Kickin’ It: Interview with Bay Area Dancer John Paul Alejandro

Interview by Katherine Leung

This first appeared in the December 2020 Issue of The Asian American Arts Zine

A model, dancer, writer, artist – you do it all! What does a typical day look like for you? 

Yes! I often tell people who ask what I do, that I am a modern day Renaissance man because it’s hard to explain my career. At the forefront, I consider myself as a creative and an entrepreneur. My typical day ( in a pandemic) is to wake up quite early and workout and make breakfast after. I live a very active lifestyle given my careers, and so the upkeep of my body is very important to me. I usually begin my “work hours” in the early afternoon. Among being a dancer and writer, I am also a graphic designer and personal trainer, so my work hours vary from drafting designs in front of a computer, guiding clients through virtual sessions via zoom, and/or working as administration support for non-profit art orgs. By the late afternoon/early evening, I always plan to dance in some capacity as a sort of reward for getting through the day, whether it be just freestyling to a playlist or taking classes virtually or in person.By evening, I like to end the day by watching either some of my favorite Anime or writing in my journal as a way to unwind and reflect where I am mentally. 

Can you talk more about your one man show, In the Belly of the Iron Beast? We printed “Spoonfed” in Volume II. How did you come up with the idea? What was the writing and performing experience like? How did audiences in Madison react to it? 

Let me first preface that the opportunity to produce the show wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for my scholarship program: First Wave. Which is a one-of-a-kind full-ride urban arts program that focuses on arts, academics, and activism on UW-Madison’s campus. They give opportunities to its scholarship recipients to embark on producing and showcasing work for its annual festival, Line Breaks. 

In the Belly of the Iron Beast (2015) was the first of the two shows I created during my undergraduate years. The concept of the “Iron Beast” more so came from an amalgamation of my experiences of living in a predominantly white institution and city. I was noticing that with such an overwhelming presence and close proximity to whiteness I was having a need to reaffirm the values of my own identity and cultural heritage because of the microaggressions and misrepresentation I was facing as a Filipino American in Madison, WI. Those experiences brought me flashbacks to when I first moved to the U.S. from the Philippines when I was six. I started drawing comparisons between my post immigration and assimilation to the US and me moving to Madison, WI for college, and realized how striking similar it was. It was then clear to me the image that I wanted to use was the airplane, which then was metaphorized as the Iron Beast. 

Writing and performing In the Belly of the Iron Beast was honestly a personal journey of reclamation for me. I didn’t realize that so much of my culture I took for granted when I was growing up in the Bay Area, but being so far away from home, the best thing that kept me tethered to my family was being loud and proud of being Filipino American in one of the most whitest places that I had ever been into in my life. Writing it was so transforming because it came to teach me that my experiences big or small could not only inspire others, but most importantly myself, which at the time I very much needed. In performance, all I could say was that it was a much needed cathartic release from enduring the craziness of living in Wisconsin. 

I think the audience at the time definitely resonated with the work because of how raw and picturesque both the writing and the performance was. There were definitely many parts that were relatable, especially this idea in the work of what it meant to feel out of place or not belonging. I think that was the one thing I wanted the audience to walk away with if anything. 

Your dancing is very whole-body experience. Very rarely in your videos is there a single body part not moving. In all your videos, viewers can visibly see every muscle bulging, sweat dripping, the breath of movement and how active the entire process is. Can you talk more about your upbringing and dance training? How did you develop your signature style? 

The most surprising fact about my dance life is that I actually started very late if you compare to a typical professional dancer. Most of these individuals have been training since they were very young in studios or conservatives. As a child of immigrants, my parents did not necessarily value art in the way I do today, and even if they did, we did not have the financial means for me to enroll in dance classes . Like most

Asians, I was being groomed to the path of being a doctor, and for a time being I thought that is what I wanted too. But, for as long as I could remember, I had always wanted to dance. I was secretly learning how to dance in Junior High, and I say secretly, because dancing during that time in school had a certain masculine expectation that I never could relate with, but that didn’t stop me from often spending some of my free time studying Justin Timberlake and Chris Brown dance videos. 

Fast forward to my sophomore year in college, I remember waking up one day and saying, “I honestly feel like I was created in this world to dance”. And so, I had dropped my major at the time and decided to switch to a dance major. I began my formal training in ballet, modern, contemporary, and West African dance in college . In 2018, I graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Dance from UW Madison. 

My signature style I would say is very percussive and expressive. My movements come from my relationship with the music, and this comes from a combination of my 10 year experience in orchestra , my upbringing into US culture, and an importance of storytelling in my Filipino Heritage. I would say that my dancing is very whole-body because I like to to show through my movements that it has been a long but persistent journey. That despite all the odds, and the people who said I shouldn’t dance I still am dancing, strong and proud. 

