Nick Palmquist:

"Dancing is all about your heart"
Text by Yekaterina Baeva
Photos by Irina Tuminene

We would like to thank Diana Vishneva’s Context.pro Studio for helping arrange this interview
Nick Palmquist, a dancer, a choreographer and a teacher, is tall, eloquent and very handsome. He teaches commercial jazz at Steps on Broadway, one of the most famous New York dancing schools, and this March he came to St Petersburg to teach two classes at Context.pro dance studios. We met Nick after his first class and talked to him about his career as a dancer, his experience as a teacher and his aspirations in the art of dance.
In class Nick is both focused and chill. He looks relaxed and comfortable teaching in an unfamiliar studio. His gaze is piercing, his movements precise, and he never fails to observe his students while performing a tricky combo which is as smooth as it can be. The class starts with a 20-minute warm-up, including pre-stretching and even push-ups, something some dancers are not used to. They look abashed but they are still having fun. Nick is a very talented teacher: he shows the steps but keeps reminding his students that passion, not correct steps, is what truly matters. The audience seems encouraged, and they keep eagerly dancing the same sequence, each time with more ardor and less self-consciousness. They keep asking what the steps should feel like. "You should dance as if you want to get something off your chest," explains Nick.

"You should feel good, real good about yourselves". He says that dancers are usually their own toughest critics, and they reluctantly take praise — "but you should be the first to believe that what you are doing is good and worthy". This is probably something each of us should try to do, dancer or not.
Nick grew up in a small town in Missouri and he would do all sorts of activities involving coordination, from karate to gymnastics. He started dancing when he was ten, and it was a perfect combination of movement and music. It also helped that his older sister is a dancer. In a small town you don’t get much to pick from, so he started doing more appropriate "boy stuff" like jazz and hip-hop. When he started college in Oklahoma City, there was ballet, tap and jazz on the agenda, and he was insatiable: he took everything. When asked about his childhood idols and dreams, he smiles and confesses that he has never really had a dream job, and neither was he drawn to any particular dancer in the elite of the dancing world. He jokes about his infatuation with Center Stage: "My mom and I would watch it many times, and I thought I could fall in love with that atmosphere without feeling pressured, because I never thought of myself as of a ballet dancer."

What really inspired me, tells Nick, was the dancing community. He regularly took part in dancing competitions around the USA, which allowed him to travel and to make new friends, people who were as dedicated to dancing as he was. He believes that the company of like-minded, passionate people, added to profound support of his family and friends, made a huge difference in his growth as a professional.
When he graduated and moved to New York, he didn’t have one particular goal in mind. His first job was, interestingly enough, dancing on Saturday Night Live. The choreographer — a fellow redhead — had seen his headshot and invited him along, to feature in a Tonight Show with Kevin Beacon. The show was definitely something to brag about for a young dancer at the dawn of his career, and he started to get invited to other projects. When you are in a company, speculates Nick, the company’s repertoire speaks for you and it makes you who you are, whereas when you are on your own, your resume looks somewhat eclectic. New York has excellent opportunities to do things completely different from what you did the day before, and Nick says he highly appreciates this. He remembers his experience with American Dance Machine, where he got a chance to recreate, among other things, some of Jerome Robbins' works. "It taught me a lot about the integrity of dance, and about the process, and perhaps this is why I like to choreograph — because I like being in a studio, surrounded by dancers. You have a chance to create something, to tell a story — or not to tell a story, and people would still come and see it because they just like to see you dance. This is pretty amazing."
Would you rather choreograph or dance somebody else’s creation — this question slightly takes Nick off-guard, he hesitates a second and then firmly says, "Create my own." All in all, it all depends on a choreographer. He admits to having worked with amazing choreographers who could push him beyond his limits while clearly expressing what they want. It is really frustrating, says Nick, when you see a choreographer dissatisfied but you don’t know why. Interaction is the key.


This said, he seems to have a perfect rapport with his student dancers because on some days he finds himself in their shoes, looking for auditions and new sources of inspiration.

For a year and a half he has been teaching on Broadway twice and week and he speaks very highly about the school, its atmosphere, management and students. He says he is very grateful to the management director who believed in him and let him teach a class the way he felt he wanted to. Don’t look at other classes, teach your own class, make it unique — these words of encouragement, confesses Nick, meant a lot to him, especially for the first time when only a couple of dancers might have shown up to a class. Slowly but steady, he gained confidence — and gained students. They all are mostly professional dancers who come to class seeking professional development and challenge. I don’t usually tailor my class to the dancers' needs, I am a control freak and I have everything ready in advance, laughs Nick. Although he does mention that if a dancer doesn’t feel up to a challenge this particular moment, he doesn’t push them. Dancing is all about your heart, not about your head of even your body. Once you are in the right mood, you can reach for the starts. Otherwise you can simply do your thing somewhere in the back, and follow the flow when you are ready.
Having created some pieces to be danced and 2 musicals outside the city, he still hasn’t had anything commissioned to be staged and performed in New York, and he is looking forward to that chance. He says this would be a very welcome experience to sit in the theater and watch other dancers perform his work, wondering whether they’d get it right, the way they planned it together. He talks about a very unique experience of making a TV video inspired by the music of Florence and the Machine, where a lot of awesome dancers volunteered to take part purely for the love of this work. When it all boils down to that they like what you have to say as a choreographer and you like what they do as dancers, the work becomes really special. "I would love to choreograph a Broadway show. As a viewer, I don’t respond well to just lines and shapes, so I’d like to tell a story. Relatability is a double-edged sword but I’d really like to try and create something specific, something people could relate to. However, if someone says I don’t know what it was about but I liked it, I’m okay with it because it means I still managed to convey something with my body movement."
Much as I like sharing as a dancer, I still prefer creating it, talking about the way it will and should be done, admits Nick. This is probably why he is so good at discussing class combos with performers. He talks about the idea and its implementation; he talks about music and lyrics. "I listen to tons of music, and when I come across a song that gets stuck in my head, I put it on my dancing list. It is a very long list," he cracks. "When I listen to a song, I am all about the music, lyrics usually don’t matter. I have always been like that: my childhood friends would often make fun of Nick who remembers the most obscure and strange parts of songs and can’t recall a simple line of lyrics."

Nick has a very popular blog on Instagram where he shares some of his studio creations, inspiring lots of ordinary people to take up dancing. Commercial jazz, he explains, is a dance to be seen in the lens, it’s a mini-film of sorts. It is designed to target specific audience but it should speak to everybody whoever is watching the show.
"I get a lot of comments from people who say that what we do seems so easy, so manageable. This is the trick — to make something difficult look easy. I say come and dance. Come and see. There is nothing like a live show — something you people who watch live ballet know perfectly well."

That’s why Nick’s ultimate advice to dancers would be — be passionate about what you are doing. Be eager. Be true. He says that dance is about liberation, about being a 10-year-old child with a passion, with no fears, no restrictions, no shyness. So show who you really are. When you audition for some choreographer, show them you really love their work. Any choreographer can teach you to master the steps in 10 hours but they can’t teach you devotion and love of your job.

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