As another season of Dancing With The Stars (“DWTS”) begins, and as I prepare to set foot in the ballroom and take my seat at the judges’ panel, I take a moment to center myself and to check in with where I am mentally, and emotionally.
I truly feel that it is an honor to be a judge on this show, to be given a voice and a tremendous platform to speak from. Such an opportunity is not something I take for granted. Being a judge on DWTS has given me a voice and an opportunity to speak about so many things: to share my thoughts on dance, movement, and performance; to impart to competitors and audiences all that I know about dance and performing (drawing from over 30 years of my own career); and to offer my own, personal beliefs on topics I find essential to living our best lives, including ‘motivation’, ‘connection’, ‘passion’, ‘failures’, and ‘love’, to name just a few. While I recognize DWTS is a dance competition, with dancing and competing at its heart, DWTS is also a slice of life. The moments of competitors training, the moments of the performances, the moments of our commentary, these are also precious moments of life, not to be wasted. After all, each and every moment of life matters.
Just starting my career as a young dancer 1989
1987: Me and Mari Yoshimura Host of Your No Hit Studio DX on Fuji TV
In my late 20’s, I had finished touring the world with Madonna as a professional dancer, and I soon began working in reality television, choreographing and staging reality shows as the genre found its way into television. With all that I was doing at that time and everything I had accomplished on tour, I felt like I was ready to do something outside the world of show business. I felt an impulse and a desire to return to school and finish my college education –Getting my college degree was cut short first by my career as a recording artist in Japan, and later again once I became a Fly Girl on “In Living Color: The Television Series”.
I had gone to school at Sophia International University in Tokyo for a few years, but I was juggling professional duties as a recording artist at the same time as attending school, and found the pressure to be too great so, and I choose to leave my education to focus on my career full-time. Years later, I attended UC Irvine working toward a degree as a choreography major while also driving to Los Angeles every day to take professional dance classes.
The Original Fly Girls of In Living Color With Shawn Wayans.
On Tour with Madonna 1993, The Girlie Show
Once again, something had to give, so I choose to let go of school, and move to Los Angeles to pursue my career as a dancer. After years of working in television and advancing my career, I found that I really wanted to finish my college education and get my degree. I applied to UCLA and was accepted into their World Arts and Cultures Program. This program is a fascinating field of study focusing on dance and cultural studies, and revealing how dance, art, and cultural expression works in real life. While the syllabus explains it differently, and I believe the major has changed throughout the years, for me the program allowed me to study and explore how dance and movement worked in real life and in cultures throughout the world. How people use it to tell their stories, keep their cultural histories vibrant … how people and cultures use it to deal with grief, and to find connection… all by way of dance and movement, and how movement heals and connects us with each other and connects us to ourselves. I also studied ethnographic filmmaking within this program, and I completely immersed myself into cultural studies with movement and art as the lens through which I viewed the world I was studying. Who knew that one day I would become a judge on DWTS. 🙂
So why bring all of this up, the stops and starts with my college studies? I bring this up not to share my educational background, but rather because I experienced a monumental moment when I returned to school. On the first day of school – I was so excited to finally be a Bruin – I sat in large lecture hall surrounded by much younger college students. The professor walked up to the podium and began shouting. “ You better F#$%$ing know what are you are going to say!”. The room went silent. We were all shocked. I had never had a professor use profanity before. I was shocked. I remember almost wanting to laugh because I was so uncomfortable. You know how sometimes when something shocks you, you have an inappropriate reaction? Well, I wanted to laugh, and giggle, out of sheer confusion. But he didn’t stop. He kept on yelling at us. And as his face became more and more red with passion and growing intensity, nearly as red as a tomato, and his body language became more and more intense, we all realized we needed to listen.
This professor shouted at us for the entire lecture. We all had walked into that first day of class bright eyed, full of excitement, joyful and feeling good… probably feeling a little entitled, even. But instead of filling us up with congratulations for being there, this professor was making sure to give us not what we wanted, and not what we thought we should get from a college class, but he was giving us what we needed to wake us up. When I left that lecture, I was changed. I realized that this college journey was no joke and I had to figure some things out. And I do believe now, that that day helped shape me into the on-camera person that I am. And I will forever be grateful for the professor’s passion and his courage to wake us all up.
What my professor said to a room full of mostly freshmen college students, went something like this (paraphrasing, as this moment was almost two decades ago): You all better know how lucky you are. How fortunate you are to be where you are right now, sitting in this class, getting a college education here at this institution. And because of that, you better figure out what the %&#! you want to say in this world because you will have a voice; you will be one of the ones we will see on the news, who will have a voice. You will be running a company or a small business, or you will be a manager of a project. You will be someone who will have a platform and will be listened to. People will listen to you and so you better figure out what it is you are going to say when that moment comes because there are many people who won’t have that opportunity. There are so many people in the world of whom, they will ever ask their opinion (even if they have a good one). But you, your voice will be heard… so you better figure out what it is you are going to do with that voice and what you are going to stand for.
I will never forget the impact this professor had on me. He basically slapped me silly with his words of caution. But that idea of “silly” soon transformed into a “knowing” that has shaped the way I look at every opportunity that I am offered to speak or to share my opinion in a public way. So, as I head into my 27th season sitting in the judge’s chair behind that desk at DWTS, doing something which I thoroughly love, being given the opportunity to share my knowledge and my philosophies, I think back to the moment with my UCLA professor yelling at us to wake us up. And I smile.
However, this time I am smiling not out of awkwardness, but out of joy and a special sort of glee knowing that he has become a part of the way I have affected people for the past 27 seasons on Dancing With The Stars … and on the various other shows I have been on, where I have been fortunate to have been given the opportunity to share my voice. The opportunity of a platform where I am heard. And the opportunity to affect change on some scale, large or small, however my words may find their way into the world as encouragement and support.
Thank you Professor.
Thank you for helping me to find, to claim, and to define my own voice in this world. I hope I have made you proud.