DeAngelo Blanchard on Re-Defining Success

This month I have the great pleasure of presenting a conversation with my friend, DeAngelo Blanchard. DeAngelo is a dancer and dance educator in New York, NY. We met several years ago as co-workers at an arts non-profit in NYC and we both transitioned to new roles in education around the same time. It’s been amazing to watch his development as a professional dancer and teacher, and I was excited to get more insight into his journey and what he envisions for his future.

Photo by Jelle IJntema.

Photo by Jelle IJntema.

SF: DeAngelo, can you start from the beginning and tell me how your life as a dancer began?

DB: The first place where I figured out I could dance was in front of my mom’s friend’s house on the corner. Do you remember the dance “The Butterfly?” I was 5 or 6 years old and I remember people cheering for me as I danced and thought to myself, “Hey this is easy, and people like it.” As I got older I was always the kid at the party that would dance and I became known as a dancer amongst my friends. My family tells me they even have home movies of me doing the splits!

SF: Did your formal training as a dancer begin at an early age?

DB: No, but when I got to middle school I did start a dance group in called “IDOMMS” which stood for the International Dancers of Mifflin Middle School. By the time I got to high school I actually thought I was going to be a rollercoaster designer, so I signed up for architecture classes but then funding cuts happened and my architecture teacher became my history teacher. At that time I thought I was going to be anything and everything.

At my high school we only had homeroom for the first three days of school and my homeroom teachers ended up being dance teachers. I had asked if I could take dance classes, but it didn’t work out with my schedule. However, they told me they had a place for me in Dance Ensemble.

Dance Ensemble was a huge deal, you had to audition for it, etc. but I didn’t really understand how big of a deal it was at the time. So, I was in Dance Ensemble for that year and we performed and toured together, and then the following year, I auditioned for a ballet academy - BalletMet - and got in, and that‘s when my formal training began.

SF: At what point did you say to yourself, “This is something I can do professionally?”

DeAngelo dancing with Francesca Harper. Photo by Eriko Iisaku.

DeAngelo dancing with Francesca Harper. Photo by Eriko Iisaku.

DB: Well for me it actually happened when I got kicked out of BalletMet. Senior year of high school was really hard for me – I am a first-generation college student and I had to do everything by myself. Applications, FASFA, deadlines - I was just losing track of everything. It got to the point where I was missing a lot of dance classes, so I lost my scholarship at BalletMet.

But during my senior year of high school, I was enrolled in college classes already at Ohio State.  I was accepted for Math and because I was enrolled I could sign up for other classes at the university. So I started taking dance classes at Ohio State before I became a major there. Having to work at actually trying to get into a class and fit it in to my schedule made me realize, “Oh, actually I really do love this and I’m kind of good at it.”

From there that’s when I decided I wanted to be a dancer.

SF: When I was in college, the models I had for how to be an artist were to either go into teaching or I was told to have a separate skill set that would enable me to make money. Art was either something you did outside of your job or you taught. What I’m wondering for you is, when you were in college what did you envision for yourself? What were the next steps you thought you were “supposed” to take?

DB: I’ve always been a man of size, so for me, the niche was that for a man of size, I was agile. My program at school was very post-modern focused, so I fit there, but in terms of where I wanted to go I didn’t know where I fit.

I’ve never been shy at networking. For me, if you know something, I’m going to talk to you. This really helped me in college when I was performing in different cities and at dance festivals because I was able to make connections and build a network. In addition, I joined every club in college that offered a free t-shirt and free food because I was always in between groceries and I was always in between clothes. Through these clubs, I didn’t really realize it until later, but I learned how to event plan, budget, etc. So I knew I had this skill set that I could use to hustle and survive if I needed to.

 But when it came to dance, I didn’t really have a mentor or anything like that. My professors looked out for me, but only in the sense that they wanted to retain me in the program. No one was really grooming me to become a professional – not in any aspect; not as a dancer or teacher. So for me, there was no real clear plan or model of what I thought I could be after college.

It was really the support of seeing my friends grind and hustle that I knew I could be a dancer. It was exhausting, but I knew there was a possibility for me to survive.

