02 | Leila Henry
It’s so dope when dancers I know portray personas that are so different than how they act off the stage. Like yo. You never talk or anything when we hang but then you showed TF up to that buck piece. Or that feeling when you intimidated by someone who is crazy good on stage but learn later that they’re a totally chill goofball in real life. (Which is most of my interactions with dancers in general, tbh.) As someone who generally leans on the introverted/shy side of things (yay INFJs!), I love how dance allows you to embody different personas like that. Which made me all the more excited for this interview!
*cue transition opening music*
So the first time I took Leila Henry’s class was a few years back when The Lab Dance Studio was still up and running (not to be confused with DePaul's hip hop culture and dance club, also named The Lab) 😉. I’d already had quite a few classes under my belt by then, but something that Leila said before she taught any movement caught me off guard.
“Okay for this piece, I want you to think of an old man. Like a grumpy, cranky old man.”
Like full on, tennis-ball walker, Metamucil drinking, Eustace Bagge looking…yeah. You get the point. Throughout that entire class, Leila pushed us to build on that character in our movement. There wasn’t just intention in how our body moved, but why.
Up until that point in my dance experience, I rarely went into a character’s backstory when learning combos or preparing for sets. It was a lot of “this piece is a sexy piece, so let’s see those smoky eyes” or “this is a sad piece, so start thinking about that feeling you get when there's nothing in the fridge.” 😂
Most of the time the feeling or character of a piece was an afterthought – something that was briefly painted on after learning the moves to a piece. Leila's class introduced a different concept to me. She pushed me to understand a story to motivate my movement.
For Leila, that character-driven movement is essential to dancing with intention, and has been a defining characteristic of her progression as an artist. From releasing her Sincerely, by Leila Henry dance concept video series, to running her Acid Edge Customs clothing business, to her continuing work as a teacher and choreographer in the community (shout out to her performance at Reveal Vol. 2!), Leila has provided a unique voice to this community that is energized by her character commitment.
Also also. Leila surprised me by saying she was also super introverted. I didn’t expect that at all based off of her movement. So full circle I guess, man. Dancing let's you do amazing things.
John: How did you get started with dance? I feel like your family is super supportive – was your family rooted in the arts?
Leila: I don’t think so to be honest. I didn’t grow up with artistic influences in my immediate family, anyway. My extended family is artistically inclined, specifically on my mom’s side of the family – my uncle is a painter, and my grandmother was a dancer - but that stuff I actually didn’t know about until recently. I’ve just kind of always been a performer.
It’s weird though because I’ve always loved performing, but I never liked being the center of attention. I was so shy that anytime people would clap for me I would get so embarrassed and I would tell them to stop. That clapping reinforced that people were looking at me and I would totally shut down.
I had a birthday party. I think it was my 4th or 5th birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese and I invited my whole class. I was so excited about it in theory, but then when they started singing happy birthday to me, I burst into tears. I was so shy and scared with everyone looking at me. It was terrible.
But at home my mom bought me these two VHS tapes. Richard Simmons “Sweatin’ to the Oldies” tape and this Barbie workout tape. I really loved those videos. I’d have them on repeat and I think that’s when I discovered that I liked dancing.
I was born in Delaware. I went to preschool and kindergarten there and moved to Chicago in time for the first grade around six years old. I went to Rogers Park Montessori School. Art was encouraged there along with developing our own voice. The school molded us to be relatively well-rounded kids, and we had a lot of art classes, music classes, drama classes – lots of the arts. I thrived in the drama aspect of it. We would put on a play every year and that would be the most exciting time for me. I lovedddd learning lines and I loved rehearsing. I loved it. And this was before I started taking any dance classes. I loved acting.
Eventually I revisited this dance thing. I didn’t even know what hip hop dance was. I just knew that I wanted to do something like that. So my mom put me in a jazz class when I was nine. (laughs) I hated it. It was a really cheesy kid class, with a bunch of wiggling around. So I was like, “no that’s not it.” Then my mom put me in a hip-hop class and it clicked. And I was like “Okay. This is it.” I only danced for fun for years. But I stayed with it. I took a hip hop class once a week at Gus Giardano Dance School.
