April 19, 2020
K = Kicks
David Connolly (D) in conversation with Sydney Mesher (S) for Matinee to Z,
a series of Instagram Live Master Classes developed in response to Covid-19.
D: Sydney is an incredible dancer, and if you don't follow Sydney yet, then do that, she has some great clips on her website, SydneyMesher.com as well as her insta. What's your favorite kind of dancing?
S: Probably Hip Hop which is funny because a lot of the work that I ended up doing is not necessarily been route, but I love the power and the musicality and the intensity so that’s where my soul is. And also because I’m 6 feet tall and don't look like a hip hop dancer maybe.
D: So let’s back to your first dance class, your first and studio, do you remember any of that?
S: Yeah, I do, actually. So, I'm from Portland, Oregon, and I grew up dancing very naturally. My parents always had music playing in the background. My dad is a huge Rolling Stones fan and my natural reaction to hearing music has always been to dance. So my parents joked that I was dancing before I was walking, so it was kind of obvious that they needed to put me in dance class. So they started with recreational stuff, I did Baby Ballet to Under The Sea, like every other little dancer. It was so natural to me, it was just like who I want was.
When I was born, my mom said my toes were long and she knew it was gonna be a dancer, so everyone knew what I was in for and luckily, I fell in love with training at a really young age. I was taking Baby Ballet, Baby Tap, Baby Gymnastics and eventually decided to focus solely on hip hop when I found that and I dropped everything else. When I was like nine or 10, that's when I started training in everything else again because I realized the importance of having a strong foundation and versatility and being a valid answer help. Being a strong ballet dancer makes you a better hip hop dancer and vice versa, it’s al relative.
D: There’s so many dance teachers online right now going... Yeah! Preach!
S: Well I'm really grateful. I trained at a private athletic club in Portland where I had some incredible dance teachers. My primary dance teach was Laura Haney, she was in Hubbard St, did River North and was the trumpet solo for the Fosse Tour. She got me excited about all different styles of dance as well as all about discipline, following your dreams and trusting your gut.
So when the time came, I made the decision to go to a performing arts high school to really focus on dates which was a very clarifying moment for me. I left everything I knew and went to this more rigorous program where my life completely revolved around dance, I was about 16 then. We trained African there, jazz, ballet, contemporary, hip hop.… And then it was kind of that moment where I was like, "Okay I devote my life to this, and this is my life’s purpose.”
D: I love what you’re saying about the integration of your training - that we don't have to label ourselves too soon. I think some people force themselves to make choices too early. Why not try it all.
S: for sure, knowing that your relationship to dance can be flexible is so freeing. Right now, I don’t want to be a professional ballet dancer, that is no my career path, but I love having that training as part of my foundational core.
D: Sounds like a fairly common trajectory, I always knew I wanted to dance and started at a studio. But your story has a twist… How did being born without a hand impact those early years, if it did?
S: We let me preface this by saying, I love my body, I love my hand, I did not experience anything traumatic, so is this is who I am and yes, I experienced bullying growing up but so did my friends for things having to do with their bodies. I just had to overcome my physical obstacles the same way other people had to overcome theirs, whether that’s a body image thing or whatever their thing is.
In regards to dance, I was always very athletic. My Dad was a softball coach… I played ball up until about 8th grade, so I was always on a team doing sports but for me, dance is a safe space. The people that I met in the studio, and the teachers that I was working with, and just the excitement and freedom that dance offers is how it became a safe haven.
I didn't have to think about my body. I was able to just go and focus on my training, and it didn't matter about my body. And definitely, there are things that struggled with in the beginning, like when I first learned to do a push up was really challenging. I didn’t figure that out until college. Or different floor work… you had to figure out the right way to accommodate. And a lot of times I did that myself, I wanted to figure it out my own way, and that would be some advice that I give is, “let let that child figure it out, and then if they need help they'll ask you.”
It’s so important because if someone is treating you like you need help, then you go through life assuming that, constantly.
So, being able to figure it out on my own, which definitely took some time, but eventually I was able to adapt. I couldn’t tie my shoes up until a couple of years ago, but now I figured it out. And so, yeah, it's just adapting and it takes time. It's not necessarily the easiest journey, but I'm really grateful because they have a perfect support system to help me get through that.
