Two years ago I wrote a cover story for Dance Teacher magazine based on an interview with Denise Wall. I proposed the story to the editors there because I felt quite taken with the dancers her studio, Denise Wall’s Dance Energy in Virginia Beach, VA, turned out. They not only had phenomenal technique but danced with passion and poise as well. I wanted to know how she created such amazing dancers. I wanted Julian to dance like them.
Among other things, it turned out that she used unique imagery—imagery often catered to a specific dancer—to help her dancers overcome dance-related issues. Here’s her description of how she helped a whole class of dancers improve their turn out: “Imagine what a flower bud looks like when it opens,” I told them. I put my hands between a student’s knees, and added, “Back here, I have your flower bud.” I pushed my hands through her legs and opened them wide. “Open up your flower bud like this.” They tried their turn out again and, magically, it improved. Days later in class, I pointed to their legs and simply said, “Flower!” and their turn out was better.
Wall never made her name as a professional dancer, yet she has become a popular master class teacher and sought out coach. America became aware of Wall’s teaching ability when her sons, Travis Wall and Danny Tidwell, as well as her student, Jaimie Goodwin, became top-10 finalists on Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance. However, her protégés can be seen on numerous productions, including Jason Parson’s Dance Company, Rasta Thomas’ Bad Boys of Dance, Broadway’s “Wicked,” and in the movies “Jump Up” “High School Musical 3,” and “Step Up.” Danny is now performing in the new Broadway hit “Memphis,” and Travis has gone on to become a choreographer for So You Think You Can Dance.
This summer I sat down in person with Denise while Julian and I were in New York City for the American Ballet Theatre Summer Intensive and she and her students were at the New York City Dance Alliance national finals. I interviewed her about raising dancing boys. You see she hasn’t just raised Danny and Travis; she’s raised five dancin’ boys. For this reason, I figured she’d have some great advice to offer all of us.
So, at long last (six months later…), here’s Part 1 of my interview with Denise Wall.
Getting teased for dancing or being gay seems to be one of the biggest issues for male dancers. Not long after Danny appeared on SYTYCD he mentioned to me that even as an adult he still gets teased. Can you tell me about your son’s experiences with teasing and how you have dealt with this issue with them and with other boys you’ve taught?
Teasing is a really big issue. My oldest son, Scott, danced, and when he was in 5th grade one little girl in our studio got all the kids to gather around him and make fun of him because he danced. He was so devastated he pulled away from dance. He started to focus on acting. His dad was an actor.
Now he’s sorry he did because he’s trying to get on Broadway, and he keeps on getting close. This is because his dance is not as brushed up as his acting and singing.
Teasing is a hard thing to deal with as a mother. You console them. As a dance teacher you’re doing the same thing; you’re consoling them. You just have to let them know that it’s okay, and the way to respond is not to be devastated because dancing is their passion. It’s something they love. You tell them that if you show the other people that, then you make them look like idiots for making fun of you. It’s not different than if someone’s a painter and they are paining or a football player has practice every day. They are passionate. Everybody has a different interest.
I would explain to my sons that if you believe in yourself and don’t let yourself be devastated the other people will leave you alone and come to understand. But it is up to us as parents to help get them past that point. It’s really hard.
After that at my own studio I was very cautious when girls would say things to boys or even start to tease them. I’m very easy going, but when that would happen I would become a tiger. I would set the girls down and say, “When you get older you’re going to complain that you don’t have male dancers at your studio, because that’s another form of learning…partnering and all that. You won’t have that opportunity if you make fun of the boys because they dance or if you make them feel uncomfortable.”
Parents can watch for this and make sure the dance teachers or owners of the dance studio are aware of any teasing issues.
The fear of being called “gay” or stereotyped as gay stops a lot of boys from dancing. How did you deal with that with your boys and male students?
I know there are a lot of gay dancers, but it makes me mad that this is what stops a lot of guys from dancing. They will say, “Oh, well, people will say I’m gay.”
I let them know that I’m fine with them being gay—or not, you love them for who they are. But it’s like you’re going to say, “You’re racist because you dance.” You have to help them say, “That’s not what I am. See me for who I am; treat me the same no matter who I am.” That’s a touchy issue.
Tyler is number four of my bunch. He played a lot of sports, but Tyler would have liked dance more when he was younger. It was that thing of “they’ll think I’m gay if I dance” that held him back. So, basically he went to class because girls were going to be in leotards and bend over in front of him. When he turned 14, he decided, “I really like this.” However, because he waited so long to find his passion for dance, he wasn’t as advanced at that age as Danny or Travis.
[Check back soon for Part 2…]