SF: What was behind your decision to move to New York after college?

DB: Dance. I knew that I couldn’t stay in Ohio. I had met some friends at American Dance Festival and we made a pact that we would move out to New York together. I moved out here with about $400 after my rent was paid and I lived with three friends in a one bedroom apartment.

SF: What was your plan? What were you picturing for yourself at the time?

DB: Once I got to NYC, I was planning to audition and join a company. I thought joining a company was how to make money. I was auditioning a lot, but I wasn’t in my niche anymore. The auditions had tons of people and I got to the point where I didn’t have the support of family, I was running out of money, and I was sending out tons of resumes for jobs everyday. I wasn’t hearing anything back, so I finally started calling people and landed a retail job at Bath and Body Works.

Eventually I landed a spot in a company and learned that it means absolutely nothing in terms of making money. The gigs were paid, but if you only perform every three months or so, then you only get paid once every three months. Even if you were paid for rehearsals, it was still only one day a week for three hours, so it wasn’t nearly enough to live off of.

I had every job imaginable and hustled doing as much as I could at places like the Alvin Ailey School. I worked in their store, did random administrative jobs, anything I could to make money.

DeAngelo dancing with Cierra Cotton. Photo by Eriko Iisaku.

DeAngelo dancing with Cierra Cotton. Photo by Eriko Iisaku.

By 2012 I was dancing for two or three companies and that year I proclaimed to myself that all of the jobs I would have would be “dance jobs” or in the dance world. That sense of feeling that came from being wanted by a company and then rehearsing and being able to express myself artistically felt amazing. Especially as someone that physically didn’t feel like I always fit in, having these roles really made me feel validated as an artist.

That year, one of the companies I danced for was performing at the Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference. It’s a big conference where theaters from around the country and world come looking for programming for their spaces. Dance companies and performing artists go to showcase their program and their dancers and build relationships with these spaces. I guess the easiest thing to compare it to would be like Fashion Week for designers. The goal as a company is to be in the good graces of your agent in order to get a decent time slot or location at this conference.

SF: I guess I didn’t even realize it was a thing for dance companies to have agents or needed agents…

DB: Yeah, it’s this whole system. It’s kind of crazy. That year we were at a decent “level” with our agent- not beginners, but not top-tier either and we had a good performance spot.

Then, during one of our performances I felt something odd in my knee, but I kept going. Afterwards, I got it checked out and I had ripped my quad tendon. This was right before we were supposed to go on tour and I ended up having to stay behind.  Once I got injured, I landed the job at the non-profit where we met because I just needed to work. A former colleague of at mine from Ailey was working there and she got me a job working the front desk. I ended up being there for the next two years.

SF: At a certain point I know you became frustrated with the hustle, but then made the decision to go to graduate school for teaching. How did you decide to make that transition?

DB: I was working full time at the non-profit, I was still working odd jobs at Ailey, and I just became slowly more and more depressed. I was so glad to work with you because you were another artist and we talked a lot about your experience in teaching, we talked about the salary and benefits. Around that time I also got asked to sub for some classes at Ailey and I really enjoyed it and I started putting some feelers out for other teaching jobs.

I actually applied for a job at Lincoln Center, but I didn’t get the position. However, by applying I was put on their mailing list and that is how I found out about the graduate school program that I eventually joined.

At that time in NYC when De Blasio became mayor, he made arts education funding a major priority, and with the help of donors, this graduate school opportunity formed for me to earn a Masters in Dance Education at Hunter College and Lincoln Center on full scholarship. It was a brand new program that had never existed before.

The opportunity just kind of appeared at the right time and you kind of gave me that push to apply and go for it.

SF: I remember when the opportunity popped up and I was just so excited for you because it isn’t everyday that you can get a grad school education for free and come out of it with real job prospects. I knew that even if teaching wasn’t what you ultimately wanted, it would give you time and space to break the depression cycle and hopefully get back in touch with dancing.

What did that time actually look like for you? Did you have take a break from dancing at all?

