Meet Lee Fraser. He’s a dancer + actor and I met him through RSVP 33, a social networking event here in Vancouver. When Lee + I met for bevies at Turk’s on the Drive we had a nice discussion about the freedom of following your passion. Lee talked about how he enjoys challenging himself through jumping into new things, like an advanced dance class, but isn’t overly attached to the outcome or a certain type of success, which gives him freedom to enjoy the process.
Read on to find out his favourite places in Vancouver, how he got into dance in the first place, and his embarrassing beginner dance hands that became known as “The Claw.”
1. Tell me about how you got into dance.
I come from a very musical family. My dad is an amateur musician and an avid jazz and blues fan, and thus my mom is quite a music fan herself. My older sister was a talented jazz pianist and singer, and was briefly a professional jazz musician, and I payed a bit of guitar and bass. I was constantly exposed to really amazing music. Passionate, soulful music with engaging rhythms. In the mid nineties, when I was about 10, my history with jazz music transitioned me nicely into the golden era of Hip Hop music. I quickly fell in love with Biggy, 2Pac, A tribe Called Quest, Snoop, and a slew of other amazing artists.
When I was about 15 I went to a summer camp (currently known as “The YES”) that created a safe space for me to explore and try new things. The camp was focused on allowing youth to grow into confident, self aware leaders, and one of the things they did was challenge us to dance as though no one was watching. This is where I first started exploring my love of dance. I attended the camp for 2 summers, and then became a councillor with the camp for a handful of summers after that. During that time, my love of dance continued, and I started to get a few compliments on my dancing. As it turns out, my musical childhood had given me really good rhythm, which translated to decent dancing, even though I was, at that point, very awkward with my moves. Hearing that I was a good dancer (however true it was) was monumental for me. As most artists or creatives will tell you, early encouragement can be hugely beneficial to their growth, confidence, and commitment.
Coincidentally, this was also around the time that “So You Think You Can Dance” was very popular. Until that show, I didn’t really know organized dance was an option. It gave me a whole new perspective on the art form, and left me very inspired. Finally, at the age of 22, my need to take a dance class reached a boiling point, and I found a studio that looked like a good place to start. A friend, who had taken a couple dance classes before, came with me, and I took a Hip Hop Intro class at Harbour Dance Centre on Granville Street.
I walked out of that super easy intro class, and immediately bought a year long membership and a 10 class punch card. I started taking class a couple time a week, which quickly grew into 5-6 times a week, and within 6 months I was taking 10 classes/week. A year after starting I went to my first auditions ever, auditioning for 2 Hip Hop training and performing companies, getting into one right away, and getting into the other about 5 months later. I also was asked to joined my first dance crew. A few months later, I dropped out of University and committed to being a professional dancer, even though I wasn’t making any money off it at the time. I have been dancing and teaching full time ever since.
2. What type of dance do you do? Do you have any videos you can share?
I refer to myself as a commercial dancer. There is a lot of disagreement in the dance world as to what this style of dance should be called, but I just keep it simple. The reason we don’t necessarily call it Hip Hop is long and complicated, so I won’t even start. I think the biggest thing to keep in mind is that, as a commercial dancer, I dance to entertain others. Sometimes I dance to Hip Hop, sometimes I dance to Michael Jackson, or acoustic covers of rock songs, or whatever else. The choreography I do is intended to be both visually and emotionally pleasing. That is, the shapes, movements, textures, and formations should look good, but they should also make you feel something, and ideally that feeling matches the feeling of the song. The attached video is me dancing in a friends piece of choreography (the very talented and sought after local choreographer Carlo Atienza). I chose this clip because it highlights a lot of the themes I was just talking about. We are dancing to Hip Hop music, but as opposed to old school freestyle, which roots its movement in the feeling for the dancer, this choreography is designed to look good on camera, which inherently makes it more commercial.
3. Do you have a pre-performance psyche-up routine?
My energy gets really high on it’s own when my nerves kick in, so raising my energy isn’t really necessary. Thus, my routine is less of a psyche-up and more of an awareness exercise, intended to get me out of my head and keep me enjoying the moment, and there are two specific things I like to do to achieve that.
