"The Performance That Changed My Life": 7 Dance Pros on the Shows That Hooked Them

October 7, 2020

Can you recall the moment you knew dance had to be it? For many dancers, that lightning struck during an utterly unforgettable performance—something they watched early in their training, or at a moment when they needed an encouraging boost. Dance Spirit asked seven industry leaders about the performances that made the biggest difference in their careers.

Alex Clayton (front) in Concertiana (Paul B. Goode, courtesy Paul Taylor American Modern Dance)

Alex Clayton

Dancer, Paul Taylor Dance Company

“When I was growing up in Kentucky, the dance companies I’d see—especially local ensembles—were comprised of predominantly white dancers. It seemed like there were always two or three coveted spots for dancers of color. I couldn’t really fathom dancing professionally, because how hard would it be to enter a field in which there were so few spots available?

“My world instantaneously got larger between my junior and senior years of high school, when I saw Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. It was galvanizing to see all these beautiful and muscular Black bodies—just like mine. That was the impetus I needed. I started training at the Louisville Ballet School, and after high school I went to Stephens College in Missouri for dance. Through it all, I kept the image of watching Ailey onstage in my mind, and made it a goal to train at The Ailey School. That goal became a reality in 2013 after college. Having looked up to the dancers in the company for so long, it felt like destiny.”

Nathalia Arja performs in Firebird (Alexander Iziliaev, courtesy Miami City Ballet)

Nathalia Arja

Principal, Miami City Ballet

“When I was 8 years old, my mom gave me a DVD of The Royal Ballet’s La Fille mal gardée, starring Lesley Collier and Michael Coleman. Mom had a whole collection of ballet DVDs, but La Fille was always my first pick. I was obsessed—I watched every day. It was so beautiful. I loved the playfulness, the jumps, the sweet romance—there’s a bit of everything. Lesley was so wonderful in her pantomime, and her connection with Michael was so real that it felt like I was watching a film. She’s not performing for the audience—she’s just being herself in her element.”

Jasmine Harper (Trellis Evans, courtesy Harper)

Jasmine Harper

Commercial dancer

“Watching ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ and ‘The Wade Robson Project’ on TV changed my life as a dancer. I’d watch every episode. On ‘So You Think,’ Robson’s ‘Ramalama (Bang Bang)’ especially stood out—I think I’m just a Wade super fan!—as did Travis Wall and Martha Nichols’ performance of ‘Steam Heat.’ I actually performed a trio to ‘Steam Heat’ at my studio in Rochester, NY, after we saw it on TV. But watching the shows as a whole made a professional career seem really tangible. I’d see kids coming from dance studios, going through the audition process, and making it. That proved to me that if I put in the hard work to get to their level, it was something I could do.”

Maleek Washington (Eric Politzer, courtesy Washington)

Maleek Washington

Freelance dancer and choreographer

“I was just about to start high school when my mother and I saw Complexions Contemporary Dance Company’s first-ever performance. I’d seen a lot of dance by that point, but nothing spoke to me like this did. I was floored. It gave me the validation that dance was possible for me, and I wanted to move like those dancers. Desmond Richardson was, of course, the star, and to me, he looked like a football player—or like a guy I’d see walking in my neighborhood. But he was also so smooth and elegant in his movement, and his flexibility was mind-blowing. While we were there, my mom read Desmond’s bio and saw that he had gone to Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. It was right down the street! In that moment I thought, OK, that’s where I’m going. The performance really changed everything for me, and gave me a clear direction.”

Andy Blankenbuehler

Broadway choreographer

“I remember watching Singin’ in the Rain for the first time when I was 11 years old. The moment of Gene Kelly actually singing in the rain hooked me. My career hasn’t led me to do big, sweeping romantic shows like that dance. But it showed me just how joyful dancing could be—as well as masculine and sensitive at the same time.

“A few years later, my dance teacher brought in a video of Michael Jackson’s ‘The Way You Make Me Feel.’ That was the first time we learned choreography that felt famous. It was so outside my world in Cincinnati, OH. We could do something the stars were doing! Jackson’s ‘Smooth Criminal’ video also impacted me deeply. There’s even a section in the In the Heights choreography called ‘smooth criminal,’ because it plays on the video’s iconic, sharp start-and-stop movement vocab.”

Adji Cissko (RJ Muna, courtesy Alonzo King LINES Ballet)

Adji Cissoko

Dancer, Alonzo King LINES Ballet

“Really, my first inspiration was music. My dad is a musician—he plays the kora, a Senegalese string instrument. He’d play for hours, so there was always music in my house that made me want to move. When I was 6 years old, my mom’s best friend gave me a Tchaikovsky CD that had music from Romeo and Juliet, The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and Sleeping Beauty. Without ever having seen the ballets, I’d listen and create my own movement. The first ballet I did see was the Bolshoi Ballet’s Nutcracker. My grandparents lived in Russia, and we went to a performance during one visit. Of course the music resonated, but what really stuck with me was that there was such an ease to the movement. It was flowing. I wanted to move like that.”

Jessica Tong in Counterpoint by Kyle Abraham (Todd Rosenberg courtesy Hubbard Street Dance Chicago)

Jessica Tong

Associate artistic director, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago

“In my late teens, I saw Batsheva Dance Company perform a version of Decadance. In one part, a naked woman stood downstage with a projection of another naked woman on her body—her skin was used as the backdrop. I was completely blown away. Contemporary dance was still very new to me, and just seeing the possibilities of what dance and art could be was profoundly life-changing. At the time, I had recently moved to New York, and I’d been dancing with Ballet Tech. So I was really figuring out what I wanted to do and taking gigs where I could. Seeing that performance solidified my path and inspired me to focus my energy on a contemporary dance career.”