Name: Princess Mhoon
Title: Artistic Director & Choreographer/Princess Mhoon Dance Institute, Founder & Director
Born: Chicago, Illinois
Lives & Works: Washington, DC
- Princess Mhoon Dance Institute
- DC Jazz Festival 2017 Featured Headliner, Artistic Director & Choreographer
- Masters of Dance Concert, Artistic Director
- Peter Pan Junior Musical, Choreographer
- Center City Public Charter School Dance Program, Curriculum Writer & Dance Program Developer
- Interior Design Project in Cabo, Mexico (side hustle)
- Black Nativity, Washington, DC - Director & Choreographer
- Passing Strange, Choreographer - Howard University Department of Theatre Arts
- A Chorus Line, Choreographer - Howard University Department of Theatre Arts
- Ronald K. Brown/Evidence Dance Company
- Rennie Harris Puremovement Dance Company
- The Chuck Davis African American Dance Ensemble
- Nathan Trice Rituals, and Deeply Rooted Productions
- DANCING FEET School Dance Outreach Program Founder
- Alyo Children's Dance Theatre
- Dance Faculty, Howard University Department of Theatre Arts
- Muntu Dance Theatre of Chicago
- HUFFINGTON POST as one of 26 Female Choreographers You Should Know
- Dance Magazine's 2006 "Top 25 to Watch" in the world for the innovative Women's Choreography Project titled This Woman's Work
- Invited to participate as one of the region's leading dance leaders by First Lady Michelle Obama during her Celebration of Black Women in Dance
- Served as a panelist for The White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans during Women's History Month.
- 2015 Helen Hayes Award Nominee for Best Choreography in a Musical, a Helen Hayes winner for Best Musical
- One of 37 International artists invited to Lusaka, Zambia for solo performance and master classes at the 2015 Barefeet Theatre Festival for vulnerable youth sponsored by UNICEF.
- 2016 class member of Leadership Greater Washington
- Awards, scholarships and recognition from the American Dance Festival, Dance Magazine, Howard University, and Career Transitions for Dancers.
- 2007 The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Dance Commissioning Grant Awardee
CreativeTypes: What do you do?
Princess Mhoon: Create Ideas, Choreograph Dance Concerts, Direct/Choreograph Musicals, Manage Dance Studio, Develop Dance Programs in Schools & Outreach Centers, Raise three children, Do laundry, Eat out mostly, Cook sometimes, Crack Jokes, Dress up/Dress down...
(Ask me what I don't do...)
CT: You've done so much in the field of dance, what kicked off your career?
PM: When you go to Howard University as a Dance Major you're exposed to so much. I learned of Ronald K. Brown's and Rennie Harris's dance companies my freshman and sophomore year and ended up dancing with both companies as a result of taking masters classes and having to review their performance. Rennie Harris called an audition in a nightclub in DC. Prospective dancers had to battle his company members. My college roommate Bethany Strong a.k.a Peanut and I had at least a dozen routines. We both made our way into the company before graduating college. A funny fact is that I wanted to drop out of Howard and go to Juilliard. I wanted to dance, I didn't want to be in an academic setting. I wanted conservatory training! But, I was talked out of it.
One week before graduation we found out that the American Dance Festival was holding auditions on the campus of University of Maryland for their summer program at Duke University in North Carolina. We found out at 7am that morning and jumped up in the car and headed to the audition. We arrived late, but because there were hardly any other black girls, I think the panel just let us audition. The big group audition was over so I was just asked to dance! A spunky woman with a friendly smile and long blonde hair down her back (I later learned was Donna Faye Burchfield, the former Director of American Dance Festival) left the room and grabbed someone and said "you have to see this girl", then next thing I know, this short muscular black man came in and said, "Who are you and when are you coming to New York?" That man was Nathan Trice, a New York choreographer who was extremely popular at the time. That summer I received a scholarship to the American Dance Festival and later joined Nathan's company the day after I moved to New York. I would take the train to Harlem, learn the group choreography and also watch the lead dancers and learn their parts on my own. Ironically, the lead female dancer just stopped showing up to rehearsals one day. We found out that she was pregnant and I had to dance her part. At the performance there were several other dance companies with a list of who's who in the dance world. Everyone was like "who is this Princess person?". My first New York performance was as the lead and at the Lincoln Center! I met some great friends that day.
Prior to that though, I spent an additional year in North Carolina after being offered a job with Chuck Davis and the African American Dance Ensemble. It was my first professional job out of college where I received a salary and benefits and could pay my own rent. He became my dance dad.