D: So important, so important, what you said about letting people figure it out. For anyone watching who doesn’t know... I also have limb difference, I wear two below-knee prostheses. I get a lot of dance teachers or studio owners who will reach out to me and be like, "Oh I have this person who's interested but…” They get anxious and nervous about physical differences, but there’s nothing to be nervous about it.
We've spent our whole life figuring stuff out, so if we're drawn to performing arts, then we will figure that out too. Also, if we have questions we'll come see you, that’s how we’ve functioned our whole life. But my best teachers were the ones who just let me fall. Sounds like you had a similar experience.
S: Yes, and it’s such a privilege to be that voice now for a new generation. I can't think my teachers enough, especially young years.
D: And hats off to dance teachers during these times, right? 'Cause studios are struggling and it is so inspiring to see everybody jumping online and trying to figure it out. I see you're taking some online classes, how's that going?
S: It’s been weird. One of my favourite things about dance is the social aspect, so not being in a room with that energy is a challenge. What it does is really let you focus on you and your technique and how you take class and your discipline. So that’s how I’m approaching it, as a self-reflective place. It’s definitely interesting dancing in my basement. Major kudos to all the teachers who are pushing through and staying true to their love for dance.
D: Well dancers need a creative outlet. I think some people might think of it as a fitness thing, but really it’s about you’re body’s craving for self expression and it’s as good for mental health as anything right?
D: OK, so let’s move on. You’re in high school now… when did you decide you wanted to go to college?
S: Well when I went to the performing arts high school, it was my junior year, and I decided that was kind of my trial of whether this was gonna be my profession, and I was going to start making sacrificing for it or this wasn’t for me. But very shortly after starting, I fell in love with it, and there was no doubt in the mind that I wanted to be profession dancer.
As I mentioned before, I love Hip Hop and Jazz/ Funk dance, that's where my soul is and I... I wanted to move to LA. There was no doubt about it, it was going to Los Angeles. I was going to be a back-up dancer, that was my trajectory, that's what I was gonna do.
D: For who? Who’s the dream?
S: I would love to dance for Lady Gaga. I’m obsessed with everything about her… her creative team, her choreographers, her dancers, everything. That was my tunnel vision at the time, and my parents really did want me to go to college. I was really particular about the colleges I applied to because I did not want to spend the time or energy applying somewhere that I didn’t want to go.So I applied to my state school and five others.
I only applied as a dance major, because I said If I was going to college, I was going to do what I love and I applied to, I think, three schools in LA, and Pace University. The majority were in LA. I was going to go to LA. I ended up getting into Pace and was getting acceptances from other colleges but around that time, I actually broke my back. I broke my L5 vertebrae and had two herniated discs. Which was excruciatingly painful. My senior year, second semester. It was a devastating time to be injured. Similar to this time, not being able to enjoy that last semester. So I’m all too familiar with being idle during this period.
Anyway, I went to New York and fell in love with the college. For me, it wasn’t an overwhelming moment of clarity, which happens to some but it just felt like real life. I could envision myself living there, it felt realistic. Which is not to say New York City and dancing in New York City is romantic and a dream in itself but I could really see myself living there and I made that decision based off of that gut feeling. That it felt natural.
D: Trust your gut.
S: Yup, trust your gut. But that’s a skill. So you have to train it. And also, the Director of the Program was really influential. I remember, I was in a back brace but she really made an effort. Had a 30 minute conversation with me and my mom on the street of New York kind of just explaining why the program might be right for me. She wasn't putting down any other programs or saying anything negative. She really just focused on the positives... which I think is really important to note when you're looking at other schools - that they talk about the positives versus putting down other people. And that was really important to me. I think that show the integrity of the program and the integrity of Pace and Rhonda.
So, yeah, I decided to go to Pace which is a commercial dance program. It was definitely a leap of faith, but it was the best decision I've ever made for myself. I fell in love with New York and with dance, all over again. I fell in love with different styles of dance and my life has been a dream honestly since I moved there. It’s just crazy that I'm not even a whole here out of college, and I’ve been able to accomplish some of my biggest dreams and I credit a lot if not all of that to Pace.
