Meet Our Dancer To Watch: Michelle West
As featured in the October 16 DanceBlast, here's Michelle's TV interview with FYI Philly:
This is Michelle's Story:
A4D is a dance family. A large family, with over 1,000 members. We want you to meet some of your tribe who are making it all happen right here, right now. From SYTYCD to Broadway ... Hollywood to Regional Tours ... these dancers are living the dream.
These are people just like you, who started out new and green, and stuck it through to create real careers. Want to know how? Let us take you behind the scenes.
Why these members? Because they're vibrant, living examples of the success stories in the A4D community. Hearing their stories will help you write your own.
We are pleased to introduce you to another A4D Dancer To Watch, MICHELLE WEST:
Confidence. Michelle West exudes it. Not in a cocky or show-offy kind of way; just in a matter-of-fact that's just how it is kind of way. It's delicious.
You'd never know the challenges she went through to get here; she's cheerful, upbeat, practical, and sassy. She doesn't have the look of a typical dancer; she's short, solid, muscular and curvy. She is 120 pounds of pure passion and energy.
She grew up in the 'hood and made it out, determined to create her career. Many dancers would have abandoned their dreams long ago, but that possibility never entered Michelle's mind. Letting nothing stop her, Michelle positive-energied her way to the lifestyle of her dreams. Working since she graduated college, she's currently playing Consuela in West Side Story at a prestigious regional theater in Sarasota. I called her there, while she was backstage at tech rehearsal. Watch the video below to get a 1:30 look at Michelle West, then join us backstage to hear this chick pour out some serious wisdom.
Best Known Credits:
National Tour: Aladdin
National Tour: Memphis the Musical
Regional Theater: West Side Story, Avenue Q, Hairspray
25 QUESTIONS WITH MICHELLE
Suzy: Michelle! Everyone who knows you loves you, and says you're so talented, but surprised at your own success.
MW: Well, I don't expect to be handed things. It's important to stay humble. But I'm definitely a hard worker!
Suzy: Since you could be called onstage at any moment, I'm gonna jump right in. I want to talk about your body. It's beautiful, so strong and real. But not typical. Has it been an advantage or a challenge?
MW: Okay, we're doing this! There are plus's and minuses. A lot of African Americans have this type of body; muscular, big legs, big butts, and curves. It's a Woman body, and an athletic body. Some people in the industry call me stocky because I'm short without long legs. Other people ignore my type and just see how I perform. I'll be out there dancing my butt off with all the tall skinny ones and they're like "Screw it, she's a performer and that's what we love!" People want to work with people who love what they do.
Suzy: As a choreographer, I personally love different bodies. They own movement in a way that's so full and real, I feel like I can really see who they are.
MW: I wish everyone felt like that! But they don't. I see other dancers all tiny and little; I never looked like that, I never weighed 100 pounds in my life! I went from 90 pounds straight to 120! (Laughs) I've always been this way, but I've never been mad at my body type. In Delaware, I was the only African American dancing with a bunch of white girls. I knew I'd never look like them; it's genetics. I look like my family, and I look great; they're all like "I wish I looked like you!" (Laughs) I have no issues, no eating disorders or not eating. I work out more if I need to tone up, but that's it. Hey, people like me or they don't, and if they don't, no hard feelings.
Suzy: That's awesome. Be my guru.
MW: The only way you're gonna make it in this business is to not judge yourself harshly. I work on what I need to work on, but I never let anybody sway my feelings about myself.
Suzy: Were you always that way?
MW: Yep. I was that way when I was 15, I'm that way now at 24, and I'll be that way when I'm 30.
Suzy: Does that come from your family?
MW: Yes, they're all very confident. My parents came from hard lives. I was born in Philly and raised in the hood. They taught me to love myself no matter what. That's how I was raised, and that's how I'll raise my kids. Love yourself, be confident, and always have a smile on your face. Why be upset about who you are? Enjoy who you are, every single day! There's no reason to be upset, because you could be dead right now. I have family members who died young.
Suzy: Tell me more about growing up.
MW: We moved to Delaware when I was 12. It was a big change. I came from being the majority to definitely being the minority. Suddenly I was the only African American girl in the studio. Delaware's more diverse now, but when I moved there it wasn't. I was one of 9 black kids in middle school. It was a big change. And it wasn't a city, I was living with cornfields and frickin' cows! (Laughs) I was like "This is crazy but it's beautiful." And I wasn't around violence anymore, people weren't getting shot next to my house.
