Alan Watson strongly advises against following one's passion. Instead of embarking on the painful journey of pursuing a professional dance career, Alan focused on what he enjoyed most in his day to day—helping others—and found different roles to weave in his interests, both through teaching beginner dancers or guiding NYU music students. We spoke about the process of teaching hip hop rooted in tradition and the necessity of trying many random jobs before finding what sticks.
You've worked a number of jobs at NYU prior to your current role as Student Services Administrator at the Clive Davis Institute. Tell me more about how those opportunities came about.
During undergrad at NYU, I was an economics and pre-business major because I didn't really have a lot of life direction. I did well in economics in high school so I thought that aptitude meant interest. However, I didn't really have the desire to leverage my economics degree.
I got an RA job after college. I really loved working with students and was good at building community. That summer gig helped me get housing for three more months after graduation. Then I worked as a bookkeeper at a small tourism company and I really screwed up their books. They were hoping I had a ton of accounting knowledge and they asked if I had taken classes at Stern, which I had. But one class at Stern does not make you an accountant.
I disliked my day to day and was reading lots of self-help books to find inspiration. I thought that I would enjoy meshing my worlds together of economics and the arts, which is how I found the Performing Arts Administration program at NYU Steinhardt. Learning how to lead a nonprofit arts organization sounded very appealing so I applied to the MA program. I also applied to several jobs at NYU to get tuition remission and ended up working in the psychology department as a program assistant while getting my master's.
I thought I would be interested in arts administration but I saw that the potential career paths all revolved heavily around asking people for money—grants, donors, individual giving. The economics of arts organizations are about costs getting worse over time and filling up the gap with donations. Something just didn't compute for me, and maybe I shouldn't have even finished that degree. I now joke that I'm a collector of degrees that I don't use.
After finishing my master's I was working with a small organization to provide free hip hop programming in the Bronx. It should have been perfect, but I still didn't feel like I was fully engaged and being utilized. I realized that the whole melding of worlds that everyone idealizes is not necessarily what I should be doing.
How did you transition into what you're doing now?
I knew that I enjoyed working with students and building community, so I started applying randomly to jobs at Tisch School of the Arts. That's how I haphazardly ended up as the Student Services Administrator at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. I give admissions tours, help registration, aid students in crisis, and manage the high school programs.
The core mission of the institute is to teach creative entrepreneurship to students that want to make it in the music industry. It helps them become their own bosses, following a DIY approach to gaining traction and either getting a music deal or becoming a completely independent artist. There are very few programs in the arts that teach life skills or any kind of skills tertiary to art. That was really appealing to me, and community building was something I really loved doing. Plus I had already worked at NYU so nobody needed to train me.
The role really worked out for me because music was closely tied to my other work in dance, but it wasn't too close. That's something that I think is really important. During undergrad and grad school, I was freaked out a bit when I started thinking about making the thing that I love be my job and having that be dependent on money. It started making things less fun.
Especially as an economics student.
After studying economics I knew I could enjoy a 9 to 5 job and be making way more money per year than if I were the top dancer in the country. The value proposition of dancing is really tough because the market is so crowded and your career is so short. I was dealing with a bulged and herniated disc and now I've had a spinal fusion and multiple surgeries. So I realized that dance couldn't be my career path.
Luckily, I think it's a good thing because I have a stable job that I enjoy. Over time I have seen that more passions have risen from that that I wouldn't have envisioned. I wouldn't have pictured liking Excel or mail merge, but I've gotten more interested in the technical aspects behind administration. Some of my students have introduced me to macros and scripting for Apple computers. Now I've coded about ten percent of my job into this automation program that does cyclical work for systems that don't talk to each other.
At my job I've discovered not only great community and purpose, but also areas of growth. That's why I've been there for six years now, working with fantastic people and inspiring students. They've helped me up my game in the dance classes I teach or for my Youtube channel on wedding dancing. Being around people that inspire me is so intoxicating and helpful. I don't think I had that same feeling in some of my other positions.
How did you start dancing?
I was really into karate growing up, which was like a precursor to dance. I would enter musical competitions where I would kiai to crazy metal songs. Around puberty, I got into breakdancing. I hadn't really found my crew of people living in Minnesota as a half-Asian kid so I turned to dance as a way to stand out.
I gravitated towards musical theater and show choir in high school. This was all before Glee, but I was really that Asian dance guy played by Harry Shum Jr. I would nerd out so hard. I found DVDs from other competitions that we didn't even go to so I could analyze what other groups were doing. I was this weird overachiever kid that was trying to make his crappy choir better. It didn't work, but I learned so much about dance and choreography through that. I met a really good friend and we would buy these popping instructional tapes from the Electric Boogaloos and Mr. Wiggles and practice the moves for big performances.
In New York, I got in touch with my now friend and collaborator Pavan, owner of PMT Dance Studio. I took some classes with him and quickly became his substitute. Through that I was able to take classes for free, which is how I was able to try various styles of dance at an accelerated pace. While I had a lot of innate talent, I wasn't necessarily well-trained or very good. I definitely would have plateaued very strongly without any classes or inspiration from New York.
