Narrative and Interview by Lyndsey Melrose
Angela Murray is a professional dancer and instructor, as well as a former studio owner. She specializes in ballroom dance and choreography. Ballroom dance is an umbrella term covering multiple types of social dances, first originating in Europe. Traditionally, it is performed by couples who follow intricate footwork and steps. There are five standard dances including the waltz, the polka, the fox-trot, the two-step, and the tango. There were many more which joined those five during the 20th century. Historically, ballroom dance forms were distinguished from country dance, in which Angela is currently beginning to train and compete. The various contexts in which these dances are performed include public dance events, formal competitions, and professional dance exhibits.
Since early 2022, Angela has joined the competitive two-step country dance scene. Ballroom and Country dance are similar in their intricacy of footwork and traditionally (heterosexual) coupled performance. She wants to train in this Country dance style more and in the near future, and she hopes to begin competing in it. Historically, the genre of Country dance was a form of folk and courtly dances of the British Isles during the mid-1500s. Interestingly, Country dances are performed in three unique formations including circular, “longways,” and in geometric formations such as triangles and squares. While there are many similarities between Ballroom and Country dance forms, sometimes this can be even more difficult to learn as a dancer already accustomed to one form or the other.
As my interview with Angela began, I noticed she was joining the videoconference meeting using her phone and in a car which seemed to be parked. This, along with the Red Bull she had in hand, gave me the impression that she is on the go most of the time, with a busy daily schedule. Although her schedule may be packed, I had her undivided attention during our conversation, and she was 100% focused on the interview. The utmost professional.
Who has been your biggest inspiration throughout your life either inside or outside of the dance world?
Murray: Hmm, there have been so many people, that I don’t know if there’s just one person. I think my biggest dance inspiration and someone that I watched religiously and tried to emulate is Yulia Zagoruychenko. She was the kind of the person that I would watch all the time when I was first getting into dancing professionally. There are a ton of local inspirations for me, like Alex and Christina Monroe. They were huge for me and my dancing. And then, of course, coaches like Joe Lozano who’s based out of Houston. Obviously, my family as well [who are in ballroom dance, too].
What has been your proudest career moment thus far?
Murray: I would say there are really two. In regard to my professional competing, in 2017, being named Vice Champion for Texas Dance Challenge in the open professional rhythm [category] was a huge accomplishment. This was the highest ranking my partner and I had. I think in 2018 or 2019, I was named top female teacher at Sapphire Dance Port in Austin, as well as second or third overall top teacher.
What do you think is your biggest weakness and how do you overcome that?
Murray: I have a lot of negative internal dialogue and I’m extremely mean to myself, especially about my dancing. I’m not a competitive person in general, but I’m very competitive with my dancing. I’m very, very, very hard on myself and I think the most difficult thing for me is I can be discouraging and hurtful toward my own feelings.
What advice would you give to a freshman in college looking to pursue a career in dance?
Murray: I would say to do your best, and to get as much practical experience as you can. Whether that means you’re on the dance team at your university and/or you need to be working at a studio or dancing in the community, professionally with a company. In the dance world, degrees are great, but you need to have practical experience in any style that you go into as a new professional. You need to make sure that you are coaching with people consistently and doing continuous training. Everybody should be working at a studio [to gain teaching experience]. That is how we make or money in the dance industry, it is our bread and butter. You also need to be searching out continuous education outside of your degree. A lot of times in the commercial dance world, you’re getting consistent training, which slows down once you get to college. It is important to make sure that you are continuing to get practical training. If you want to be in this industry, it’s very cutthroat and you must be on your game at all times. Unfortunately, taking six months off will put you behind.
If you live in a city that has limited opportunities in the arts, how would you recommend that performers become relevant and put themselves out there?
Murray: It’s a kind of a two-way thing. Number one, I would say it’s really important, especially when you’re in a place with little availability for coaching or performing, you may have to travel on weekends or once a month. Don’t be afraid to go somewhere else to get training. I went to Houston a lot and it’s not ideal but, depending on your goals, that may be necessary. The other thing is to take advantage of the opportunities that you do have in that area. If there are companies or studios, be there. If you’re a little bit more advanced as a dancer, then that’s fine you can brand within that area as being more advanced. Start to create a scene. I think sometimes we don’t realize we can reach out to people, even a friend of a friend. The networking is just as important as the dancing, no matter the size of the place. Don’t be afraid of it.
