Every month I will highlight a Black artist, form of entertainment, business, or social media personality to help to spread awareness of Black Excellence. Be sure to check here on the 2nd of every month!
I love artistic people. We value our craft and will do whatever it takes to work at it, improve it, and enjoy it. I know a good couple of artistic individuals in various arts, but probaly one of the best examples of an artist embracing their craft at whatever cost is this month's spotlight: Shantoni Holbrook. Shantoni, known as Toni the Dancer or even How He Moves is a mostly self-taught dancer and choreographer who has used his life-long love of dance to create an art that is all his own. Check out my interview with Shantoni below and learn about the steps he has gone through to get where he is today: winning competitions and inspiring lives.
M Haynes: Hey Toni! How are you?
Shantoni Holbrook: I'm great. I'm doing well.
MH: I'm glad. You know I had to get this interview in with you before you got too famous for little old me.
SH: (laughs) I'm happy to do this interview.
Good. Hopefully that means it will go well (laughs). So besides wrecking shop on the dancing scene, what are you up to nowadays?
Well of course I'm in graduate school at Jackson State University getting a Master's of Public Health in Epidemiology*...
Epidemiology? How'd you get to that from your major at Alcorn*?
Originally I wanted to go into Physical Therapy because being an athlete I felt like I could relate to that, but I didn't know if I wanted to go right into the deep end and go straight into Physical Therapy school. Not because I was afraid, but because I always like to take things step by step so that I can see the progress and the work that comes from taking your time. So when I went to a grad school fair my senior year and a rep from JSU talked about the program, that was it.
Understandable. Speaking of taking steps though, talk to me about the steps you had to take to become the dancer you are now. Have you always been dancing?
I've always been a natural mover. Even when I was a toddler I used to just move to music that I heard. I got a trampoline when I was nine and taught myself how to tumble and do back flips, and then when I got a little older, like ten, I began watching music videos constantly. Not just to see the artists but really to learn the choreography. My relatives would say that I executed moves well, but I still really just did that for fun back then. It wasn't until my Granddad, who taught at a high school, took me to a school talent show and had me perform that things started to change. I did some moves I learned from like Aaliyah videos and the crowd went wild. I knew then that this wasn't just something I could do for fun; it was something I could really do.
So you discovered your talent pretty early. What were those early dancing days like?
I joined a dance group for like a year when I was in middle school**, but after that it was really back to dancing on my own. I got invited to a party in junior high** where I got to do not only my dancing, but also some flipping and tumbling that got me noticed by the daughter of the cheerleading coach. The coach, Cheryl Gonzales, told me that I would really stand out and could really encourage more men to cheer. Of course, being a new junior high student I said no at first. What I didn't know when I came to pick up my schedule was that she had signed me up for cheer class anyway.
Oh wow! So you had no choice.
(laughs) Not really. It took me and my parents by surprise. Even the guy who gave me my schedule the first day of school was excited about me cheering, so I decided to see what it was about. The coach was a lot like Diana***, so she gave me a lot of stern teaching and discipline. It was all stuff I needed because even when I stopped cheering in high school and started balancing band, track, drama, and of course dance I needed that structure. I went from playing in the band my freshman year to being a drum major my senior year, but it wasn't until that was over that I realized I could keep dancing AND always have my performances on record if I made dance videos. I made the first one and became addicted; I could see my progress in those videos and thanks to all the other things I did, from that trampoline at nine, to cheering, to band to drama I could see myself evolving from just a dancer to an artist that paints an entire picture.
So you've been wearing a lot of hats for a while, but adding academic to that has to be really difficult. How do you balance all your extra curricular activities and keeping your grades up enough to go to grad school?
Honestly, it's almost effortless. People think I'm lying when I say that but it's true. I think it started with me doing all those balancing acts in high school; they taught me how to use my tie wisely and keep structure in my life. I also think it's because I learned early on that I like to be busy, and that I have to prioritize. Dance is ALWAYS going to be involved because it's what I love, and academics have to come first because that's my money and my future success. Everything else just has to fall into place after those. Even if you have to learn how to study while you turn up with your friends, you have to let stuff fall into place.
(laughs) Yeah I remember those days when you used to study in your truck while we were all out. Since you talk about prioritizing, how important is it for you to find time to dance?