DB: Kind of…. The timeline for grad school was super fast. The time from when I applied and then started classes was a total of only three weeks. It was crazy. The program was brand new. Me and my fellow classmates were complete guinea pigs, so we didn’t even know really what to expect. I got a teaching job in February at the start of my second semester and I’ve been at that high school since.

It was exhausting. It was work, school, library, home, and I just did it and didn’t really realize how much of a social life I didn’t have until about a year later. I just remember being in school all the time.

DeAngelo dancing with John Jasperse. Photo still from video by Davidson Gliotti.

DeAngelo dancing with John Jasperse. Photo still from video by Davidson Gliotti.

SF: I know that you dance fairly regularly now with a company so how did that come back into balance in your life?

DB: From about 2014-2017 I wasn’t really dancing a lot. I was taking classes here and there, but I was teaching a lot and I kind of went through a second wave of depression where I was resigned to thinking that this was what my life was going to look like forever. I started getting asked to do a lot of mentorship roles in education and I was saying yes because I knew I was good at it and I felt like I “should.”

John Jasperse, whom I met about 10 years ago at American Dance Festival, randomly contacted me about creating a duet when I was dancing in Europe last year. We started rehearsing together and just playing around in the studio, and I thought us working together was just going to be that – more like an exercise or just brainstorming. Then it became an actual duet that we performed together and he asked if I would like to perform regularly with him. I remember he asked me to fill out a W-2 for him and I was so surprised, because it clicked that this was actual work, for an actual company. I was so naïve about how a professional level company worked and I started to get paid for my time and rehearsals. And then it dawned on me that I AM a professional. I have a degree in Dance. I have a Master’s in Dance Education. I am a professional! It was a really weird mind shift for me.

And all the sudden I’m a dancer again.

SF: Has being paid to dance changed your professional expectations now? How did you not expect that for so long? Was it because previous experiences?

DB: Yeah definitely.  Previous experiences definitely played into what I expected but also for me, I was just so grateful for any opportunity and the chance to be a vessel. Thankfully no one has ever taken advantage of that, but I was very gullible back then. I would easily have danced for free.

Also, I had been out of the game for awhile, so I didn’t really know what to expect. All in all, I think there’s more directness now with the people I perform with. Since we are all educators and artists, we expect to show up at rehearsal ready to work and not waste time. We’re committed to getting work done and to do it smartly. We’re also very knowledgeable about our bodies and how to take care of ourselves.

Because I had gone through the stage as a young dancer of being in what I thought a company was to now being in a company with people that know exactly what a company is, it has really changed my understanding of being a professional. For example, when we go on tour now, everything is planned and taken care of in terms of transportation, where we stay, etc. Whereas before I was taking buses and having to figure stuff out on my own – I was reimbursed for it – but I was in charge of my own planning. It’s amazing because the current people I’m working with are also teaching me about professional practice.

DeAngelo Blanchard and John Jasperse. Photo still from video by Davidson Gliotti.

DeAngelo Blanchard and John Jasperse. Photo still from video by Davidson Gliotti.

SF: With all of this change and realizing your level of professionalism, has your definition of success changed?

 DB: I’m in this strange place now where I’m a leader in the education space. I lead teacher professional development, I’m a mentor with NYC Men Teach, and I volunteer with other organizations. So I used to say “I’m a dancer that teaches.” But now, I’m hosting other teachers in my classroom for observations and I realize that I actually have this amazing skill as a teacher.

 And I’ve started dancing again and I’ve realized that there is a way to do both. I don’t have to be one or the other, but it’s definitely not the trajectory that I thought I would take. And that’s because it goes back to my mentality as a young dancer that the only way to call yourself a “dancer” was to be full time with a company and that’s it. But I’ve found this way to be both a teacher and a dancer.

Recently I went back home for the International Association of Blacks in Dance (IABD) conference. It’s an annual conference that usually happens in the city of one of the companies who were founding members of IABD, so this year it was in Dayton, Ohio. It was a weird epiphany moment for me where I realized the dancers I had watched on stage back from 2000 – 2010 that I thought of as my peers are now in leadership positions and the current dancers on stage are also my peers. I feel like I’m in this weird in-between space where my older peers are speaking to me like a professor or professional teacher and then my current dancer friends that are on stage are also speaking to me as a colleague that dances, and it’s an interesting conversation that I’m on both sides of.

