Imani Underwood

2023 Ambassador Imani Underwood

Jesse Nowak (00:01):

Hello, my name is Jesse Nowak, and I am the Operations Director at Dance Wire. I’m here with Imani Underwood to talk about her life and career as a Dance Artist as part of our Artist Story Series. Welcome. 

Imani Underwood (00:22):

Hey, thanks for having me. 

Jesse Nowak (00:24):

What are your current titles? 

Imani Underwood (00:29):

I would say Dancer, but I am going to say I’m an Artist because I have many hats that I like to put on. And yeah, Dancer, Artist, Actor, I don’t sing yet, so we’re working on that one. 

Jesse Nowak (00:45):

Working on that one. Well, that sounds like a small thing, but honestly, that’s such a hurdle for people to get over to just be like, I am an Artist. Even people who’ve danced their entire lives and are choreographing and making dance films and putting on shows to be like, I am an Artist. Culturally, it’s a big deal to own that and to just ground yourself in that. 

Imani Underwood (01:06):

Oh yeah. I know for when I was in college, I was like, oh no, I’m just a Dancer. Even though I would do acting, I took acting and, thinking back on it when I was younger, I did a little bit of modeling too. So,  I changed on my Instagram and instead of Dancer, I was like, no, there’s a lot more that I do artistically. And I was like, yeah, I am an Artist. So that helped me move forward. 

Jesse Nowak (01:34):

Love it. Yeah. A way for you to not silo yourself, “just” a Dancer, and that word, just, again, we limit ourselves in the use of that word. “Just” a Dancer. Alright, so can you give me a brief overview of how you got started in dance? 

Imani Underwood (01:50):

Alright, well, like most people, you start when you’re young. For me, it was just a lot of my mom putting on music while we were cleaning around the house, and instead of me cleaning, I would supervise and dance around, and I would also love watching Disney Channel and Selena Gomez was one of my inspirations for acting, and that’s when I saw that I wanted to do a lot more acting. So, I asked my mom, I was like, “mom, please get into some acting classes.” So she found this acting course, and they are not there anymore. I don’t know if it was a scam, but I learned a lot. <laughs> Because there were a lot of those going at that time, and I’m from Las Vegas, so, growing up there, there were some like that, but she was very gung-ho, like, “hey, yeah, I’m going to get you into acting because I see that you’re a performer.” And I’m like, “yes, I am.” So I went to that course, learned how to slate, how to do commercials, how to get into improv games to open up my creative mindset and being able to think quickly on my feet. Then I ended that and I was like, “man, I want to do some more.” So she went, found a modeling course, which again, I think it might have been a scam, <laughs> but I learned so much like how to hold myself, how to be confident, even though that confidence level slowly rose as I grow, I grew. Then I went into high school, no, middle school, I was like, “man, maybe I want to be a cheerleader.” And that was short-lived because I kept looking back towards dance and I got the opportunity to actually have a dance class instead of PE in high school, which I thought was very cool because I only thought you could only take PE, but it was another option if you didn’t want to do that. I was like, “I’m going to do that.” So that is how I started really going into my dance career because I moved up very quickly. There were three levels of dance classes. There was dance one, dance two, and dance three. Freshman year I was in dance one, and then sophomore year my teacher was like, “oh no, we’re bumping you up to dance three, what are you doing in here?” So was able to do that, got into some side performances in their showcases, and from there she encouraged me to try out for the dance team, and that is where my love for dance just grew. 