D: And to you for following your gut. OK, so you broke your back, you went to college. But the Rockette dream started before PACE, right?
S: Yeah. My first introduction to the Rockettes was seeing them on the Macy’s Day Parade and then I got to see the touring production and my studio was hired to do the opening number which is just such a fun full circle story. I had a fuette solo, it’s on video somewhere, the whole thing is atrocious but it was a huge moment for me 'cause that was a whole another goal that was made apparent and getting to open for them was just like a really exciting moment for 12-13 year old. So that was my first introduction to them. But I, like I said, I was like going to LA, I was going to be a Hip Hop dancer. So I always admired that word, but it wasn't what I saw myself doing. But then I went to PACE and the assistant professor there, her name is Lauren Gaul. She was a Rockette for a long time and she has a phenomenal way of teaching the movement and teaching the technique and introducing her students into the world without overstepping or anything like that, but just giving a kind of trial period on some of the technique. And because of her, I started to really get invested into that world.
I fell in love with the movement I fell in love with the style and the discipline and just like the respect for Rockettes. So I think that really got me into that.
D: It’s a completely different vocabulary, though. For a while, I underestimated the world that that style of dance is. Musical theatre people chameleon to be whatever they need to be for a musical. Like, today I’m playing a ballerina or I'm doing a kick line, so I feel like a Rockette but that's not... That's just not it.
S: That kind of training can help with the work, but the work is very particular and it can't be mimicked unless you're doing the work, and that's just the easiest way to say it. It’s really important to train in all styles like ballet, tap, jazz, are still the fundamentals. But I really think my hip hop training helped me because the musicality, the work is very musical.
The program did a really good job to prepare us for everything. And I need a fortunate that I booked that and a National hip-hop commercial within two months of each other. Which is a real testament to the program and how well they train us in all different styles.
D: Can you speak a little to the Rockette audition arc, how that all went for you?
S: Well, I just want to say, I'm not speaking on behalf of the company, this is just my experience. So I auditioned for two years, and my first audition I made it all the way to the end. Which was just like…
D: Unheard of.
S: Well, I was crying because I went on a whim. Thinking, ”Let's just see how this goes, 'cause I I was a junior, so I did not intend on getting the job that year.
I made it all the way through to the end, which I was humbled and grateful for in itself. I didn't need the job. That was just an amazing accomplishment in itself, and I made it through four times and I got the call after the fourth. Which was perfect for me.
D: And so there, you were. How do you feel about the moniker, “first visibly disabled?” Are you comfortable with those words?
S: Yeah, it's definitely a conversation and it's ever-changing. I'll speak about a few things that I've done because I think it's really important. So I don't consider myself necessarily disabled, but I also recognize that my disability is not that hindering, my life is not that challenge and so it's very easy for me to say that, and I want to recognize my privilege with that because my disability is not that vast comparison to others.
And for me, getting the job, and this is me, my interpretation, I'm not speaking on the hiring aspect of Rockettes. I wanted to be known for my talent 'cause I worked really hard my entire life and continue to work hard to trust my taletn, so that when I’m in an audition room, for whatever job, that I'm being seen for my talent and not from my body, whatever that may be.
And that applies to different scenarios. I model too and I wanna make sure that I'm a good model and it's not just about my physical body, not even my hand, it applies in many different ways. And so I've worked really hard, because I needed that validation myself. I didn't need any external validation, I needed to know that I was gonna be good enough, so when I was in that audition room, for whatever job that may be that I would be seen in my best light, and I could trust myself and my training..
And so, with Rockettes, I didn't get in until the fourth time which was definitely a rollercoaster. I knew at the time that that was my moment because I had worked so hard for it and it just made sense, it was right, it was the perfect time. I just graduated from college. My third time auditioning for the Rockettes, I was two weeks out of my boot from a foot injury, which is just a whole other thing. So this moment was the perfect moment and being the first visibly different/ disabled Rockette… I am that. That's just reality, but that's not necessarily a bad thing, and it doesn't have to be this crazy thing either.
And I worked really hard, like I said, to make sure that I would be seen for my talent. So when you would see on that stage or with doing any job, it wouldn't be about my hand, it would be about me being a good dancer.