Montessori school ended in the sixth grade, so when I went entered the seventh grade it was my first year at a public school. It was like night and day. I basically grew up with the same people through all of elementary school. It was a very small school. There were maybe sixty kids from first to sixth grade, and my graduating class was eight: four guys and four girls, and like I said, I moved to Chicago in time for the first grade, so those were the only people I knew.
John: So that was your entire world.
Leila: Yeah, pretty much. When I transferred to the seventh grade, I shut down. I didn’t know where to fit in. All the kids were very different, very just – intimidating. At that time it was very awkward because it’s around that time that you start puberty and I was way underdeveloped. I didn’t feel underdeveloped with my three other female friends at my old school – but then I’m seeing boobs and butt and guys that I’m like sigh there’s a lot of cute guys and stuff and I’m this weird shy girl. 😔 I made a couple friends that year, but I was still very awkward.
But there was this talent show at the end of the that first year. I didn’t really even give it much thought, but I was like, “I think I’m going to dance.”
I did a solo. I just choreographed my own dance and I did my own solo and everyone was shocked. They were like “I thought you were so shy and so weird – where was – that was amazing!” The teachers, the students, everyone was blown away and I was blown away by their reaction because I had never really thought about it that way.
John: At this point, did you still feel awkward when you were getting that attention?
Leila: I feel like I gradually got over most of that throughout school. I felt a little opened up when I was receiving that kind of attention because it felt good. Plus I had done some recitals and stuff at Gus Giardano so I had some opportunities to shake of the initial shock of performing.
Oh and fun fact! Davina Pasiewicz and I technically go way back. We went to summer camp together when we were 9 and 10 years old. 😮 There was a day that they called “lip sync day” at our camp, so we did a performance together. That’s kind of another way that I was able to perform - I was not shy to lip sync and dance in front of the whole camp for some reason – so I did stuff like that too.
John: Yeah - that’s interesting to me too because you said attention was really suffocating for you at one point.
Leila: Haha. Yeah, I got over the applause thing over the years, but even in non-dance settings now…like say I walk into a room and people say “Heeeyyyyyy she’s here”…I probably would still feel awkward.
But yeah. 7th grade talent show. I did the same thing 8th grade because it felt so good. And again. And again. Every year I did a solo at that talent show, and then I joined our dance team in high school. That’s kind of where I really believe dance became a true passion. My sophomore through senior years I became one of the main choreographers of our team and that’s where my choreography started to develop.
My senior year in high school, our dance team was the only Chicago Public High School to compete in a suburban dance competition and win. And we won two state championships my senior year, so it felt like that was a sign for me to keep going. We were featured on Fox News and in the Sun Times. (laughs) My mom still has the Sun Times article.
John: Which high school?
Leila: Mather. I mean Mather was okay. Dancing was the only thing I cared about. I did well in school, but dance team was…ehh…
John: You didn’t go to school for the classes. 😂
Leila: Yeah I mean we had some good teachers and some not so great teachers. But by my senior year I was like “get me out of hereeee.” I decided to major in dance in college at UIUC (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign).
Dancing in College
Leila: In hindsight, I still count UIUC that as my most important high school experience of my life. Like if it wasn’t for that, I don’t think I would be doing what I’m doing now. The dance program there developed me more as a choreographer than as a dancer. I got some technique from there, but a lot of the focus or maybe a lot of my focus ended up being in dance composition.
There was a composition class, and we also took a teaching workshop class where we learned how to teach. So that’s where I was forced to develop my philosophy as an artist. That’s where I laid my foundation. (*Note: Yassssss to this by the way. Dancing and teaching dance are different, and I would love love to improve on how I teach dance as well. - John)
My senior year you make your own thesis piece and I dove head first into that process because I had gone through so much in those college years. It felt like I was losing myself at some points during school because the program was so…it was like…it’s hard to describe.
