All photos by Joe Toreno. Grooming throughout by Lisa Chamberlain for The Rex Agency.

How Mark Kanemura—Artist, Activist, and All-Around Icon—Became Our Internet Dance Mascot

Twelve years ago, a baby-faced Mark Kanemura appeared on "So You Think You Can Dance" Season 4. The Hawaiian-born dancer—whose winningly quirky style found a perfect vehicle in Sonya Tayeh's creepy-cool "The Garden" routine—quickly became a fan favorite. Kanemura made it to the Top 6 (Joshua Allen took the title that season), and a star was born.

But the world didn't know how bright that star was going to shine.

Fresh off "SYTYCD," Kanemura started booking jobs with Lady Gaga: first the MTV Video Music Awards, then the Jingle Bell Ball. Soon, he was a staple on Gaga's stages and in her videos, and he began to develop a dedicated fan base of his own.

Then, on June 15, 2018, right in the middle of Pride Month, Kanemura—@mkik808 to his 706,000 Instagram followers—uploaded that now famous "Cut to the Feeling" video. You can picture it, right? Kanemura, in his white-and-gray L.A. bedroom, resplendent in a rainbow Speedo, a matching scarf, and a red wig, begins dancing to Carly Rae Jepsen's infectious track. As Jepsen sings that she wants to "cut through the clouds, break the ceiling," Kanemura stands at full attention, with a beautifully beveled right foot. With a flick of his right hand, he removes the red wig to reveal an orange one. Then a yellow one. Then green, blue, and purple. When Jepsen says she wants to "dance on the roof," Kanemura uses both hands to fling the rainbow scarf behind him, simultaneously revealing his final look—a long rainbow wig. By the time he shakes off the rainbow wig to unleash a waterfall of confetti, fewer than 20 seconds have gone by.

Twenty iconic seconds—with 1.7 million views and counting. And more than one of those views are from Carly Rae herself.

More recently, as the COVID-19 pandemic has brought a dark cloud over the world, Kanemura has emerged as a daily rainbow in the form of daily social-distancing–approved Instagram Live dance parties. Every day at 2 pm PST, as many as 14,000 people (including Heidi Klum!) are joining Kanemura as he leads a 20-minute, high-energy burst of easy-to-follow choreography, with constant reassurance that it's not about the dancing but, as always, about the feeling.

If performing on "SYTYCD" was the first coming of Kanemura's professional career, and his tenure with Gaga (not to mention stints with Janet Jackson and Katy Perry) was the second, it's safe to say Kanemura is now in his third coming, as an Instagram sensation. But what about the in-betweens? Let the man himself fill you in.

Photo by Joe Toreno

Dance Spirit: The last time you were on the cover of Dance Spirit, in May 2014, you were touring the world with Lady Gaga alongside your longtime boyfriend, Jeremy Hudson. Now, life looks pretty different.

Mark Kanemura: It's been a big shift since the last time we spoke! I toured with Gaga for more than five years, so by the end, I was feeling completely burned out. I was ready for a shift, creatively. I have a pretty good grasp on myself—I usually know when it's time for me to move on from something, and it was just one of those moments. It was a scary decision to make because that time was wonderful, and that kind of stability for an artist is such a blessing. So to step away, it was one part terrifying and one part exciting, leaping into the unknown.

I decided to give myself time to explore, play, create, and see what was inspiring me. I started doing these little concept videos. I would call in my dancer friends, come up with an idea, and direct them. I actually got some great opportunities from that, like doing content for Selena Gomez on her tour.

It was fascinating to be on the other side of things, directing and editing. But I found video work to be very isolating. I was spending so much time behind a computer screen, and missed having that connection with people. I learned that I love giving people the space and freedom to explore and create with me. That sparked something for me. I said, "Whatever this is, I want to take it with me moving forward."

DS: You spent some time teaching then, right? On conventions and workshops?

MK: Yeah, I got back into teaching and it was fun. But I didn't feel like I was in alignment with the space I wanted to create. I was going back to telling people what to do—giving them choreography, teaching movement, without a lot of room for exploration. When you're teaching in a convention setting, people expect to learn a routine. But what I wanted to do was more open and free. I needed to figure out how to incorporate both.