I ended up moving to New York of course. It was my burning desire to be in the Big Apple. I was taking classes and doing work with Nathan Trice and working with Rennie Harris Pure Movement when 9/11 happened. When the towers came crashing down many of thought we were going to war. I felt unsafe in NewYork so I moved to Atlanta to be with my boyfriend at the time. After 3 months, I received a call from a friend that Ronald K. Brown had held holding auditions. I was heart broken that I'd missed them. A friend of mine, who was also a company member, asked Ron if he would let me attend the callbacks if I could make it back from Atlanta in time. He had three slots and there were four of us auditioning and he ended up hiring all four of us.
CT: What do you wish you would have known sooner?
PM: I wish I knew earlier that I was the creator of my destiny, and that no one validates me or my journey.
In general in the US, being an artist is taboo. In Europe and abroad, being an artist is prestigious because most people are not born with creative instincts. Americans don't think that way. We worship sports and celebrity much more so you spend a lot of time as a young artist (if you're not grounded or supported), looking for external reinforcements. Or you get blind-sighted or distracted from your focus.
CT: How would you describe your process as a choreographer?
PM: It starts with an idea. Then I paint the picture in my mind of what the images will look like based on the message or how I want the audience to feel: the shape, pattern and energy of the movement, lighting, set design, costume, etc. From that point I explore music or scores that help to tell the story.
CT: What is the project/work that you are most proud of/known for?
PM: Co-Curating "This Woman's Work: A Choreographic Project for Diverse Women Choreographers" - from 2003-2007 with Bridget L. Moore.
We (myself & Bridget - who is now artistic director of Dallas Black Dance Theater) were both dancing with Ronald K. Brown /Evidence Dance Company and we were roommates on tour ad talked a lot about how in the dance world, women are the predominant population, however when it comes to leadership, companies, choreography - it's all led by men. Being a double minority as a Black Woman, it's even more of an issue so we said let's start doing our own work. We thought that instead of trying to mount concerts individually, she and I would join forces to put together a show. We thought about some of the other women who were amazing badass dancers (because it would take less effort for us between touring to try to pull together a concert if we just invite everyone). I remember the first concert featured acclaimed and award winning choreographer, Camille A. Brown's as a dancer when she was fresh out of college, as well as Hope Boykin, who was one of our first featured choreographer. They both are very well known now...it was really ground-breaking for a lot of women in that camp. As a matter of fact Bridget and I have reunited and I are interested in continuing what we started. We've found out that there are other projects where people are doing the same thing under the same name/concept.
CT: How do you navigate feeling ownership over your work and plagiarism in the dance world?
PM: I think that's a big issue in any creative field. People see something, get inspired and sometimes try to recreate things and think that they can do it better. Some people think that there's a geographical need that's not being fulfilled, some people have low integrity and just can't come up with their own ideas. In the dance world you want to video/document your choreography and date it...I've seen dance companies create pieces that duplicate movement and use similar as other companies. That's why a lot choroegraphers use original compositions and collaborate with composers so that your work is just your work and it's signature and for someone else to do it, would just be too blatant.
I haven't really had that issue for myself.
CT: For a lot of aspiring black women dancers in the United States, the ultimate career goal seems to be dancing for Alvin Ailey. What are your thoughts about this path vs. other paths for aspiring professional dancers?
PM: Ailey is indeed a magnificent dance company. The allure of Ailey is that they've been around since 1958 and was one of the first internationally recognized dance companies to show black dancers in such a beautiful light, so everyone knows them. When it comes to concert dance which most people don't know about, the Ailey name brings prestige.
Think of dance as a microcosm of the real world. Most people simply want a job doing what they love with a great company. and Ailey is a very well known and socially accepted career outcome. The Ailey company does beautiful work, they're world renowned, and they're a corporate entity. With Ailey it's like celebrity in the world of dance - your face is going to be on billboards around the globe.
But with limited exposure, you don't know who else is out there doing great work. There are many regional companies with amazing repertoire and national and international touring dates, but have a more regional prestige.
I trained at Ailey for a while in New York and loved it. The faculty was some of the best I had ever experienced. Milton Myers, a Master Teacher in the Horton Technique is one of my favorite. He came to teach at Howard for a a semester and I sought him out once I moved to NY. I've made tons of friends in the company, and we all danced and did work together,
For those of you interested in joining the Ailey Company, my advice to you his to study at the school, audition for the 2nd Company and work your way up through the ranks.
For my career I decided early that I wanted to create my own identity. I've never like being defined by other's opinions. After so many auditions where you make it to the last round, or know you performed better than the next dancer and was still rejected is a bummer. I also had an issue being a back-up dancer for music artist. I've tried it and the fact of the matter is most some them don't respect your work. You add so much to their performance quality and in some cases have more talent, yet there is a disregard. I wasn't interested in standing behind anyone sweating my butt while the audience cheers for them. No thank you! I decided early that I was I going take destiny into my own hands.