MW: Yes. That was my parents' motivation. They didn't want to live that way anymore. My cousin was murdered at 18. They were like "We gotta get out of here." He was in with the wrong crowd. I have a younger brother who's easily swayed - he's not much of a leader, he's a follower. That would've been him; I might not have a brother today. My parents are our saviors.
Suzy: That is some heavy stuff. Does all this connect you even deeper to West Side Story?
MW: Absolutely. This show was written in the 1950's and in 2015, we still have racial issues. In a cast session, we talked about racism. I told them I live with it every day. It's part of my life. I'm not poor, but I'm African American, so it's there everyday. Every audition, there's a small pool of us African American girls fighting for one role in a show. There's a few Broadway shows with black roles, like "The Color Purple" or "Book of Mormon"... but no shows like "On the Town", or "Thoroughly Modern Millie" for us. There's usually only 1 spot for an African American, and I'm fighting for it with 15 girls who look like me. I've had to be in the back before because I didn't look like everyone else. So in West Side, it's easy to tap into that.
Suzy: WSS was originally about a Jewish girl and a Catholic boy, but another hit on Broadway dealt with that, so they put it aside. When Puerto Ricans flooded New York in the 50's, the gang phenomenon began; it was the right time for the show.
MW: Yes, they told us that amazing story. I'm so lucky to be working with Joey McNeely, who did the Broadway revival and all the tours. I actually auditioned for him two years ago, before I learned how to love auditioning. I was so intimidated. I made it past the dance call (WHAT?) and the singing call (Is This REAL?), but I wasn't confident. I promised myself if I ever had the chance to get in front of McNeely again, I'd go in proud and confident, and 2 years later I did. My dancing, singing, everything said "I'm not the same girl you saw 2 years ago. I am your Consuelo!" And here I am. Just because you don't succeed the first time, it doesn't mean its over! You have to get up and try again.
Suzy: Word. Let's go back to the beginning. When did you start dance?
MW: At 2. My parents said after I was born, my legs were literally always behind my head. (Laughs) I was always flexy and trying to imitate dancers, so they put me in class, and I never stopped. Ballet, jazz and tap in the baby classes, then as I got older, hiphop, theater, and lyrical. And competitions.
Suzy: Did you always sing?
MW: In 5th grade my school had an invitation-only youth choir, and they picked me. From there I always sang, though I wasn't formally trained.
Suzy: Have your folks supported your career?
MW: Absolutely. At first they weren't sure if it was a good idea to go college for dance, they thought I should do it on the side with another major as a backup plan. I thought "Heart surgeon, gynecologist or dancer... Nope, I'm gonna be a dancer." (Laughs) I was going for it full force. They decided they had to step back and let me do what I needed to do. Now I'm doing it, and they're so proud.
Suzy: What helped them let go?
MW: My Mom's parents controlled her life; she said when she had kids she wouldn't do that. She couldn't just do what she wanted, she wanted to make her parents happy. But in the end she chose what she wanted to do and was very successful. So she's seen it happen.
Suzy: Were you always pulled to Musical Theater?
MW: Not till high school, and I... what? Now?! I have to get on stage they're calling me! I'll call you right back!
15 minutes later:
Suzy: That was fast! Did you zip onstage, do a song and run off?!.
MW: (Laughs) We're rehearsing different scenes. We open Friday.
Suzy: So, musical theater...
MW: Yes. In 8th grade, I tried out for a summer theater program. The first day of rehearsal I asked everyone who got the lead?! And they said "You!" I said "Uh, no! You got it wrong!" It was my first lead, in "Friday Night Fever"! (Laughs) In 9th grade I got lead dancer in "Kiss Me Kate". Sophomore year, "Thoroughly Modern Millie", lead dancer. Junior year, "Bells are Ringing", lead dancer. And then Senior year, it was "Copacabana", and I finally played the lead!
Suzy: Great note to leave on!
MW: It was so cool. Then I went to Temple University for dance. I wanted to up my technique. I had lackadaisical training growing up, our studio was like "Just go on stage, look cute, and smile." I knew I had to up my training.
