FOUNDER OF THE DREAM DANCE COMPANY
First of all, how long have you been dancing?
I started when I was four. So I’ve been dancing for 30 years, and was obsessed from day one. I was dancing in front of the TV, my mum was kind of like, “maybe he should do dancing”. That was when Johnny Young Talent School was on TV and my cousin, Johnny Niewicz, was one of the members on the show. So my mum was like, “maybe you should go to Johnny Young Talent School”. And then that's how I got to go to the school. And then I started training.
So when you were a teenager and getting close to the end of school, was that always in your mind, that you just wanted to be a dancer?
I knew I wanted to be a dancer, but by the time I was 14 or 15, I knew I wanted to choreograph more than be a dancer, if that makes sense. I think I liked the whole teaching side. I always admired my teachers and loved watching people conducting a class. I liked being in control. I wanted to be that person. I didn't want to be the person listening to someone.
At that time when my dad was a boilermaker, my mom worked at a bank. Living in Perth, they thought that dance was not a career. That was very common, which is probably still common now. But it's a bit more acceptable now that it is a career. But teaching was easier for me to sell to my parents. I'm just going to teach because you make money teaching dancing. And it was a great income for a dancer. So from 14 or 15, I started making up my own dance moves. Then at the age of 17, I don't even know how this happened, I was teaching at a dance studio and said to Pete, the studio owner, “Hey, we should go into partnership and I'll own half your business and we'll run a dance school together”.
How did you do that at 17? That's insane.
I have no idea. The dance school was more of a ballet technical school with ninety kids. It wasn't a massive school. And I said “Hey, I'll come on board and take over half”. The next minute we had about 400 students. So that was my university as such, because at 17 I owned this business. I don't even know how that all came about. I don't even know where that confidence came from. But I guess I didn't have fear so I just went for it.
So what did you actually have to offer? What did you bring to the business that convinced them to give you half of their business?
Well, at that time I was quite the cool cat (haha), in regards to my dance style in Perth. I brought more of that jazz and urban style and sort of a bit more of the commercial pop thing that was coming in. It wasn't as big in Perth then.
So where did you learn that? Where were you learning that style?
Well, back then you had to watch everything, you know, all the videos. And it was the amazing times of music videos. I think I was 18 when I started going to the States and started training and doing workshops with international choreographers.
I look at everyone on Instagram and how much inspiration people instantly get now where I kind of look back and I go,” I didn't even know how I was making up those steps because there was nothing to watch”. It just happened. I was inspired by all the teachers I had growing up. And then, when the music would turn on, you'd just go for it. I think it was easier back then because you didn't have any comparison. Now there's so much limiting people's creativity. You can instantly compare yourself to others, than put yourself down. But back then, I think that's honestly why I probably had less fear, because you didn't really have to care what people thought. I only had to care about the 30 people in my dance class, do you know what I mean? If they loved it, then that's all good because they're paying. But now people have to worry about the thousands of people watching you.
That's really interesting. People always think that with the internet and social media that it broadens opportunities. But you're almost saying that it’s killing creativity.
I think it's a curse and a blessing. Like it's a blessing that it gets people out there and it's great for business and branding. It's really great if you just play that business card. It's practically a website, you know what I mean? But I think as far as inspiration goes, you can get really lost in being inspired by other people too quickly. Because you're just on your Instagram, so you're just watching other people create without you creating in your own mind. I feel like people's imagination now is getting a bit more limited because we're not dreaming as much because we see it instantly.
So you're finding that there is actually less creativity in the dance world as a result of the abundance of what we see.
I think it's a big issue. I now watch dance classes all over the world and back in the day you'd be like, “oh my God, that's this person's style. Oh my God, that's that person's style. This is that person's choreography.” You could pinpoint it. Now, because everything's so accessible, I could literally show you a newsfeed of every dancer and you'd see a lot of it being a cardboard cutout of each other because everyone now is going, “oh, I have to look like that”, “I have to dance like that”. “I have to be that size or I have to have that hair”. But in terms of creating geniuses and unique people…. would a Michael Jackson be born now? It's hard to say, because
what makes those creative geniuses, comes from having silence. It comes from being in your own mind and not worrying or not even looking at what other people are doing.
