Anthony “YNOT” Denaro
Narrative and Interview by Khushee Hegde
Anthony “YNOT” Denaro: The teenage hip hopper from New Jersey, turned international B-boy. Why YNOT, you ask? Well, Anthony’s nickname is Tony, and Tony spelled backward is YNOT! Tony says that he chose this name because he likes to use the phrase, “Why not?” as his life motto. He jumps at every opportunity and never misses the chance to dance. From age 14 to 41, he has become increasingly successful and established in his practice. YNOT is currently an Instructor of Dance at the Texas Tech University School of Theatre and Dance. He trains students in courses such as Hip Hop and Choreography, sharing his knowledge of dance, as well as the history behind it to raise awareness of the origins of hip hop dance. Prior to this, YNOT instructed masterclasses and travels around the world to judge battles and continue to fuel his passion for breaking and dance.
His knowledge and experience with breaking allowed him to form his legacy as a B-boy, judge, and educator. Whilst it may seem unusual that a breaker who creates his movement through immediate improvisation would teach a choreography class, it is important to note that there are alternate techniques to creating dances, depending on the style. For breaking, YNOT uses a process in which he choreographs approximately four 8-count phrases at a time. YNOT also choreographs short segments of just a few moves that he can utilize within a competition, but nothing is set in stone for breaking battles. The movement in these scenarios often depends on the competitor and the music that is played. Being a breaker, he is accustomed to picking up the beat of music quickly and essential sounds which can be pivotal moments in musicality when dance is put to them. He has recently been producing his own music for his dances so that he has an understanding of formulas and patterns in songs. These skills give him the ability to teach students to be quick-minded with creating choreography and provides advice on how to improve movement quality in a short amount of time.
YNOT is dedicated to ensuring that students understand the movements he presents in class, but in addition to that, at the end of class he provides a lesson to emphasize the roots of a certain style. He finds that paying homage and honoring the origins of the forms will allow dancers to better appreciate the movements they are learning and performing.
In this chapter of Meet the Dancemakers, we take a deep dive into YNOT’s perspective on dance and how it has influenced him in his lifetime:
Please share how long you have been choreographing and/or producing dance, and what led you to this career path.
YNOT: Oh wow! Umm… How long, I don’t know? I can’t necessarily pinpoint that. Some of the first [experiences I had] I call sequences because they weren’t like full on choreographed shows or anything like that. They were just routines for competition, for battles. I guess if that could be considered choreography . . . I would think of a sequence of moves through breaking, although I realized I couldn’t really remember too long of a sequence because, I’m a freestyle dancer. So, to put something together prior [to performing it] was always very hard for me to do. In terms of choreographing for shows, one of my first shows that I choreographed was the X-games. The X-games was in Philly in 2003, I think. The battle routines kind of translated to the stage for something like that. Around that time, too, I got introduced to theatre from a guy by the name of Rennie Harris. It was the first time I saw more of a kind of theatrical full-length show of hip hop. I started learning from people like Rennie Harris and some of his other dancers that used to dance with him in a group called Pure Movement. They were eventually like, “Hey! You wanna come do this show with us?” I did my own solo show, and then I started choreographing with some of his dancers in his show as well. It’s just accumulated over time, but I would definitely say it started around 2003.
How or where do you find inspiration? This could be a person, a place… just your main source of inspiration.
YNOT: Through everything. Everything. I mean I think music is the #1 [inspiration], right? I feel like a movie scene kind of comes into my mind when I hear music sometimes. And sometimes in colors, you know? So much information comes from sound. That’s why you maybe see me all the time with these on (points to headphones). I’m obsessed with sound, you know? I always need sound in my ears in some weird way. So, I think that’s #1. Then, architecture. I’m a big fan of architecture and design. There are certain shapes that just give me a feeling and it makes me think about form—which then, again, goes back to dance again. Anything rhythmic-and that could be visually rhythmic as well . . . Boxing is another big inspiration . . . Bugs Bunny! (*laughing) So many things! Synthesizers. I’m totally obsessed-again-with music. So, anything-not just the music itself, but how the music is created-is an inspiration to me.
What are the steps you take in making a new dance? I know that you said that you’re more of a freestyler, but if you’re doing choreography or creating a plan, what steps would you take in making one?
YNOT: I usually make the music for the pieces that I work on. And it has flip flopped back and forth between movement first and music second. But more recently, it’s been, I work on the music and the sound design first, and then I do the dance after.
