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Know When to Dance Like a Woman, and Look Like a Man

When Millennium Dance Complex opened in the 90s, the world of hip-hop had very specific visions of how men and women should look and perform. Two decades later, a lot has changed.

by Spenser Mestel
May 21 2019, 2:10pm

Collage by Hunter French, photos via Shutterstock

In 1999, when Kenya Clay was 18 years old, she came out to her mentor at Millennium Dance Complex. Then a tiny dance studio in Los Angeles, Clay felt comfortable enough at MDC that she'd hang out there even when she didn’t have the money to take classes, and sometimes even sleep there, under the guise of making up what she had missed.

Still, the conversation didn’t go well. "He told me I'd ruined my career," she recalls, two decades later. "At the time, it wasn’t a thing to be gay."

MDC had opened seven years before Clay came out, in 1992, the same year President Clinton signed the military’s "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy. In the interim, Congress had prohibited same-sex marriage with the Defense of Marriage Act, and ABC had cancelled Ellen a year after its lead character, played by Ellen DeGeneres, announced she was a lesbian.

"I didn't know then that I was gay, but I remember crying as a kid because this woman lost something," says Clay, recalling Ellen's cancellation. "And that's how I felt in that moment with my mentor, like, ‘Is that true? Did I really just ruin my career?’"

Clay still spent time at MDC, but no longer considered commercial dancing as a serious career. Instead, she pursued LA’s voguing scene and became one of the few women on the West Coast to join a house. Eventually, she returned to dancing, and a decade later, after appearing on America’s Best Dance Crew and choreographing for stars like Mariah Carey and the Pussycat Dolls, Clay was invited back to teach at MDC.

During that time, a sea change had occurred. Not only did the studio have dozens of openly queer students and staff, but it had become a juggernaut in the industry. MDC now has over 300,000 subscribers on YouTube and 1.3 million followers on Instagram, not to mention the many followers its teachers have on their own accounts. If you've gone to a pop concert, watched a music video, or marveled at someone killing a routine on social media in the past decade, you're likely familiar with their work, or even just their influence.

The studio is where Michael Jackson would audition dancers for his videos and tours, where Dr. Dre rehearsed for the MTV Awards, and where Britney Spears trained for her comeback. An MDC instructor toured with Demi Lovato last year, another is currently on tour with Justin Timberlake, and two are choreographing for Ariana Grande. Nick Pauley, who's trained at MDC since 2015, is the "white guy" that Nicki Minaj bags in her 2018 video for "Barbie Tingz." Yanis Marshall, a frequent guest teacher at MDC, is, among other things, a guest choreographer on RuPaul's Drag Race, and in Celine Dion’s most recent video "Ashes" off the Deadpool 2 soundtrack (he plays the Deadpool body-double).

While Millennium has achieved mainstream success, it's also done the seemingly impossible in the art world: to remain at the vanguard. As pop music has diversified, bringing R&B, rap, and hip-hop under its umbrella, the instructors at MDC have followed suit, blurring what used to be clear lines between genres while also transforming the acceptable mold of what a dancer looks and acts like.

As a result, women who, 20 years ago, may have been cast as long-haired, stilettoed video vixens are now shaving their heads and grabbing their crotches, while men are strapping on high heels and falling into the splits. This is a generation of dancers that effortlessly shifts between traditional gender roles, often within the same routine. Literally under a wall-painted banner that reads "Unity in Diversity," MDC has incubated a new, fundamentally queer culture of dance, where gender is a persona, norms are fluid, and identities are never fixed.

The outside world, however, is still catching up.

Deja Carter dancing to "Only" by Nicki Minaj; choreography by JoJo Gomez.

In the early 2000s, around the time that Clay was coming out to her mentor at MDC, Ludacris was filming his first music videos. In hindsight, they represent what was expected from a hip-hop artist in that era. For Luda’s debut single, "What’s Your Fantasy?," the women wear high heels, skimpy tops, and suck on lollipops, but neither they nor the men really dance. The former mostly shake their hips; the latter ride scooters, stand around shirtless, and shrug their shoulders.

