A professional talent on the rise, Billy Mustapha hails from Calgary in Alberta, Canada and trained for a career in commercial dance as part of the Intensive Training Program at Vancouver’s Harbour Dance Centre. A standout for his ability to quickly absorb choreography and for his versatility, Billy was hired on the spot during a master class by choreographer Paul Becker for appearances as a dancer in ABC’s Once Upon A Time TV series. Billy has also appeared in major dance scenes for both film and television, working with well-known choreographers such as Kenny Ortega and Jamal Sims on Disney’s Descendants 3, and the television adaptation of the musical Freaky Friday under the choreographic direction of John Carrafa. Louise Hradsky, who worked with him on all three projects, says that Billy is “more than a terrific dancer. He’s a terrific person, with an infectious passion for making the best art he can.”
Billy will bring this passion for dance to upcoming work with international choreographer Megan Lawson, an artist who has choreographed for some of the biggest names and productions in the U.S. and Canadian entertainment industries.
From where/whom did you receive the most encouragement in dance?
My whole family supports me immensely — my immediate and very large extended family! However, I don’t think I’ll ever have a fan as big as my mom. My mom would work double shifts as a nurse, often over night, to support my dancing and then sacrifice her sleep to ensure that she would never miss a competition or a performance. To this day, whenever I make a dance video or receive class footage or hear exciting news about my dance endeavors, she is always the first person I send it to. I am so lucky to have her and I love her with my whole heart.
Who inspires you in your work as dancer?
My dance teacher (and a second mom to me) is Sarah Vigna. She taught me throughout my childhood and is still one of my greatest mentors. The visuals she sees in her mind and brings to life are remarkable and I’m honored that I had the opportunity to dance under her direction for so many years. She worked with me to develop such raw character in each solo she created for me. Every piece of choreography that she creates has intention and purpose and that is how I strive to create and live.
What was the most challenging thing about working on Disney film projects like Descendants 3 and Freaky Friday?
In every rehearsal something would change. Whether it was transposing a section of the choreography to the opposite side, or facing a new direction to readjust for the next piece of choreography, the ideal version of the choreography for camera was the end result. While this was one of the most challenging things about working on these films, it was also one of my favourite parts! It’s so rewarding to be able to use my many years of training to adapt quickly and make any change thrown at me at anytime.
What’s the most rewarding thing about working in film?
Watching similar films as a kid and reflecting on how much these were an influence on my pursuit of dance and love for performing. It’s insane to me that I went from religiously watching Kenny Ortega in the High School Musical, Dance-Along and teaching myself moves from my favorite films to being part of the creation process on films that will influence the next generation. It is so gratifying.
Did you find the long days on set tough? What helped you get through them?
Set days are always long but I didn’t find them tough. During the few moments when I would feel tired or drained, I would just take a second to remember where I was and realize that I was legitimately living my dream. Also, being surrounded by so many loving and hilarious dancers everyday made the time fly by. Long days don’t feel so long when you’re doing what you love with people you love.
As a student, you were an award-winning competitor and received the Triple Threat Dance Convention Achievement Award. Tell us about that experience and how it prepared you for the professional world of dance.
The award granted me the opportunity to work closely with some of the industry’s top choreographers, including Megan Lawson, Tina Landon, Nick Lanzisera and others, as an assistant on the convention tour. My job was to make the choreographer’s life easier and help the class to run as smoothly as possible. Thinking about the choreographers needs has transferred directly to my success on jobs in the industry. Assistants are expected to deliver 100% effort, adapt to the styles of multiple choreographers quickly and be able to learn and demonstrate choreography simultaneously while facing a banner with no one to watch. Having the eyes of other dancers on you adds another layer of pressure — you can’t let nerves overpower your abilities. Each of these skills is crucial in the professional world.
Finally, being surrounded by legendary choreographers has taught me so much about professionalism. Meanwhile, assisting and observing amazing teachers has illustrated how to be an impactful teacher. I hope to be able to draw on this information when I teach classes.
In an article on Dance Advantage, you mentioned overcoming anxiety but bullying and negativity is another challenge that is often (and unfortunately) part of the male dancer’s experience. What advice would you give to young dancers out there who may be experiencing these kinds of challenges?
My advice would be to keep going. Don’t let anyone’s harsh words deny you the gift that dance has to offer and don’t hide the fact that you love to dance. Celebrate your talents and be proud of your passion.
What do you wish more people knew about dance?
I wish everyone understood that dance is a gift for everyone to utilize. If your body moves, you should move it — there is no right or wrong. I’m a firm believer that everyone should experience a guided improvisation class where they can move how they like and feel through movement. I’m still trying to convince my two hockey-playing brothers to try it out!
What’s one piece of advice you’ve received during your career that you’ll never forget?
“There’s space for every individual in this industry.” Being true to how my body moves and not trying to force someone else’s movement quality into my body has allowed me to develop my own unique style that feels so innate in me. It’s a beautiful thing to learn from everyone and take what you like on others and put it into yourself but, at the end of the day, it’s your body and you should move in a way that fully describes you.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
In five years, I hope to be dancing on tour with Banks. I have been infatuated with Banks’ music for years and it’s a huge dream of mine to dance for her someday. I also hope to be teaching. I have a special place in my heart for teaching and inspiring others, and I aspire to be doing so on a regular basis within five years.