Interview: Dana Wilson
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Q: How did you begin dancing?

It all technically started when my mom put me in dance class when I was three. I grew up training in dance for probably 15 to 35 hours a week, and I was in a competition company. We went to competitions and conventions, I did solos, duos, trios, all the styles, all the training, all the things. When I was about 15, one of the older girls at my studio that I really looked up to moved to L.A., and she made pursuing a career as a backup dancer/as an entertainment dancer seem attractive and doable for someone like me. I didn't have the best turns or feet or legs, so it was clear I wouldn't be in a ballet company. I did enjoy ballet training, but my body is atypical for ballerinas and I cried every time I did adagio, so THAT wasn’t the option. I moved to L.A. in 2005 and worked a day job at Urban Outfitters and auditioned as often as I could before I booked my first job. In that time, training and becoming a top performing dancer were my biggest objectives. I desperately wanted to go on a world tour and be in movies. Obviously I wanted to survive, so I wanted money. I wanted to be in commercials. After that year, it was apparent to me there were a lot of good dancers... and that pool of good dancers was pretty saturated. I started working as Marty Kudelka’s assistant and explored other interests and styles, like mime. I started taking acting classes. It was around that time I started working a lot more. Thanks to working with Marty, I have worked as a part of Justin Timberlake's team, since early 2007, up until his most recent tour. I have been very fortunate in my timing and placement and skill set, because I keep knocking off items on my list of things to do! In 2019, I spent March through August in NYC, working on the film adaptation of ‘In the Heights,’ Lin Manuel Miranda’s Broadway babe, and immediately after that I worked coaching for Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming biopic, where Austin Butler will be playing Elvis. We worked about four hours a day, three to five days a week, helping create Elvis Presley's mind and body inside of Austin's mind and body. It was a fascinating challenge that called on everything from dance,to acting, to mime, and teaching. I have been teaching since I was 16 and I am now 32, and honestly, teaching gives me a similar rush to that that I get when I perform. Slightly different, but both tremendously fulfilling — they both demand a lot of creativity and enthusiasm. To be one of those two things, you have to be possessed by it. I think teachers are right there next to social workers and our phenomenal healthcare professionals. Educators are being faced with such a unique challenge, dance especially, because dance requires, in so many instances, hands-on, human to human interaction. It is a tough time to be a dance teacher. 

Q: What other interests and passions do you have outside of dance? Or what is something that inspires you to do your craft?

I am a mime enthusiast. I am technically a mime, but I’m not so great anymore — I don't practice as much as I should. I worked closely with my mime coach, to create a curriculum for mime technique specifically geared towards dancers. I have a fascination with acting, and that comes from a love of story and character and the belief that, to be a truly transcendental dancer, you have to be a great actor. Outside of the arts, I started a podcast this year, so I am becoming interested in that form of journalism, even if it is occasionally autobiographical. I have been interviewing people. I have been writing my episodes, spending time with words instead of moves, so that is a shift for me. My husband is an optical engineer and machinist, and I have spent the last three days (at least 12 hours a day) at the workshop, aiding him in a laser cutting project that will help deliver 500 face shields to medical professionals in L.A., San Diego and Denver hospitals (I grew up in Denver, so I am shipping some back home). My sister and brother-in-law are both in medicine, so I guess you can say I am interested in that! There is also the shop world, Daniel’s world, which is every machine under the sun — he’s got 3D printers, laser cutters, laser welders, etc. We could create a whole world from that shop. I am both empowered by that and slightly intimidated by that, and all his technical knowledge. Daniel is not that interested in building sets — as it turns out, I am the movie person in the relationship; he is the device guy that builds the things that make life better, not just better looking. 

Q: What have been some challenges in your pre professional and professional career?

A lot of challenges come up that are circumstantial, like injury of this virus. For me personally, one of my biggest challenges I am still working on daily is imposter syndrome. The idea that I will wake up someday and everyone will find out that I actually have no idea what I am doing, and I am a bad dancer and teacher, and that I am a fraud. 

Q: What was it like entering the professional world?

I mentioned growing up a studio kid, but I did not mention that my dance teacher, Michelle Latimer, and her studio Michelle Latimer Dance Academy, had started making trips to L.A. over our fall break even before I was allowed to go on them. When I was 13, I went to L.A. the first time, and when we came, we would train. The biggest studies then were Millennium Dance Complex, Debbie Reynolds Dance Studio, and Edge Performing Arts Center. I started making relationships with peers and professionals at that time as a young person. The convention circuit also prepared me with relationships with working choreographers. I also moved to L.A. literally at the same time, in a caravan, with two of my best friends, and so immediately after coming here, I had a network. It wasn't big, but I knew whose classes and styles I was interested in. I knew what I needed to work on and had shoulders to cry on when things were tough. I also had a day job at Urban Outfitters in Colorado before I moved, and I transferred when I came to L.A., so I had some (minimum wage) income right when I made that move. That being said, the auditions that happened for a year before any bookings had me really discouraged. I think that is what a lot of people go through that the first year or so. I got a lot of “No, thank you,” which always felt like “No, you suck.” I suppose those early relationships from the convention circuit and trips to L.A. really turned into some of my first professional work. 