So I think there's a lot to learn in that, you know, you have to have a healthy balance of the business side. You have to worry about what's going on, you can see what's happening in your industry and you can market yourself and do all of that. But as a creative, you have to really learn to switch off and make sure that you're building your own style in your field that has your own creative stamp on it. Humans are so easily influenced by what we see. All you have to do is go on any 18, 19, 20 year olds Instagram page and you see the words “I'm a director”, “I'm a photographer”, “I'm a choreographer”, “I'm a dancer”, everyone's just a self-acclaimed “something” now, without actually having to do anything to actually be that thing. As a creative, you have to really find that time to get away from it all and be creative in your own way and stick to what you do. You don't have to follow other trends or you don't have to be influenced by others.
How do you maintain your inspiration? What's your process to create something that is unique?
I think for me now, as a dancer and choreographer, there is stages. I feel like in my 20’s, it was a “about me” kind of thing. And then when I started the Dream Dance Company it became about others. From each show or from each job I do, it's really important for me to have dancers that are muses or people that I can invest in for them to showcase their talent. As much I've had a great, creative career, I'm now loving directing and having my company where I can actually grab the spotlight and shine it on someone else and encourage them to then lift themselves up. I find my inspiration now comes from watching others shine. It's interesting, my partner, who's not a dancer, is always saying, “oh my God, dancers are so obsessed with dance”. It's such a passion, dance is never going to be like any other art form.
So when you're creating a show, do you look at the dancers individually and go and create something around their individual talent?
Yeah, it's always a collaborative experience with me. I like people to enjoy what they're performing. Sometimes on some jobs, it's like, “this is the choreography, this is how it's done”. And then other projects, it can be, “Okay, let's all brainstorm”. We all come to the table or another choreographer and myself, and we collaborate, which I really enjoy. I love collaborating with people. You know, when you're younger, you like have to do everything yourself. And then when you get older, it's like, “Oh my God, a team is so much easier!”
Do you find it's difficult to trust people in the dance industry in case they steal ideas or projects?
It's pretty good. The Australian industry is really quite supportive. It is very small. For me, that makes it even harder to constantly be pushing the boundaries, because it is very easy in this small industry for someone to go, “Hey, we're doing that”. Then you're constantly having to push the envelope, to stay relevant and you stay ahead of the game. It's more that you just have to protect your creativity. Because we all know that thing of where you have something exciting and then you tell everyone and then it's not as exciting. When you have a great idea, you have to harbour that idea and look after it and then only let it out when you start to create it. So many people have brilliant ideas, but don't know how to act on it. It's easy to say it, but hard to do it.
My biggest advice to people on that is that you've just got to trust, you know, you've got to back yourself and you don't need everyone's approval to do it. You just have to actually look after that idea and then slowly put steps into place to achieve it.
It is quite unusual for a creative to have such a good business head as well. How have you managed to cultivated the business side?
I feel like my mum had a lot to do with it because she worked in a bank. After school I would always have to go sit at the bank until she finished. I think just being in a bank maybe made me love the smell of money or something. No, I'm joking. But my mum would always budget and I've always had a fascination with numbers. It's so weird. As much as I love being creative, I think even now, I get more excited over a business proposal or a contract. Back in the day I'd be like, “Oh my God, creative any day, I don't want to work”. But now I like the numbers game. Seeing how you can make a budget for a show and then getting to that break-even point. It's a different kind of achievement because it is hard in the arts. Ever since they handed me that Commonwealth checkbook in primary school, the savings began.
I'm big on valuing myself and my time. I think that was something I had to learn quite young. If you want to be treated a certain way or you feel what you're giving to someone is worth something, than you have to value it. I feel I have a lot to give. So with giving, it comes with value. It's not about being greedy. It's about having respect for yourself. That's something important that I try and teach dancers and creative people, that it's actually okay to make money. We should celebrate Australians in the arts who want to make money. In the US, they are all applauding people who are making money and are successful. And then for some reason you come to Australia and it's the norm for a dancer to feel like, “I have to live on tuna and crackers and I have to be a struggling artist”. And that's what being a dancer is. I want to break that mould. I want people to know that you can have a career as a dancer, choreographer or teacher. There are so many avenues in dance. But it starts with you seeing the value in what you do rather than putting yourself down.
Is this what you are teaching in your showbiz course? Are you teaching not only the creative side of the dance industry but also the business side?
Yes, I started the whole thing because I was frustrated that dancers were only learning dance steps but not the business side of the industry. Too many dancers don't know how to manage themselves. They don’t know how to put themselves forward for a job, or even simply writing an email, or networking or being able to even talk about money professionally. There are so many avenues that can make or break you in this industry. I wanted to guide people more into thinking like an entrepreneur, otherwise, we will end up with an oversupply of dancers and no demand. If even a small percentage of the dancers in my program, go out there as entrepreneurs, event planners, producers or they move into other fields, then they're the people who are going to create more work for the industry. They will value dancers more. It's about trying to plant seeds in the industry that are more entrepreneurial, rather than “I'm a dancer and I know how to do steps”. We already have 5,000 of them already coming out every year from every institution in Australia. I feel like we need to shift the game. We need more people coming out and thinking “how do we create more business for dancers?”
