Male dancers breaking film and TV industry: Billy Mustapha
Billy Mustapha is a professional dancer born and raised in Canada. Living between Vancouver and Los Angeles for the past three years, Billy has been working as a series regular on season 2 of Emmy Award winning TV show, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist as an actor/dancer alongside world renowned choreographer, Mandy Moore. Dance Writer caught up with Billy to get an insight into how to break into the industry as a male dancer.
Can you describe the moment you decided to pursue dance as a career?
I had dreams of pursuing a career in dance from a young age but it became a clear true goal with action behind it at around the age 16. I remember chatting with my mother, who placed a strong value on post secondary schooling, about wanting to take the year after I graduated to move to Vancouver and pursue dance. She was extremely supportive when she saw how committed I was as I began to make a plan for how I could turn this passion of mine into a career.
I began dancing with a musical theatre class at the age of seven at Dance Spectrum in Calgary, Alberta. The following year I added tap and jazz to my schedule and shortly after I was immersed in every genre the studio had to offer. I trained at Dance Spectrum throughout my schooling from age seven to 17. In my final year of high school, I was training under Sarah Dolan, the creator of O2 Dance Company, as well as expanding my hip hop skills by being part of Universesoul Dance Company under the direction of Goldie Wong. All while still continuing my full load of training at my home studio, Dance Spectrum, and taking conventions/workshops when they were available to me. A convention that I began taking at a young age that was pivotal to my training was Triple Threat Dance Convention, created by Kelly Konno, Dorie Konno Lazaroff and Carolina Lancaster. In my final year of high school, I had the honour of being named the “Definite Threat”. I was chosen from all the dancers from all the cities that Triple Threat toured to that season. As the Definite Threat, I got the opportunity to tour with Triple Threat Dance Convention the year after I graduated. This allowed me the chance to not only learn from, but also assist the industries top choreographers such as Megan Lawson, Jillian Meyers, Tina Landon, Nick Lanzisera, Tyce Diorio and Luther Brown.
After graduating and moving to Vancouver, I enrolled in the Intensive Training Program at Harbour Dance Centre, created by Moe Brody and Pamela Rosa. This program quickly immersed me into the Vancouver dance community and took my training to a whole new level. I was also a member of TwoFourSeven Hip-Hop Company that same year so I was training full time seven days a week trying to improve my craft and become an even more versatile dancer. Since then I have continued my training by taking classes from the best teachers in the dance industry while traveling between major dance hubs such as, Los Angeles, New York and Vancouver.
What did you do to prepare yourself for this kind of industry of film and TV? You landed one of the best dance agents in LA, which is fantastic – congratulations! How did you connect with these industry professionals across two cities?
Prioritizing my training has prepared me for the jobs I have had the pleasure of working on. Taking so many classes from a variety choreographers has allowed me to sharpen my skillset and pin point what different choreographers desire from their performers. My training has provided me the ability to grasp choreography quickly and allows me to execute with precision and flair immediately.
One of my mentors, Michelle Dawley who is also from Calgary, is the person who connected me with Bloc Talent Agency. I’ve always looked up to the dancers on Bloc’s roster so I feel so lucky to be represented by this phenomenal agency.
I have been committed to traveling between Vancouver and Los Angeles for the past few years to ensure that my connections in each city stay strong. This traveling also supports my growth as a dancer because I am constantly learning from new choreographers.
You are currently working on Season 2 of ‘Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist’ as a series regular. Describe this journey from the moment you discovered you were cast. What is it like working with choreographer Mandy Moore?
Working on Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist these past two years has been an absolute dream. When I was first casted as a “Brogrammer” for the pilot I had no idea I would return as a series regular for two seasons. There aren’t many TV shows where dance plays such a pivotal role in the story line. There are multiple dance numbers in each episode and it is so inspiring to watch them being created so quickly. The choreography team, Mandy Moore, Jillian Meyers and Jeff Mortensen, have created more than 100 dance numbers and it has been such a good learning experience, as a dancer and choreographer, to watch each of these numbers come to life and evolve. Mandy is a dream. She is always prepared and sets the tone for each rehearsal in such a positive, productive manner. She learns everyone’s name in every rehearsal no matter how many dancers/names that may be. She is constantly five steps ahead, creating choreographic solutions to problems that someone might not even see arising. Mandy is the best at looking out for the dancers to ensure we feel safe, respected and happy. Whether that means making sure there is water on stand by for us, making sure we have proper holding/warm up areas, ensuring that our costumes don’t inhibit our choreography; she sees all and acts accordingly. I feel very lucky that I’ve gotten the opportunity to know and appreciate Mandy Moore.
