Catching Up With Mark Kanemura
Lady Gaga’s back-up dancer talks about working with the most famous woman in the world, starring on So You Think You Can Dance, and why he never felt the need to publicly come out before this interview.
If you’ve seen Lady Gaga dance, you’ve probably seen Mark Kanemura dance. He’s the one dancing alongside her — usually in a skirt and something leather. Kanemura first graced America’s television sets in 2008 as a finalist on FOX’s dance competition series, So You Think You Can Dance.While you’d be hard-pressed to find many of the series’ past competitors enjoying anything close to fame, Kanemura hit it big when he landed a gig as a dancer for Gaga at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. That was just the beginning. He soon danced his way through the videos for “Telephone,” “Alejandro,” “Born This Way,” and “Judas,” and has been touring with the world’s biggest pop star ever since. Based on a recent American Idolappearance that featured him dancing one-on-one with Gaga to her latest single, “The Edge of Glory,” it’s safe to assume there’s more half-naked Kanemura in our future.
We caught up with the dancer to chat about working with the most famous woman in the world, getting his start on stage, spending a good part of his life in a skirt, and more.
Out: Which do you get more: Are you the guy from So You Think You Can Dance? Or are you the guy who dances with Lady Gaga?
Mark Kanemura: It’s a mix of both right now. Before it was a lot more So You Think You Can Dance, but lately it’s been a lot of Gaga, as well.
When did you first start dancing?
I was actually in musical theater. My parents took me to go see — I think it was The Phantom of the Opera or Cats,one of those musicals. But they came out to Hawaii. They took me to see the show, and I was so blown away. I was like, I need to be doing this. So my parents were always really supportive of what I wanted to do, which was amazing. They put me in some musical theater classes at a local community theater, and I had an amazing, amazing time. But then my voice changed, and I went through puberty [laughs]. So I got really uncomfortable singing, and I fell more in love with dancing.
Your parents had no qualms with you being a boy and being interested in dance?
No! They put me in baseball and soccer and all that stuff. I just really had no interest in it whatsoever. I would put on shows for them when I was really young. I went full out — I put my sister in the shows, I did lighting, I made programs. You name it, we did it. So they had an idea of where all the madness was going [laughs].
How long did you think about auditioning for So You Think You Can Dance before you finally did it?
I had decided a few months before. I was teaching dance in Hawaii for years. I loved it so much, and I still consider it one of the things I’m most passionate about. But I felt like I needed to shake me up a little and [I needed] something to challenge me. So a few months before the audition happened, I was like, I think I want to push myself and audition for the show. As soon as I realized I wanted to do that, I really started training and focusing on the audition process.
Did you ever imagine that you’d get as far as you did?
No, not at all. I mean, even through the whole audition process, I always felt like I was different from everyone else there. I wasn’t sure if that’s what they were looking for. And, of course, I went through my doubts — I felt like I wasn’t as good as everyone around me. Not only did I not think I would make it that far, first of all, I never even thought that I would make it on the show.
On the show you seemed like you were really into choreographing the solos. Do you still choreograph?
It’s weird because I actually moved out to L.A. to pursue choreography. After So You Think…, I was like, I’m going to move to L.A. and I’m going to be a choreographer. That’s something I want to focus on. But it was weird. I got out here and it just wasn’t inspiring me. I was trying to teach at different studios and whatnot, and I just wasn’t inspired to dance. I think what it came down to was I really need to learn more about the dance world and the dance community here in L.A. I just felt like there was so much to learn about the industry from a dancer’s perspective. I haven’t been inspired to do it lately, but hopefully that time comes.
Do you still remember the choreography to “The Garden,” a fan (and judge) favorite from the show?
I probably do. We took some of the numbers on tour. So on top of having to rehearse it a lot for the show, we did it so many times. It was actually weird because Courtney [Galiano] and I had to do that last season, and some of the moves just naturally came. It was crazy. I think I remember a few things, but probably not the whole thing.
How did you first get involved with Lady Gaga?
That whole experience was crazy. There was an audition that came through, it was actually not for Lady Gaga, it was for another artist — the choreographer for Lady Gaga, Laurieann Gibson. So I got this audition notice, and I called my agent immediately and was like, “Oh my gosh, I need to get into this audition because I know who she choreographs for. It’s not for that job yet, but I need to get in there to just show her what I can do.” So I ended up doing this audition, and I booked the job, which was great. I got to work on this music video for like a week or so with Laurieann, which was amazing. And then, a month later, the audition came through for the MTV VMAs for Lady Gaga, when she did that “Paparazzi” performance. Oddly enough, I was not [in L.A. for that audition], I was actually teaching out in Nebraska, and I was really, really, really devastated that I couldn’t go. So I talked to my agent and I was like, “I really, really want to do this job — you know how much this means to me.” I mean, me and my agent kind of share this love for Gaga, like before even the dancing was there. So she completely understood, and she was like, “OK, I’m going to really, really try and get you in there.” Basically she really did her job successfully and kept on pitching my name to them.
How did you find out you got it?
I ended up getting this call in Nebraska from my agent, the same week as the audition. I kept on calling her and being like, “OK, what do you know? What’s happening with the audition? I need to know.” She kept updating me, and finally, she called me while I was walking in downtown Nebraska or something, and she was like, “Okay, so you’re going to need to sit down.” So I sat down, and she was like, “OK, so you booked the job for Lady Gaga at the VMAs.” Oh my gosh, the memory is so vivid for me. I literally started running up and down the street crying and screaming. It was such a dream for me. The song “Just Dance” kind of carried me through So You Think You Can Dance. It was a song that I listened to constantly, before a lot of people knew who Lady Gaga was. So it had a lot of meaning for me. I burst into tears, I called my mom, I was screaming on the phone.