I am in this position because I wanna start opening up that conversation. There aren't many disabled people in this industry, and that's just reality and that is changing and I'm so grateful I'm happy to see it changing, but it's just not as common. And that is apparent in many different ways… with different body types, different races, different… just everything.
My disability is small in comparison to so many others, but by me making this bridge - it opens the conversation up for other people coming up. Hopefully, soon the story won’t be so crazy for other people with disabilities because it will just become the new normal.
The Rockettes is an amazing company to work with and that was a great platform, but a couple other things that I've done, like I did a commercial for a water company and it didn't mention my hand at all. One is not better or worse, but it's just exciting to see the beginning of a new normal. I was able to have a national commercial as a dancer and it had nothing to do that. And that's great because we should be seeing different body types and different ethnicities and different disabilities on the screen and in the media and in the performing arts. It should just be the same opportunity for everyone.
D: Amen. But when I think of you… you’re it. You were the one.
S: Thank you, I’m getting. emotional.
D: But, I mean, I lived with a limb difference for many, many years and there's been no representation in any media. And you’re in the kick line at Radio City. Can you imagine what you're doing for not just little girls who wanna dance... that's one part of it, one part of it is like, "Oh I see myself.” And I love what you said about inclusion. That it doesn’t mean you get a free pass or don’t need as much talent as everyone else. That's not part of this conversation, and I'm very happy about it, but there you are.
So you're changing history, right? And so you did that, then you're changing the minds of these little girls who couldn't ever imagine themselves up there, but then there's a whole other layer of the determination and the discipline of what you do, that inspires everybody else.
S: Thank you and it's challenging because, for me, the way I was raised, this is how everyone should be. We should all work so hard and we all have our own personal things, and, I keep reiterating his... that's easy for me to say because my disability does not limit me in a lot of ways, but we should all have this mentality of just working to our fullest potential because everyone has their own things and yes it is important and it should be more widespread that we have a bigger majority of people who are disabled or different in media and performing arts, but it's just so important, no matter who you are, to just stay true to your gut and follow that and stay disciplined and know you have to make sacrifices along the way. It can be upsetting during the time, but in the end, it's so worth it. If it's your passion, and dance is my passion, like there's just no doubt about that. And this time specifically right now with the quaranteen, it's very easy to question, “Should I be doing a different career path?” because this has definitely set back the industry. Or should I do something 'cause it's a safer bet, and I've definitely had those conversations with myself but at the end of the day, I'm trying to put a band-aid over something when I just know in my heart that dance is my passion. I wouldn’t be fulfilled if I was doing anything else. That might change later on in life, but right now that is my purpose. This is a good time to really sit down, I think and reflect with yourself and see what really matters to you, to just spend time with your thoughts and clarify your purpose even more. I know dance is just it for me.
D: So any advice for, for people who are at a bump? who you've come up with? You’ve had a lot of bumps and you go through them.
S: Ya, it’s to remember that we’re all going through this together. As I mentioned, in high school I broke my back and then, in my senior year of college, I broke my foot. So in this specific time period of February until June. However, this might be a different scenario, but I have been sitting in waiting, and I'm familiar with this period of time and it's devastating. I cried all the time. It was so challenging, on two separate occasions, and now a third. And my best advice would be to use this time to reset and fuel yourself because we have no control over this just like I had no control over my injuries.
It’s easy to spend that time being upset, which I think you should do because it's important to process those emotions, but it's easy to stay in that head space, and get very negative. And I've been there, I’m not discrediting those emotions but when you’re ready, take the time to manifest. Whether that means meditation, or whatever allows you to reset your mind, so that when I had the opportunity to come back into the world, I was gonna be the best, if not better, and ready to take advantage to all opportunities. We’re losing all this time, just like I lost all that time before but the second I was ready to go, I wanted to be ready to go.
And that would be my best advice is to try and just envision yourself and manifest and meditate and take care of your mind, because I believe that we're all gonna get opportunities, but if you're not in the right head space, it's not gonna come to fruition.
Just taking care of yourself is the most important thing so that when this is over, you can be your best at those auditions, or whatever that may be,
D: Has it reframed your relationship to entertainment at all.
