I Want to be Venereal
By Matthew Herzog
Dancer/Choreographer and self described autodidactic, Dwayne Townsend and I sat down for a lunch interview this past month. The conversation we had was American Millennial, if I’m being kind with the phrase. It was about work, effort and payoff. (Where payoff isn’t always financial.) Something to which many in the Arts can relate.
Suitably nestled near hedge funders, a man-bunned bartender, and a wife taking a selfie with an uninterested husband, we talked about our relationship with the Arts.
‘I want to be venereal’, he said. ‘I want to be something that does not go away.’ Odd way of saying it.
For nearly two hours we talked about his life, his triumphs and tribulations, and most of all, what it means to be a dancer in today’s Philadelphia.
It was hard not to take the lunch as a simile of Philadelphia culture. I was paying for it by skipping dinner while Dwayne was looking up Greyhounds for his next rehearsal in Atlantic City. The hedge funders were complaining about earning too much. *Not kidding* And the wife was dutifully learning photoshop to turn her husband’s frown upside down. *That’s not true. She was trying to make everything alright like the rest of us.*
When Dwayne was young, he and his family left Jamaica for New York City. ‘My dad and mom always had to work.’ He said. ‘A lot of [the] time they couldn’t be there for me. I got a job at Blockbuster to get me through dance school. I wanted to dance. I paid for it. And sometimes I couldn’t pay for it. My teachers would look at me and say, ‘Your bill is outstanding. Who is going to pay for this?’’
Dwayne’s story is not too different then many participants in the Arts. From a single story, he emoted how dance became his passion. His sister, Angela, spun him around their house in Jamaica, singing How will I know if you really love me, and it became a feeling he wanted to keep forever. ‘When I hear music, I see colors. When I see colors, I feel movement… I want to dance out the blues and purples.’
Not long after, he was in the US and the lights on Broadway shined bright in the distance. But Dwayne’s parents pushed practicality. ‘Do it as a hobby, not a profession.’ He said, miming his parents. So, he dimmed the lights and put his passions on hold to become an elementary school teacher. The energy was bottled to think ‘practically’. ‘Dance was not in the picture. It was sad for a bit.’
It’s a relatable narration. In Philadelphia, it feels we’ve all done the cafe, non-profit, camp staff, set builder, H&M, job. Hell, I worked for a Iranian psychic who’s waiting room was not only for new patients but for chelation therapy. You had Ronda in for a Reiki Session next to Herald receiving a synthetically grey IV solution. They also did colonics and body wraps if that interests you.
But finally, in 2013, Dwayne made the decision to pursue that feeling he first experienced long ago with his sister. His future returned as bright as his efforts to succeed. And though dance was his initial passion, he’s since been open to anything creative: voice-over work, choreographing the Eagles cheerleaders, acting, even thoughts on a children’s book.
The conversation quickly became about having multiple jobs, how he can’t be one person anymore, he has to be as autodidactic as possible; from learning ballet to box dancing, from doing podcasts to bodybuilding. He showed me how to sit like a dancer and how to spot a dancer on the street. ‘Dance changes your form.’ He said. ‘Dancers walk with their heels out.’ Dwayne put his shoulders back and his chest up. I quickly realized how deep a writer’s slump I had. *But damn, aren’t the veins on my hands beautiful.*
‘Growing pains?’ I asked, trying to hold posture while my spine screamed. ‘My body.’ He replied, all too aptly. ‘I wasn’t comfortable. I was too skinny. Other dancers were muscular. At the time, I idolized guys that looked like that. It did a number on my self-esteem… And then when you’re a brown boy in a world of guys that aren’t brown, it was hard for me to find someone to look up to… Especially when society has all these outlets to make you feel horrible about yourself. It’s terrible to see these gorgeous models - mind you I follow them - but I push myself to look like that in a positive and healthy way… That’s my Miss America speech.’ He said. To which I quickly followed, ‘December 1984 pageant.’
‘Did you ever find inspiration?’ I asked. ‘I want to say yes and no.’ He said. ‘I had one male dance teacher. Mr. Brian. He was great. He was flexible. He was great to look at but I didn’t idolize him how I idolized Alvin Ailey and The Ailey School.’
‘You’ve been building your own idol.’ I said.
‘You are who we want to be…’ He replied. ‘I want integrity. I want to have great integrity.’
‘Does the weight of your own expectations keep you in line?’ I asked.
‘That’s a good way to put it. I make sure to say Please and Thank You.’
‘How supportive is the Philly system?’ I asked.
‘That’s a joke. Everyone’s very clicky. You have to know someone to get somewhere. I don’t have any outlets here…’
By the time he finished his burger and I finished a salad, a question was burning inside me, one I imagine many have thought. Why do we do what we do? Through all the work and soul searching, what keeps us on our unpredictable Arts-driven path?
I wish I’d asked this question of Dwayne. But I believe I know the answer he would have given. Despite all the money running in the room, all the man-buns, yacht owners, and contemporary mad-men swapping martinis for IPAs, there were only two people dawning genuine smiles: Dwayne Townsend and myself.