Mental health has been a huge topic in general, but also in the dance world very recently. What do you do outside of dance to make sure that you are prioritizing yourself and your mental health?
Murray: I think it is important to know yourself and figure out what helps you decompress. Personally, I like to lift weights or lay in bed and do nothing to help me decompress. Another thing, too, is that, in dance, we’re often pitted against each other during auditions or competitions and that can take a toll. It’s beneficial to do something for yourself like go get a facial. Whatever you need to feel nice and beautiful to forget about the audition or the mean comment made about you.
How do you think that your specific dance style contributes to the industry and how do you think that people could benefit from it?
Murray: I think there are a few things about ballroom that people don’t know about. I think ballroom is a great opportunity because the thing about our industry is that it can be as high or low impact as you want it to be. If you want to dance at a really high level, absolutely go for it, but there is a side for students and teaching that is not as hard on your body, long-term. For someone who is going into it as a non-professional, you can do it from age 4 to age 64, and that’s really cool. I don’t know that you can really say that about a lot of other styles. They’re just a little bit harder on your body. Having been on both sides of it, you have more opportunity to make money as a teacher and ballroom is a bit more expensive than commercial dance, so we make more money.
In regard to an audition setting, how did you combat hearing negative feedback or being told “no” and how did you benefit from that?
Murray: I think with auditions or anything that is a competitive setting, you’re not going to be successful in every situation. I feel it’s kind of like, with every “no,” you’re closer to a “yes.” It’s easier said than done. You can’t take it personally, which is very hard to do because us dancers take our craft very personally. It is personal for us because it is our passion and our love. You have to be able to separate your business from your passion. I also think keeping in mind that any type of criticism or feedback should be taken to make yourself better. It should be used as motivation, instead of as a negative thing. I don’t know that I have mastered these concepts myself, but give it your best shot to be positive. Otherwise, it can really wear you down. In ballroom specifically, we don’t do a lot of auditioning; instead we compete. That is the better part of our business. When you compete and something goes wrong, or you don’t make the final you expected to make, you have to remind yourself why you are doing it. As adults, we do it because we love it, not because our mom is forcing us to dance. Maintaining that love and that joy is of upmost importance.
Within the style of ballroom, everyone sort of has their own personal strength or unique style. What do you think yours is?
Murray: The feedback I get the most is that my feet are really good. They are just flexible feet but I’m also a very technical dancer, so it’s highlighted by my God-given anatomy and also due to my technical training. Outside of that, my like brand that I like to put on the floor is I’m a very aggressive dancer. I’m not soft and pretty, instead I’m more aggressive.
Do you think that also goes into your choreography as well or is that just you as a performer?
Murray: I tend to like a little bit more assertive or darker choreography. Usually there’s got to be some type of attack or sex appeal in it. I think that comes out in my choreography, as I prefer that style more. Again, I’m also very technical so I like to put things in there that are going to show off technique. Obviously, if I’m choreographing for a younger dancer, I’m not going to do that, so it depends on the performer.
How long have you been choreographing or producing dance? What led you to this career path?
Murray: I began dancing at age three and I would say I started choreographing around 10. I always had this vision and this enjoyment for it. I did have training in choreography with my ballet and jazz background, which translated into ballroom later on. Throughout my ballroom career, I’ve always done my own choreography. Of course, there have been times when coaches have given us choreography, but I choreographed all five of the routines my last pro partner and I did. I do my own choreography for my students as well. I’m a very theatrical person, so I love to hear song and interpret that into dance.”
What was your higher education like in dance?
Murray: I started teaching at 14 and almost full-time at 16. I went to college at Texas A&M Corpus Christi and studied Finance. There, I participated in a few dance electives, but I do not have a dance degree of any sort. I never had much specific training in choreography, instead just a general understanding of how to apply choreography from my middle school and high school years. I studied at Monroe Ballet, a little bit at Avant Dance, and Corpus Christi Ballet was like the bulk of my commercial training in ballet. During that time, I was blessed to have good training and teachers that the basis of choreography, understanding how it moves around the floor, laying out depth, and how to create your own process.
