Welcome to The Hometown Series! I am lucky to be surrounded by so much talent in my hometown of Youngstown, Ohio. It's inspiring to see so many young, up-coming professionals who are pushing the boundaries of talent, culture, possibility and opportunity not only here in Youngstown, but the surrounding cities of Cleveland, Ohio and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. So I decided, why not talk to these young professionals for their wisdom and to hear their unique stories?
I'm happy to interview my first Hometown Series participant, Michael Cotton of Youngstown, Ohio! Michael is a dancer and an entertainer, an artist who’s faith and love for God has inspired him to dance and create not only to fulfill his purpose, but to inspire everyone around him and create opportunities for young performers in Youngstown and beyond. I talked with him about his childhood, his journey on So You Think You Can Dance, and more. He considers himself a dreamer, and is proud of his growth from not only a dancer, but a teacher and influencer as well.
What got you started in this career?
MC: I remember being inspired by K&K Mime (Keith and Earl Edmonds). They were the founders of gospel mime. I watched them and I new I wanted to dance like that. In the fourth grade, my school was having a talent show, and I decided to dance to Brighter Day by Kirk Franklin, which was like the smash hit song in gospel at the time. I ended up winning third place and got a trophy.
I told my mother I want to do this for the rest of my life, and here I am 27 years old doing exactly what I told my mom I wanted to do when I was 10 years old. Not knowing that it would literally be a career, doing what I love to do, which is the greatest blessing ever, you know? I continued to dance and mime in church, and that is where I really grew my love for it and learned about praise dance.
My friend, his name is Charles Turnage, he is the one who first introduced me to Ballet Western Reserve, which is the studio I would go on to train at. One thing I learned from him is that you're never going to be ready, so you just have to do it. You just have to do what is in your heart.
He always saw something in me that I never saw in myself, and he would tell me that I need to be taking classes and stuff like that. I remember this one day specifically, after having a conversation with him, he said, “I just want you to dance.” And I looked at him like he was crazy and he said, “Go ahead, show me something.” And those are such specific words. He said show me something. We were at my church. And I looked at him like he was crazy and I didn't do anything. And he literally gave me a lesson right then in that moment, and he told me that you never know when you might meet somebody that can change your life.
Months later, he told me, “I need you to come to this place. I need to show you something.” That's when he introduced me to Ballet Western Reserve and they ended up giving me a scholarship. I want to say I was probably in seventh grade, all the way up to my senior year in high school. So I had all of that training from seventh grade year to senior year. It mainly consisted of ballet, maybe a little bit of modern, but most of it was ballet.
My sophomore year is when I started doing theater, and that's when I really got exposed to acting and dancing and singing together. I was always singing because I was in different groups like The Youngstown Connection and I sang in church, so the singing thing was kind of natural. But acting was what I was really exposed to. I remember the most fun experience I had in a musical was in The Wiz at The Youngstown Playhouse direcited by Carla Gipson, we made history with that one. I was also in lots of different performance organizations and began dancing for different events and concerts, etc. So it kind of just took off from there. I started getting booked for stuff at about 12 or 13, and started getting compensated for my work at about age 15.
Do you have a favorite performance or accomplishment?
MC: This isn't necessarily my favorite accomplishment, but the most pivotal moment in my career is “So You Think You Can Dance.” The first audition I went to was in Chicago, and I was actually cut in the beginning and sent home. But I knew I had to go back. I had something to prove. I went back home and I mainly prayed and studied my craft. At that time, I was really into miming, and liturgical dance that I learned through church growing up. It fit into the categories of modern and contemporary.
I ended up going back to the Detroit auditions. My sister traveled with me. We got to see people dance outside in the street in a big circle and I got a chance to do that. The cameras were filming so that was a cool experience.
The theme of this season of the show was street versus stage. Team stage represented your normal genres such as contemporary, modern jazz, and ballet. Team street represented the urban, self-taught type of dancing, things like krump, break dance, hip-hip and house dance. All of that is considered street because it’s normally learned outside of a studio. I wasn’t really sure where I fit in because I was dancing many different styles. I mostly was doing mime and praise style dance. I really felt that I should be on team street, so that’s what I chose.