Do you specialize mostly in locking now?
Yes, though if you asked me during or after college I would have said I was an all-around guy mainly doing popping. But I would dance in the hip hop, popping, and locking categories at competitions and would only progress with locking even though I had the least amount of training in it. So I trained privately with an instructor that saw potential in me and told me that I should just focus on locking.
It helps to have a niche. The locking market is extremely bare in the US. I was able to stand out and have a brand much more easily with locking, so that was a huge incentive. It's also more of my personality too, though it took me a while to realize. I thought I was doing hip hop or street jazz or breaking or popping, then all of a sudden locking was what spoke to me the most.
What is the difference in perception between popping and locking?
Most people don't know the difference between the two styles. One kind of looks like doing the robot with electricity going through you in waves, which is popping. People say "popping and locking", but most of the time they just mean popping. Locking is a "Soul Train" style dance. There are twenty-six signature movements that the dance group The Lockers were doing down the Soul Train line. The Lockers were on television doing that before popping was even on television. Locking has a very specific following and its popularity has fizzled out in the United States.
Popping is very creative and mental. Popping dancers sometimes go blank in the face because they're thinking about the detail in their arm or elbow. Locking is the exact opposite. It's as if a clown and a pimp came together with a very loud costume and interacted with the audience. Locking is one of the few dances in hip hop that is very inviting whereas other styles have a solo or battle mentality that feels distant from the audience.
You mentioned your fear of dancing becoming your livelihood. Did you at any point want to be a dancer full time?
Senior year of college, yeah. As I got older I started to realize what the actual day to day of dancing would entail. When people say "follow your passions", I think people are thinking about the goal rather than the day to day. Ultimately, the day to day has to be what you want. Some students I've mentored say they will only be happy if they achieve a specific goal. Then they get what they want and don't have any direction beyond that.
The day to day as a dancer is that you are sweaty, tired, sore, and doing a lot of physical labor with very little money. The payoffs are few and far between. Say I had 100% of dance knowledge and I could do any style and move. Most dance gigs would only ask you to do about 5% of that skillset. You won't be showing off everything that you can do. There's this weird back and forth where you get some gigs that are really fun that don't pay well, or you get gigs that pay really well but aren't very inspiring. It's rare to find dance gigs where people are really invested in the mission and showing off what they've worked so hard to develop.
Locking is so niche that some of the top practitioners mainly generate income by judging competitions on tour and teaching workshops predominantly in Asia. I didn't think I wanted to fly to Asia with a bad back and sit in a chair for twelve hours to be a judge, and this is in a perfect world where I am at the top. People going into really crowded markets are often thinking, "Wouldn't it be great if?" The reality is that if you spent a real day as a top practitioner, it would be a lot less glamorous than it seems.
When people say "follow your passions", I think people are thinking about the goal rather than the day to day. Ultimately, the day to day has to be what you want. Some students I've mentored say they will only be happy if they achieve a specific goal. Then they get what they want and don't have any direction beyond that.
The first dance class you taught was at PMT. How do you approach teaching students?
With dance I primarily teach beginners because very few people want to do it and I know how to really well. I don't think I developed my teaching style until I was given my own class and had to teach with my specific voice and perspective. It was a learning curve for sure, but teaching has also been a nice through line for everything that I enjoy doing. I dance and work at a school for music and enjoy working with computers. Through it all I've been able to help people navigate and translate information into something that is approachable and usable.
Tell me more about there not being many teachers for beginners.
Most people going into dance want to be the dopest dancer alive. Nobody is shooting for mediocrity. Often times at a studio people are looking to dance to the hottest song and do the craziest choreography and feel like a celebrity. There's a huge dearth of people who want to help people who are really bad at dance. There's a really large spread of where a teacher for beginners needs to spend their time. Do they try to focus on everyone? Do they nurture the top people? Do they go for a "no child left behind" policy?
The "no child left behind" approach is probably the least popular one. People who are really good dancers in your class will go to somebody else who's going to challenge them. So it's not something teachers will naturally want to do.
The people I teach aren't people working in dance. They're just humans at weddings or going out on the weekend. My students saying that they feel more confident in those spaces gives me more utility and meaning than someone saying they were able to move onto the next class level.
What is your process for choreography?
It's hard for hip hop because you have two extremes. The traditionalist viewpoint is to choreograph hip hop that pulls from movements in established styles like popping, locking, waacking, "party moves", and breaking. All these styles have been adopted into the street dance vernacular for their types of movement. Then there are people that are going to create experimental and compelling movement that doesn't necessarily have a root in hip hop, but done with all the right trappings could be assumed to be a hip hop move.
My style leans more traditionalist and remains a tribute to hip hop. As far as the process, if I have a song and need to put something together, usually I map it out like a score and find any interesting parts of the song and mark those with a star. Every 8 count you might hear something on the 5, like a big crash or descending lyrical beat. Then I see what I want to do with those interesting parts. Music gives you a good arc and flow of the beginning, middle, and end. It's a choreographer's job to create something fitting, with complex looking parts framed with less complex movement. A lot of times it's really about finding those bookends and filling in the rest.