What is your process for selecting and working with dancers or dance students? If you’re casting, what are you looking for?
YNOT: I look for certain qualities. I like sharp movement, for one. I like stuff that is musical, meaning a dancer can arrive to a place right on time. So, the ability to get there is important to me. When I see a dancer who can kind of like . . . hit a moment or land at a certain timing in the music, I’m like “Okay, that’s a quality that I’m looking at.” Also, the ability to move in and out of textures, really dynamically. It can be soft and then it can be fast and then sharp at another moment.
Gotcha! So do you have any advice for a dancer who is trying to be more moldable, if that’s the word? To fit what a choreographer is looking for?
YNOT: To be a good dancer, it’s kind of like wanting to be a good teacher: You have to be a good student. And I think about that when it comes to the conversation between dancer and choreographer, or dancer and performance. You have to be open to whatever the choreographer is trying to get you to do. Right? Because in a lot of ways you’re gonna try something that’s maybe out of your comfort zone or out of your habit—the way that you move often by yourself. When you have a choreographer try to pull a certain quality out of you, you level up from that experience. I think it’s best to be as open and malleable as possible. Especially during development time.
Perfect. So basically, you would say get comfortable not being in your comfort zone?
YNOT: (*Smiling) 100 percent!
What does success mean to you in your role as a choreographer/teacher/producer?
YNOT: That’s very simple to me. I think a lot of people acquaint success with something that is about money, or followers, or whatever the case may be. But to me, it’s about impact. And you don’t always see that immediately, you know? I think if you think deeply about the art that you’re making, if you spend time with it, and you use that time to develop your craft, the success will come out of that . . . eventually.
You mentioned success as in making an impact on others, so how would you define impacting others?
YNOT: Could be one person. Could be one moment. I’ve seen a lot of high-budget. huge casts come and go, and nobody really talks about [that work] today. So, is that successful? Because they had so much money and so many people behind the project? Or is it that one moment that really kind of caused a shift in the way that we think about art or the dance that is being presented? To me, it’s the moment, and that’s the time where you start to gauge if you’re becoming successful in what you’re doing. Sometimes it’s the stuff that doesn’t get you the most money, it doesn’t get you the most accolades, even. It’s just that you may have impacted someone else and that person now is taking that inspiration and they’re becoming successful. You’re seeing success through their success, if that makes sense.
That definitely makes sense. Could you tell me why is dance important and what are your hopes for the field and for yourself?
YNOT: Dance is important because it just gets us up and moving. I think anything physical, especially anything physically challenging, is something that makes you feel alive. Dance, to me, is the thing that gets me out of bed, it’s the thing that gets me doing something. If I had the option, maybe I’d be lazy, you know? I’d be at home lying down all day. But I’m happy to have that feeling to want to get up and dance. When I hear music, I’m genuinely like, “I need to stand up. I need to move.” So, I think dance is important for a lot of people in that way. But then also I think people just express through it. They are able to tap into something in a lot of ways that they maybe can’t express in their everyday life through their jobs or whatever it is that they do. And I’ve seen that. Dance is a huge escape and a way to connect at the same time. It brings together communities.
What are your hopes for the field and for yourself?
YNOT: I don’t think dance is necessarily going anywhere anytime soon. I do have an expectation though for hip hop dance, especially in the theatre. I think theatre is a place that hip hop dance can thrive outside of the competition world because I think most people look at hip hop as a competitive dance – which it is-but it’s also a valid, expressive art form that I think could be utilized a little bit better. So, my vision for it is where I’m going. I can’t really tell you exactly what it looks like, but I could show you. That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to create pieces of art on stage that utilize dance, but then not just dance-dance in music, dance in design, dance in all of these other things.
What motivates you the most to dance? I know that you said that you think that moving is important, but is there a person? Is there an emotion? Something that motivates you to dance more?
YNOT: I think it’s all the things and I think it’s not just one thing all the time. When I was younger, it was about impressing the people that I thought were the best dancers. For one moment it was about meeting girls (*laughing). Now as I’m getting older, it’s about longevity, it’s about staying physically active and fit. It goes through these phases and I think if you genuinely enjoy it and you love what you’re doing, you will go through the story of it, you’ll go through the journey. And it will take on all these different forms. Or it will take on all of these different meanings in your life.