Crazy thing. I didn’t even take theater. I took it once in high school, but even then, I think on the forefront of my mind, I kept thinking of myself as only a Dancer because I saw myself progressing so much faster in that area. But I still knew acting was a part of me, but I just wasn’t like, “oh, this is what I want to do at the same time as doing dance.” So then come to senior year, I wanted to do dance as a career. That’s what I wanted to major in, and I had the decision, made the decision to turn down a full ride scholarship to a college because I couldn’t find any dance related majors there. And I was like, “I know this is what I want to do.” So I turned that down and it was like it was meant to happen because literally the next week I got a newsletter from the college that I ended up going to, AMDA, the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. I got a newsletter and it was saying, are you one of these type of performers? And it said, acting, musical, theater, dance. And I was like, “oh my gosh, yes, that is me. You’re talking to me.” So I looked up online, they were like, ‘oh, we just need you to send in a self tape, an audition tape. And from there we’ll see what happens.’ So I choreographed a solo, sent it in. My dance coach helped me and guided me through, and she wrote me a great recommendation letter, and that is how my AMDA journey started. So that was amazing. And from there, I got to pursue my BFA in Dance Theater. I finished school in two and a half years, so I graduated October of 2018. Yeah. I was like, I can’t take a whole semester off. It was like four months in between, and I was like, “what am I going to do at home?” And it was based in LA, so being in the heart of Hollywood and in an entertainment city in the country, that was something that I feel like I needed to be there. And if I went back home, I would revert back to just dancing in my living room, not really growing as a Dancer, but soon to realize as an Artist, because I didn’t know that many people out in Vegas that were heavily performance-based in what I wanted to do. It was a lot of showgirl based on the strip, those types of performers. And I was like, “I’m not in that realm yet.” I was like, “I’m more like urban hip hop. I love contemporary.” And then an inkling of me was like, “I love musical theater too.” So I was like, “I’ll just keep going throughout school.” 

So pushed through, finished October of 2018, and through my teachings, I have furthered as an Actor, Actress, a Dancer, and I did get a little bit of singing skills coming out. <laughs> Ensemble singing for the Actor was one class that helped me hone in on harmonizing with others, even though we all couldn’t sing, we were all like, what? So, that was fun. And then after that, living out in LA was a whole crazy whirlwind because of the connections that I’ve made, I was able to be a part of projects and performances that I would’ve never been, I never would’ve thought of. And so one, my first big job that I did was performing with Kanye at Coachella on Easter Sunday. I will remember that because that was like, “oh my gosh.” And I saw Kanye, he waved at me. I was like, “wow,” this was before all that’s going on. 

But it was an amazing experience just having everyone together. It was hot outside, but I didn’t even care because being able to dance, and it wasn’t hardcore choreography, it was a follow along. So we just see what they’re doing. We learned several bits and pieces. So then whenever they started it, we know, “hey, we’re just going to follow and repeat and then just vibe out.” So that was awesome. 

And then I was doing smaller performances, just dancing throughout Carnivals, the Dance Carnival, it’s like a showcase. So doing that, and then I was told about Disney on Ice. Well, Feld Entertainment first and Disney Live, and I was like, “oh my gosh, this is a dancer show, live stage performance.” So I auditioned for that, got pretty far. Didn’t end up getting it, but I was like, “it was a great experience. It was my first real audition for something that wasn’t through someone I knew.” 

So did that, didn’t get it, and I was just hanging out. Then I get an email from one of the Casting Directors that I met there, and he was like, “hey, Amani, at the beginning of our audition when we said, you might be contacted for something you didn’t even audition for.” And I was like, “yeah.” He said, “well, this is that. Would you like to be a host for Disney on Ice?” And I was like, “I mean, that would be great. I just don’t skate.” And he was like, “no, it’s fine. It’s a walking roll.” So I was like, “yeah.” So he was like, “just send in a self tape and we will get you through.” Did that, sent in, that was my first ever self tape that I sent out that wasn’t an audition tape for acting. So it was a whole thing. And then that started my journey with Disney on Ice, and it was an amazing experience. I wish I continued because we got cut off the first time that I went on tour, we got cut off for Covid. But just the memories that I’ve made, being able to act live and in front of thousands of people and then create this story because I love Disney. I’m a very animated person, so why not? So doing that and just seeing the smiles on all the kids’ faces and singing songs or just jamming to songs that we all listen to all the time. I literally listen to Disney music on the way to work. So now, after that, I went back home. I was doing a little of some acting, and so that is where I did a shift from having dance as my forefront and looking more towards acting and getting that more integrated in my life. So I’ve just had times where I’d switch between the two and now I need to get singing in there, we’re going to do it. 

