In early April, Efren Herrera, Richard Mon and Brian Wesselman were named the winners for BellaMoxi Dance Convention’s 2017 Emerging Artists Choreographic Festival in Chicago, IL for their routine The Creative Process. Recently, the trio shared their stories with Dance Informa. To get to know these emerging choreographers a little better, check out their interviews below.
So guys, when did you each start dancing? What inspired you?
Richard Mon (RM): “I started dancing eight years ago in Fort Wayne, Indiana and was heavily inspired by the breaking scene at the time. I would include Michael Jackson on my list of inspirations.”
Brian Wesselman (BW): “I started dancing when I was in fifth grade. One of my cousins from West Virginia was visiting and she had talked about the show So You Think You Can Dance and how she watched every episode. That evening she came over we watched the show and I thought it was one of the greatest things I had ever seen, and during commercial breaks we would do our own dances in my living room. It was fun and made me want to try dance. Luckily, I had two other male cousins that danced at a studio nearby, The Dance Refinery, so it was an easy to find a place for me to try it out. I started in a once-a-week recreational hip-hop class at the start of fifth grade, and from there my cousin and dance teachers encouraged me to audition for performing groups, and from there I haven’t looked back on my decision to start dancing.”
Efren Herrera (EH): “I started dancing at a super young age during family parties. My mom always made me dance with her instead of letting me run around with my cousins playing games. This is something I obviously didn’t appreciate at the time, but am forever grateful for now. So growing up I learned traditional Hispanic dance styles such as Merengue, Bachata, Salsa and many others. My dance training didn’t start until junior year of high school. I began taking classes at what is now my home studio, The Dance Refinery. I was, and am constantly inspired by those who are better than me. Seeing the talent and potential of others has always pushed me to better myself.”
Since then, what styles have you all trained in?
RM: “I started as a self-taught breaker and focused on just that for about two years. Once I joined my high school dance team and competition studio, I began training in hip-hop choreography, ballet, jazz, modern and contemporary.”
BW: “I have trained in many styles… I started out with a recreational hip-hop class, but I soon quickly began taking tap, jazz, ballet, contemporary and gymnastics classes as well. Along with this I have done a lot of partner work.”
EH: “I have trained in ballet, jazz, contemporary and hip-hop.”
Have you guys ever found it tough to pursue dance as a male? If so, how did you overcome this?
RM: “Not necessarily. Not saying that I don’t work hard for what I’ve done in my career, but as a male dancer, I have received many opportunities that some female dancers would die for. In my opinion, it is much more competitive as a female dancer and I will forever respect them for that.”
EH: “I actually haven’t found it tough to pursue dance as a male. I would say it has been easier than being female because there are a lot less males. You can be noticed a lot faster when being in a room full of girls, but I have never let that change the way I think, take class or audition. You can always prove that you have worked just as hard as anyone else, regardless of being male or female.”
BW: “I think the toughest part about pursuing dance as a male was middle school. I remember distinctly being called names and harassed because I danced, but I think this only made me a stronger person and more determined to continue dancing. I just ignored them and worried about myself, and then it just did not bother me anymore. You can’t let other people influence your life like that, if you love what you’re doing there is nothing wrong with that, and you should pursue your passion. After middle school, most of the problems I had faced had faded. Instead of people coming up to me and calling me names, they were coming up to me saying I wish I could dance, and it meant a lot to me.”
When did you all start choreographing?
EH: “I started choreographing around senior year of high school, and I focused more on foundation styles in hip-hop mostly because I was self taught and had to learn most of what I knew at the time from YouTube videos. Growing up in Indiana there weren’t a lot of hip-hop classes to take or be exposed to so learning the old school styles was important to me. Now as I’ve had much more experience in teaching and learning, I let contemporary movement influence my choreography. I feel as though movement is simply that, movement, and you can always pull from different influences.”
BW: “I started choreographing probably about a year and a half ago, and I have mostly focused on hip-hop, but I feel like my style of hip-hop that I strive for is a little different because I am not the biggest fan of today’s rap music – I probably sound like an old man.
When I am listening to music before trying to choreograph I usually end up listening to older rap, or I try to take songs that people would not think to choreograph to and make it unique. This is what we ended up doing for The Creative Process. Most of the songs we used were either older or were not typical songs people choreograph to like ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’. In my choreography I like to include different styles of hip-hop – waving, popping, locking, house – but I try to distinguish my choreography with my choice of music.”
RM: “I started choreographing when I was a sophomore in high school and immediately fell I love. I was really into creating dance concept videos at the time as well so that was what motivated me to continue choreographing. I usually do a lot of choreographing to commercial/hip-hop, but I would say that I love contemporary the most. After BellaMoxi Chicago, I actually flew out to California for BellaMoxi Torrance and performed a contemporary solo at that Choreographic Festival! I loved being able to show everyone my diverse styles.”
Who have you worked with in your careers thus far? Who are some dancers/choreographers you look up to?
RM: “I have worked with many studios in my dance career including the Fort Wayne Dance Collective, Steppin’ Out Studio of Dance, The Dance Refinery, Omari Mizrahi & Shea with the ClapIt App (NYC) and Bronner Brothers (ATL). I have also gotten to work with many amazing mentors including John Byrne, Lynn Herrick, Nikki Prichard, Britney Lombardo and Alex Little, just to name a few.”