What struggles did you face becoming established in your practice? Or some of the biggest struggles you’ve face over the years, becoming who you are today as a dancer and choreographer?
YNOT: I think the early struggles were deciding if I really wanted to go into this. Because I loved it, but I wasn’t quite sure if I wanted it to be my job. And then there’s that kind of scary place of like . . . how? How does this become your job? What do you have to do in order to get there? As we know, after we go to school, some of our first jobs have nothing to do with anything that we want to take on as a career, but we know that that’s how we make money. So, I worked in restaurants, I did all this type of stuff. And it seemed like that was actually the job that was more stable (*laughing), because when I started getting dance jobs, it was not the best pay. Of course, financially it’s a struggle. Finding the time and the energy to do it. As a breaker it was really difficult to work, go to school, and then have the energy to break. And when I started, it was about the space. Where do I do this? I’ve been arrested for breaking in the street. One time, the lobby area of a movie theatre was open and they had this really nice tile floor (*smiling), and I was like, “Oooh, we should go in there and break!” I was in there with my friends and cops pulled up because they see us in there and we’re not supposed to be in there. They didn’t do anything, they were actually pretty cool about it, but they definitely told us we had to get out of there. So, there was limited space for us to do that type of stuff, and I actually found more ability to dance when I started connecting more with other people in the community. In Philly, I would go to the arts community center in West Philly. Did the same thing in New Jersey, and then eventually started a little practice spot in the recreation center in the college that I went to. So, that was another obstacle to kind of get over. And then injuries . . . I had plenty of really bad injuries and they were hard to recover from. One of them took me out for a whole year. I think it makes you question yourself a lot. But this is the stuff that makes you grow as an artist. It’s the overcoming of these things and when you question why you’re staying involved in something that has all this hardship. It makes you realize how much of it you need in your life. You just keep going back to it. At least that’s what I did, so . . . Here I am now.
How do you deal with having a profession that it so physically demanding and allowing your body time to relax and reset?
YNOT: Well, for one, you have to know when to take rest and breaks. I say that because I pushed through many times and I got burned out a couple of times. I think that’s what led to a couple of the injuries that I had, because I was just trying to do everything, you know? The financial situation is the reason why I did continuously try to keep going because I was like, “Well, I need money right now, this is a way of making money. I don’t know what I’m going to do if I don’t do this.” But I started to get a little bit smarter as I kept going. And I realized that there are moments where I can rest, and when I do that, I can approach it in a smarter way—in a more strategic way. And then, when I show up, I’m actually a lot stronger than what I would be if I was just working my body into the ground. I also learned how to physically train at the same time. I started to eat better, sleep better—all these things started to play a role. Especially I was getting more into my thirties. My life definitely changed around that time because I realized I had to make some changes. Because my body was changing.
How do you deal with the competitive nature of dance and how to not let it get to you?
YNOT: I’m lucky I got into breaking before it was more of a big stage thing. And to be honest, it’s probably a little more nerve wracking to be in front of people, in front of your peers, and have a confrontation. And a lot of times when we battled, they weren’t nice. It reminds me of where I grew up: that’s Jersey, Philly, New York. It’s just a common thing to bump heads with somebody and have a confrontation, have some sort of disagreement, and slug it out. But one of my mentors, his name is Frosty Freeze, he passed away in 2008, but he said something to me one day and it stuck with me forever. He said, “Competition is tradition.” I don’t think I fully understood that until a couple years later, but then I realized that yeah, this is normal, what we do. We are constantly standing up for ourselves, we’re constantly running into an opposition or different opinion or whatever the situation is. It’s in everyday life. This is what happens, especially in breaking. You’re going to battle, it’s a part of how you earn your stripes, it’s part of how you get better. It’s like people who play basketball, get in the game. Fighters have to spar before they make the big fight. It is what it is. And when you start to understand that you embrace it a little bit more. If people can’t handle it, they let their emotions get the best of them, but then also they’re looking at in a skewed way, I think. This is a way for you to win, or to learn. You know, you actually learn more from not winning, and you can’t win all the time (*shrugs shoulders). That’s just the way it is. So, I started to wrap my head around that: I can battle, do terribly, and leave, and just be like, “Alright.” Of course, it burns a little bit, but I’m excited to lose because it ignites the fire again. I can’t be mad at it if I don’t show up and do my best. It’s like, maybe I needed that right now. A wake-up call, you know?