And so during that time, I would just choreograph small pieces for myself. I’d improv, I got, what is the word? I got picked? No, I got a role.

Jesse Nowak (12:23):


Imani Underwood (12:24)

Yeah. Thank you. See, my brain is like, “ I saw it.” I was like, so I got cast in a role as the Assistant for a short film back home in Vegas. So that was my first film credit for acting. So I have two now, live stage and film. And then I now have moved to Portland, been here for, oh my gosh, about to be four months. And I have already had so many opportunities come forth acting and dance wise. So yeah, it’s been a crazy journey.

Jesse Nowak (13:12):

For sure. For sure. So what does dance mean to you? Or has it meant to you in your life? 

Imani Underwood (13:21):

So in high school, I got my, it’s all related. I got my first tattoo and it was, “I have decided to stick with love because hate is too great a burden to bear.” And so from that, I got it during my time when I was with my dance team. And it’s also a time where it opened up to me that dance is something bigger than me, and it’s a part of me. It’s who I am. And I’ve always said that I wanted a tattoo of wings on my back that flow through my arms, because every time I dance, I feel like I’m flying. And it just transcends me to another plane of possibilities, and I don’t feel weighed down by judgment of myself or judgment that I think comes from others, and it just frees me. So it’s a freeing technique that says, “hey, nothing is bigger than you, and you are bigger than everything else. You are who you are because of what you have done and what has been done unto you, and that’s how you continue to grow.” So dance has helped me find that confidence in myself and that belief in myself that I can do anything that I put my mind to. 

Jesse Nowak (14:52):

Transcendence. Yeah. Awesome. What challenges have you faced as a dance artist? 

Imani Underwood (15:01):

Well, going back to that judgment, I found that I am my biggest critic, especially when I see others that I know. And it’s not coming from a place of, I wish that they didn’t have it, and I did. It just comes from a place of “man, they’re doing so much more than I am, and I feel like I’m very stagnant.” But there’ll be times where I’m like, “no, but look back at what you’ve done. You have grown, you have done all of these things, so you’re just on your own path.” But that is one of the challenges that continuously comes about. Not as much as it used to, but it’s just that comparison factor. I just am like, “man, I want to be on tour,” or “man, I want to be dancing in films, man I want to have an agent.” So it’s all these thoughts of I don’t have that, and then I have to remind myself yet, not yet.

Jesse Nowak (16:06):

For sure, and it’s hard for us to recognize our own accomplishments, and I don’t know how broadly societal that is, or if it’s being women or if it truly comes from the dance world, but all of these things are layered upon each other so that you do have to do that self-talk, like “no, actually, I’ve done a lot of things. No actually!”

Imani Underwood (16:27):

There was actually recently, this was I think a month ago, I was feeling in that rut, that area where I was putting myself down, seeing my friends from LA that I made in college, and they’re doing so much and they’ve got agents now, and I was on that journey with them. And so being here, I was like, “man, I still don’t have an agent and I’m about to be 26. They’re doing it. Why am I not back in LA?” And I had to go through, I started from the bottom of my Instagram, and I literally was just looking at everything that I had posted, and I now notice that I have shifted my Instagram from just posting pictures and random things to it all being dance-based and acting-based. So my Instagram is now more of a professional page where it shows my skills, my endeavors. So on there, I saw that, I did, I remember I did a voiceover challenge, and I was creating these voices for these characters, and I just found myself watching all of them, and it brought this huge smile to my face, and once I got to the beginning, I was like, “man, I’m really cool.” Yes, I’m not on tour with someone, I’m not signed by an agent, I’m not going on all of these dance jobs. But I do see that performing and being an Artist is something of who I am, not just what I want to show to the world. So that really boosted my confidence right there.