Suzy: Did you study Musical Theater?
MW: Temple's program is Modern based, plus Ballet and African. By Sophomore year, I missed Musical Theater so bad. I talked to my teachers about it.; they said just stick with dance and focus on technique. By Junior year I finally said "I do not want to do Modern. I don't fit the body type, I have no desire to be in a Modern company, and I'm not having fun." I had so much fun with musicals in high school, I wanted that again. So Senior year, I went full force Musical Theater, and booked my first professional show.
Suzy: What did your Modern teachers think?
MW: Most were not really supportive. But two were very positive. One prima ballerina told me if that's what I want, I had to go for it... and to be as diligent in pursuing my career as I am with schoolwork. The other saw how I missed it... it affected me as a person, I wasn't the same. I cried every time I talked about it - "I miss Musical Theater, I don't want to do this anymore!" They were both very real with me, they painted a realistic picture knowing I didn't have the body type, but I had the drive. Some people are just like "Oh, you can do anything you want", but the truth is, this business has a certain look and body type, and they let me know what I was up against.
Suzy: And now you're making a good living, which not that many Modern dancers can say!
MW: No disrespect to them, but I just didn't have a passion for it. I know some Modern dancers who do. I commend them.
Suzy: And now you've been working since college.
MW: Yes, I'm so blessed. I had the national tour of "Memphis", and "Sid the Science Kid". In regional theater, I did "Avenue Q", the Gary Coleman role, and WSS in Staten Island.
Suzy: Do you like being a gypsy?
MW: I've seen 48 states in 9 months. It's awesome. It's what I've always wanted.
Suzy: Is it hard to have a love life on the road?
MW: Absolutely. I was in a relationship with someone since high school; we ended it after I got off tour. The guy I'm with now is in the same business, so we understand each other and how things work in this business. But honestly, I don't put anything in the forefront but work. My main goal is to do my job, not a relationship or my love life. Relationships come second; it's unfortunate, but you have to be a little selfish in this career. In a relationship you can lose focus. It is possible though; people do get married; I've seen it on tour! But for me, I need to focus on my career right now.
Suzy: Why do you think you keep booking?
MW: My personality and work ethic. In auditions I keep it real, I'm positive to everyone. I get to know people, and bring that good energy into the room. Hey, Karma is real; if you're nice to people, you bring nice to your own life. I never have issues, I just want to have fun. I have conversations, I go in with a smile, I have a blast. I absolutely love auditions! Some people hate it, but I love it. (Laughs) Sometimes I hate being in a show because I can't audition!
Suzy: What do you love about them?
MW: Meeting new people, learning the combo, performing ... it's just so fun! I love getting to know people. And people want to know me. I have an interesting story, and I learn from theirs. I feed off the audition vibe. I stay away from negative people though; I don't even stand next to them, I can't. I don't know how negative people make it in this business.
Suzy: Sometimes it just comes down to who you want to be around 12 hours a day.
MW: Yes, and who you DON'T. I don't want to work with negative people; they'll bring me down.
Suzy: Great energy is contagious. I'm feeling it right now!
MW: (Laughs) You just have to tell yourself "Okay, I'm good." People love it when you bring that into the room. Another reason I think I book is, now that I've been working consistently, I know the business. They know I'm ready to work.
Suzy: What's been your biggest obstacle?
MW: That goes back to being African American, and my body type. Sometimes because you don't look a certain way, you're just not right for the part. There are so many choreographers I want to work with, but they can't use me because I'm not right for the project.
Suzy: On the positive side, you're a great role model for so many young dancers.
MW: Yes. In the "Dancers of New York" photo shoot for French Vogue, I was the first African American featured. Girls left comments on it, "OMG, she has muscular legs just like me", or "She's a brown girl just like me!" That's the first time I've seen that directly. We are who we are, so let's celebrate ourselves!
Suzy: What do your Temple dance friends think now?
MW: A lot of them say "How did you do it?!" It's simple; I worked hard, I knew exactly what I wanted, and I made it happen. I don't know any secret agents, or have drinks with casting people; I go to auditions. That's how they find me.
Suzy: Woody Allen says 80% of success is showing up.