In 2004's "Yeah!," Ludacris pairs up with dancing icon Usher, who shows off his technical prowess, both by himself and by grinding on a woman. There are a few brief moments of all-male choreography, but they fit more in the box of how Clay would describe stereotypically masculine dancing. "Everything’s big," she explains. "Everything’s a throw, a snatch, a grab." In these videos, the rules are clear: Women are sexy. Men are aggressive.

At that time, there was no place for a dancer like Jonte' Moaning, who began his professional career the same year "Yeah!" was released, by dancing for Janet Jackson at the infamous Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show. Unlike the men in Ludacris’s videos, Jonte' normally performs wearing makeup and women’s clothes. He also helped innovate heels choreography, where the dancer, wearing that type of shoewear, works the legs and hips to hit long, sensual moves that emphasize the lines of the body.

Pedro Reis moves during a Yanis Marshall heels intensive

Ten to 20 years ago, mainstream pop, hip-hop, and R&B music wasn't open to this kind of entertainer, whether he was the main performer or dancing in the background; throughout his career in the United States, Jonte' flourished primarily at MDC and behind the scenes as a choreographer for artists like Beyoncé. Even in 2012, when Frank Ocean confirmed that he'd had a male lover, the announcement still made headlines, with one writer for the Los Angeles Times calling it, "undoubtedly the glass ceiling moment for music. Especially black music, which has long been in desperate need of a voice like Ocean’s to break the layers of homophobia."

Since then, cracks have started to show in the straightness and cisness of popular music, with the growing popularity of artists like Young Thug, Azealia Banks, and Big Freedia. But if MDC wants to train its students to work for mainstream artists, it still has to prepare them to fit the industry’s conception of what dancers of each gender look and act like. As Clay says of women trying to break into the industry: "If you’re dancing behind Beyoncé, you have to be able to walk in heels. You have to be able to sit in your hip. You have to be able to use your back and whip your hair."

This reality isn’t lost on Sydney Cheri, a 21-year-old who moved to LA from Colorado in 2015 to pursue dancing. When I meet her, she’s just finished a hip-hop class and is wearing a red snapback, a baggy red t-shirt, matching red lipstick, and loose black sweatpants. Her hair is about a centimeter long; she says she cut it at 15 years old. "When I moved here, I tried to grow it out," she recalls, "and every single time, I'm like, 'No, I can't do it.' But then I wasn't booking tours or music videos or anything, and I didn't know why."

After failing to book a gig dancing for Selena Gomez's AMA performance in 2017, Cheri concluded that her hair was the reason why, so, last year, she bought a long brown wig with bangs. During its maiden voyage, at an MDC contemporary class, "I didn't feel quite like myself," she says. "It was getting hot under everything, but it was nice. It made me dance a little freer."

It took about six months, but now, Cheri sees the wig as just another costume: "For a while, I thought that having hair completely changed who I am, like I needed this hair to be me. But, I still have me. I still have my style. I didn't cave. I was just like, 'I want to book these jobs soon,' so I humbled myself a bit and got a wig." Since then, she’s danced on The Voice and made it to the stage of the Billboard Music Awards.

For men, the issue is often as much about their movement as it is their aesthetic. Says Clay, "I tell guys, 'If you really want to book a world tour, you have to know how to dance like a man.’ A lot of guys are really feminine, and I love it. I grew up in that scene. But, if everything is only super draggy and super cunty, that’s really popular now, and it sells in class, but know when to turn it off. If you’re dancing for JLo, you have to have your shirt off and be buff. You can’t stand there looking like your hip is broke."

Nick Pauley, the dancer from "Barbie Tingz," is as aware of that as Cheri was. "As much as we want to be ourselves a hundred percent, you might have to do a job and not be able to dance it the way you want," he says. When I ask for an example, he stands up and shows me the same spin with two variations, called "textures." During the first, he initiates the movement with his head, extends one leg straight at the end, and leans over it with a flat back. When he stands up, he does it slowly, and with his hand stroking from the thigh up around his butt.

