Dana Foglia models her work ethic in a three-month mentorship program for aspiring professionals.
She has shimmied in stilettos with Rihanna, choreographed for J. Lo, danced with Janet Jackson and toured the world with Beyoncé. Yet as someone who has shared arena stages with dazzling pop divas, Dana Foglia is an anomaly. Within this seductive environment of instant fame and worldwide recognition, Foglia emphasizes the discipline, persistence and patience that underlie artistry. Sought after as a teacher and choreographer, the free-spirited former bunhead prefers the intimacy of a small theater and the everyday work of refining steps in a dance studio to the rush of performing in an elaborate spectacle to a sea of adoring fans.
“My favorite place to be is in the studio with people who are striving to be their best,” she says, “with no reward at the end other than the work and the art.”
The road to Beyoncé began with a street jazz class taught by Rhapsody James.
As a child, Foglia studied in a Long Island, New York, competition studio for a few years but soon found her true home in intensive ballet training with Valia Seiskaya. After high school Foglia was part of The Ailey School’s fellowship program, which expanded her ballet repertory to include African, jazz, tap, Graham and Horton. But when she stepped into Rhapsody James’ street jazz class at Broadway Dance Center, she entered an entirely new dance realm.
“I was just out of Ailey and still in a bun and a leotard, and I had split-sole jazz sneakers I thought were super-cool,” Foglia says with a laugh. “The first time I took Rhapsody’s class, I fell in love with the movement. I was so excited to be dancing to a popular song. It was a totally different atmosphere and her energy was contagious. I could pick up the choreography, but my style was completely wrong. But she noticed and took a liking to me, and we became friends.” James brought Foglia to L.A. for the first time, thus parting the curtains to the commercial scene.
Hooked, Foglia started auditioning in L.A. and landed a tour with Rihanna. “It was my first experience dancing on a tour and my first experience dancing in heels,” she says. After that, Foglia toured with Janet Jackson and then booked the ultimate commercial dance gig—The Beyoncé Experience worldwide tour. For a year and a half, she toured the world with Queen Bey, dancing 96 shows on 5 continents as part of a group of 10 dancers.
Dancing in a pop extravaganza to sold-out crowds was an extraordinary experience, but as the tour wound down, Foglia sought a new challenge. “I wasn’t feeling like I was using all my training, moving my body the way I had worked so hard to learn how to do,” she says. She walked away from a successful performing career and returned home to New York City, where she started teaching street jazz, contemporary and “heels” (dancing in stilettos) at Broadway Dance Center.
Teaching became the antidote for touring burnout.
It was a surprise to discover that she loved to choreograph. “I got so stressed out at first,” she says. “I hated to choreograph combinations for class. I felt I was piecing people’s moves together; it didn’t feel authentic. I didn’t know who I was yet as a creator.” Experimenting with different music helped her find her own voice. “I had been teaching to R&B, pop songs. Then I started to use electronic-based music and I fell in love with it,” she says. “I felt like I could move because of that music.”
Her first students became (and remain) dancers in the company she founded in 2010, Dana Foglia Dance. She draws upon a pool of 18 dancers. If Foglia started as a reluctant choreographer, the experience of creating and producing her first show made her a convert.
“It was so exciting to see it come to life,” she says of Vatic, which premiered in 2012 at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center in New York City. “I always will be a mover, but now my whole heart is on the other side creatively.” A futuristic dance show in which audience members wear wireless headsets to hear the music, Vatic has been performed in New York, L.A. and, this fall, in London. Foglia’s new company quickly earned accolades, including at the 2012 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, designed to recognize and spotlight up-and-coming choreographers.
Foglia’s alluring and athletic style draws from ballet, modern, contemporary, African and commercial hip hop. “It’s definitely a fusion,” says Jose “Boy Boi” Tena, who has danced with the company for five years (and is currently touring with Ariana Grande).
“It’s groovy, there’s a lot of funk and it’s rhythmic. But there’s also a lot of breath in it, and it’s pretty to watch. She has a style that’s getting better as it evolves, a signature that’s continually refined.”
Her career came full circle when Beyoncé hired her to choreograph for two world tours, the “Haunted” music video, and several award-show appearances. “For her to see me on a different level, and for me, too, to see her on a different level, that’s been super-super-cool for me,” says Foglia, noting that their dynamic has changed over the years.
“We’re both older and evolved as artists. She loves something that is outside of the box. I think that’s where I come in.” The challenge for Foglia is not being able to use her full creative voice on the artistic project. “It’s definitely different from me creating with my company, where there’s nobody telling me, “‘You have to structure it like this,’ or ‘I wanted something like this,’” she says. “When I work for Beyoncé, it’s her thing, not my thing. But I still feel lucky to be a part of that creative side.”
“To see growth, that’s what fulfills me.”
A familiar restlessness led to the next turning point in Foglia’s career. In 2013, she moved back to L.A. Though New York is home, she says, “L.A. has been way more accepting of the work that I do.” After touring with the convention NUVO and teaching on both coasts, she began to crave a deeper experience with students. “After teaching open class after open class, it started to feel less fulfilling,” she says. “I felt I had more to share than I could in an hour and a half.”
She found what she was looking for with The Mentorship Program, a three-month intensive she created for groups of dancers to study with Foglia and her company members. Four days a week, for four hours a day, participants take a range of classes including ballet and yoga, do mock auditions with agencies and learn the DFD company rep.
To get the word out, Foglia posted audition requirements on her YouTube channel and promoted it on her Facebook page (where she has more than 43,000 “likes”). Applications soon poured in from around the world. The application required a video of the dancer explaining why they want to attend. Personality is just as important as technical ability. “I try to heavily base my decisions off their energy in the video: what they have to say and whether it feels real and honest to me,” she says.
The first session took place last year in L.A. with 25 dancers (she limits the numbers to keep the experience focused and personal). With a common goal—to make a living dancing—the participants shared a similar mind-set and maturity, but they came from different training backgrounds and were at different levels technically.
“Dana’s style of movement requires a lot from you,” says Christin Olesen, who traveled from Copenhagen for the program. “You have to have a lot of discipline and so much persistence. And you have to be mature to handle her teaching. She’s not about quick fixes. She gives dancers her best tools, but she doesn’t have a magic wand. It’s up to us if we want to be better dancers.” Foglia has now completed three mentorship programs in L.A., as well as a streamlined version in London. The program’s emphasis on constant, continual work parallels Foglia’s personal work ethic and prescription for success. “You have to work hard to get what you want,” she says. “If you’re a good person and a hard worker, eventually with patience, things will happen for you.” DT
Caitlin Sims is a former Dance Teacher editor, now based in San Francisco.
From top: photos by Joe Toreno; by Matthew Murphy (2); photo by Juliana Ucer, courtesy of Foglia; by Joe Toreno