DS: And on the relationship side?

MK: Jeremy and I had just broken up. I was moving out of our place we'd lived in for years, and moved in with a friend temporarily. I went into this depression. It's like, you built a home with someone, and to lose all that and have to start fresh again...I had moments where I just didn't feel happiness or joy.

Photo by Joe Toreno

DS: Enter "Cut to the Feeling" Fridays!

MK: Yes! So, I have this really bad habit where I find a song I love and I just drill it to the ground, playing it over and over and over. "Cut to the Feeling" was one of those for me—my little happy anthem. Whenever it was on, it brought me so much happiness, and I leaned into that. I started making these random little videos where I was lip-syncing and putting on wigs. I kept them to myself at first, because it felt really silly. But that jam sparked a lot of joy in my life. It was a nice step out of the darkness I was in.

DS: Why did you decide to start sharing and posting these videos?

MK: Everything on my social media felt very curated at the time. I was very careful about what I shared. So when I started putting these out, I was worried about how people would receive them. But once I started sharing that side of me, it was so cool to see this thing that brought me so much happiness now bringing other people joy and happiness.

DS: So was there a plan? A how-I-will-go-viral-today plan?

MK: No! No plan or agenda with any of this. Everything that's happened has been such a wonderful surprise. But I love that it's inspired people to take time for themselves to be silly, to dance, to express themselves. I think that's so important, especially right now, when everything feels a bit heavy.

As we grow up, we lose a sense of play that I think is so vital. Doing these videos, it's been like a return to my childhood. I'm tapping into my inner child, instead of focusing on being perfect, or whatever my idea of perfection is. It's been therapeutic for me, really.

DS: After you posted that viral "Cut to the Feeling" video with all the quick wig changes, you got a call from Carly Rae, right?

MK: She had reposted a couple of my Pride Month videos, and then that August, someone from her label called saying Carly wanted me to come out to perform with her at a festival in San Francisco, and was there any way that could happen? I just laughed. And then I started crying. It was so crazy and so cool.

At the festival, I met her before the performance and it was wonderful to be able to express to an artist how much their art, their music, has meant to me. I was very open with her: I said I'd been through a bad breakup, and that I was extremely depressed, and her song helped lift me out of that. And she thanked me for all I'd done for the song. Then she asked me what I wanted to do onstage. We never rehearsed it! We just did it.

DS: What inspired your social distancing–appropriate IG Live dance parties?

MK: There wasn't really a plan. There was a 48-hour period where literally everything, all my jobs, were getting postponed or canceled, and I was freaking out and was very anxious. I thought it would be good to have a virtual dance party, to connect with people all over the world so they could use dance as a way to express themselves. It's such a scary, uncertain time, and a lot of us are self-isolating and some don't have friends or family around. It's really important to create space to dance, release, and let go. And I need these dance parties for myself as much as other people have expressed they need them! There's a lot out of my control, but this is one thing I can focus on that's positive and that keeps me in a healthy mental state.

DS: More generally, how do you come up with ideas for your videos?

MK: Whenever I have an idea, I take it to the extreme. I just want to bring it to life in whatever way I possibly can. It started with random things around the house—making gowns with my blankets or dancing around with a plant. And it just grew. I was like, "Oh, I need to order another wig on Amazon!" Then that would arrive and I'd want another wig, and another wig. Then I have this friend who does drag, so I went over to her house to raid her closet, and suddenly I had all these outfits and wigs to play with. It went from zero to a hundred really quick.

Photo by Joe Toreno

DS: Are you a one-take wonder, or are there several rehearsals and takes involved?

MK: I'm a bit of a perfectionist. It's really rare that I'll do it once and say OK, that's the one! I always like to have one for backup. So the ones with lots of confetti involved, there's a lot of vacuuming over and over again. My first "Cut to the Feeling" Friday video took an entire day. The Wicked video took a long time, because I had to paint myself green and set everything up, so I did a little rehearsal the day before.

DS: You posted an incredible video for National Coming Out Day last year, dancing to "I'm Coming Out" with a ton of rainbow accessories. One man commented saying, "I came out to my family last July 2018. At age 60." What does that mean to you?