Hamilton Evans and fellow dancers performing to Nicki Minaj's verse in "Light My Body Up" by David Guetta

The second time, he crouches low throughout the twist, stands up quickly at the end, and doesn’t touch anywhere near his butt. Even his face has changed from a smirk to a scowl, and though he doesn't actually grab his crotch, that's the energy he's exuding. On auditions, knowing when to use which texture—i.e. reading a room and adapting his mannerisms accordingly—has become second-nature for Pauley.

What’s most surprising about these textures is how quickly they can change within a routine. For example, look at choreography by Hamilton Evans, another MDC instructor, to Nicki’s verse in "Light My Body Up" by David Guetta. In it, Pauley starts with a chin-up shoulder roll and then hits fast, angular movements.

Fifteen seconds in, Pauley takes his hands above his head for the body roll, emphasizing the curve in his spine. From there, he starts to texture with his hands, touching his chest, pointing forward with limp wrists, and throwing up a crown when he moves to the ground. Much like Nicki’s style, it’s simultaneously aggressive, delicate, and arrogant. It's all the more captivating because of its unpredictability, but that doesn’t mean Pauley would bring this style to an audition.

The day after I interview Pauley, Yanis Marshall is teaching a masters class in heels choreography. I ask Pauley if he'll be attending. "I'd have a great time in heels," he says, "but I first have to learn to walk in heels." He laughs and then becomes more serious. "But also, people have told me, 'Eh, I don't think that’d be good for your image.'"

I ask him what he means, and he compares it to the challenges gay actors have faced auditioning for straight roles. "If everyone in the world knows he's gay, I feel like people won’t hire him because they won't believe his character. It might not be true, but I feel like that's the mindset with a lot of the casting people here in LA."

Porcia Hendrix and fellow dancers hit the same routine as Evans

Fifteen minutes before Yanis’ sold-out class, the room has already filled with 130 dancers, about a dozen I identify as men. As I walk to my seat, I see an inspiring spectrum of crop tops: sweatshirt ones and long-sleeve ones and lacey, see-through ones. Cheri’s in a sleeveless mesh jersey, a black bra, black tights, and small black heels. No hat this time, but no wig either. Yanis wears black track pants and a long black shirt slightly too large. He has a buzzed haircut and facial scruff, and besides his three-inch stilettos, there’s no obvious indication that he’s arguably the most recognizable name in heels choreography.

In 2009, Yanis began uploading videos from his heels class to YouTube, which he says was rare in the dance world at the time. "We were all using it like other people, not using it for ourselves to create a platform," he says. "I was pretty much one of the first to really understand the power of it." From the videos, Yanis started getting invitations to teach outside of France, but the breakthrough moment for him—and heels—wasn’t until 2014, when he and two other dancers appeared on Britain’s Got Talent.

"Tell me something interesting about you guys," judge David Walliams ask the trio in their first appearance on the show. "Um...well, we dance in heels," Yanis replies, lifting up his black high-heel bootied-foot. "Oh, hello!" judge Amanda Holden responds. The camera cuts back to Walliams, who appears confused.

Once the trio breaks into choreography set to a Spice Girls medley, the spectators still seem unsure how to react. "It’s sassy, isn’t it?" says the show’s host from off-stage, loving the adjective so much that he just has to say it again. “Sassy!" By the end of the routine, though, the judges and fans are sold. "It was fantastic," says Walliams. "And I would say, going forward, don’t be afraid to take off some clothes."

Yanis, Arnaud and Medhi on Britain's Got Talent

News of the group’s success made it into not just queer outlets, but also Britain's most-read tabloid, Metro, and the trio eventually went to the finals with a routine that had them dressed in sequins, feathers, and heavy eye make-up. Since their last appearance on the show, Yanis has been teaching heels choreography around the world, averaging two cities per week, every week.

Back at MDC, Yanis starts to teach the choreography to the five lines of dancers crammed behind him. They go quickly—less than a minute for each 8-count—and with everyone already on their toes, it’s nearly impossible for all but those in front to see clearly. About 40 seconds into the routine, they’re meant to spin and fall on the floor, but most can barely find a place to sit. "Don’t come to LA if you want space!" Yanis yells as they bump into each other.

