William “Billy” Smith
Narrative and Interview by Araceli Marquez
William “Billy” Smith is a dancer, choreographer, and teacher based in New York City. He works primarily with the Mark Morris Dance Group in Brooklyn, New York. There they focus on modern dance along with the incorporation of live music to engage with the community. In a city as busy as Manhattan, it is important to draw a crowd. The amount of people in the city doesn’t always equal ticket sales. The Mark Morris Dance Group has their own musicians that accompany them on tour. This focus on live music has influenced how Billy sees dance, overall, as connected to other forms.
Billy started dancing when he was just six years old. He originally was put into dance after his father overheard it would help his performance in other sports. Unfortunately for
Billy’s father, he was unable to find out if this form of cross-training would be effective because Billy immediately gravitated toward dance. It was unexpected that he found a significant amount of enjoyment in it and preferred it over his previous activities. Billy spent more and more time dancing, eventually pursuing performance and training with the Mark Morris Dance Group. Through the years he worked to perfect his craft. Striving for the always out of reach goal of perfection.
After graduating high school, Billy went on to study civil engineering and dance, later realizing that he wanted dance to be his sole focus at George Mason University. Over the course of his educational career, he worked hard to maintain a full dance and academic scholarship. During his time as a student, he got to work with the likes of Susan Shields, Paul Taylor, and Mark Morris. In university, Billy studied with the intention of becoming a modern dancer. His professors at George Mason helped to cultivate that ambition into a career. While at George Mason University Smith’s piece 3-Way Stop, was selected to open the American College Dance Festival Gala in 2006. This took place at Ohio State University. Among this award he has also gained abundant critical praise for his choreography of a production of Bye Bye Birdie. At the end of his time as a student Smith graduated magna cum laude in 2007.
The hardest part of obtaining any aspiration is starting. Around the age of 18, Billy started working teaching and choreographing. During the early stages of his choreographic career, Billy Smith worked for local theaters, choreographing mainly full-length musicals. He also danced professionally with the Parsons Dance Company for three years. Not only is Billy Smith a dancer but an actor as well. He has performed in productions of Gypsy, Cats, and Oklahoma! In 2010 he then joined the Mark Morris Dance Group as a company member.
Billy has received copious amounts of praise for not only his performances but also his teaching style. Applaud is not limited to schools or universities he has worked with. A feature in Dance Teacher Magazine emphasizes how Smith focuses on the background of his students. He helps them work with the natural advantages or disadvantages they may have. Because everybody is different the reality is that the body shapes the physicality of dance. This is important because the stereotype of dance teachers of this caliber is strict teaching and forcing students to push themselves to the limit, physically. Dance teachers often straddle a thin line between helping students be the best they can and pushing them too far.
In my research on Billy Smith, it is easy to see his worldwide impact, although he gives the impression that having an impact on the dance industry does not mean you need worldwide recognition. Having an impact on a few is the ultimate goal because they can then go on to influence others in a chain reaction.
My interview with Billy Smith was held over a Zoom call. Billy was in what seemed to be a stylish but homey residence. He expressed how his warm attire was attributed to the cold he was fighting earlier in the week. His love for dance was apparent in his over-joyousness and eagerness to answer questions. Meet Billy Smith:
How long have you been choreographing dance and what led you to choose that as a career?
Smith: I’ve been choreographing since I started dancing really. When I was like six years old. I’ve always loved pulling my friends to the side of the studio and being like, “Hey, let’s try this little dance step together.” I’ve always had a passion for it. But professionally, I’ve been doing it since I was probably 18 or 19. I started choreographing at a local regional theater. I choreographed some musicals there. I continued to do that when I went to school for dance. I’m 37 now, so I’ve been doing it for over half my life, like 18, 19, 20 years. I’m also a professional dancer, I perform with the Mark Morris Dance Group. I’ve been there for 10 years and so I’ve kind of been balancing my choreographic ambitions with performing at the same time. It hasn’t necessarily been a full-time job choreographing but it’s always been enriching to my performing to experience the other side of it. And would say it’s also true for performing. Choreographing had given me an appreciation for performing as well. They are two sides of the same coin. I love choreographing.
When I’m creating something in the studio, all of my stresses and worries go away. I think a lot of people probably wouldn’t say that; they would say it gives them anxiety or something. But you do encounter problems when you’re creating a piece. But also, it’s just dance, you know? There are lots of bigger problems happening in the world right now. It’s a way to heal, it’s a way to escape, it’s a way to express the things that you want to but maybe can’t express in words without being criticized.
Where do you find your inspiration? Are there certain people, things, or just the world itself?