The ultimate goal is to be fierce and flawless and to make ballet be your strongest technique. You almost have to be a ballet star from somewhere else. Typically, you have to be a ballet phenom like a star from Dance Theatre of Harlem - someone who has already built a reputation. I'm not saying that a joe schmo can't come outta nowhere, but typically that's the route. There's a dance company in Philly called Philadanco - they're two hours away and they do amazing work, but it's still grassroots. They're a local dance company. They turn out amazing dancers, and they audition for Ailey and Ailey typically knows them already as well.
But if there's a four million dancers, and there's only 40 slots at Ailey (20 men & 20 women), everyone isn't going to get that opportunity. You have to expose yourself and figure out what you want to do - there's Broadway, there's LA industry work, Europe has an incredibly rich dance scene, then there's regional dance companies, or you can become a choreographer or a dance educator. You have to figure out what you're going to do. Those people who don't figure out their path and align themselves with the right people and opportunities are those who end up leaving the field.
CT: You've done a lot of the different options you've named in terms of dance paths, what made you decide to go the education route?
PM: Once I married and started a family my priorities had to change. I couldn't jump on the road and tour anymore. I knew that if I wanted to continue my career in the field of dance, income had to be consistent so that I could contribute to the household. I wanted to recreate a dance career for my self where others could also thrive. Before I oped the institute I was an emerging choreographer, and as a choreographer you have to write grants, pay for space, and you need financial resources. As soon as I took the leap to start the institute, all of these creative opportunities, awards, etc. started flowing.
CT: What is the easiest way for someone to break into your field?
1. To take classes and train rigorously. Find the best institution and teachers. Identify the people who inspire you the most and talk to them. Find a way to engage yourself in their work and study how they achieved their success. There isn’t one blueprint to success in the field of dance, so be patient with your individual path.
2. In most cities/states there are regional companies. Like for example in Dallas there's the Dallas Black Dance Company - OMG I saw that company, it was to die for!! In Philly there's Philadanco, in Ohio there's Dayton Contemporary Dance Company...
3. I advise an aspiring dancer to attend dance conferences. At different conferences, you get exposed to different companies and different choreographers - so like International Association of Blacks in Dance Conference for example. At the conference, you have a bunch of masters teaching. You have performances of all of these dance companies in one weekend AND they do an audition at the end of the weekend where everyone is on a panel - from Dance Theatre of Harlem and everyone between are all there.
4. Do summer workshops at different institutions. They're bringing the best and brightest choreographers. Some have dance companies while others are independent choreographers doing work in Broadway and film. It's a great opportunity to connect. I've seen choreographers have work in Japan and next thing you know they're bringing back someone from abroad to present stuff, but that could have been you depending on how you align yourself.
CT: Do you have to have a certain training/go to a certain college?
PM: It depends on what route you want to take but I would strongly recommend before you start trying to teach dance, that you have some career experience. You don't want to just be teaching off of theory like, "ok I want you to stretch your toe like this, etc." but you have no idea what it's like to be up on that stage with the lights on you. Even if your goal is to be a professor your whole life, you still need some field experience even with degrees. For academics and dance, you're not getting a job in higher ed without having a degree unless you have been teaching and are a master for the last twenty or thirty years minimum. It's to the point now where they want a Masters in Dance or Choreography or some related field, not just undergrad. That's why people are taking the academic route because when your leg doesn't go up anymore, how are you going to pay those bills? Most dance companies don't have pensions. Ailey may have that, but most don't.
CT: Unlike being a professional athlete where you're rich and sorted by the time that your body wears out, what are your later in life (retirement) options in dance?
PM: Higher Ed. I have over twenty years of experience teaching (not formally), but I have a Masters in History with a research in Dance History and African-American experience in dance. Choreography is another option, but you gotta be good! The options are narrow. You better be a damn good teacher or choreographer, or a damn good business person.
CT: What about the financial piece, will you starve in a career in dance?
PM: It depends. Broadway pay rates can range from $1-10k per week depending on your role. I've heard that American Ballet Theatre pays well. If the company you dance for tours a lot you will also receive per diem to pay or food. That's a bonus.
In 1998, straight out of school, I earned $18,500. I was performing with Chuck Davis and living in Durham, NC but my rent was $500 so I had enough to live. However, I was always a hustler so I also worked a job teaching dance at the local university and picked up some waitressing as well. We were salaried and paid every two weeks. If I recall I was paid $400 weekly while dancing with Ronald K. Brown in the late in year 2000. My rent in Brooklyn, NY was $900/month so I also worked was a bartender and taught dance.
CT: What is the most challenging aspect of your career path?
PM: Managing people at the institute. Being creative and a business leader. Balancing motherhood with my schedule.
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