First, I like my audience to get to know me a bit before I perform. Whether it’s talking to people for a moment in the lobby, getting on stage and saying something on the mic, or freestyling a bit before a performance or audition starts. If I can do something like that, it serves to break down the audience-performer barrier and allows me to feel more natural and present. If nothing else, a little wink or something silly goes a long way for me.
Second, right before I start dancing, I like to try and look at something in the room/theatre, to remind me of exactly where I am and how lucky I am to be here. Even in class, if I remember to look at the words “Harbour Dance Centre” written on the back wall of the studio, I have an instantly better class. Ultimately, I am doing something that I love, that makes me happy, and that a lot of people are afraid to do, and if I can allow myself to enjoy that and enjoy each individual experience, then I’m doing something right.
4. What’s in the works for you in the near future?
Currently I am teaching dance a lot and performing here and there. I am also training acting pretty intensely and am really focusing on that world. I have a couple public performances/flash-mobs that I am trying to organize for the summer. These are still in the very early stages but are in the vein of “Improv Anywhere,” with the intent of brightening peoples day and exposing people to the city they live in and the people around them.
Over the next few months I will be teaching a lot at elementary and high schools. I love these contracts because they expose kids to dance in a way I wish I had been exposed to it in school as a kid. For everyone out there that remembers doing square dancing and line dancing in school, now in lieu of that, a lot of schools are bringing people like me in to teach Hip Hop dance, Commercial choreography, Jazz dance, and much more. It is an amazing opportunity for the students to experience something new.
I also taught a contract in India last year, and am looking into doing another contract this year for two or three months around October. I would love to get a chance to go back and share more with them, but this time around I want to really sink my teeth into learning Bollywood dance while I am there.
5. What advice would you give to an aspiring dancer/artist?
Two things. First, embrace your uniqueness. There is only one of you, even if you have a twin, even if you have a clone, there is only one of you, and that is amazing. The sooner you focus on yourself, on what you have to offer, on what you like, on how you move, the happier you will be and the more progress you will see in yourself. Trying to be like another dancer or artist will only get you to a fraction of where they are. Learning from others is great, but always apply it to becoming the best version of yourself.
Second, don’t take things personally. Being an artist, of any kind, comes with rejection. The jobs you don’t get will far outnumber the jobs you do get. If you take each rejection as a general statement about you as an artist or a person, you leave yourself vulnerable to getting jaded and resentful. For myself, when I don’t get a part, I hear “You’re not right for this part, right now.” I see it as very specific; this part, not all parts; right now, who knows where I’ll be later. This allows me to see the rejection as an opportunity to grow. Specificity keeps rejection professional and motivating. Generalization can make rejection personal and demoralizing.
6. Who are you favourite dancers + what do you like about them?
Locally, my favourite dancer is a friend of mine named Eric Malapad. I was lucky enough to have him as one of my first teachers, but even now as a professional, I still love taking his class and watching him dance. He is extremely strong and comfortable moving his own body in a variety of different styles, and he has a remarkable understanding of music and the way music makes us feel. When you put it together, he is able to show you interesting and entertaining movement that also matches the feeling in the music. He still teaches at Harbour Dance and I highly recommend his class for anyone that wants to try, but be warned, a couple of his classes are harder than what they are listed at. The best class to start with would be his Sunday Grooving class at 2:30 (No choreography, just learning different moves and learning how to put them to music).
Internationally I am a big fan of a dancer named Parris Goebel. She has so much life happening just in her face and in her eyes. I swear, you could film her standing still just looking into the camera lens and I would happily watch for a long time. Many dancers move so amazingly, but either have nothing going on in their face or they are making faces that have no true feeling behind it. They are lying and avoiding showing us anything real. When I watch Parris dance, I see a real person having a real experience, and it adds to the performance tenfold.