S: That’s actually a good question. I think it's really amazing how the general public is relying on entertainment and artists right now, which is a credit to artists in general, because I mean people are turning to TV shows and musicals and movies and that's amazing. And that's a credit to what we do, but I think it's definitely a revision time in the entertainment world, specifically the dance world. A lot of it was becoming so media focused, and this is I think now taking us back and making us think about why we're doing what we’re doing and where our soul is and what is the actual purpose of it, rather than to get views. Which is not to say there isn’t benefit to both. I think it's really important to have a soulful connection so this time is really making you think about those things and taking classes purposefully. Now there is an option to take so many classes online but what classes are really gonna challenge me or light up my soul or just bring me happiness, rather than what's gonna be a really good opportunity for networking, which is important, but I'm not meaning to discredit that either, but it's really just about finding what brings you joy.
D: How did you get so smart? You are so wise. I love everything you said about being in it together, especially because we're going to come out as an artistic community having gone through something, so I think that, from a disabled community perspective, we have a certain amount of resilience built into our lives because that's just part of our story. But now, globally, we will have at that same fire, whatever that resilience is and however that reflects in artistic work, I think is going to be off the charts, just gonna be mind blowing how people feel that sense of... We got through this and now we got to infuse it into our art. I think the potential for that is just thrilling.
I have a sense that you're in the middle of it, and so it's hard for you to have perspective on the ground-breaking work you're doing, and I guess that that's part of how you move forward is just to do your job, right? But I am so happy to know you. When I saw those news clip, I watched it a thousand times ‘cause I so deeply felt that everything had finally shifted.
D: Here’s a question about tips for dance training and rehab. Emery got a concussion and now she's back in the studio.
S: Actually, I’ve never had a good concussion, I don't wanna assume the proper rehabilitation steps, but with a concussion, I believe you're not really allowed to dance at all but I think a lot of dancing isn't necessarily dancing. You can learn so much from watching and visualization. Sometimes I close my eyes and imagine myself doing the movement. You can learn so much about your body, you can learn so much about what you're comfortable with, you can learn you’re fierce because if you can't even imagine yourself doing it that you won’t be able to physically do it. And there’s so much you can learn from watching. I've spent many months watching my friends and I've learned what things I liked and what I was scared of and the things I didn't like.
So I'm sorry to hear that you were injured and are dealing with this concussion, because I know it's never fun sitting out, but if you can take that time to really analyze dance and separate yourself from it, you can learn so much. And so then when you're back dancing, you can really take those tools that you learned from watching and apply them, which it's kind of a gift in a way because it's very rare that you can go up to your dance teacher and say, "Can I sit and watch all my friends today?” That's not something that you can really do. And so having that opportunity to observe and study, is actually really special. So I would try to flip your mindset if you could, so that will only help you.
D: Next question… any discrimination that you've encountered, how have you dealt with it?
S: Fortunately, since working professionally, I don't feel like I found much discrimination and a lot of that could be me naive but that is why I've worked so hard to trust my training, so that I'm not thinking that I'm being discriminated for not getting a job. I'm not getting a job because I wasn't right for the job. Things could be happening behind closed doors, or behind the table that I don't know about, and I might not be getting a job because of my hand, but it's not something I'm ever questioning because I feel like I belong in that room.
And it definitely is a challenging to get the courage and confidence to believe that, but it's really being persistent with your training in trusting yourself.
D: That’s where the courage of confidence comes from, is from the foundation of the training. And when people get upset and nervous about discrimination… sometimes discrimination is actually think, but I do find exactly what you're saying, that if you've done the work and shown the work, then none of it’s up to you.
S: I’ve been out of college for three fourths of the year now, and the first job I booked was a National commercial which I just crazy. I'm still grateful for that every day. But that was solely a conversation interview that was not a dance audition. It had nothing to do with me as a dancer.
There are so many opportunities to work with different people and be able to do different jobs that don't have to do with your body, at all. It's just about you as a person.
And that job was just about me as a person, and if I was not confident because of my hand, which they wouldn't have any idea about... Because they weren't looking at my body, it would have affected that job, and that ended up being this amazing dream come true. And so it's really just not being comfortable with yourself because that affects your relationships which is what affects your work.
D: Thank you for all the hard work you've done.
S: Thank you David.