Smith: A little bit of everything. I would say I’m inspired by music. One of my great passions is teaching high school kids. I actually create a piece on the student company at Mark Morris every year, and I hire a composer every year to write music for them. For me, music is a huge part of my process, it’s a huge part of creating dance and I think, historically, music and dance have always been married. I know people have diverged from that relationship and create dance without music or in opposition to music, but for me, they are meant to be together. Dance and music are one in my opinion. So, for me music is the biggest inspiration. I love working with composers and giving them feedback, so I’m also kind of in the part of the creation of the music, too. They come to me with the ideas and basic structure and I will finesse it, help them finesse it in a way that works for me, but still kind of gives me a challenge at the same time.
When you use music to drive your dance, how does the process change?
Smith: The people I work with are the primary driving force. I have a big heart and I like making people happy and I like it when people shine. I think that’s why I love teaching so much. And when I’m working with whoever, I want them to shine the most that they possibly can. So, that influences how I create certain steps or phrases. I do want to challenge everyone, yes, but I think everyone should always be trying to grow and, at the same time, I want people to showcase their best attributes. So whatever caliber of dancer, composer I am working with, that doesn’t matter, I’m always going to highlight their strengths.
You mentioned how you choreograph for the seniors at Mark Morris. When you do projects outside, how do you go about selecting other dancers and bringing them into the project?
Smith: I usually have an audition. When I look for people to do my work, I don’t necessarily look for the best technique. I wouldn’t say I look for anything specific. I look for people who can adapt, and people who can pivot and change-not like a pivot turn-(jokingly while laughing), someone who can pivot their perspective. I am usually quick at seeing when something is not working. I’m looking for the person that can just let that go and then move on to the next thing and shift their perspective. I usually try to do that when I audition dancers. Give them something and say, “No, we’re going to something this way instead,” and seeing who maybe performed it well, initially, but when you have them pivot, they can’t do it. But there’s this other person who maybe didn’t perform the movement as well as the other one the first time, but you give them a new scenario and they do it just fine. That’s the person I look for. Someone who can shift gears quickly.
Because you are working and have a very big passion for teaching, what does success mean for you in the world of choreography or teaching?
Smith: I think, this is going to sound strange, but I don’t think of success-period-when I think of dance. I’m not a dancer because I want to be successful, I’m not a choreographer because I want to be successful. I think it’s really about enriching your life experience doing these things, and enriching people around you people who experience your work enriching their lives. I don’t think it’s a matter of success at all. So, I guess that would be success, if you enhanced someone’s perspective. Whether it be a student or an audience member. If you made them think about something in a different way, if you’ve made them appreciate themselves in a new way, if you’ve given them confidence in any sort of way that they didn’t have before. But I think dance is so much more than just being successful or not. Dance, to me, is everything.
You said you’ve been choreographing for a long time. Are there any challenges you’ve had to face in establishing yourself in the dance world?
Smith: I would say the biggest challenges would be personal. As soon as I got out of my own way and stopped judging myself, that is when I started to be proud of the work I was creating. I used to try and control everything. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. That when you’re making a dance it’s not about building a building; it’s a living thing, it’s not architectural. It’s like growing something -you can’t control everything about it. You plant the seed, and you don’t know what is going to bloom but you can kind of guide it in its growth, but it’s going to do what it wants to. And you don’t have control and that’s okay. And you don’t have to control everything about it and sometimes that’s more beautiful. And I think that’s the biggest realization I had to make as a choreographer was that I don’t have to control everything and sometimes its better if I have my hands off and things happen how they are supposed to naturally.
I find it kind of unfortunate and annoying in this day and age that everything has to be about ME, ME, ME. I’m so great, I’m so this. I guess that has been my biggest challenge. Becoming a cheerleader for myself. Because I’m the kind of person who thinks that a person’s work should be able to speak for itself, you don’t need to shove it down people’s throats. Which is kind of what I feel like people have to do now. I think social media is a big part of that.
How would you say for someone starting off, how would you go about making dance, maybe not your full-time job, but something that is possible?
Smith: For someone starting off, I would say look for where can you find opportunities to choreograph. I think if you’re starting off and you have some basic dance teaching experience you could always teach at a studio or something like that and create dances at a studio. I think it’s a hard question because everyone’s got such a different journey and I’m really glad you’re all doing this project because there is no right way to do it. Everyone finds their own way, and I think it’s whatever works for you. But you have to keep exploring and you can’t rely on someone else telling you what to do. I don’t know. Just keep asking questions.
I guess that’s the hard part of what we want to do. There is no right way to do it.
Smith: Which is a shame because there are so many other fields where there is a right way. Even creative fields, artistic fields in terms of choreography, you’re right; there’s not a right way. So maybe this project will help shed some light on that.
How would you categorize your personal style? In terms of dance and teaching, how do you think you differ from other people that you’ve either taken class from or just seen or talked with?
