By Jill Dunn
She swears off butt pads and loves her carbs. Professional hip hop dancer Drea Edmead gives us the backstage pass on what it’s like to be a Canadian fly girl in Hollywood.
Education: Ryerson University School of Performing Arts
Where she’s based: New York City
First break: Appearing in Choclair’s “Let’s Ride” video directed by fellow Canuck Little X in 1999
Where we can see her next: Touring with Ne-Yo (featuring Chris Brown) until October 8th across the U.S.
Who she’s grooved with: Beyonce, Mary J. Blige, Jay-Z, R. Kelly, Alicia Keys, Ricky Martin, Gwen Stefani
Career highlights: Appearing in R. Kelly’s “Snake” video and performing on Saturday Night Live with Pharrell and N.E.R.D.
TV shows she’s appeared on: The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Late Show with David Letterman, Live with Regis and Kelly
Dancing in the cipher in Queens, New York
It’s 6 a.m. and you’ve just stepped off a red-eye flight from New York City to Palm Springs, CA, after an impromptu appearance on MTV’s Total Request Live. It’s your second cross-country flight in less than 24 hours and before you run out the door to begin your 15-hour day, you have to squeeze in a telephone interview. Sounds exhausting, right? Well, it’s all in a day’s work for Canuck professional hip hop dancer Andrea (aka Drea) Edmead. Chatting with me from her Palm Springs hotel room before heading off to rehearse for the Up Close and Personal tour with Ne-Yo and Chris Brown, she’s remarkably bubbly for someone who’s had no sleep. “Right now my days are crazy,” she says. “I get to rehearsal around 9 a.m. and don’t leave ’til midnight. But your body just gets used to the pace.” But Edmead wasn’t always a music industry insider, keeping company with Jay-Z, Beyonce, and R. Kelly. Her path was filled with many detours and roadblocks. And although she always had an affinity for dance and was active in school concerts and plays, she had minimal formal training. “Dancing was something that I always gravitated towards and I felt comfortable expressing myself that way, but it wasn’t until my late teens that I even thought about it as a career,” she says. “I had people telling me I was crazy to pursue it, including my family and friends.”
On set with Quest Love of The Roots
Moving On Up
In 1997, the Toronto native auditioned for the Ryerson Theatre Arts Dance program, but initially wasn’t accepted. “It’s very competitive and they only admit 30 students per year,” she says. Instead of being discouraged, she enrolled in York University’s Fine Arts Program, majoring in Dance, to improve the technical aspects of her dancing; her work paid off the next year when she was accepted to Ryerson. There, she rubbed tutus with girls who were classically trained to be ballerinas since they were four years old. “I often went home feeling like I didn’t measure up, but I didn’t quit,” Edmead recalls. “Instead, I used the opportunity to learn from the more experienced girls. Everything that we learned in those classes I apply to my life now: focus, discipline, poise.”
With Ginuwine in his music video for “There It Is”
While she was studying at Ryerson, Edmead landed her first gig as a club dancer at the Guvernment nightclub in Toronto: “The lady who did the bookings was also a choreographer. She knew lots of other choreographers and directors in the city who were doing videos and commercials. Through these connections, I met directors in New York, such as Little X and Hype Williams.” Before she knew it, Edmead became part of the jet set, flying to New York for television commercials and backup dancing jobs for shows like the MTV Video Awards. After she graduated in 2000, she moved to the Big Apple and signed with a top talent agency. Her first gig was a Mary J. Blige video: “It was so amazing. It’s like all of your hard work has paid off—suddenly you’re performing with an icon.”
“Some dancers draw on their six-packs with a marker and they wear butt pads.”
No job in the entertainment industry is free from the pressures to be thin and/or to indulge in the partying lifestyle. Edmead admits to being insecure about her figure at first: “Every woman has hang-ups about her body. But there’s nowhere to hide when you’re dancing in tights or shorts. You’ve got to be in shape.” She had to learn to appreciate her curves, and affirms, “There’s no room for self-consciousness in dance, because that affects how you learn and execute the dance moves.” She stresses that the way people appear in glossy videos and choreographed concerts isn’t always accurate: “I’ve seen it all! Whether it’s someone’s thigh being digitally slimmed in the editing suite, or performers drawing on their six-pack with a marker, or wearing butt pads—it’s all fantasy. Girls shouldn’t compare themselves to these ideals.”
Backstage at New York City Music Hall
Being a Woman in the Hip Hop World
Hip hop music is infamous for its sometimes misogynistic lyrics and videos, and Edmead’s had to deal with that attitude on occasion: “Someone might want me to dance in a bikini when we’re not at a beach, which doesn’t make sense to me. I usually pipe up and say that I want to wear shorts. It’s my image, so I want to protect it and don’t want to be pushed into doing anything suggestive.” She recalls one time when a certain celeb’s friend asked her to sit on his lap: “I’m there to work. I’m not going to sit on some stranger’s lap. A lot of women might comply with such requests, so they don’t bruise any egos, but I refuse to do anything that I feel is inappropriate. I might get called a bitch, and it’s upsetting, but sometimes you have to assert yourself.”
Backstage at the American Music Awards in L.A
Life On the Road
An entourage is a staple accessory for any celeb these days, so Edmead is often expected to roll into parties with whomever she’s working. “We get invited to lots of events,” she confirms. “It’s all about image and keeping up appearances.” To avoid burnout on tour, she sticks to her beauty and health rituals: “Our hair and skin go through a lot of stress—we wear so much makeup! I always use Proactiv cleanser on the road because it keeps me from breaking out.” She keeps in shape by drinking lots of water, eating fruits, and—gasp!—carbs. “I love my pasta,” she admits. “We’re doing a lot of very physically demanding work and carbs fuel my body.” And no road trip would be complete without a few guilty pleasures: “I always have a stash of goodies to satisfy my sweet tooth. Plus, I have to have my toy blue stuffed dolphin. My boyfriend gave it to me—it’s my good luck charm and makes me feel closer to home when I’m far away.”
Q&A With Drea
What’s your ultimate perk?
Travelling to exotic locations. I’ve been to Southeast Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Central America, and the Caribbean.
Who has the best groove?
I like Usher’s style. He’s a strong performer. So is Beyonce. My ultimate favourites are still Michael Jackson, Prince, Janet Jackson, Madonna, Sheila E., and Paula Abdul. They’re all so different but their grooves are so distinct.
What’s on your iPod right now?
Beyonce, Mariah Carey, Nelly Furtado, John Mayer, Gwen Stefani, Sergio Mendes. I respond to so many musical forms.
What’s the hottest move right now?
The motorcycle out of Atlanta. You rev your hands like you’re riding a motorcycle and lean back when the bass hits. In Toronto, because of the large Caribbean community, Jamaican dances have always been big. One of the hottest right now is the Dutty Wine, where you move your legs like a butterfly and twist your neck on the beat.
Have you ever been on Electric Circus?
Yes! I was performing with a Canadian artist…It was so long ago I’ve forgotten who it was.
What’s your favourite outfit to wear onstage?
Anything dramatic and sparkly with lots of movement and colour. Heels, shimmy skirts, sequins, tassels, hats, the whole shebang!
What is the biggest groaner move on the dance floor?
Anything played out. Not new enough to be hot, and not old enough to be cool. In a few weeks or months, the motorcycle will have been replaced by some newer, hotter dance.