It was a post-modern dance program, so what they considered dance is very broad. It could be anything from like doing this *Leila taps on a cup a few times with her finger* to like more traditional balletic stuff. UIUC didn’t really embrace mainstream hip hop very much. I was the only hip-hop dancer there so I was struggling to catch up with people who have been dancing in a studio since they were three. I felt like they were trying to change me at some points, but I feel like they were just trying to open up my mind. That’s how I’m internalizing it now – they were opening up my mind. I’m very open now and I feel like my choreography has become so quirky and versatile because of that process.
John: Was your family pretty receptive to you majoring in dance? I feel like if I told my parents that I wanted to major in dance they would have a heart attack. 😭
Leila: My parents did not care what I majored in as long as I left with the degree. I couldn’t not go to college. Not that I didn’t want to go to college, but not going wasn’t an option. But for my parents it didn’t matter where or what I majored in.
I originally wanted to go to Howard University. A lot of my family members went there and I visited in high school and I loved the vibe of it. Everyone was just so colorful and really…well black people. And fashionable. The scene was just jumpin’. I actually got in, but I didn’t get my response until after UIUC had to hear from me.
But everything happens for a reason. The only reason I knew about the Chicago dance scene was from Urbanite. I wasn’t involved in the dance scene at all before college. All I knew was my high school dance team and the studio that I trained at. So when I joined UIUC 2XS freshman year, and Urbanite happened….I was like “What. Is. This. This is it!” I was so inspired.
John: Oh snap. Really? That’s awesome! So after graduating were you pretty set on going to continue dance in Chicago?
Leila: Yup. Honestly I was really nervous for my first workshop in Chicago because I didn’t know what I was going to do and I was kind of intimidated by people at first. (John: Yo same though.) I think the first class I ever took in Chicago was from Andrew Phan. And Kris Rhodes. I survived, and I was hooked. From there, I went to class after class.
Leila: Did you ever watch Sabrina the Teenage Witch? You know how when she goes to the other realm through the closet? That’s how I felt going to UIUC. The dance department was soooo night and day. Like to go from these cool hip-hop classes to like doing this *Leila taps on her glass again*
I craved Chicago dance. But what’s interesting is that because my experiences with UIUC and Chicago were on complete opposite ends of the spectrum and I found myself in the middle. It got to a point where when I was at U of I, I was like, “I really want this hip hop stuff.” Where as now, I want hip-hop dancers to open up their minds to other things they aren’t used to.
My mission became to find that balance, so that’s what I did with my senior thesis piece. I fused hip hop and *taps cup*. In my work in Chicago I try to do the same thing. Incorporate juxtaposing ideas and aesthetics. I think it just makes things more interesting. And that goes back my initial interest in acting. I mean I’ve always just loved acting.
From the stage to the screen
John: That right - I know you’ve been trying to take acting classes too, right?
Leila: Yes! I don’t talk about it that much. I feel like I share a lot on social media so like this is something that I like to keep to myself. 🙃
I am taking my first on-camera acting class every Tuesday and I’m getting more serious about pursuing acting, specifically in TV and film. The class is really intimate – there’s like 10 of us maybe in the class and I’m really enjoying it.
I don’t want to toot my own horn, but acting feels very natural. There’s a lot to learn and acting has its own difficulties, but I feel like I’m equipped to master it. I feel like I’m a good candidate for this kind of thing. Dance has definitely helped me get into acting too, because it makes me aware of my face and my body. And I mean, I’m a performer, and there’s acting involved in dance.
One thing that was a really nice compliment that a teacher said was related to physical comedy. I mean sometimes I find myself funny, I don’t know if other people do, but one thing I didn’t know is that I could be physically funny?