Smith: Wow, that’s a very interesting question. My personal styles . . I don’t know if they’re different. My choreography is a blend of ballet and traditional modern styles and folk dance. I’ve worked with Mark Morris for so long and he is a very, very famous choreographer and so a lot of my influence comes from working with him. And his knowledge of global dance is incredible. And he draws a lot of inspiration from different cultures and cultural dances around the world. In my limited time as a choreographer, compared to his, I’ve done my best to draw inspiration from other dance styles as well. I wouldn’t consider myself a contemporary choreographer. I very much like classicism and structure. Which kind of contradicts what I was saying earlier about things being natural, growing, and not controlling it too much. But I do think that in order for someone to view dance, there has to be a certain structure to it. You have your tree of your dance, and you have to prune it. And structure it in a way that you find aesthetically pleasing. It has a natural pattern that it grows but you can guide. You also asked about teaching?
Yes, how do you teach, and how do you help everybody, given that everybody learns differently and everyone operates differently in a dance class?
Smith: I actually started teaching before I started to get really serious about choreographing. I took me a long time to realize that everyone is very different in terms of how they learn. You really try as much as you can depending on how much time you have. You really have to meet them where they are. People will respond well if you are taking the time and energy to know them as a person. I think that is the biggest lesson that I’ve learned teaching. You can’t just blanket teach a group of students and expect them all to come out with the same knowledge. It doesn’t work that way. I think that’s a big problem with our education system in our country. That being said, I don’t know what the answer is to fix it. But I think everyone is unique and you have to be respectful, understanding that people aren’t going to show up at their 100% every time. We all have things going on in our lives. I think the dance industry is particularly hard on dancers and dancers that are training. It’s very strict and very disciplined. It’s getting much better, but I think it’s unhealthy in a lot of ways. And there’s not a lot of forgiveness and wiggle room for dancers’ training. I think it’s too rigid.
With being active for so long as a professional, how have you prevented injury and burnout?
Smith: Physically I have been very fortunate to not have many injuries. And I think you really have to stand up for yourself and advocate for yourself that maybe your body is not ready for something. And say I can’t do that right now. It’s not healthy for me and I have gotten way better at warming myself up properly. It’s so important. When I was in my twenties I could just jump on stage and not do anything before, and I’d be fine. Now I’m almost 40 and I can’t do that anymore. So really taking time to warm up, and, if you do get an injury-I’ve had a few minor injuries-you really need to explore different ways to tackle it. You need to find the person who is right to help you.
Takeaways: Billy Smith’s Impact
During the interview, Billy was fun and joking. It was easy to tell that he cared, not only about his work, but about the people he works with and the impact they have together. He was also very introspective and aware of the positive impact researchers are making by interviewing choreographers in different moments of their career.
Smith is producing valuable work in the dance field. He has always choreographed, even by casually pulling his friends aside during their dance classes to teach them short combinations he made up. He eventually started to create full-length works for the Mark Morris Dance Group. He is passionate about how he can improve the sometimes toxic environment that can encompass dance culture.
When selecting dancers to work with he does not look for things like 180-degree turnout, or perfect jumps. This is contrary to what others in the dance community want. The lure of social media is all about how impressive things look to the outside eye.Smithalsolooksforthequalityofadancer’smovementandwhethertheyareadaptable.Itis important for Smith that dancers be proficient in many styles and techniques of dance.
The process for creating a new dance for Billy is driven mainly by how music can influence the movement. When a new piece of music is created, Billy works hand-in-hand with the musician. Establishing emphasis on certain sounds or when the music needs to pick up. Other choreographers might create a piece without music and then later select music. Or create dance too directly to the selected music. Having dance and music paired together is a careful art that Billy strives for-the perfect combination of movement and music.
Something that makes Billy unique is his attention to how a dancer moves. He curates his classes to the people he is working with. To help extend the longevity of a dancer’s career, it is important to know how to warm up properly.
Billy tries to use knowledge he has about other cultures to influence his pieces. He also takes the time to research cultures he is not as familiar with in order to pay homage to them in dance. This is something that resonated with me because we can sometimes be caught up in our own lives that we forget there are more stories to tell. We can become blinded by our limited experiences.
A shared opinion we both have is the hope that dance can be taken more seriously in childhood education. Arts funds are not substantial and are usually not focused on dance. There are so many benefits besides coordination or flexibility. Dancers often learn skills related to any field such as determination and time management. Billy Smith’s work holds a significant impact on those who get to work with him or see his choreography. If ever given the opportunity I would suggest putting in the work to explore his archive of dance works or to take a class with this talented, insightful artist.
Billy Smith Dance. Accessed December 12, 2022. https://www.billysmithdance.com/.
Mark Morris Dance Group. “Billy Smith.” Accessed December 12, 2022.
Billy Smith’s Professional Website: