Ever since the Broadway musical “Hamilton” took the stages across the nation, the brilliant songwriting, sets and choreography took the hearts of its audience. But for the dance students at California School of the Arts-San Gabriel Valley (CSArts-SGV), “Hamilton” came to life for them when they had the opportunity to participate in a master class and Q&A session on January 18 with Kamille Upshaw, a Julliard-trained dancer and “swing” in the original cast of Broadway’s “Hamilton.”
Students had the opportunity to learn repertoire from the hit production, dance alongside Upshaw and receive life advice about dance, auditions and what it takes to succeed in their art.
Having gone to a performing arts high school (Baltimore School for the Arts), Upshaw was able to provide relevant and helpful advice for CSArts-SGV students. During the in-depth Q&A session, Upshaw explained how a pre-professional training made high school a “growing point” for her where she developed the focus, work ethic, and motivation that would prove helpful for her professional career.
Addressing the common concerns of high schoolers aspiring to be artists, she gave the students a truthful portrayal of the challenges of the profession which asks resilience and perseverance. Her advice to students was to look past all the closed doors before they find the one door that opens and stays open.
She also discussed the job-to-job process and how she makes use of her talent by teaching during her breaks demonstrating that there are ways to keep busy and growing between jobs if they make the ways. Realizing how lucky she was to have been able to develop as a dancer in various genres of dance, from modern to tap to hip hop, she urged the students to expose themselves to everything, because her versatility was definitely what set her apart. She also addressed students’ concerns about college, urging them to definitely try their best, but not to see a certain acceptance or rejection as the end of the world or to lose hope.
She told the students, “One thing I would tell my high school self is just to not take things so personally, because oftentimes, a decision has almost nothing to do with you. Especially for musical theater, there’s an idea of a character you need to fit, and if I hadn’t taken things so personally when I was in high school, I would have been able to just focus on me rather than potential reasons I didn’t get it.”
During the Q&A, she also reflected on what were the most important lessons she took away from her pre-professional training and her professional experiences.
“I have a saying that I use a lot, and it’s to never settle for anything less than butterflies,” Upshaw explained, referring to the nervous feeling all performers know too well. “I learned from both my school experiences and my professional experiences that the second I settle for anything less than that feeling where I’m on edge, I don’t grow as much, and I don’t push myself as much. I’ve learned that I actually want to feel nervous because that means that I care about what I’m doing. I think that’s super important for young people to hear because everyone wants to be perfect, but when you get there you have to make a new goal otherwise you’ll just stay at that level, and then you’re not going to continue to grow in society and with the arts in general. The arts in general is growing so fast when it comes to caliber, and I still have to catch up to keep those goals alive. It’s just always remembering that feeling on edge, the good on edge, and breaking through comfort zones and coming out stronger.”
Even for a non-dancer, the master class was inspiring to watch. She demonstrated the repertoire, and taught the students not just the movements, but also the personality and the music in the choreography, challenging students not only to dance, but to become a character telling a story.
“I think the personality of the piece really inspired me the most today because I tend to think of dance as more focused on technique because I’m ballet trained. The personality and character of the piece really challenged me to be an actress as well as a dancer,” freshman Ashley Bachert said.
“I found that it’s so much more than just dancing, it’s telling a story to the audience,” Madelyn Youmans, a freshman said. “I think honestly [she’s] someone I looked up to for a very long time and that motivated me because as she said, it’s okay to make mistakes, it’s okay to learn from those mistakes because it’s how you jump back from them that matters. Being in the presence of someone I admired so much motivated me and inspired me because it made me think ‘show her what you have, get out of your head, throw those doubts away, and perform like you’re performing to her.’”
“Today I learned that if I just got rid of my insecurities and put myself out there, I’m going to be able to perform a lot better than I usually would,” freshman Kate Gilbertson said.
At the end of the master class, the students ran through the choreography to “Room Where It Happens” with a new energy and intensity. In the short two hours Upshaw had been there, the students had learned more than just the repertoire from their favorite musical. They had walked away with a deeper understanding of what it means to be an artist and a performer, and of course, a photo with Upshaw to remind them of the possibilities if they continue to work hard. The dance conservatory of CSArts-SGV was so fortunate to be in the room where it happened.