And I remember I felt so uncomfortable because I was looking at all the dancers and they were jumping and getting excited, and I was just sitting there pointing my toes, stretching, and I thought that maybe I didn’t I belong here. I ended up asking one of the crew workers where he thought I should go, not knowing that they couldn't really tell me where I should go. That was just me allowing my insecurities to come into play. I was asking a man where I should go instead of asking the creator of all things and the source of my life. So I was like, okay, God, where should I go? And He told me to go with team stage. I immediately felt at peace and much more comfortable.
I went through two rounds of improv. They didn't see enough in the first round, so for the second round they told us to really bring it. When it was my turn to go, “I Will Always Love You” came on by Whitney Houston. It was a contemporary modern arrangement of the song. And I remember asking “Okay, God, what do you want me to do?” And He was saying “Use what I've given you.” And in that moment it was time to go, the music came on, and I can't even tell you what I did. I don't even remember. I just remember that the room felt still, and everybody was speechless. Nobody said anything. Everybody was touched and in that moment I wanted to just run away and be like, “Oh God, I just wanna praise you,” but I had to stay professional.
After that round was over, they lined us up. The producer asked, “What's your style?” And I stepped up and told him it was mime. He said that my performance was very powerful, and then he told me to step back.
After that they lined us up and started passing out slips. I was number seven and seven is my favorite number. Next thing I know they hand me a gold pass and now I get to dance for the judges. The judges that year were Nigel Lythgoe, who is the executive producer of the show, Paula Abdul and Jason Derulo. I was anticipating my turn to dance and was getting nervous. I just kept saying, "God use me for your glory, use me for your glory," and, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." I kept repeating those things to myself before I danced.
I danced to "He Wants It All" by Forever Jones. I just remember screaming and cheering at the end. I was in my head critiquing myself, “Was everything perfect? Did I show authentic expression? Were my lines there?” We can be our own worst critics because we're so busy making sure that we're perfect. I wish I could go back to that moment and tell myself that I literally had everything inside of me that I needed.
So now the judges get to comment, and Nigel gives me this sort of a pep talk about all these genres of dance and he basically told me that what I do is considered street dance. It's not “stage” because I incorporated so many components of dance.
He asked me, “What team do you belong on?” And it clicked in that instant. I belonged on team street where I sat in the beginning. I was where I was supposed to be but I allowed my nerves to kick in.
Paula commented and said that she didn’t think I was quite ready for the show. Jason said that he somewhat agreed with Paula, but also thought that there were some things that could be easily improved upon. Now it was time for a decision to be made.
Nigel said yes, then he asked Paula, and she said no. It was up to Jason whether I got to go to the next round in Las Vegas. Jason thought about it for a few seconds, and then said yes.
The moment I heard that yes and they handed me my ticket, I cried like a baby. I just started praising God. And just like what you see on the show, they filmed my sister running up to me in the hallway outside the theater and in that moment we just hugged so close and I just kept crying. We were both crying. I was just a sentimental moment for everyone.
Then they asked me some questions about how I feel, and I was speechless. I bent down and I grabbed my knees and I just kept saying, “I'm so grateful. I'm just so grateful that God chose me.”
I went to Vegas about a month after, and I was very close to making it in the Top 20. It was just amazing.
The whole experience taught me that all I needed was faith and to believe in myself. I realized what I had that God gave me was beyond what I could even fathom or imagine.
A few years later, I went through a phase in 2016 to about 2018 where I was questioning everything. I just was questioning my identity and everything that I was doing. Suddenly I just didn't know which way to go. I really was lost. And I just said, God, please show me direction. Then I ended up doing Dream Girls at The Akron Civic Theater with my good friends Trevail Maurice and James Major Burns. They recommended me to choreograph and that was my first time as an actual choreographer and not just a dancer.
I did a couple more shows after that as a choreographer, and it wasn’t long before I ended up back at Ballet Western Reserve, teaching and choreographing there. It was seven years since I had left as a student.
In December of 2019, I had the opportunity to be The Nutcracker for BWR's annual Nutcracker performance, and that was a huge deal because I was the third African American to be the Nutcracker in Youngstown and it was a great experience to dance and perform that part. So to see all of that growth has been amazing. That is definitely my greatest accomplishment so far.
