BWW Interview: KHASAN BRAILSFORD
Khasan Brailsford is a professional dancer who's worked with mega stars such as Beyoncé, Rihanna, Katy Perry and more. He has toured the world with these artists and he has been featured in shows such as the MTV Music Awards, Dancing with the Stars and Ellen.
Someone with his track record has a super busy schedule so I felt lucky to catch him for this interview. We met far on the West side, away from the city's chaotic core.BW: So, tell me a little bit about your background and what inspired you to be a dancer.
KB: I was born and raised in Orange County in Southern California. I was pretty much an athlete my entire childhood. I played football, karate, baseball, soccer you name it. The Summer of my sophomore year I saw my first Alvin Ailey show and I thought "Oh my god, other men of color are doing this as their profession?" I spoke to someone from the company after the show and asked how I could get started.
That Summer I went to a ballet school and started taking four or five classes a day. I was 15 and I wanted to catch up to people who had been dancing since they were children. After that Summer I auditioned for my school dance team and switched to a more competitive school with more diversity of styles: hip hop, lyrical, jazz, etc.
I stopped dancing for a little while to study computer science, which is another thing I love.
I ended up at the Edge Performing Arts Center when I was 20 years old. We had to audition and they chose 20 out of 500 dancers. They offered a scholarship and 40 hours a week of dancing, singing, acting, and gymnastics. At the end of the year, they put on a student show where agents are invited to come and scout talent.BW: What were some struggles you encountered coming up, especially since you were building yourself as a dancer a little later in life than usual?
KB: My struggles were mainly technical things. It was catching up to kids who had been dancing since they were three years old. It was learning all the vocabulary of the dances. Learning dance is also very expensive. Luckily my mom was supportive but sometimes I had to stay late and work the desk or clean the studio to pay for my classes.BW: So what was your "big break" moment into the more commercial aspects of the industry?
KB: I think my big break was in 2008 or 2009 when I booked Beyoncé's "I am Sasha Fierce" world tour. People were seeing me on a bigger scale and it was a lot of exposure because of who she is. There were also only four men on tour, only two of them were black and the other one was light-skinned so I was easily recognizable. People started seeing me and I started getting booked because everyone in the world goes to see Beyoncé. That opened up a lot of doors for me. I worked on Rihanna's tour right after that.BW: And did you have to audition for Beyoncé?
KB: Yes. I was on tour with Keisha Cole at the time and Beyoncé was having private auditions in LA. I actually missed the first call but my friend had a friend in it, who couldn't continue because he was having family problems. So I got invited to the call back without going to the audition, which is unheard of for Beyoncé. I got booked which is crazy because there were so many people trying out.BW: What are some memorable moments you have of working with celebrities?
KB: When you're on tour, you see them all day every day. You get to see them in a different light. You get to see their process and work ethic. That's what's memorable for me. Seeing how hard Beyonce works. Seeing Pink singing her a$ off in rehearsal every time. I love that Katy Perry is coming into every rehearsal and getting sweaty with us. Seeing the artists put in so much work is inspiring. And that's what most people don't see. Everyone judges the final product but they don't realize the hard work that went into every little thing. Not everything always goes as planned and you also get to see how they bounce back from that. We get to see the world over and over again when traveling with these people. We're going on helicopters and yachts, we're gaining access to the VIP areas of clubs and parties. That's their normal. We get a little spoiled.BW: How do you maintain balance? Of course it's fun to go out to clubs and parties and things like that. How do you maintain your center when you're running all the time like that?
KB: You find your flow when you're on tour. We have to remember that we have to be able to function at your rehearsals and shows. Traveling takes a lot out of us, so I have to make sure I'm getting enough rest. For me, maintaining balance is making sure I stick to my proper warm-up and workout regimen and giving my body the food and rest it needs. I try to stay as routine as possible within the madness. We usually have a catering company and a physical therapist traveling with us so that helps. At the end of the day, I have to remember that the artist is my boss and I have a job to do.BW: What are your future artistic plans? I know you've been doing this for a while.
KB: I'm still dancing with a lot of artists but now I'm segueing into choreography. For example, right now I'm working with an amazing singer named Betty Who. She opened up for us when I was working with Katy Perry. I just held my first casting for her today and I'm in charge of running rehearsals. I'm more on the choreography side of things and I feel like that's a natural progression for me.