What are your goals for 5 and 10 years in the future?
Murray: That’s a fun one. I’m hopping around right now. I just moved to Florida but am probably going to Atlanta soon. In five years, I’m hopefully going to be in the 9 Dance Final or title winner and having won a Country Western title. Ultimately, I would like to have a final under my belt in both genres. I would also like to own my own competition company. At 10 years, I definitely want to have a title in ballroom, and I would love to have at least three of my own competitions and judge for others. I would love to do a Triple Crown or series of competitions, probably in the South because that is where I am familiar.
What are the steps you take in making and setting a dance on other people? How does that process look for you?
Murray: It depends on what I’m doing. If I have someone that’s a little bit more advanced, then I’m probably going to choreograph on the spot and see how they move and adjust from there. If I have a younger dancer with less experience, I’m probably going to go in already knowing with some structure based on what I know they’re going to need and what I know they’re going to want to show. For the most part, my choreography is done on the spot.
What is your favorite age to teach?
Murray: Adults. Kids are definitely fine, but I prefer teaching adults because of their maturity level and understanding of concepts. Our industry is primarily geared towards adults.
Was there a time in your career that you felt you were questioning everything or if this is really what you wanted to do as far as the industry goes?
Murray: Yeah, absolutely. When I owned my studio in Corpus Christi, I wasn’t dancing professionally at all. I was running the studio and working, a one-woman show over here, which is a great experience that I learned a lot from. That was when I realized what fulfills me is my pro dancing. I love to teach, and I love the business side of it, but I was missing my primary passion, which is dancing. At that time, I didn’t think I was going to be able to go back to that lifestyle because I was all in on owning a studio and that was where I was. I was retired and a studio owner. I realized I was not going to get the opportunity to dance again and began to accept it, which is when I was unhappy. I ended up selling my studio and dancing pro again. I realized that’s why I was so unhappy-I was not fulfilling my passion as a dancer and performer. I felt I was starving myself from that primary thing and I couldn’t be happy with anything else until I revived myself from that state. It seemed like the easy way out. I had the degree in finance and was just going to work in that industry, but thankfully I didn’t and decided to keep dancing.
Do you think that maybe someday you will come back to owning a studio?
Murray: Years down the line, I’m open to it, but would prefer to do it with someone else because of my dancing. In 10-20 years down the line, I’m probably going to be traveling, coaching, and running my competition company. I wouldn’t be able to be at the studio all the time. I would be completely open to the idea with the right person in the right city. Even getting into an already set studio and taking on a stake of ownership since I do love the business side of things. I love managing and I love teaching people like staff and acting as a mentor to them while showing them the ropes in this industry. I honestly love what I do. I am passionate about dance as well as teaching people, and I love to share that passion with younger individuals especially. I still feel young myself, I just turned 24 but I have so much experience already and am eager to share that with others whether that’s students or young professionals.
What is your process for selecting and working with dancers?
Murray: I will work with absolutely anybody as long as you have the right attitude. As long as you’re willing and eager to do it then I 100% will work with you. Style or level doesn’t matter. If you are willing to learn and you have the right attitude then it will absolutely work.
What are your hopes for the field?
Murray: I hope that it grows and becomes more popular. I think sometimes ballroom dance is a hidden jewel and a lot of people don’t realize ballroom dancing is accessible to them. I would love to see more young people in the industry as well as more people coming from a ballet background, who are stepping into some ballroom as they retire out of their area of professional dancing. Above all, I would love to just see it grow and flourish.
I’ve heard you mention ballet a couple times, do you think that that is a good fundamental base for ballroom dancing?
Murray: Yes, ballet is a great fundamental for dancing, 100%. However, you cannot do ballet and ballroom at a high level at the same time. The way your muscles have to work are completely different, so you physically cannot be a professional ballroom and professional ballet dancer at the same time. For anyone in the dance industry, though, it is an awesome fundamental.
Facebook. “Angela Murray.” Accessed December 12, 2022. https://www.facebook.com/angela.murray.10441.
Guerrero, Richard. “Grace under Pressure.” Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, July 13, 2021. https://www.tamucc.edu/news/2021/07/071321-islander-magazine-angela-murray-feature-summer-2021.php.