So from there did you just keep auditioning for more and more things that she was doing?
The thing with Laurieann is once she starts hiring you, and once she finds a solid group of dancers that she can work with and whatnot, she starts to hire you for other things. That’s one of the things I’m really, really grateful for. She’s really believed in me a lot, and she’s hired me for a lot of other projects as well. It was just crazy, because after that I did another project for her, and then a month or two later I got the call to join the Monster Ball Tour, and I was literally beyond myself and so, so, so excited. And ever since then, it’s been an amazing whirlwind.
You’re always right up on Gaga in the performances. What’s that about?
[Laughs] I don’t know, it happens I guess. I don’t really have an explanation for it.
Do you have any sort of relationship with Lady Gaga? Do you talk? Do you rehearse together?
Ummm. [pauses] Sorry, I’m trying to think of… I mean, uhhh. I mean, she’s always… I don’t know if I can answer this question, basically.
You do see her…?
Yeah, I mean, she works really, really, really hard. She’s always, like, sweating right with us. She’s a really hard worker.
But you can’t talk about her specifically?
How much do you rehearse?
It depends on what our schedule allows. Because she’s so busy with — she has so much going on right now. It just kind of depends when we can fit rehearsal into the schedule. For something like a tour, we’re going to have to rehearse a lot more. I mean, for a music video, it just depends how much dancing is involved in the video. But we do put in a lot of time.
Are you ever hesitant about the costumes? The skirts?
No, I’m very open. Like I said, I love theater and I love all of that. So, when I came to work with Gaga, at first it was like,Oh my gosh, these costumes are crazy. But it was really exciting for me because it was something a little different for dancers in a sense. We were getting all these amazing costumes with like hair on them, or costumes that could fit in the palm of your hand and you’re supposed to wear them. I’ve definitely worn some of the craziest things in this group. It’s awesome. It’s always exciting to see what we’re going to wear.
What is your favorite song on Born This Way?
Before the album came out and she just released [the “Born This Way” single] it really, really inspired me. It was kind of one of the reasons I came back to tour with her. I had taken a break from her to come back for So You Think You Can Dance [as an All-Star, last season]. Then, I got invited this past January to be a part of the music video for “Born This Way.” When Laurieann played the song for us, I got so excited that there was an anthem for people that felt different in any way, for people that needed a song to attach themselves to and represent them as a group. When I heard the song, I [clung] right to it. I really believed in the message. It inspired everything else after that, which was going back on tour with her and continuing everything else. It really puts a lot of meaning into that. That album is just so filthy and so dirty and nasty and I just — I love all of it. I keep listening to “The Edge of Glory.” I keep listening to “Bad Kids,” and she has those nasty dance tracks “Government Hooker” and “Scheiße,” which are incredible. The whole album — I can’t stop listening to it.
When “Born this Way” dropped, you wrote a post on your blog, and it sounded like you were about to either say you were gay or declare some sort of connection to the gay community. But that didn’t happen. What is your connection?
I’m a part of the gay community. From a very young age, I was always surrounded by it. I’m really blessed to have parents who are so open to it and so supportive of it. Growing up in musical theater, there [were] a lot of gay people around me. I always felt so comfortable in musical theater, in general, because it was like a big family and everyone was there because they loved it. We didn’t get paid for community theater, so it was all out of passion. Ever since then, it’s just been nice to grow up in that. I’ve had really amazing role models and people to look up to that have really successful, happy lives, and they’re living the lives that they live. It made me feel really comfortable in my own skin, especially going into middle school — that was probably one of the roughest times for me. Musical theater came at the perfect time. I feel like I’ve always been open about it. I don’t go around announcing it to the world, but I don’t hide anything.
We couldn’t find a confirmation of it. Was that intentional because of So You Think You Can Dance?
No, no one ever asked. I think that it’s not something I have to say or announce, necessarily. I am living a life that I want to be living right now, and I’m not hiding in any way. It’s really nice for me to be able to be open and honest. The nice thing about touring with Gaga and working with Laurieann is that they’re so supportive of you as an artist and you as a person. They allow you to be the person that you are when you’re dancing. I think I’ve just been really blessed to be surrounded by so many people that have been supportive of who I am.
With the new season of So You Think You Can Dance airing right now, what advice would you give to the finalists who will soon be trying to transition into a successful post-show career, like you have?
For myself, what I learned is that you’re going to have to hustle just as hard as the next working dancer. I guess what I’m saying is you might think the show will provide you with jobs, which it will at times. But at other times, you’re going to have to hustle just as hard, or harder, as the other working dancers. There are so many dancers in L.A. that are all fighting to get the same jobs. When you step into an audition or a casting room, you’re going to get one of two responses, which is “Hey, you’re from So You Think You Can Dance, you were great!” or “Hey, you’re from So You Think You Can Dance, prove yourself. We’ve seen you on the show, so let’s see what you can do with this.” So it’s good in some ways, and it’s a little tough in certain situations.
What’s up next for you?
I’m continuing my work with Gaga right now. I’m just rolling with the amazing ride that’s been my life so far. I’m just kind of taking things as they come, and we’ll see what happens from here.
You can Follow Mark on Twitter to catch all of his upcoming performances.
By GREGORY MILLER