7. What do you love most about Vancouver? What are three of your favourite places that anyone could visit?
I am always really inspired by the diversity of Vancouver. I love that when I go to different neighbourhoods, each neighbourhood has its own different, distinct atmosphere. Kits feels different than Cambie, which feels different than Main street or Yaletown or Commercial Drive. Even though each one still feels very much like Vancouver, the people, the culture, the vibe in each neighbourhood feels unique to me.
Three of my favourite place are ::
- The Stawamus Chief hike. I know it’s a little ways out of Vancouver, but I had to mention it because it is so amazing this time of year. Also I love the drive there and back. A couple friends, some good music or a podcast, and you have an amazing drive along the coast.
- Robson Square ice rink. Most people know this as a spot to go skating in the winter, but the rest of the year it is a hub for Vancouver street dancers. Most weeknights, from about 8:00 pm onwards, the rink will have dozens of different street dancers using the rink or the surrounding area, practicing a wide variety of different styles. There are also many nights a week that have free or very cheap lessons in everything from salsa to bboying/bgirling to hip hop. There are also usually quite a few people there on weekends during the day. Anyone is welcome to come participate, or watch, or whatever. If you have never checked it out, it is worth grabbing some food and sitting and eating on the stairs leading down to the rink. If nothing else, it will make you happy watching people do what they love, and if you end up feeling brave, come down, say hi, and maybe learn a thing or two.
- Crab Park on the edge of Gastown. This park has grown in popularity over the last couple years. I get a chance to hang out there pretty often as it is right next to my acting studio. What I love about this park in particular is the juxtaposition of scenery. From train tracks, to high rises, to industrial ports, there is an abundance of industrial scenery. On the other hand, the park itself is a beautiful green space, you are right on the ocean, and you have a beautiful view of North Van and the mountains. You really get a bit of everything, which I really love. Come alone with a book or bring some friends and a frisbee. Plus, you are right next to the Alibi Room and their amazing beer list, so why not grab a pint afterwards.
8. Are there any upcoming events, shows, conferences, festivals, etc. in Vancouver that you’re excited about?
In the summer, a couple of my friends organize a free dance event called The Vancouver Street Dance Festival. It is completely free, and is their way of sharing street dance and street dance culture with the rest of Vancouver. There will be performances, dance battles, workshops, and a lot of fun stuff. If you don’t know much about street dance, it is a very casual, easy way to be introduced to it. On the other hand, if you know everything about street dance, it is a great place to meet dancers and non dancers alike, and to feel like part of the community. It happens at the above mentioned Robson Square, August 2nd, 11:00am – late. It is always busy, lively, and a really great time. I hope to see some new faces this year, and feel free to introduce yourself if you end up coming.
9. Can you tell me one silly, inspiring, embarrassing, or noteworthy story about when you were first starting out dancing? Any mishaps or interesting things that happened?
When I was first starting dance, I was pushing myself really hard to try and catch up to some of my peers who had been dancing for a lot longer. In doing so, I ended up moving through the levels pretty fast and before long was finding myself in some of the hardest classes. While this was a good thing and helped me get to where I am, it came with a couple drawbacks. In particular, dancing above my level meant I developed a couple bad habits. My friends and teachers that I was dancing with at the time will certainly remember “The Claw”. As best as I can describe “The Claw” it was like my entire body knew I was a hip hop dancer, except for my arms and hands. My arms and hands, evidently, thought I was a Velociraptor. Because the music and choreography were quite fast, and my skill sets weren’t strong enough yet, I sometimes had to shrink my movement in order to do all the moves in time. So there I would be, doing all the steps, giving all the attitude in the world, while simultaneously having my elbows firmly pressed up against my ribs and only extending my arms from my forearms and wrists. I had no idea I was doing it until one of my teachers pointed it out, but once I saw it, it was too funny not to notice every time I danced, which ultimately got me to stop doing it.
Awesome! I love that story. So, that’s Lee Fraser. He’s pretty cool and hopefully you can stop by The Vancouver Street Dance Festival and see him in action.
*** Vancouver Neatos is a weekly series where I interview neat people in Vancouver. If you know of someone doing something neat in Vancouver, email me their deets + I’ll add them to my list.