Who has encouraged you along the way?
MC: I firstly thank God for His plans for me and everything He has given me. Some names of the people who have inspired me from the beginning are of course my friend and brother Charles Turnage who introduced me to Ballet Western Reserve. From church I am thankful for Joann Lyons, Tamara Brown, Katrina Simms, and Richard B. Lively Jr. They all got me started in liturgical dance.
Some of my first teachers from Ballet Western Reserve-- Richard Dixon and Virgian Hartman-- were big influences for me. They were my ballet teachers and without them I wouldn’t have received that foundational training.
I also thank my friends and family for supporting me and inspiring me. One in particular is my friend and sister Kiara Jones. She is a dancer also and one of my main influencers. She has blessed me tremendously, and I tell her all the time that I love her so much. She has dropped so many fragments into my life and I would not be the dancer or the human being that I am if it wasn't for some of her leadership and wisdom, you know, and most of all her love.
Why do you do what you do?
MC: It’s never been about fame, fortune, or any of that. I really want people to be healed and touched and inspired. At some point I realized that there's people that need me. There’s so many young people that look up to me. That's how they get to tap into their potential. So that's where I am now and I'm forever grateful, especially for the studio (Ballet Western Reserve) to actually allow me to teach and influence like I am now. I’ve always told God that I just want to dance. I needed a space to teach, and two months after I wrote that down as a vision, I had a studio to teach in. And that just shows you that the amount of faith it takes and that God will supply abundantly.
With my masterclasses, I want to be able to tour, travel and teach all different girls and boys, young and old. I want to be able to give them the experience of what it feels like to be in a masterclass because most kids don't even know what it’s like. Some are not even privileged enough to walk in a studio or know what that does to you as a dancer. I’ll go wherever God is willing to take me. There are nations inside of me. I know God has ventured me out to be in multiple different places, so I'm excited.
I am a dreamer, and with that comes sacrifice. I sacrifice so many things and I might miss certain things with my friends and family. There are seasons where God will position me in a certain place and I can't do any of the stuff that I want to do because I know that if I do what He wants me to do instead, I’ll be rewarded.
Some of my best advice is simply to love yourself, and love your neighbor as you love yourself, because God is love at the end of the day. We should not be judging anybody based off of what they are, who they are or what they want do. Because at the end of the day, we're not God. So who are we to judge anybody? Because if that's the case, we need to be looking in the mirror and reading all our flaws.
Lastly, walk humbly with our God. Humility is so important. There could be so many people that want to work with you, and you can be an amazing entertainer. But if you have an attitude that is rigid and nasty, then you don't have the humility. No one will ever want to work with you. They won’t want to work with you because you’re full of arrogance and pride, and you're not allowing anybody else to come in and reshape you and restructure you and inform you, and that is so important for growth.
I’ve always known that God’s got me. I’ve always had this confidence that God has this plan for me. But I’ve definintley had some lows too, and I’ve had to work hard. People think you're just born with it, but no, you have to go through some stuff to get it. You just have to find what your purpose is and what makes you you. I mean I started mainly with mime and dancing in church, but there was so much more I could do, and I knew that. And now I’m doing that. I’m so grateful.
What’s next for you?
MC: I’m working on my brand, the MAC Experience. It represents my name, Michael A. Cotton. The MAC Experience is basically to convey the gospel message by using an art form and by using my gifts for the building of the kingdom. For those people that know me, they know that my spirituality is major to me. It's who I am.
It's going to have multiple components. Of course it's going to consist of dance experiences, masterclasses, entertainment and things like that. But it will also be an avenue for me to work in fashion. I’ll talk a lot about different details with guys about grooming and bow ties, neck ties, all that type of stuff. I’ve been asked a lot about my style and fashion so that’s what got me started with it.
I'm somebody that is creative so I want to figure out other ways I can use the MAC Experience outside of just dance. Dance is the front runner of everything that I do, but I'm not just a dancer, I’m also an educator. And God actually uses that for the greater good. So my goal is to educate through the gift of dance and various genres, but also to heal souls and encourage us all to love the things about ourselves and our qualities that make us feel the weakest, because it’s actually what makes us the strongest.
Thank you so much Michael for sharing your inspiring story and your plans for the future!
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