A lot of times I'm choreographing for beginners so I need to make sure it will look good on a beginner. Some moves are very dependent on tight execution, and others have a "low risk, high reward" ratio because most people will look cool doing it. Often I am sticking to the latter by nature.
I know a lot of people who do the complete opposite of what I do, but I am very systematic and want to be able to reference the origin of each move. That has been my pedagogy that I try to give to my students. If I'm just teaching the pedagogy but doing something completely different artistically, I think it would create a disconnect between me and my students.
The two different methods of choreography for hip hop remind me of the different categories of hip hop, street jazz, urban dance, and not really being clear on the differences. Do you feel like the industry is losing touch with the core fundamentals of hip hop?
It all comes down to economics. If you want more students in your class, you're going to try to give them what they want. People want the hottest songs. A lot of times current songs aren't necessarily hip hop songs, like when EDM and hip hop are combined or you have a very well-produced pop song with somebody from the hip hop world.
I think commercial dance and what people commonly see online is definitely getting away from hip hop. Choreography nowadays might be selling sexiness, the song, or the choreographer's specific brand of movement. Dancers are trying to look like they're in a music video, and music videos were not ever necessarily hip hop. Media like videos, movies or commercials are going to want the big ticket movements. If you see breaking through a video, it's not going to show the top rock or simple footwork that is in breaking. They're going to shoot the flips, tricks, head spins, and the crazy moves that are interesting and unique.
Getting away from hip hop is not necessarily a bad thing, but it gets dicey when ignorant people are trying to educate others about hip hop. I've seen multiple instances on television shows where people are labeling and describing a certain dance style and they're completely wrong. These are huge platforms teaching millions of people the wrong thing.
It should be okay for artists to say "I don't know." We're in a world where we think that we know everything. Showing vulnerability and not knowing everything all the time is really powerful. That's how people actually learn.
What have you learned about yourself through the institute or through dancing?
There's a Tim Ferriss podcast episode with Mike Rowe, the host of Dirty Jobs, where he recommends to "not follow your passion, but always bring it with you." That really stuck with me. A lot of people haven't scratched the surface of possibilities. They're going to the low-hanging fruit of the thing that they like, such as music or film, as opposed to observing what in their day to day they really enjoy. That could be problem solving or teaching, anything that is a common denominator across any field. That's where people will really find what's going to get them out of bed every day.
My reason for being is to help people. It feels great to be able to help somebody through my job, and it also gives me the flexibility to help people in dance. I didn't really know that was my thing until I had done many random jobs and found what stuck with me. It took me a while to find meaning and I think it will take a lot of people a while to figure it all out. You need to experience a good amount of work to be able to see what you want and craft your life. Since I work in academia I see kids coming in from high school trying to decide what to do with their lives. That's ludicrous, especially seeing my path and how winding it was.
I've been at the institute six years and I do think I will eventually move on to another opportunity where I can continue to learn. If you were looking at my current position as a HR person would, there's not a position I would want higher up in the org chart because it removes me from directly helping students. By definition I am in a dead end, but I've gotten so much out of this "dead end" job because of my attitude towards it and what I get to learn and experience.
Sometimes artists just think about how making their art is valuable for them, therefore it has value. I think that's missing the point. What happens after?
What does work mean to you?
The base definition of work is providing something of utility or value. Sometimes artists just think about how making their art is valuable for them, therefore it has value. I think that's missing the point. What happens after?
Work provides me meaning and essence of being. It's a symbiotic relationship—the job should be getting something out of you, and you should be getting something out of the job. I enjoy the process of figuring out what's meaningful and doing some good.
The thing that annoys me the most is doing work for busyness' sake. For a lot of New Yorkers, busy is a badge of honor. People will play this game of who's busier and how crazy their life is. No one wins that game! Even if you're the busiest person of the group, you're losing the game. When people say to me "I'm sure you're busy", I reply "No, I'm not." It messes with people so much.
They'll ask, "Why not?"
"Because I'm good at my job and completed all my work, and I'm actually ahead of the game. What can I help you with?"
People are so disarmed by that but they give you as much credit as they would if you were busy too. It's allowed me to change my frame of reference.
How do you personally determine how much to work? When does it feel like you might be working too much?
I think of how much money I could get for teaching a private dance lesson, which is the most lucrative thing I could do with my time, and use it as a metric for what my time is worth. I ask myself if I want to spend an hour of my date night on $100, for example. When I was poorer, I would definitely want that $100, but now I'm more financially secure. It's been helpful to use a monetary value on my time to create my schedule.
Overall, I think about my priorities and go back to those. When I got engaged, I realized I wanted to spend more time at home to take care of the dog or cook dinner. Prior to that I was very big on productivity and drinking Soylent and didn't care about anything beyond maximizing my time. But now I want to spend time with the people I love.