At the end of class, Yanis chooses small groups to perform the routine for the class. This is the most dramatic moment, when Yanis will give the best dancers an opportunity to appear in front of his 900,000 Instagram followers. Most go in groups of three, but one is called to dance by himself, which is surprising because he’s the only one wearing flats. After class is over, I ask him if we can chat. Students are crowding around Yanis, so I suggest we step outside.

Twenty-five-year-old Robert Green started dancing in 2010 and has been in and out of MDC since 2013. He’s danced for Fifth Harmony, The Weeknd, and Nicki Minaj, but his big break came when he joined Taylor Swift’s 1989 world tour. He was the only dancer from that tour to be cast in her 2017 "Look What You Made Me Do" video, which has about 30 seconds of heels choreography.

"I don’t consider myself a heels dancer, and when I take Yanis’ class, I don’t wear heels," he says. "I believe in taking class for your own reasons, and it’s a challenge in itself because I now have to adapt heels choreography to flats." In class with Yanis, like with the other instructors at MDC, the rules are never fixed.

Taylor Swift's video for "Look What You Made Me Do"

The most obvious explanation for the rise of heels choreography is social media, which has spread queer dancing far from LA. "When I go to Mexico or the Philippines or Thailand, they actually thank me there because they’re like, ‘We didn't know we were allowed to do that,’" Yanis says. It’s also proven the popularity of a dance style that could seem too niche: "Ten years ago, it was all up to the choreographers and what the labels wanted and what the artist wanted," says Pauley. "Now, artists are seeing that people are enjoying more gender-fluid dances."

At the same time, the boundaries between music genres have blurred, to the point where it’s difficult to say exactly what "hip-hop" means. Clay argues that, in the mid 2000s, artists like Rihanna, Drake, and Nicki started fusing genres, which inevitably trickled down to the dancers. According to Angelo Saunders, a hip-hop instructor at MDC, "The music changes, and we tend to change, too."

As the tempos, beats, breaks, and structures of songs started to defy conventional labels, so, too, did the dance styles. "These days, it’s hard to pinpoint someone’s background," argues Gordon Watkins, Saunders’ co-instructor.

While MDC still uses traditional labels like "hip-hop," many of the instructors I spoke with, including Saunders and Watkins, were reluctant to identify their classes as one genre. "Truthfully speaking, I don’t know what to call it. It ain’t jazz. It ain’t ballet," Sanders says. Watkins agreed. "I personally see it all stemming from a central root, but it’s a touchy topic. I don’t want to get my head cut off." I ask him why it’s so touchy. "A lot of newer dancers just haven't done research on —" Sanders cuts in—"what the move is. They just saw it and did it, and then they can’t even elaborate on where it came from."

"They’re just copying, which is okay. That’s what you do," Watkins adds. "But, I feel like a lot of people want hip-hop to be recognized for where it came from. I think that essence"—the awareness of the genre’s past—"is being lost."

Adam Vesperman and fellow dancers perform to "1999" by Charli XCX featuring Troye Sivan; choreography by Kyle Hanagami

A few weeks after Yanis' MDC class, I’m at a small dance studio in Melbourne, Australia where he's teaching another session. Beforehand, I meet one of the students, a 26-year-old who, like everyone else I talk to, first saw heels choreography on YouTube. He says he makes a living from dancing, but even when he’s performing at a local gay bar, he doesn’t have the freedom he’d like. "The drag queens do the heels and the boys are masc and sexy and slutty for the crowd," he says. When I point out that he’s dressed pretty masc, he laughs. I ask if that’s what he normally wears on the streets, and he nods. "A guy can wear a basketball jersey and shorts and a flatback and dance in heels."

This class moves at about half the pace of the one in LA, but the dancers are still struggling, and Yanis stops them halfway through. "Look," he says, "I’m not hiring dancers here, so don’t let class stress you out. You aren’t supposed to get it. Maybe tomorrow, maybe next week, maybe next year. But, having fun isn’t optional. Dancing is fun. I’m fun. So, have fun."

