Dancer Mao Kawakami studied at Aldergrove's Kick It Up a Notch Dance Academy for two years before heading for Hollywood. Now she's encouraging other young artists to follow their dreams.

Dancer Mao Kawakami studied at Aldergrove's Kick It Up a Notch Dance Academy for two years before heading for Hollywood. Now she's encouraging other young artists to follow their dreams.

For the love of dance

After finding success in L.A., Langley dancer Mao Kawakami is encouraging other young artists to follow their dreams

From roles in music videos to dancing live on stage, working alongside the likes of Snoop Dogg, Pharrell Williams and the Far East Movement has given Mao Kawakami a resumé that reads like a who’s who of the hip hop world.

Not bad for a 22-year-old from Langley, who packed up and headed for Hollywood while the ink on her high school diploma was still drying.

Originally from Japan, Kawakami, 22, moved to Langley in Grade 10 after taking summer school courses here and developing a fondness for the community.

Having studied only classical ballet in Japan, Kawakami decided to branch out once she’d moved to Canada, and joined Kick It Up A Notch Academy of Dance in Aldergrove.

For the next two years, she trained in a range of styles, from musical theatre to jazz, ballet, contemporary dance and, of course, hip hop.

After graduating from Langley Secondary in 2011, she grabbed her tights and leotards and headed south.

In Los Angeles, Kawakami attended college — finishing a degree in psychology — while continuing to train and audition for jobs.

Of course, simply being at the epicentre of the entertainment industry does not guarantee success.

“There are always more no’s than yes’s,” said the Langley dancer. But that’s not an excuse to throw in the towel, she added.

“Never give up — I know it sounds cheesy, but it’s true.”

For Kawakami, persistence paid off when she earned a role in the music video for The Illest, by Far East Movement.

She is also one of dozens of featured dancers in Pharrell’s marathon 24-hour long video for Happy, during which the song plays over and over as  people dance along city streets and through buildings.

Her sequence begins at the eight-minute mark of the 6 a.m. hour.

Although she’s pleased with what she has already accomplished, Kawakami’s ultimate goal is to dance on a world tour with Usher.

She met the singer once, when he was working in a studio near the rehearsal space for the Snoop Dogg video (Summer Time, by Summer feat. Snoop Dogg).

Working as a dancer in L.A. can get competitive and, at times, even a little nasty, she said, but more often there is plenty of support within the community, because everyone knows just how tough a life it can be.

Being able to dance in a wide range of styles has definitely given Kawakami an advantage, she said. Practising seven or eight hours a day doesn’t hurt, either.

The main point Kawakami wants to get across to other up-and-coming young dancers is that, in the end, hard work does pay off.

“Take all the opportunities (you can),” she advises.

“We never know — one small opportunity can lead to another.

“I say this, because that’s how I got to work world-wide with the top artists from Japan, Thailand and China as a lead dancer.”

No one is less surprised — or more delighted — by Kawakami’s success than Tonya Wejr.

The owner of Kick It Up a Notch taught Kawakami dance for two years, from the time she was 15 years old until she graduated and moved to California.

“Mao had it bad for dance.

“She was so passionate — one of the most passionate students I ever taught,” said Wejr.

“She wanted to break out and try different things — jazz,  hip hop and lyrical.”

Although her roots were in classical ballet, Kawakami “was extremely gifted in other genres,” said the instructor.

She had a hunger to learn and, because of that, she improved quickly, added Wejr.

She watched other dancers at the school, and learned from them as well.

About a year and a half ago, Kawakami returned to Langley for a visit, Wejr recalled.

While she was in town, she attended a couple of her former instructor’s classes and even taught one herself.

As a professional, it wasn’t something Kawakami had any reason to do, said Wejr, but the young dancer had no reservations about returning to her roots.

During her visit, Kawakami didn’t volunteer any information about her time working alongside music celebrities in L.A., said Wejr.

“She didn’t tell us about anything. We had to beg her for stories,” the teacher laughed.

“It’s so refreshing to see a dancer who wants it that bad, and yet is so humble.”

That’s exactly what Wejr hoped to accomplish when she opened her school in 2007.

At 26, she decided that she had had enough of working for other people and wanted to do things her own way.

That meant creating a space where anyone who is passionate about dance would be welcome.

“I don’t care if you have two left feet or what your body image is — if you love to dance, you’re welcome here.

“I don’t believe in a cutthroat approach,” she said. “We need to work together.”

That means that, in addition to getting professional instruction, the dancers at KIUAN, mentor one another as well.

“The culture is different,” said Wejr.

“It doesn’t necessarily work for everyone. I want to see (the dancers) do well, but remain humble.

“It makes me pretty proud now, seeing Mao.