From the Stage to the Page
Last February, Tim Federle's debut novel, Better Nate Than Ever, hit bookstores. The Dance Spirit editors were charmed by Federle's witty, authentic tale of an awkward small-town boy who dreams of making it on Broadway. And it's no wonder Federle's protagonist, Nate, was so relatable: Just like Nate, Federle moved to NYC to pursue a professional dance career on the Great White Way. He danced in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, Gypsy and The Little Mermaid on Broadway, and worked on the choreographic team of Billy Elliot: The Musical before switching his focus to writing. To celebrate Better Nate Than Ever's sequel, Five, Six, Seven, Nate!, DS asked Federle to tell us about his transition from dancer to novelist. We'll let Tim take it from here. —Rachel Zar
Federle in costume for The Little Mermaid in 2008 (courtesy Disney)
If you had told 9-year-old Tim Federle that someday he was going to be a writer, he'd have stuck his amateur jazz hand in your face. To be fair, if you had told 9-year-old Tim Federle that he was going to be a dancer, that would've surprised him, too. It was only when my parents took me to see the national tour of Cats in third grade that I realized you could be paid to be hyperactive and talkative. Meow!
Right after the Cats revelation, my mom signed me up at the Center for Theater Arts in Pittsburgh, PA, where I got three square meals a day: tap, jazz and ballet. When the boys at school found out I was wearing tights at night, they ripped into me. I dropped out of dance classes for a year. A couple decades later, I still regret that decision.
By the time I was a teenager, I had blossomed into a full-on theater geek, and the football players taunted me endlessly—maybe because I was so busy making their girlfriends LOL. My class clowning was born out of trying to deflect the negative attention I was getting for being the only boy at school who dreamed of being a professional cat (you know, in Cats). The upside? I was starting to learn that being funny could feel as fantastic as dancing. I wasn't writing out my jokes yet, but the seeds of my writing career were planted—though I still had my ambitions pinned squarely on performing.
Cats closed the week I moved to NYC. Literally. Still, I was 19 and in Manhattan, baby! I tried out for everything, and crashed every audition as a non-union performer. My first big break was as a backup dancer to Christina Aguilera at the Super Bowl (I still don't know which teams played). Later, I made my Broadway debut in Gypsy—but not without my fair share of disappointments and rejections along the way.
I didn't realize it in my teens, but all the heartbreak and trauma that comes with being an artist would someday serve as really good material for my books. The next time you feel like your head's going to pop off with jealousy or frustration, pretend you're in the audience watching your own life story. That's what I started doing. What performance do you want to see yourself give? Bitter ballerina or classy chorine? Don't be a bitter ballerina. (T-shirt idea: Don't Be a Bitter Ballerina.)
I was 29 when I took a gig on the choreographic staff of the musical Billy Elliot. The kids in the show were the same age I was when I saw Cats, and they were getting standing ovations on Broadway. I was so inspired, and I realized nobody was going to give me permission to follow my newest, biggest, quietest dream: I wanted to try being a writer, and to make people laugh on the page, not just backstage. I decided to be as brave as the 9-year-olds I was teaching every day, because YOLO.
An acquaintance in the publishing industry suggested that, rather than trying to write a vampire novel or historical epic, I stick with a topic I know well: the performing arts, and all the craziness behind the scenes. When I finally opened my laptop to write, I was surprised by how quickly it all came together. Once I had the characters in mind (everyone in Better Nate Than Ever is loosely based on a person in my life) and a premise that made me smile (“a small-town boy runs away from home to crash an audition for E.T.: The Musical"), it was just a matter of showing up at the computer every day and seeing what happened. You know, after I got past my crippling fears.
It's the same thing a choreographer goes through: “Will the idea I have for this number actually work, or do I just think it's smart when I'm in the shower or jumping around the living room?" That's writing. That's directing. That's all of it—the ability to move past your worries of “What if I suck?" and get to work anyway. There's only one way to find out if you're terrible. (Spoiler alert: You're not terrible.)
I wrote the first draft of Better Nate Than Ever in a month, working on it every morning until noon, then stuffing my face with Fruit Roll-Ups and pretzels and dashing to Billy Elliot rehearsals. One thing I learned in long-ago improv acting classes is to trust your first instinct, so my first draft was full of typos, plot holes and characters whose names changed midway through—but also a lot of energy and heart. One big difference between writing and dancing is that, with writing, you can edit out the bad stuff later. Not so much when you're falling out of a double pirouette in front of 1,200 people. (Don't ask.)