Afterward, when I sit down with Yanis, I tell him that I don’t remember him giving the same pep talk about having fun to the students at MDC. He laughs. "You can’t compare the two," he says. "Millennium is where shit happens. When dancers come and take a class in LA, it’s not like a regular class. It’s like an audition. They all want to get seen. They all want to get in the video. I don’t think most of them come to even learn. Their goal is to end up on my Instagram."

Of the 100 students there that night, I estimate that roughly ten were men, about the same ratio as at MDC. "When I go to Rio or São Paulo, I’ll have more guys than girls, and some of them don't even dance," Yanis says. "They literally just come because it's a free space where you can have fun and wear heels, and it's not by itself in your bedroom."

But just because a space is safe for men in heels doesn’t mean it’s immune to other prejudices. I tell Yanis that, at both the class in LA and the one in Melbourne, it seemed like mediocre men were getting more love than women who were far better. Yanis agrees, and I ask him why that is. "I guess for people it’s normal for a girl to slay in heels. But for men, it’s like ‘Ah! It’s a man,’ which is kind of dumb, but that is how it works."

That novelty wasn’t always so widely esteemed. According to Yanis, when he decided to compete on Britain’s Got Talent in 2014, "Everyone was telling me not to do it. It was a family show, and we did it with Donna Summer and feathers and heels—and trust me, we toned it down." But at the end of the routine, Yanis and his two co-dancers got a standing ovation, and the die was cast. "People had danced in heels before," he says. "Like Jonte', and I'm sure other people I don't even know, but I definitely made that shit popular to the point that, today, heels class is literally everywhere."

But Duane Holland, the first-ever hip-hop dance instructor at Boston Conservatory at Berklee and a dancer in the scene for three decades, argues that the full history of hip-hop is often obscured. "Ironically enough, a lot of hip-hop icons are gay. You’ll never hear about that, but they are." He suggests that, though Yanis may have popularized the style for a new generation of dancers, what he’s doing is hardly new: "All of Atlanta was running around in pumps before him."

Like the instructors at MDC, Holland encourages his students to consider their audience when deciding how to present themselves. "I'm not asking you to change yourself," he explains. "I'm asking you to get a strategy." He stresses, however, how limited that approach can be for dancers of color interacting with predominantly white producers, directors, and choreographers. "Even though I'm 5'5''," he says, "they see a black man with locks and that scares the fuck out of them."

Like Yanis, Holland mentions Jonte’ but focuses on how his opportunities were limited by racism. "Do you know how many projects he's been a part of?" he says. "Have you ever heard him sing? He's a renaissance man, but the only thing people are going to see is a feminine dark body." Holland names two other artists of color—Tyrone Proctor, a Soul Train dancer and pioneer of Waacking, and Poppin' Pete, a creator of the poppin’ style—who he believes haven't been adequately acknowledged. "Dancers who are responsible for this multi-billion, zillion-dollar thing called hip-hop are still trying to survive," he says. "Millennium exists because of those people."

Kenya Clay performs to "I'm Good" by Blaque

Holland is right to point out that MDC is, first and foremost, a business and a brand. Though classes are cheap compared to boutique fitness studios (single sessions start at $17 and can go as low as $7 for LA residents), that’s still not accessible to all, especially those hoping to become professionals, who might benefit from staying at Millennium’s (women-only) dancer dorms. For $1,000 a month, they receive a bunk bed, free parking, and access to a pool (towel not included, only one suitcase allowed).

Despite these limitations, MDC has still created an unusual environment, where students can come and express any number of personas while still training to work in an industry with a very narrow idea of what’s sexy and sellable. Certainly, that’s not the case with every class and every instructor, but it remains an impressive feat.

For Kenya Clay, MDC is now the kind of place that she needed growing up. "As a kid, I always doubted myself and doubted what I was capable of, and then when I finally felt empowered, someone snatched it from me," she says. But, she’s quick to point out that a "safe" space isn’t necessarily one that’s comfortable. "This is your training ground," she explains. "When someone gives you an opportunity to push outside of your norm, take it and run with it. I want people to take a chance on themselves because I feel like I didn’t for so long."

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