What has been a true career highlight for you since breaking into the film and tv industry as a professional male dancer? You’ve been blessed to work on projects including The Stuntman, Disney’s Descendants 3, ABC’s Once Upon A Time, CW’s The Flash, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, Freaky Friday, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Christmas Chronicles 2 and more. How challenging is it to secure these kinds of projects?
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist has been a career highlight for me. To get to work on a show where the dance numbers are in a state of fantasy rather than reality allows for endless possibilities and that has been very exciting and fulfilling for my creative side.
Another highlight for me would have to be assisting my mentor and role model, Jillian Meyers, on Apple’s vertical cinema, “The Stuntman”. I have admired Jillian’s work since I was about 12 years old. I am inspired by how she exists inside and outside the dance studio. She’s always leading with kindness and a welcoming smile. To get to be the assistant choreographer for a rather large scale company like Apple was a huge accomplishment for me. I aspire to work more on the choreography side of this industry as I progress in my career.
I feel very grateful to have worked on the projects I’ve gotten to. Maintaining my genuine connections with these industry professionals as well as staying at the top of my craft has made these dance roles possible for me. When auditioning alongside hundreds of dancers, it is easy to fall into feelings of self doubt. Something that has helped stay away from these feeling is reminding myself not to compare. A tool that has been beneficial in securing these roles is developing my own individualized style. I am committed to freestyling everyday and I choreograph on the regular to stay aware of the movements that my body wants to naturally express. This let’s me bring a piece of myself to other’s choreography and sets me apart among the crowd of many dancers.
As a male dancer, I do believe it is easier to secure these roles. For the most part, there’s a smaller pool of men in the dance industry, compared to women, giving us more opportunities to be seen. There are often separate male and female audition calls. The male calls are usually smaller giving the boys a good shot to be seen and possibly booked. There are of course some obstacles that come with being a male in the dance industry but overall I do think pursuing a career as a male dancer is slightly more attainable as there is less competition.
What is your advice to a budding male dancer who has a keen interest of breaking into the film and TV industry? How fluid can you be jumping between film, theatre and music industries? Do you have to be in the hotspot of LA or can you begin in places such as Vancouver and build up your credentials?
The best piece of advice I would give to an aspiring dancer would be stay true to you. I believe there is so much value that comes with being your authentic self because no one will be able to replicate that. As dancers, we are basically trying to sell ourselves so to provide a product that is uniquely you, immediately makes you more desirable or valued because you are one of a kind. Also, remember to preserve because with that hard work and dedication, the right role will come to you.
I believe that you can jump between the film, theatre and music industries if you are keeping up your training in these respective realms. A lot of what I do in the film industry is about conveying a feeling to the audience that advances the storyline through movement. Something like an acting class might be beneficial for this type of work. For a theatre job, you might need to stay on top of your vocal training. You may want to stay up to date with the work a music artist that you’d like to work for is releasing.
Auditions through self tapes have been happening more often as a result of the pandemic. This has made it more possible to audition for projects happening all over rather than just one city.
With COVID-19 basically cutting the performing arts off at the knees, how did/do you get through this difficult time financially, physically and mentally? How have you kept your craft alive and yourself hireable?
Fortunately, I have gotten to work on Zoey’s for a good chunk of COVID-19. The production strictly followed all the COVID protocols to make sure that everyone felt as safe as possible. I was being tested 3 times a week and masks were worn at all times aside from filming.
I have also had the opportunity to teach on Zoom for parts of the pandemic. It was a creative challenge to lead a class that could be fully done in the confinement and comfort of anyone’s home.
I am grateful for the rest time the pandemic has granted my body. It has been so nice to stretch and tend to my body. COVID-19 has taken my love of at home yoga to a new level.
I found myself focusing on creating more often since the pandemic made it tricky to take class. It was fun to challenge myself as a dancer by making more challenging or faster choreography to try and execute. I am grateful for the time I have had to indulge in my creative processes. I was often creating just for myself and my own enjoyment so it allowed me the chance to create anything with no parameters.