Dance is a necessity. If you really knew how much time I took out to dance you'd think I was doing it professionally. If I have to be at work at twelve or one I'm up at seven dancing. Dance has helped me to grow and mature, and other people have seen it too. I love to hear from people that I have improved my dancing, and that just makes me want to dance more.
Now that you bring up other people, talk about how your dancing has led you to other opportunities and other people.
Dancing, especially at Alcorn, brought my character out. Not that I put on when I'm dancing, I think I'm a naturally animated person, it's just that it gave me an outlet to share my personality with others. Track helped me a little with that, but dance was the main thing. Thanks to dance and my artistic mind I got to join a modeling squad and even another dance squad. I also learned about myself through dance though, and I learned that I can never compromise my vision. So I left the dance squad and started another one called TRENDing Topic that was based off the T.R.E.N.D. Modeling Squad. But honestly, the best opportunity had to have come from my organization. I feel that Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc. is what I brought the most to. I feel like the brothers appreciated me and utilized my talent and loved me for me. Even when I first took off my mask I felt like they picked me because of who I was and not just to be another number.
I know Sigma just adds even more opportunities for success for you. That said, we know that with success comes criticism, and with all of your success you have to have tons of people speaking against you. How do you deal with that?
Even back when I was cheering there were people who were immature and closed minded who had things to say, but then they turned around and loved when I performed. The negativity used to get to me a lot. I would shut down and wonder how people could be so cruel. I even thought that if I just stopped doing what I was doing I would be better off, but I never did. Over time I started to develop a tougher skin, and learned to just let my accomplishments speak for themselves and show that I am still prevailing. They would say to people "Come harder, that's not gonna work". Sometimes I do wanna flip off, and sometimes I do have to flip off, but I still let my accomplishments do most of the talking in everything I do. I will say though three things you don't come for: my family and friends, my education or my organization. Just don't do it.
Point taken. But it took you a while to get to that point. What would you tell to someone still trying to get there?
First off they have to know the difference between someone speaking negatively and someone offering constructive criticism. But for the people who do speak negatively you first have to pray for them. That's not even me being funny; they are troubled individuals and you should disregard what they say. Let them know where you stand and that their words will not dictate your success, but don't hold on to it. Let them know that you will continue to work twice as hard and stay up twice as late and their negativity will be a fuel for your success.
How do you remain so positive? How do you hold on to your dream of dancing throughout all the negativity?
I'm ambitious. Very ambitious. Very (laughs). I think of me and dancing the same way people look at marriage. You love the person you're with and you want to prosper with them. Dance is like a loving relationship to me. I get frustrated with it but at the end of the day I made the choice to love and prosper with dance. My videos show the growth and strength of our relationship, and that we love each other.
Where do you see yourself going in this relationship? What is your endgoal?
I could see myself either being a choreographer for a major artist or being one of their dancers. I would really love to be one of their dancers though; I love the stage. The thrill of the crowd...there's nothing like it.
Who would you want to be a dancer for?
Ciara, Chris Brown, or Nicki Minaj.
I knew that (laughs).
(laughs) I have already had many Moments For Life but to dance with one of them would be another one.
I bet it would. And winning that contest**** proved that you still have more great moments ahead. So do you have any parting words? Any last things you want to leave the people with?
(pauses) Every day that you wake up be your happiest. Don't let anyone or anything steal your joy. Do what you love to do. Live it up. Smile more. Love more. Laugh more. We only have one life, so live it so that people can say that he/she lived his/her life like they only had one.
* = Epidemiology is the study of the incidence, distribution, and possible control of diseases. Toni's undergraduate major, Biology/Pre-Physical Therapy, connects with this because he already has considerable knowledge of the human body.
** = For clarification purposes where Toni lived middle school was fifth and sixth grades and junior high school was seventh and eighth grades.
*** = Dianna Williams, aka Miss D or Coach D is one of the (probably THE) stars of the hit television show Bring It! Miss D is the stern but caring coach of the Dancing Dolls who uses tough love to prepare her girls for the harshness the world will undoubtedly show them once they are in it. Toni compared his cheer coach to her because they had the same no-nonsense approach, which seems to have worked out just as well for Toni as it does for many of Miss D's girls.
**** = Toni recently participated in the #WillYouDance contest created by Dawn Richard. Toni was named one of the winners, gaining exposure for his craft and showing how all of the things he has learned since his early years of dance have been embraced and applied. It is also worth noting that of the winners Toni's was the only video completely solo: without a crew or separate choreographer.