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He's Back! Wade Robson Opens Up About His Return to Dance

Rose Eichenbaum

Wade Robson was at the height of his popularity and among the dance industry's most respected teachers and choreographers when I photographed him for the cover of Dance Magazine in 2007. At 25, he had already produced an extraordinary body of work that included commercials, music videos, world tours and stage direction for such pop stars as Britney Spears, *NSYNC, Justin Timberlake, Usher and Demi Lovato. He was also creator and host of his own MTV show, "The Wade Robson Project," and had won multiple industry awards, among them two Emmys for his choreography on "So You Think You Can Dance." What his admiring public didn't know was that Robson harbored a secret that in five short years would bring his professional life crashing down.


Robson's remarkable rise began at the age of 5 when he won a Michael Jackson impersonation contest in Brisbane, Australia. It was the stuff of dreams. Not only did he meet the King of Pop, performing in his 1987 Bad Tour before nearly 15,000 people, he began a relationship with Jackson that assured he'd become a star.

When Robson was 9, Jackson sponsored his move to Hollywood with his mother and sister in order to mentor him and guide his career. Robson was soon dancing professionally in music videos, including Jackson's "Black or White." At 12, Robson began teaching at L.A.'s top dance schools. And at 16, he landed his first major choreographing gig for Britney Spears.

But the more successful he became, the more the secret he'd been holding for 20 years began to consume him. In 2013, four years after Michael Jackson's death, Robson filed a lawsuit against Jackson's estate, accusing his mentor of sexual abuse from the ages of 7 to 14. (The judge ruled against Robson.) Robson then walked away from his dance career and moved with his wife and young son to the island of Maui, where he became a documentary filmmaker. One of the organizations he worked with is the nonprofit Friends of the Children's Justice Center, which advocates for child abuse prevention.

In 2017, five years after he disappeared completely from the dance scene, I noticed Robson had joined the faculty of JUMP Dance Convention. I recently wrote to him requesting an interview, and a few weeks later we were sitting together at a juice bar in the small town of Paia, not far from his home. "Rose, ask me anything," he said.

On Why He Left The Entertainment Industry...

Rose Eichenbaum

Rose Eichenbaum: Why did you leave the entertainment industry, but more specifically dance?

Wade Robson: My relationship with dance had become tainted. Michael Jackson was the reason I began dancing at the age of 2. He was my main inspiration and my mentor, but he was also my abuser. Dance was so intertwined with him and the abuse that I couldn't separate them. Michael was also responsible for my training and drilled into me that I had to be the greatest, better than anyone else, rule the world and never be second-best. The pressure he put on me starting at the age of 7 was almost unbearable. I eventually created a name for myself, but inside I was miserable and felt like a fake, an imposter who at any minute would be found out. When my son was born in 2011, everything began to unravel.

On How He Reentered the Dance World...

Rose Eichenbaum

RE:: So after all of this, how were you game to reenter the dance world?

WR: Up until a year and a half ago I didn't think I ever would. I thought that dance was gone from my life forever. Whenever it would call to me, I'd just say "no" and push those thoughts away. Yoga was now my physical and spiritual movement. Then one morning I awoke with the awareness that before my relationship with dance had become tainted, it was pure, innocent and joyful. Could I get that back?

RE: And you booked space at a local dance studio and announced that you would teach a class open to the public, right?

WR: About 50 people showed up, many nonprofessional, a real motley crew from all walks of life. I began the class with "Let's all sit down. I want to talk to you about why I'm here, where I've been, and what my goal is both for myself and for all of you." I had a real vulnerable share. I let my guard down and enabled them to drop their shoulders and be vulnerable with me, too. All of us in the room connected so deeply, so quickly. And one of the beautiful things that happened that night was that my son, Koa, was there, too, to act as my DJ. Here was my 7-year-old son, who looked a lot like a 7-year-old Wade, pressing "play" on the sound system so that I could dance again. I knew then that I had to keep going.

For the full article, pick up a copy of DT's February issue here.

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Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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