EH: “I have worked a with a number of people in my career but someone who has deeply changed my mindset and influenced my dance career would be Gigi Torres. I studied under her in L.A. during her Establish Your Empire program, where we learned so much about ourselves and our movement. At the end of the program we performed an entire set choreographed by her at World Of Dance National Finals. It was an experience I will always remember.”
BW: “I have not trained outside of my studio other than at conventions like BellaMoxi, but some of the people whom I have taken class from and look up to outside of the BellaMoxi faculty include ‘tWitch’, Tony Bellissimo, Marty Dew, Brian Puspos and Ian Eastwood. Along with this, I think YouTube is very important in the dance world because it gives people more exposure, and can give people like myself the ability to learn when they aren’t able to travel and train in places like New York and Los Angeles. This is one of the reasons that I enjoy watching Matt Steffanina on YouTube. He not only teaches and puts videos from his classes online, but also has a channel dedicated to tutorials for his combos so people can learn at home, and I admire this. I look up to these people not only because they are phenomenal dancers, but because of their work ethic as well.”
What are your overall dance goals?
EH: “I would like to move to L.A. and pursue commercial dance there. Ultimately, my dream is to go on tour with an artist like Justin Timberlake and travel the world dancing or teaching.”
BW: “I am not certain. I recently graduated from Indiana University Bloomington, and I am in the process of applying to Law School. I have thought a lot about becoming an agent and using my knowledge as a dancer to help other dancers reach their goals, but I also just enjoy teaching because I love being around kids.”
RM: “My overall dance goal is to eventually move out to Los Angeles and bring something new to the table that well-respected choreographers will appreciate. Meaning, when I move to Los Angeles, I will want to continue choreographing, but at the same time, dance to different styles people in the industry do not always see such as a contemporary/breaking flow – figuring out different ways to choreograph to certain styles. I have learned that being different is what gets you noticed and I am all for it.”
How did it feel recently being named the 2017 BellaMoxi Emerging Artist Choreographic Festival Winners for Chicago?
RM: “I remember the three of us talking two weeks prior to the festival about the winning prizes and opportunities it could potentially lead to as if it weren’t possible – so honestly, such a blur. The three of us are extremely humbled to have won in Chicago.”
BW: “It’s always a good feeling being recognized for your work. It shows that what you are doing is not for nothing and is just a confidence booster. Being named an Emerging Artist in Chicago just makes you feel good knowing that someone else appreciates your work.”
EH: “It was amazing being able to share the same stage as other talented dancers from other places and just do what we love. It was a huge honor to actually be chosen as the winners and to have done it with two of my best friends, Brian and Richy.”
When did you start working on the routine you presented at BellaMoxi, The Creative Process? How did you come up with the concept?
RM: “The three of us started working on the routine fairly close to festival time and there was two reasons why. One, Efren and I were both on opposite schedules when it came to traveling and getting other work done. When he was available, I was not. When I was, he was not. Second, we had no idea what our theme was going to be! Until one day, I was the one that suggested that we did our theme based around creating our theme. Genius, right?”
EH: “The way we came up with the concept was quite funny actually. The three of us were sitting in the front office at The Dance Refinery brainstorming on different concepts and ways we could do something cool, but funny and still have fun with it. So with all of the struggling, Richy says, ‘Guys, what if our concept is ‘trying to come up with a concept’ so just like that we got to work and within our routine we have voiceovers where we are planning our concept for BellaMoxi, but we are already at BellaMoxi. It’s kind of a brainteaser but it’s tons of fun and it put a smile on everyone’s face, which is always a great feeling.”
BW: “We spent a lot of time staying late into the night choreographing together and trying to clean to the best of our ability with the help of people like Melissa Meyer and Kevin Carmichael, who teach at our studio, and our Director Lynn Herrick. They did not have to stay and help us clean our dance, but they chose to do it anyway because we are a family at The Dance Refinery. It may say that Efren, Richy and I were the performers and choreographers of the piece but the work of several others helped us get to that point.”
Looking to the future, how does this recognition with BellaMoxi push you to keep producing work?
BW: “I think the recognition has helped keep me motivated to not only want the best from myself, but for the students I teach as well. I think after BellaMoxi I have pushed my students harder wanting them to grow, so they can experience moments like those that I did, and I have seen a lot of growth since then.”
EH: “This just continues to prove to us that if you do things with good intention in your heart, and work hard for what you want, anything is possible. That’s a message we try to share with all of our students and we are happy we were able to do just that by winning this title. We will continue to do what we love and share our knowledge with the younger generations to come.”
RM: “BellaMoxi has been absolutely wonderful. They are stacked with amazing faculty, staff and assistants. Taking class from so many great choreographers pushes me to create even more.”
For more information on BellaMoxi, visit Bellamoxi.com. Follow Efren Herrera’s personal work on Instagram (@TheEfrenHerrera), on YouTube at The Efren Herrera and via his website at www.TheEfrenHerrera.net. Check out Richard Mon’s future dancing/concept videos on his Instagram (@iamrichymon), Twitter (@_RichyMon) and on YouTube at I Am Richy Mon.
By Chelsea Thomas of Dance Informa.
All performance photos by Button Built Photography, courtesy of BellaMoxi. All other photos courtesy of Efren Herrera and Richard Mon.