That’s very interesting, thank you for that. This is more of a straightforward question: About how many hours do you practice a day?
YNOT: (*shaking head and laughing) Not many! Not many. This is a good question because I’ve been through a lot of different phases with this kind of situation as well. I’ve been breaking since I was 14, and I’m 41 now, so that’s 27 years. And . . . have I practiced? Absolutely! Especially when I was younger. I would always be “practicing,” if that’s the word. I don’t even use that word necessarily, but just constantly repeating the movements that I know and what I want to learn and doing that over and over and over again. But when I got to a certain point, again this is probably around my thirties, something happened, I didn’t practice as much anymore. And it’s not that I don’t want to, it’s not that I don’t think practicing is good either; it is. I mean you level up when you do the repetition. Just like anything else physically, you need to have that muscle memory. But I also did not want to because my dance is based on improvisation. I didn’t want to be too over rehearsed. I got to a point where I felt physically ready because I physically train. I do a lot of free weights, pull ups, push-ups, calisthenics. I know what I need for my body to perform well, but in terms of the actual dance itself, I just want to attach to the pure signal and just let my body go. And whatever happens, happens. I’m at a point now where that feels really good to me. I want to try to keep that essence as long as I can.
Do you move based on the music or how you’re feeling, and if you are moving based on the music, how do you pick it up so quickly to know what to hit when?
YNOT: I think there is a formula to certain music. I also create music, so when I hear music, I know exactly what genre it is almost right off the bat. I can be like, “Oh that’s a funk song, that’s a hip hop track, this is trap.” We know because the sounds are recognizable, but I know what dance fits with this sound and then I just go there. But then also, there’s a way of listening to that music that I’ve obtained over the years; once I hear it a little bit, I lock in and then I go. It’s not so easy to explain, but I think if I really dug deeply into that, I could try to lay out how that actually works, but that would take a long time.
That’s okay! One last question. Do you have any advice for young, aspiring dancers? Or just any final words that you’d like to include?
YNOT: Yes. And I say this almost every time. Don’t stop. That’s it. Because we’re always going to compare ourselves to somebody else or we’re going to compare ourselves to ourselves a few years ago. But dance is not a destination, it’s a journey. And if you’re not sticking around long enough for the ride, you’re going to miss out. So, if you do it for a short period of time, or you think that you’re just going to do it for five or 10 years, then that’ll be the end of your story. But if you feel like this is something that you want to do and you are anticipating a long journey of learning, failing, succeeding, loving, hating, all the things, then just don’t stop. Stick with it.
Takeaways: YNOT’s Impact
You heard it straight from the breaking legend himself: Success is impact. Bugs Bunny is inspiration. Get comfortable being uncomfortable. When you question why you’re staying involved in something with hardship, it makes you realize how much you need it in your life. You actually learn more from not winning, and you can’t win all the time. And lastly, don’t stop and stick with it. YNOT is living proof of not stopping and sticking with it. Despite his hardships in becoming established in his practice, he persisted to chase his dreams and achieve the desirable life he had always wanted since the age of fourteen.
After getting to experience YNOT’s knowledge firsthand in his Hip-Hop class at Texas Tech University, I can confirm that his passion for breaking is infectious. He truly cares about all dance styles, and it is apparent whenever he is teaching his students. His respect for the background and cultural origins of dance is highlighted often in his classes, as he never shows his students a style without saying where it came from or explaining how it came to be. We can all learn a lifetime of knowledge through Tony Denaro, and learn to appreciate the little things in life. He teaches others how to turn losses into a positive thing, and how to have a better outlook on competition to better yourself as a person rather than letting it bring you down. If ever given the chance to take a class from YNOT, run, don’t walk. If you need a source of inspiration or motivation to keep going, he is it.
Videos of YNOT’s work:
YNOT’s website: https://www.ynotism.com/contact
Krall, Justin. “Guest Artist Spotlight: Anthony Denaro, Aka YNOT.” TTU, September 28, 2021. https://www.depts.ttu.edu/theatre-dance/news/posts/2021/09/ynot-interview.php.
Voyage Phoenix. “Meet Anthony ‘YNOT’ Denaro – Voyagephoenix – Phoenix.” Voyage Phoenix, May 21, 2020. http://voyagephoenix.com/interview/meet-anthony-denaro-ynot-phoenix/.
YNOTISM. “About YNOT.” Accessed December 12, 2022. https://www.ynotism.com/contact.