There was like a commercial that the class was doing, and in the commercial and we were showing around Aaron Rodgers. There’s a part where he throws us a football and we were supposed to run off, and then crash into something and then…"I’m good.” *waves hands up*
It was just the way that I took that on. My teacher complimented me and compared my physical comedy to that of Charlie Chaplin, and he’s like “you should look into that.” He was explaining that physical comedy has become a lost art and that I had made a lot of good choices in the take that he took of me and I was like, “ooooooooh.” Haha. 😄
Struggling with dance
John: And I think acting for you has been a nice breath of fresh air from dancing, since I know you’ve been having some struggles with your dance process recently. Where are you right now when it comes with ups and downs with dance and a dance career?
Leila: That’s a good question. What I’m having trouble deciphering is if it’s an internal thing, or an external thing. Is it my dancing environment, or is it me?
At one point I started to feel like my desire to pursue dance as a career was waning, but I think it’s because there are a lot of things about the industry that don’t align with my values as an artist. With the influx of social media or how you need X number of followers to do something…it feels superficial. Mediocrity is praised. Like, where are the standards? 🤔
I think was what initially inspired me to dance in the first place – a lot of those things are gone, or they’ve changed a lot. I remember looking at Janet Jackson’s music videos and live stage performances. I remember the first time I saw Britney Spears’ “Hit me baby one more time” music video and feeling jealous. I don’t know why. I just looked at these videos and I wanted to be them. So I started taking more dance classes and stuff. But that feeling – that pure feeling – was before social media and everything. There was something just about that energy.
I just don’t feel like music videos today are the same. Like I love the 90s and early 2000s music, that music inspired me. Today’s music, some of it’s good, but some of its like, ehhhh everything is starting to sound the same.
I feel like dance has had a resurgence, but I feel now with social media now it’s a trendy thing to do. Or something to do for attention or other reasons whereas back in the day I felt like the dancers were thoroughly passionate about it and it was so apparent.
Before social media, you had to show up. You had to be visible. You had to grind. And some of that grind is missing. As great as social media is for convenience and stuff I think it can be abused. I mean – I’ve taken full advantage of social media but sometimes I wish it was scaled back. It’d be interesting to see if social media went away, how many people would still be dancing. I know I would be.
Yeah. I was going through rough patch with dance, or I still kind of am, but I recently went to LA a couple weekends ago for Galen Hooks’ program. I felt a resurgence in some sense but I also feel like Galen and I are aligned in that she values character and performance as well. She is a very character driven choreographer. I was like in the zone during the program because when I’m in her class I feel like I’m not just learning movement I’m developing a character along the way. It’s like – yes, I’m learning movement, but it feels more authentic because it’s like not just what is my arm doing, but why? It’s a lot easier to learn that way and more fun for me.
Industry-wise I’m unsure. On the flip side, as a choreographer I don’t feel that way as much because I can be inspired by anything to create. What inspired me to dance was the music and whatever *waves arms* the 90s was. I don’t know. As a dancer, I am inspired by fewer things.
John: So it’s actually interesting that you mentioned Britney Spears as a memorable point for you in your dance journey. We recently ran Intensive.PNG, and I remember Archie Saquilabon (GRV) and Markus Pe Benito (Academy of Villains) also talking about Britney Spears and similar artists and their music videos being a spark for them as well.
I know like right now there’s this debate regarding dance class videos and the idea that dance media has become really transactional and image based. I think dance is so susceptible to that kind of mindset because its so visual.
Leila: That does feel like the way dance is – like, would you go to a class if you didn’t know it was being filmed? It’s like that philosophical question. If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it did it make a sound. If you went to a class and you weren’t recorded…did you really take that class?
Yeah – for me quitting to me isn’t an option and I’ve never seriously thought about quitting ever. Quitting to me is the equivalent of suicide. But a few weeks ago I got dangerously close. I thought what would I do if I wasn’t dancing, and I thought….acting. Honestly. I’ve only taken the one class.
But I feel like acting would be an addition to my dancing. I still need dance. But with acting I feel like I would have a lot of fun. Even in the audition process. We were encouraged in this acting class to enjoy the audition process, because you might go on 80 auditions before you book something. And I’m having fun with these mock auditions! The class is set up like an audition, and it’s a very realistic setup. There’s the camera, sometimes cue cards and everything. I’m like having fun with it.
John: How much do you think your interest in acting is higher because you haven’t had that professional exposure to it? Or another way to look at it I guess…if you pursued drama at UIUC instead, would acting still be this fun for you? How much of this excitement is because of the novelty versus acting itself.
Leila: Hmm. It definitely feels refreshing to mix it up, but I think I’ve always wanted to do acting. I think that most of the excitement is because of the acting. Like I do think it is the acting. With dance, it’s been dance all the time.
It’s like eating your favorite food every single time every single meal. Like if my favorite food was French fries. 😍🍟 At a certain point you get sick of it, so you start to crave like…veggies. 🥕 And I feel like acting for me is like veggies and I’m proud of myself for taking it off the back burner. I’m hoping that I can maintain this enjoyment. Remember that I said that, so I can…not get jaded.
I feel like adding balance will help keep the excitement going. I feel like I’m overdoing dance sometimes. I’m not necessarily dancing every day, but I’m always thinking about it.
John: I can relate for sure! I quit dance for a year or two around…2015 or 2016, and I stopped completely. But a big lesson I really internalized in 2017 is that you can be interested and immersed in so many things at once. Yet, when I quit dance initially, I had that binary mindset. It was like I can dance 100% or I can’t dance at all.
It wasn’t until I saw a show with my old crew at the University of Chicago, where I was like yoooo. I got so nostalgic from the genuine happiness I saw on the stage. It felt like people weren’t trying to just put in their 5 minute set and leave. Dancers were there just to have a bomb AF time and enjoy movement with each other. I wanted to engage that part of myself again, and I decided to start coming back into dance even while balancing all the new responsibilities of adulting. Haha. I think it can get really easy to push things like dance away, but then you realize you can be a dancer and an actor and a nurse or a salesman all at once. Those are all parts of you, and no single one of those parts is sufficient on its own on forming who you are as a person.
John: If you could go back in time to 2010 Leila – what would be the advice you would tell her, knowing what you know now?
Leila: I would go back to 2007 Leila, right before I started college. I didn’t expect to be challenged in the way that I was. As much as I took from the first two years in particular, I don’t think I was as open as I should have been. Right off that bat I would have said to myself to take it all in, because that UIUC experience served me in the future.
And being involved as much as possible in other activities! I got so swallowed up in dance in college that I like I didn’t really look into other things that I had interests in. If I didn’t go to college for dance, I probably would have done a couple of different things. Psychology. I love creative writing. I’ve always wanted to be fluent in Spanish! I’m not so sure about science because I hate math, but I am fascinated by forensics? Like I love watching the ID channel – I just think it’s so fascinating that people can solve crimes using DNA and this fiber of this shirt…so cool. Fashion too.
Acid Edge and Fashion
John: That’s right! You are running your own business with Acid Edge Customs too. Is that your foray into fashion?
Leila: I have no idea where that thing is going. 😅 It started as a fundraiser for the Sincerely, by Leila Henry videos.
Acid Edge started as a fundraiser. I didn’t intend for anything to come of it, I just needed to make up this money that I was spending.
It caught on and it’s still not even an official business. People have been asking if I’m going to get a website and make it a thing. Maybe I watch too much Shark Tank or something but I think the acid wash is a very specific trendy look. I feel like there needs to be more elements to Acid Edge to make it a full-on business because right now it’s just the shirts. Maybe something that you add to a collection as opposed to making that style the main foundation of a wardrobe. So like a year from now, people might be over it, but as long as people are interested it I’ll sell it!
But yeah, right now it’s definitely fun and I’m making a little bit on the side from it. I just did 26 shirts for a dance team. I did a few for Urbanite to give away. So who knows! ⬛