Success now has these different branches and options for me at this point. I’m thinking about maybe going back to school for a PhD because there’s some research that I want to do, but I’m also thinking about an MFA… I’m not sure yet though. I’m also performing again so it there are doors creaking open there, too and I’m just thinking about which direction to go. Being from Ohio, success for me was really just lasting in New York this long. So now I’m just unsure of where I want to go from here.

I’ve also realized as a teacher that I have students that actually look up to me and see me as a role model for what their lives could look like. And that’s huge! When you have this sign that you are doing something right by a child, that’s a bigger compliment than any critic could say about me.

DeAngelo with Eleanor Hullihan. Photo by Miguel Anaya.

DeAngelo with Eleanor Hullihan. Photo by Miguel Anaya.

It’s also a big deal to be a high school dance teacher. Dance in public schools doesn’t exist anywhere else – only here. And being a black, male teacher I’m realizing that my role is really important.

SF: One thing I wonder about as you think about your future as a dancer is your relationship to your body and aging. I know this comes into play a bit in your work with John because he is in his fifties. How do dancers think about this when they envision their career? As a visual artist, the physical effects of aging feel like something I mentally avoid when it comes to my practice, but as a dancer I imagine it is always a very present and real thing. What is that mental process like?

DB: Well for me, I’ve already been through that thought process several times because I’ve been injured or couldn’t dance for one reason or another. But I think for me as a dancer, I’ve always had a Plan B. I think I’ve been in Plan B since the beginning of my career. Plan A is something that I reach for, but Plan B is the reality.

SF: But is that because Plan A was out of alignment with yourself or …?

DB: Yes and no. I didn’t have the family or the network or the connections, or the belief in myself to really make it as a professional dancer and stay in it. What happens if you stay in it and no one is there to support you? A lot of my friends had financial support and I didn’t have that.

The reason John and I created our duet was for that reason. He is older, skinny, white, and aging and is really going through this transition of not just being a performer in his work to being more of just a choreographer. I am young, big, black, and I’m transitioning back into being more of an artist and performer, and it’s created this interesting conversation between our bodies. In dance, you have to learn to adopt someone else’s technique and that becomes your language for expression and it manifests differently in different bodies. And that’s the duet- what does it mean to adopt someone else’s movement and then what it means when you can no longer use that language to speak.

For John, even though he is a choreographer he also performs his work and he’s reaching a point where he has to step back and just direct, and he’s trying to find a way to communicate what he feels in his body as a dancer and also accept that it’s going to be translated differently because that person he is directing is a completely different body.

I’ve noticed the people I know that are in their forties and fifties that are dancers have always also been teaching or choreographing or staying connected with other artists. They aren’t just one thing and I realize now that that is more of how the dance world works. People are known for a certain specialty or technique or type of movement and I’ve picked up that that’s how the community stays intact. People connect and follow each other. I also know that for a lot of people that dance all the time and tour all of the time, the lifestyle becomes exhausting and they reach a point where they want to stop. And that’s the traditional dancer track. Or there’s the traditional choreographer track where someone gets tired of making work, so they teach and live off of the legacy of their work.

But for me, I’ve never been exhausted by dance. I always want to do more and I think it’s because I have to also work in other jobs to keep doing it. Looking at my colleagues I see the tracks and where it takes them, and it’s easy to get locked into a specific track because aging is real.

DeAngelo Blanchard and John Jasperse. Photo by Miguel Anaya.

DeAngelo Blanchard and John Jasperse. Photo by Miguel Anaya.

SF: DeAngelo, I want to thank you for taking the time to sit down with me and catch me up on where you are today. It’s been amazing to watch you grow as both a teacher and dancer, and I wish you all the best as you figure out what’s next for you!

DB: Thank you! It was so great to catch up.


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DeAngelo Blanchard teaches Dance at a public high school in the Bronx, NY, is a mentor with NYC Men Teach, and dances with John Jasperse Projects. You can follow him on Instagram @mendance2 or sign up for his newsletter here.