Did you create this course as a result of a lack in the industry? Do you think that full-time courses are aimed at just at dancers rather than entrepreneurs?
Yes. Full-time is great in the sense of learning social skills and building your confidence and audition techniques and you as a dancer. But I got frustrated because dancers I would hire would come to my job and I'd say, “Great, invoice me”. Then they go, “What's an invoice?” They have just done a year of full-time and you don't know what an ABN or an invoice is? When I receive an email from someone, I instantly can tell someone's education and their professionalism. I think there's just a lack of building dancers up to think of themselves as a brand, not just steps. But once you get a dancer or a creative thinking, “I could be a brand”, then there's just endless possibilities. That's what excites me. The more people out there building an industry, the more of an industry there is for everyone.
It seems like you're really interested in the health of the industry rather than just making money for yourself, that you're actually want to create opportunity.
I always just think back when I was a kid and I would watch the old black and white, you know, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly, all of these people were dancers and they were famous. And Michael Jackson was famous because of dance and he made dance famous. But somewhere along the line, dance got devalued, in a sense. So it excites me because there's work to be done. I just feel like there's so much more that we can build in this industry. It all just gets me really excited.
How different is the Australian industry from the US industry?
I feel there's just more respect for the arts in the US. I feel like if you're a dancer in the US, they will firstly say “what company or what stage show?” They're a bit more educated. Here, it's more like, “what club do you dance at?” I feel like when So You Think You Can Dance was on, it was a great time for dance because people really valued it. It was a show that brought dance to the forefront, and then it disappeared and moved to another night because Australians prefer watching people cook, more than dancing. Or watching people watch TV. I feel like there's more of an education and a respect in the US. When I go there, you'll pass billboards or ads and there's movement and there's choreography and there's just a lot more… dance. I even feel like in fashion and in photography, there is so many more risks that they're willing to take. I feel like Australia is a lot more conservative.
When I've worked in TV or campaigns or other jobs, you can only push the envelope so far. For instance, I’ll say “let's have 50 dancers doing da-da-da”, and they'll be like, “how about we have two”. It just feels like death. As much as Australia is forward, we're still very still conservative. We're conservative in our way of the arts.
In the US, their recording artists take over the world, you know. Back maybe 10 years ago, we would have a lot of pop artists in Australia doing well. It's nearly impossible now for Australian artists to do well in our own country. Radios don't play our artists. I just think it's the same tall poppy thing. It's the Australia thing of “Americans or International Artists do it better”. If you make it international, only then will Australia care. But, the good thing is that the independent music scene is going off. Triple J artist’s music is coming to the forefront. But sadly, it's really hard for pop artists or commercial artists to succeed in this country. I wish we had the same laws as the US and Canada. I think Canada has a law that 50% of the music on the radio has to be from artist from their own country. That'd be great. I just wish there was more of a record industry here because we have such incredible talent in this country. And it's so devastating to not Australian Artists not being celebrated in our own country. The US industry has been around for a long time, they've built a community. That's the exciting thing about Australia is that there's room to grow and build a community and industry.
What are you looking for in a dancer when you take someone on? Is there something in particular or is it unique for each one?
It’s different for each one. I love dancers who are sure of themselves. Not egotistical or cocky, but people who know their talent and they're ready. I like someone who's just got that “I'm ready and value myself” sort of thing. I also love uniqueness. I like people who intrigue the audience and make people think. If I have a cast of 12, I want every single person to be a completely different look, size, shape… everything. I want everyone in the audience to walk away relating to one person. That they can walk away from a show and say “that could have been me”. Sometimes I'll go to a dance show and I'll walk out and all I'm thinking about is, “oh my God, I'm never eating a burger again”. Do you know what I mean? And I know it's all about being athletic, but sometimes I just love art in all different ways. And I love in commercial dance that you can be whoever you are. I love finding those diamonds in the rough.
I'm not going to mention any names of any of the schools, but I've also known some of the directors to have said to young dancers, young girls in particular, like 17, 18 year old's, some pretty full on stuff. Like one line in particular I was told over and over again by these girls at one of the schools was, “fat dancers don't get phone calls”.