Q: Do you believe dance can be a platform for social justice topics? If so, how? and/or Have you used your art form to make a difference?

Yes! Cindy Salgado is one of my favorite humans, period. She is also one of my absolute favorite dancers. I mentioned earlier needing to be obsessed with something in order to be a performer or teacher in that thing - this woman is obsessed with dance, all styles, all disciplines, be it freestyle, street dance, ballet — she is a member of Crystal Pite’s company, Kidd Pivot, and also free styles at a hip-hop or house club until 4 in the morning, and gets up ready to do a ballet barre at 10am. She is fascinating. She is one of the greatest social justice advocates that I have ever met. She is the co-founder of Artists Striving To End Poverty (ASTEP) — she does a lot of work with them. This is a big long-winded way of saying that Cindy’s choreography specifically is almost never a show about dance; it is about bigger issues, almost always danced to very powerful spoken word, and the movement is in such symbiosis with the verbiage that I feel like it packs more punch than the words could deliver themselves. Words can bring a lot to your senses, but I don’t know of many things that are as engaging as another human being breathing, sweating, and throwing shapes on a stage the way that dance does. Cindy's work spotlights issues other than dance. Whether they are social justice related, or narrative-driven, the point of her work is to tell stories that are not told often and get people looking at things that aren't illuminated by entertainment dance. 

Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected you as a performing artist? (community, financially, initial reactions, company shift, online class, emotions, initial cancellation reaction) 

All of my work, whether teaching, performing, or creating, which I usually do with someone else, involves people in close proximity. Whether being in front of a big audience with people, or working as a teacher on the convention circuit in a ballroom full of 300 kids, every single way I make money and work involves being in close contact with people. Everything has changed. 

My husband is very diligent in following current events and is a very capable problem-solver. When problems come up, he sniffs out solutions. As soon as we heard about coronavirus and concerns about a pandemic, we started preparing by getting out what used to be our earthquake kits. We went through them, updating them into corona-kits.. We have our important information, a little cash, some food, and we felt prepared and followed the news closely. In early March, I was supposed to travel on a convention, and I cancelled on them before they cancelled their event. I started cancelling my own events before the events started getting cancelled because I wasn’t comfortable travelling with the news I was hearing. 

When it started to get worse, my thought was this big GASP, like this will be a plunge and maybe hurt. And then I really jumped straight to getting solutions. My husband was a huge help in making us prepared with food, medicine, and cleaning supplies stock, and I immediately made ways I could still be helpful, useful, and still work. I reached out to studios about continuing training on video, then cranked that stuff out. Also, a small part of me has been enjoying the idea of shutting in for a little while and focusing on my podcast and work that I haven't given the attention it deserved. I’m quick to fill my social calendar and now that it is wide open, I’m excited about the new time I have. I’m also very concerned about the bigger effects this will have on the industry, not just the immediate ones. Everyone is concerned about making money right now and I am worried about dance studios being able to stay open with the amount of free online classes. I am more curious than I am stressed or anxious. I am curious how this will shape the way we train in the future and how long it will take the industry to get back up. ‘In the Heights’ postponed its release indefinitely and we don't know when that movie we worked on for five months will be seen. 

Q: How do you think we can continue to create and share art during this time? 

Digitally! All forms of digital. The only way it can't be shared is in person — all other ways are viable. 

Q: What social changes and responsibilities have you seen people making during the pandemic? Do you think the pandemic will make us a more socially conscious society?

I’m certainly seeing people honor the social distancing measures. People are offering free training on social platforms. There are some very creative uses of Zoom — a music video came out a few days ago that is a great creative response to the distance and a treat to watch. A lot of people that aren't usually accessible for training are teaching classes and/or taking classes. I think also, people are being more open and vulnerable with their emotional state, being visibly anxious, depressed, worried. Although people reveal these things, they are leading with love and encouraging each other through. I think the community is literally unified by this virus, but also emotionally unified in that we are all scared and unsure and the playing field has been leveled in a lot of ways. 

Q: Using the idea of “worldmaking”, how do you imagine the performing arts world after the pandemic? (Worldmaking: How you can re-imagine the world in your own terms, the way you want it to be. Using this tool one can construct new worlds and write themselves into narratives that have excluded them and systems that have disabled them.)

I believe people will cherish even more hands-on training, as well as dance and performing arts that are exchanged live and in person, be it an underground freestyle club or a night at the theater. I think that people will cherish those moments more, having been without them for a concentrated period of time. 

Transcription courtesy of