MK: I'm glad you brought that specific moment up. I am always very touched when I can either help people to accept more of who they are or express themselves. I was also so blown away by the support and comments that strangers from all over the world were sharing with him. People were sending their support, their love, their encouragement. Moments like that remind me that I'm moving in the right direction.

DS: Last November, you shared a video saying that dealing with online bullies had left you feeling defeated, hurt, and confused. What's that like?

MK: It amazes me that a guy dancing around in a wig can be very triggering for people, sparking a lot of rage and hate. I'm a sensitive person, so that's been tough for me to navigate. When a video goes viral, other outlets start to pick it up, so a lot of people outside my group of followers will start seeing it. That's when I start getting negative criticism or feedback. I've had to learn how to deal with that. I recently deleted Twitter off my phone—that's where I get the most negativity. I don't post as much there anymore. It's not worth it as far as my mental health goes.

DS: Do you feel pressure to keep creating, to keep going viral, to stay relevant?

MK: I take everything with a grain of salt. I'm very much aware that this is social media—it could all disappear, like MySpace did. That relieves a bit of the pressure I feel. I move according to what I'm passionate about. If there's something I want to create, I do it. If I don't have that spark, I won't force something. Sometimes I don't post for weeks. Right now I'm enjoying taking time for myself, taking a breather, and regathering.

Photo by Joe Toreno

DS: We see you now as this confident, authentic man living his truth in the public eye. And the Kanemura we see today is dancing, performing, and sharing very differently than, say, when you were on "SYTYCD." Were you ever holding back on the show? Or have you just changed and evolved over the years?

MK: I think part of our journey as adults is peeling back the layers we've built up through the years of hurt, of protection, of survival, of so many different things that we add to ourselves. When I look back on "SYT," I don't feel like I was ever not myself. But on that show, you're given choreography, material, characters to play. The moments people get to see the "real" you are the little packages before and after, when you're not dancing. In those times, I felt like I was pretty authentic to who I was then. And the space I'm in now is after years of discovering more about who I am.

DS: The show itself is really different now. In the early days, some fans were disappointed in its failure to celebrate the LGBTQ+ community—but in Season 14, you choreographed a rainbow-filled group routine to RuPaul's "Call Me Mother"! What's your take on the evolution of "SYTYCD?"

MK: I think that with any show that's been on for a long time, in order to survive, you need to allow for new ideas. It's been a constant evolution. And I really credit executive producer Jeff Thacker for that. He reached out to me during Season 14 and said if I had choreographic ideas to let him know. And when I pitched that group number with a track from RuPaul, he lit up. He was so on board! He knew he needed to be open to doing things that push the envelope a bit. And RuPaul watched it and messaged me saying "10s across the board!"

Photo by Joe Toreno

DS: Throughout the past, say, decade of your life and career, what moments or jobs have had the greatest impact on who you are and have become as a person?

MK: Working with an artist like Gaga was huge for me. I spent so many years with her and was around her energy for so long. She's courageous; she puts herself and her art out there. I found that incredibly empowering. She was always so adamant that we stayed true to who we were—she gave us permission to do that. I think in turn that allowed us to give ourselves permission to shine, to fully step into our greatness.

Mark Kanemura's Top 3 Confidence Tips

1. Shout it out loud. "Affirmations have been really awesome for me," says Kanemura. "I start every morning with a meditation, and within those I repeat some sort of mantra to myself. It can be as simple as 'I am loved' or 'I am awesome' or 'I am beautiful.' It's really nice to hear those things from others, but to have it within yourself is more important."

2. Wig out. "Something about wearing a wig just puts you in a different place," Kanemura says. "I see it happen all the time—I'll let a family member or friend try on a wig and their body language fully changes and shifts. It's so fun to watch. Try putting on a wig and your favorite song, and just dance around."

3. Find your people. "It's so important to have a supportive group of friends or family that will help to lift you or encourage you when you're feeling low," Kanemura says. "As humans, we were born to connect with others, and there's only so much we can do on our own. I wouldn't be here today without my sisters and the friends I've gained along the way."

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