 Let’s talk more about very rhythmic dance style. It is a clearly a combination of so many different philosophies and types of training. Can you talk about your influences? What goes into every JP Bayani video? 

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve gotten is that in order to create art, you need to consume 10x the amount you are creating. Which at first sounds pretty ludicrous, however it is such a powerful working phenomena. I have influences from all realms and intersectionalities in order to inform my dance craft. I like to consume things that often don’t relate to dance at all because I am more interested in the process of “creating” rather than a resolution such as completion. 

Some of those things include watching cooking documentaries like “Chef’s table” on Netflix because Chef’s have such a unique process and perspective of how they create, and I often try to emulate those processes into my own artistic works. I also like to look at visual art such as the murals that can be found in both SF and Oakland because narrative is extremely important to my work. I consume music and dance on a daily schedule, and those influences help me create shapes from my own body. Some notable dance influences are Kinjaz, Pilobolus, Alvin Ailey, and Keone and Mari Madrid . All these influences ebb and flow in my artistic process which help me create those fun videos on my IG. 

The number one thing I always want to accomplish is showing folks that I am having fun and I am being unapologetic about it. I make those videos mostly because my journey into dance has always been tumultuous– often having to prove my skill or worth to someone. In these videos I make, I just want to be able to come back and see how far I have come, and hoping that it would inspire someone to follow their passions as well. 

Can you talk more about your music choice in all your dance videos? How do you select songs? Like yourself, you seem to select artists that also bridge multiple worlds, and transcend genres, like Bruno Mars, Kamaiyah, and ____. What is the choreography process like? 

My music choices honestly come from the rhythm in any song. I have a philosophy that rhythm is a natural occurring frequency that helps inform our emotions. We have a natural sense of rhythm found within us, and when I choose music for a particular day it is because it is resonating with my internal that day. With this philosophy, I am able to find any genre of music and move to it. Most people think I would only listen to Rap and RnB, but the truth of the matter is that I listen to almost all genres. It’s important to

study different kinds of rhythms produced by different sounds in order to find new pathways to dance. The choreographic process takes this method and just organizes the thoughts that are going through my mind when I listen to music. It often starts with me just freestyling to a song so that I can observe how my body naturally responds. After some time of freely exploring, I start to emphasize what I like and subtract what I don’t like. Then I go back and see how those movements can be further digested into my interpretation of the rhythm. In the end, I have a product that really showcases me and my personal movement style but as well as my creativity. 

You frequently post deadlifting videos and “progress shots” of yourself at the gym. Congratulations on meeting your goal of deadlifting 315 lbs! This challenges the stereotypical image of an Asian male and turns it on its head! What do you hope your videos accomplish? Who are your viewers and how do you show them the “real you”? 

Thank you! That deadlift was a much needed boost of confidence in self strength and mental will power ! 

Challenging stereotypes is exactly why I post some of the content in my IG. Growing up, I never really resonated with the men I saw in popular media, and even more so, when there were finally Asian men on the screen, they were often these comedic, weak, and clumsy characters. I just didn’t understand why the representation of Asian men had to be so shallow. In fact, even on the flip side, I dislike being called an exception because that tells me that society doesn’t expect Asian men to be anything more than that. 

That is why I always advocate for rewriting narratives through self representation. I hope that people who stumble onto my content can see that there’s more to the Diaspora of Asian men than nerdy sidekick archetypes. Not that there’s anything wrong with being nerdy– I just think people shouldn’t assume and just come with an open mind. 

My viewers are mostly people that I have encountered throughout my life, the LGBTQIA+ community, and the fitness community. What you see on my IG is basically what you get, I come there to be the most unfiltered and unapologetic because I think it’s important for all types of folks to see me be brave in my opinions of our society, and It breaks the model minority myth that has been perpetuated for way too long. I encourage my fellow Asian men to be more unapologetic in their unique intersectionalities because that is the only way to break these outdated stereotypes. 

 You’re very raw in the portrayal of your identity and journey as a gay Filipino man in the Bay Area in your Instagram posts. Can you talk more about how your sexuality and ethnic identity shape who you are? What is it like being out in the Bay Area? How has your Filipino community shaped who you are (or provide barriers, at times)? 

I wasn’t always so open about my sexuality in the public eye. Growing up, I saw a lot of my classmates constantly bully and harrass one of my best friends who is gay. At the time, I wasn’t as strong as him to be openly gay in Junior High. However being by his side throughout the years, it had taught me what true bravery was. I always admired that about him. Nothing is more powerful than being comfortable and confident in the spaces you occupy and exist in. In school, I was mostly focused on grades, but I knew that I was gay. It wasn’t until college where I really began to grow into my sexual identity and build the tools to incorporate it into my ethnic identity. 

