She was probably right. But seeing those men express themselves through movement while furthering a story they were telling equated with their having some sort of magical power. There were no words at all, only shapes, ideas and thoughts that were open to my interpretation. It was a language that I could understand, and yet, no one had said a word.

For a long time, sports were my main extracurricular activity. Then I started performing in community theater, but it wasn’t until I was 15, after I “fake tapped” my way through a production of Gypsy, that my mother finally let me take tap. It was nice to find out exactly what Sammy and Dick and Savion had been doing.

I was learning the magic, but something was missing. I knew how to perform. What I lacked was expression—the ability to dance from the inside out. Dance has the power to transcend technique and “tricks” and make audiences feel things bigger than themselves. Simply making an impression is one thing, but to express oneself, through movement, is a far greater feat. I was looking for that.

I was accepted by Elon University’s BFA music theater program, with its wonderful professors. It was one particular night during my freshman year that dance would have its most profound effect on me. It must have been a little after 1:00 a.m. I don’t remember what was wrong with me (homesickness, girl troubles, an upcoming exam), but I was feeling some kind of way and couldn’t sleep. Something told me to grab my tap shoes and head across campus to the dance studio. When I got there, I found that the window was unlocked. I sneaked through and, without ever turning the lights on, I danced for hours, getting out whatever aggression or anger or fear or anxiety I was feeling. For the first time, I was simply expressing myself. Ever since, I’ve been trying to replicate that feeling any and every time I perform.

On Broadway, there is no guarantee that you will be able to connect to the choreography. Sometimes your real work is figuring out how to deliver the choreographer’s vision while still leaving room for self-expression. I’ve never been the greatest technician, and though I have a few tricks up my sleeve, there is always someone else with more. What has helped set me apart is picking an emotion and letting the movement enhance it. Without intention, steps are just steps. Our job as artists is to express ourselves, and hopefully the audience will receive it. In that, I believe, is the magic.