After spending just under a billion hours Googling “how to get a literary agent," I was lucky enough to find one who primarily works with young-adult books. She gave me notes on my manuscript (including: “Nate's grandparents should under no circumstances be eaten by lions"), and after I gave Nate a final polish, my agent sent it out into the world to find its fate. The “sale process" was a little like waiting for the phone to ring after a final callback for a show you reeeeally want to get. It felt like forever.
In reality, Better Nate Than Ever went out to several major publishing houses on a Friday, and within two weeks we had offers from three editors. (Cue: me jumping up and down and a strange, one-time-only attempt at yodeling in my kitchen.) It was approximately 18 months from “acquisition" to Better Nate Than Ever going on sale. Then the reviews poured in, and I started touring the country leading master class workshops, giving speeches about my transition from dancer to writer and happily signing many books. I think back to that kid who wanted to be a cat, and I can't believe he's lucky enough to be dreaming even bigger dreams now. Best of all, writers never outgrow their costumes. (Mostly because we wear elastic-banded sweatpants all day.)
Better Nate Than Ever was recently named a Best Book of the Year by Amazon and Publishers Weekly, and the sequel, Five, Six, Seven, Nate!, just hit shelves. I'm also working on three new books for Simon & Schuster, a screenplay adaptation of Nate and a few writing projects for the stage. Sometimes I even take a ballet class to remember my roots—and stay humble. (See “falling out of pirouettes," above.)
Win it! We're giving away 10 copies of Five, Six, Seven, Nate! Click here to enter.
Courtesy Simon & Schuster
Harper Watters is a ballet dancer for today's generation. A social media maestro and a charismatic performer, the Houston Ballet soloist is equally at home in front of the camera hosting his hit YouTube series, "The Pre Show"; interacting with fans on his crazy-popular Instagram account; or showing off his beautiful classical technique onstage. It's a multifaceted identity that's proven to be invaluable to his career—and it's taking him to places he never even dreamed of.
Getting corrections from our dance instructors is how we grow, and as students, it's important that we do our best to apply every correction right away. But sometimes—whether it's because we're in physical pain, or have a lot on our minds, or are just not paying attention—those corrections don't sink in. And from a teacher's standpoint, giving the same corrections time and time again gets old very fast. Here are 10 important corrections dance teachers are tired of giving. Take them to heart!
The dancers who take our breath away are the risk-takers, the ones who appear completely fearless onstage. "When you see somebody trying to travel more, go farther, push the limits of their physical abilities, that's always going to be inspiring," says Ballet BC dancer Alexis Fletcher.
But dance training can feel like it's in conflict with that idea. We spend thousands of hours in the studio trying to do steps perfectly, and that pursuit of perfection can make us anxious about taking risks. What if we fail? What if we fall?
Luckily, fearlessness is a mental skill that you can work on, just as you work on your technique. Here's how you can learn to push yourself past your limits.
When we think of a dancer who's broken barriers, American Ballet Theatre principal Misty Copeland tends to be the name that comes to mind. And though Copeland has been a crucial advocate for equality in the world of ballet, Raven Wilkinson—a mentor of Copeland's—is considered one of the original pioneers of the movement.
In 1955, Wilkinson became the first African American to dance with the renowned Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Her fortitude in the face of bigotry and hate cemented her legacy. Now, with the release of the new children's book Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson, a new generation of dancers will be inspired by her tale of overcoming obstacles to achieve a dream.
The book details Wilkinson's life, from her experience as a young dancer training in Harlem, to her run-ins with the Ku Klux Klan while on tour with Ballet Russe, to her later ballet career in Europe. "There were times where my heart really hurt because of the situations I had to deal with," she says. "But I always had faith that I was made to be a dancer and that I was gonna dance."
Dance Spirit spoke with Wilkinson to discuss the new book and get her take on racial equality within the ballet world.
Postmodern pioneer Trisha Brown redefined how dance is seen and felt. A founding member of Judson Dance Theater, Brown frequently collaborated with other experimental artists like Yvonne Rainer, Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, and Steve Paxton.
She embraced pedestrian movement, pairing everyday gesture with rhythm and fluidity. "It's liquid," says Wendy Perron, who danced with Brown in the '60s and '70s. "Like a river with many tributaries, water coming out of a faucet, or being on a raft and seeing the water move away in different directions." Brown also pushed beyond stages with choreography in fields, museums—even on the sides of buildings.
There's a common misconception that a dancer's body has to be thin. But the truth is that talent knows no body type, and the number on the scale never determines an artist's capabilities. Here are some extraordinary dancers fighting the stereotype of what a dancer "should" look like.