I've heard all of these. That shocked me. That shocked me to the core. Oh my God. And it is very, very common. With my course and program there are a lot of discussion points about these types of comments. Especially for the young girls, the psychological side of what they've gone through prior is really shocking. It's not okay. Boys have a little bit more of a carefree tendency, but girls are so impressionable at that age. It's so easy being a boy in this industry, compared to what girls have to go through, especially with having to compare themselves to a hundred other girls in the room. There are a lot of teachers that will say hurtful and bullying things thinking of it as a joke. But to some of the dancers, it really affects them and creates really bad situations. That's another thing that I'm such an ambassador for with the company. I don't discriminate in any way. I know the most incredible dancers that have the most amazing confidence and it doesn't even matter how big, small, whatever shape they are. They would be able to blow anyone out of the water. You've just got to believe in yourself and love yourself.
Time to name drop now. Let us know who you have worked with in the industry.
My main client would be Jessica Malboy. I think I started dancing for her in 2008 and then I started choreographing for her in 2011, so that's nearly seven years. I’ve done a lot of her albums and choreography and worked on her Eurovision, so that was pretty awesome. I got to work on The Voice Australia, I did season two and three, which was unreal, and got to work with Will.i.am and Kylie Minogue, Ricky Martin. I got to work with Robin Thicke and did his choreography. I also worked with Jason Derulo.
I do all of the Eurovision entries for Australia. I continue to work with the Eurovision team, which is really fun, which takes me out of the country and into Europe, so that's really cool. I did Australia's Got Talent. I was the creative director on that for a little bit. I had to work with people with snakes and magicians and a lot of fun, talented people. I also got to work with Geri Halliwell, which was amazing, Ginger Spice. So that was pretty epic when I got to work with her when she was in Sydney and choreographed for her, and it was so bizarre to have her number in my phone and when she would call and Ginger Spice would come up.
I love it. It's the people that I admired when I was a kid means and it means more when you get to work with them. I love the Spice Girls. I loved Ricky Martin, so when I got to choreograph Livin’ LaVita Loca for Ricky Martin it was such a dream come true. I also got to be in a room with Kylie, which was awesome, and work with her. I've been around some pretty amazing people. And even recently now I'm working with an artist, Yerra Blue. I absolutely love her stuff. She's an indie artist. Her music is phenomenal. I really love musos, people who can play and sing and have artistic vision.
Considering your journey from a dancer to choreographer to Artistic Director, what advice would you give someone that wants to do a similar type of thing, to be working with a similar calibre of talent?
I would put it down to backing yourself and doing it your own way. I didn’t do full time, so I was always the black sheep and I enjoyed doing things differently. If everyone was doing one thing, I'd want to do the other thing. I think it's really important in this entertainment industry to always try to be different and not just fit into a mould. Honestly, a lot of the people I know that are successful are people who took risks and did it differently and not just necessarily followed a formula. It's really important to just do it your way. But you have to be ready for a lot of hard work. It is endless amounts of work, pushing forward and fighting for it. Believing in yourself even after getting the knock backs. You have to be your own personal cheerleader because you get to a point where you're like “I don't want to do this anymore”. But you've got to get back in the game. You will get a lot more knockbacks than rewards in this industry. But the rewards outweigh all the knockbacks. It is basically believing in yourself and doing it your way. You've got to create it and you've got to build your own brand, on your own terms.
Is there any practical steps? I'm sure the hardest thing, as it is with any creative industry, is getting known for what you want to be doing.
I feel like social media plays a big part now. Use it as a business tool that attracts people. I think mainly get to the classes that you know you're going to be seen by the right people. Sometimes the people that are hiring and booking aren't the ones with the million followers. You can go to LA and the people teaching there have millions of followers, but they're not actually booking the dancers. You actually have to research and find the people that are booking and not get sideswiped by, “Oh my God, that person has a million views”. As a dancer, you have to be smart on what classes go to and where you network. Make sure you talk to the choreographer. Don't feel bad about reaching out to someone and saying “Hey, can I do some work experience?”
We have such an accessible world now being able to reach out to people and ask for help. Use it to your advantage and get your videos online. If you want to choreograph, than make sure you're constantly putting up things that are showing people your choreography. Do some concept videos. Set yourself some challenges or get together a group and do a video. If you know there's something that you can perform, do it. You can always be proactive by putting things out there. Then when you feel like you're ready, start emailing people. Learn how to generate business. Write to companies and offer your services. Have a good portfolio of videos and content and just be proactive and sell it.