MW: Yes. For 5 months, I commuted from Delaware to NY for auditions. Up at 3 a.m. for the 4 a.m. bus, then two and half hours to NYC. I'd get there by 7:30 a.m., audition till 6 p.m., buy a bus ticket home, get back at 11, sleep at 12, then back up at 3 a.m. to go all over again. I did that 5 days a week.
Suzy: You definitely put in the work! How did you not get discouraged?
MW: I had those moments for sure, but after I booked my first job I told myself "Don't audition thinking about getting a callback. Just do it and have fun because..." What? Seriously?! Oops, I gotta go again, I'll call you right back!
15 minutes later:
Suzy: No apologies, this is show biz! How many more dance jobs are you right for because you sing?
MW: A LOT. Seriously. All dancers should at least be able to sing with others and harmonize. I can't tell anyone how much to train because I did it through choir, but you qualify for A LOT more jobs.
Suzy: Has A4D helped you?
MW: When I first signed up, I looked at the auditions all the time. It helped me figure out the whole audition process, and I used all the info to get my video reel done. I met a lot of my audition friends through A4D. We were all signed up for the website, and I'd see their pictures or posts... then at auditions, I'd recognize them and go up to them. It was great. And now in this phase, because I book so much, A4D really promotes me as a performer... who I am, what I'm doing, which reaches out to other dancers.
Suzy: How would you suggest others use A4D?
MW: Look up auditions as often as possible. Get your weekly schedule ready; which auditions are you going to do this week? And use A4D to see what other dancers are doing; you can learn so much that way.
Suzy: And what's your general advice to dancers?
MW: Be yourself, love yourself, and always go for it, no matter what it is. If you have a dream, go for it. If you have a desire, go for it. You only live once; why not try and see what happens before you "X" yourself out of it?!
Suzy: Final question. What's your goal?
MW: People usually say Broadway, and of course I wouldn't mind that... but honestly, it's to continue till I'm 60 years old, maybe longer. To be able to take care of myself financially and emotionally, as a happy professional dancer as long as I can. Till I'm 60, maybe even 70. I know. Let's say till I take my last breath.
TOP TEN THINGS MICHELLE DID TO ACHIEVE SUCCESS:
1 - Embraced her body type and decided to go for it full out, wherever she is.
2 - Traveled 5 hours 5 days a week to auditions till she booked.
3 - Consciously made friends everywhere she went.
4 - Created a contagious and positive energy she brings to every situation, being the person people want to work with.
5 - Learned to love auditions, really love them!
6 - Didn't let people who said she couldn't do it stop her.
7 - Loved herself, fully and truly.
8 - Kept her career goals in the forefront, not letting herself get sidetracked by other things in life.
9 - Didn't take rejection personally.
10 - Showed up!
TOP 3 CHALLENGES MICHELLE HAD TO FACE:
CHALLENGE #1: BODY TYPE
Michelle's body type is not the typical dancer's body.
SOLUTION: Michelle doesn't let it stop her. She dances full out always, and lets her passion and personality burst through. She loves her body. Her energy often outshines what they thought they were looking for.
CHALLENGE #2: ETHNICITY
Michelle's ethnicity limits her possible roles in her chosen field of Musical Theater.
SOLUTION: Again, Michelle doesn't let it slow her down. She goes full force at every audition, goes out for every audition she sees, and has been working nonstop since college.
CHALLENGE #3: GEOGRAPHY
Michelle lived 2 1/2 hours from NYC where all the auditions were.
SOLUTION: She bit the bullet and travel 2.5 hours each direction 5 days a week, putting in 9 hours a day auditioning till she booked a job that brought her to NY.
5 QUICK FUN FACTS FOR MICHELLE:
We gave Michelle 15 seconds to answer each question. Ready? Go!
1 - What's in your dance bag right now?
MW: A water bottle, grapes and dance shoes.
2 - What was your last text?
MW: (Giggles) Saying good morning to my boyfriend.
MW: No emoticon!
3 - What's your go-to power snack?
4 - Who is your celebrity crush?
MW: I don't really have one.
Suzy: Hmm, I don't buy it. But moving on!
5 - What do you sleep in?
MW: Extra large t-shirt and pants from a piece I did when I was a Junior. Big and comfortable.
Suzy: That's what I'm wearing right now!
MW: It's the best.