Being a queer Filipino Man in the Bay Area is quite interesting. Often times my interactions with other queer and cis folk alike are a miss. There’s this misconception that as an Asian man that I should be submissive and soft spoken. On the flipside, as a Gay man, there’s a misconception that I should be hyperfeminine and hypersexual. However, my unique intersectionalities catch people off guard because their preconceived notions of who I am supposed to be, doesn’t align with my actual personality. There are a lot of Queer gatekeepers (mostly white cis gay men) who often categorize me as “not gay enough” or “straight-passing,” and I don’t understand where that comes from considering that the SF Bay Area is known to be super Liberal, and historically LGBTQIA+ progressive in our civil rights. Nonetheless there’s a lot of work to be done. I have had many conversations with my POC and Black queer friends that there needs to be a reform in what inclusion means in the community. 

In terms of my Filipino community, it is still a work in progress if I had to be quite honest. I’m still trying to build confidence when I enter my community. I value family so much because it is so embedded in the Filipino culture, however because most Filipinos are Catholic that is where the conflict arises. I am however very fortunate that when I came out to my parents they accepted me willingly, and I know that is a privilege most queer folk may never have. With that said, my biggest barrier, is protecting my parents from ridicule from other families from fact that I am gay. I don’t really care much about what other Filipinos say about me, but when they bring me up in conversation with my parents, that really hurts me. It’s like they are using that to diminish my parent’s great parenting. My gay identity is part of me but that is not the only thing that signifies who I am. Beyond being gay, I am a successful emerging artist and young professional, and I want that to be the topic of conversation rather than my sexual identity. 

What advice do you have for other young artists and dancers? What do you wish you had known five or ten years ago? 

My most emphasized advice to young creatives is to tie your work to your individuality. I spent a lot of my years trying to emulate others that I actually lost who I was in my work. There will always be people that will tear you down and doubt you in your tracts, but remember that the one thing that separates you from anyone else is your unique individualism. Who you are and your experiences cannot be copied and cannot be taken away– young creatives should use that to their advantage to stand out from the masses. Additionally use your art as a form of resistance and healing. We currently exist in a modern era civil rights movement. In the famous words of Nina Simone, an “artist’s duty is to reflect the times.” What she means is that artists have a very special role in society, and so I always encourage emerging artists to use their work to uplift communities and elevate work that is usually muted by society. Lastly, and this one I wish I had known sooner, but find ways to COLLABORATE with others. It’s an amazing feat to be a one person army, but as your ideas grow so does the workload, and you can’t do it on your own. Create a community of trusted creatives because the process of creating art is better when there is a team who believes in your message and vision. 

With other dancers, you have been working diligently since March to create a fundraising campaign to “acknowledge the disparities of resources for Black Dance makers in the SF Bay Area—especially during COVID and the current sociopolitical climate in the US.” Can you talk more what first opened your eyes to the racial and resource disparities in the SF Bay Area? How are black dancers especially vulnerable at this time? How can the folks reading get involved? 

With the recent uprising in police brutality on the Black community, I wanted to take a call of action and turn it into a strong initiative. This initiative was a response to the Director of the SF dance Festival’s ignorant comments of the looting that was happening at the time. The comments not only were crass regarding the Black community, but most importantly it showed that racism and white supremacy existed in the dance spheres as well. Specifically in the SF Bay Area, funding for is a shared pool among everyone. The same organizations always end up having the most agency and acquisition, and it leaves some of the more underprivileged groups to fight for what’s left. 

What started as me and a collaborator compiling a list of Black dance initiatives and organizations has now become a full fledged relief fundraiser for Black dancers and dancemakers in the SF Bay Area. We managed to partner with PUSH Dance Company, and with their help we had created a digital 7 week dance festival in which 40% of the proceeds go directly into the campaign ( we are also crowd source funding!). The campaign, which is called PUSH FOR_____, is currently in its fundraising phase. We are set to give awards starting January 2021. This campaign is to acknowledge that dance making is difficult during this time, even more so for Black Dancers and their organizations. We need to take allyship, and use our privileges to help elevate their process of creation. Black dance IS American dance, and we need to honor the major contributions that the Black community has given to the sphere of dance.

What other causes, programs, organizations, or artists would you like to plug?

First Wave (IG:omaifirstave) The first and only full tuition scholarship for hip-hop and urban arts in the world. They helped me build my craft and network with a bunch of like-minded individuals all the while helping me get a college degree. Definitely check them out!

Gretchen Carvajal;She is one of my biggest mentors and inspiration. We met each other in high school, and went to college together. She helped me get into college via First Wave, and has helped me become the artist I am today. She is also the owner/creator of the amazing and widely know earrings brand BRWNGRLZ (IG: BRWNGRLZ), she is a well known creative, and published writer as well.

Push Dance company (IG: pushdance), This is the current dance company I dance and work for. It is led by the amazing Raissa Simpson. PUSH for Campaign! Please donate to help support Black Dance in the bay area. (www.pushdance.org/donate)

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