I've choreographed under people before but now I'm choreographing under my own name. And I love teaching. It's kinda where my heart is. I love teaching kids and giving back to the community. I do a lot of free classes for kids who can't afford it and I enjoy talking to dancers who are just joining the industry because a lot of people don't know how to go about doing what I do.I'd love to open a dance school. I had access to so many great teachers growing up I'd love to give that back. I think that would be my baby. The more successful I get, the more I want to keep giving back to everyone else. BW: What advice would you offer to aspiring dancers? Can you give us three tips?
KB: First, be versatile. Learn as many dance styles as you can because that is what's going to set you apart from everyone else. The fact that I can do ballet and the next day I can do hip hop then I can turn around and do tap or jazz or aerial work gets me hired over so many people that are "one trick ponies."
Sometimes the people hiring performers may not know exactly what they want or they may change the vision of what they want or they want many different things. The person who can do everything is more likely to get hired. So, I'd say learn as much as you can. That's going to be your "trick."
Second, your reputation precedes you. Your work ethic is everything. You can be the best dancer in the world but if you have a bad attitude you're not going to get hired. If you're known for being late all the time, you're not going to get hired. You can be the fifth best dancer of the tenth but if you're known for working hard and perfecting your work, you'll get hired over a better dancer with a lesser work ethic.
As a choreographer, I see this all the time. For example, I was recently casting for dancers and I didn't want to hold auditions. So I was calling people for suggestions and they were telling me who to cast or not cast based on people's work ethic. Be professional! Too many people get cocky and comfortable and they don't realize there are THOUSANDS of other dancers and not every job necessarily requires you to be the best dancer.
Third, know your worth and read your contracts. You don't have to lowball yourself or accept every offer that's given to you. It also drives me crazy when people don't read their contracts. You should know if you're signing away the rights to your work. You should know if someone's including your work in a DVD or airing your work in eight other countries and you aren't being paid for it. Dancers bring so much to a show and you are worth what's being brought.BW: I think what you said about work ethic is especially important particularly for kids who may not have had access to as much opportunity and may not have been taught how to carry themselves.
KB: It's especially important in the age of social media where a lot of these kids, who are insta-famous or YouTube stars come in thinking they're the sh!t and I'm just like "I don't need you, I can hire someone else." I think it's partially the age we live in. It's like everyone's a model now because their phone has filters. Things like this are in every industry.
You never know who's going to walk into a room, who's watching or who's going to ask who about you. So much of this industry is who you know and what they say about you. That's why it's so important to carry yourself well because you never know what's going to be said about you when you don't. It only takes one time. You can be so professional and the one time you're not is the time everyone hears about.BW: I often run into people who experience inner conflicts over things like making money versus truly expressing their artistry or serving their community. Do you experience any conflicts like that?
KB: I experience that all the time. I'm often asking myself, is this big check worth my sanity or doing something I don't really want to do? Am I really serving my community and giving younger dancers the tools that are going to help them have better careers and, ultimately, help us become better as a community later? Am I giving kids the tools they need to turn dancing into a career? Dancing is fun but in order to survive you have to be very business-minded.
I also often ask myself "Am I still learning?" I try to avoid getting too comfortable and make myself take classes that can still challenge me. As soon as I feel I'm not growing on a job, I feel like something's wrong. You should never feel perfect. You should always be growing.BW: Is there anything you want to add?
KB: You can't base your worth on a rejection. You never know what the casting director or the choreographer or the director wants. There are so many other things that go into play that may have nothing to do with your dancing. I understand this more being on the choreographing and casting side of things.
Sometimes someone just isn't tall enough. Or the director only wanted one black guy or one blonde girl. If the artist is blonde, maybe she doesn't want any blonde girls. There are so many factors that a dancer just won't know going into an audition that you can't get hard on yourself.
As long as you know you went in and did your best, that's the best you can do. Even if you messed up, that may not be the only factor that got you rejected. You just have to be your own cheerleader and never give up.
And keep learning. Maybe you got caught up at the audition because they asked you to freestyle and you need to work on your freestyle. You have to build your ammunition.BW: Thanks so much Khasan!