Jesse Nowak (18:12):

It’s who you are. It’s not what you do. I mean, you do it because it’s who you are.

Imani Underwood (18:17):

But not to look at others and say, “oh, but I’m not doing that, so I’m probably, I guess I’m not that.” And it’s like, “no, you are. That is who you are because you’re still doing it, even though you might not be doing the same thing that someone else is doing.” 

Jesse Nowak (18:33):

Well, and owning your own journey is the most powerful thing that you can ever do in your life, in all of its twists and turns and valleys and mountains.

Imani Underwood (18:43):

Oh my gosh, my partner tells me that all the time when he sees that I’m in a rut, he’s like, “Imani, just remember, life is made of hills and valleys, and right now you’re just in a valley, but that’s not the end. A hill is coming up and it’s going to be good.”

Jesse Nowak (19:00):

Wise words.

Imani Underwood (19:01):

I know. So I constantly have been telling myself that I’m like “hills and valleys. I might be in the valley right now.” Or I’m like, “wow, I’m on a hill.” But I don’t think about it like, “oh, a valley’s coming next.” 

Jesse Nowak (19:14):

Of course not. 

Imani Underwood (19:19):

I know. “I’m like, wow, this is great. This is how it’s always going to be,” and then that valley comes and I’m like, “wait, no, no, we’re just in a valley. It’s fine.”

Jesse Nowak (19:22):

Yeah, it’s easy to take all of the things for granted. If you’re in a rut, you take the mountain for granted. When you’re on the mountain, you take the valley for granted. 

Imani Underwood (19:30):

Yeah. So it’s like constantly remember they’re there. 

Jesse Nowak (19:36):

Okay. What people, resources and opportunities have helped you the most? 

Imani Underwood (19:42):

People, resources and opportunities.

Jesse Nowak (19:45):

That can be and/or opportunities. 

Imani Underwood (19:48):

I know being with Disney on Ice has been a great opportunity that has helped me because now that it’s on my resume, most people are like, “oh my gosh, that’s something big.” And it’s still going on, so it is kind of crazy to think that something big on your resume can help progress you through something. But the smaller things, it’s like, “oh, they have that in there,” but once they see that big name, it’s like, “oh my gosh yeah!” So it’s always cool to see. But I don’t know, it’s weird a little bit. I’m like, “man, you didn’t see any of the other stuff on there.” 

But, it also helps because it lets them know where your skill level is at. Because I’m taking acting classes right now, and I’ve never worked with this acting coach, and she said, “I can see that you’ve done a lot of acting-wise.” And I was going into it with a friend, and they didn’t have as many, they just had dance credits. So she was saying, “I don’t know how her skill in acting is, but I can see that you have experience.” So it also helps them gauge where you are. So that is an opportunity that has propelled me. My mother, she has definitely propelled me because every time I tell her that I got something or that I’m doing this, she is my number one cheerleader. She’s like, “yeah! You got to send me pictures.” And I never do, and she’s like, “I had to find it on Instagram through your friends.” And I’m like, “I’m sorry, mom. I live in the moment.” I don’t take that many pictures unless I’m like, let me try, but even then I’m like one and done. So yeah, I love my mom. She has pushed me from the beginning because she also wanted to be a performer, but she had a terrible accident when she was six, she was dancing, but she lived in New York at the time after moving from Jamaica. She was walking and she got hit by a car at the age of six, so she wished that she could continue because she was more on the dancer side. She didn’t do a lot of acting, so she was very surprised when I started acting, and she was like, “oh my god, yeah, let’s make you a triple threat over here.” But every time I tried to sing in the house, she’s like, “Imani, just hum. Okay.” And I’m like, okay. So I can’t do that one yet. But yeah, so she’s always pushed me, especially when I turned down, because my aunt, she was like, “you turned down a full ride?” And I was like, “yeah, because I want to do something that I actually want to do. I feel passionate about performing.” When I told my mom that I was going to turn that down, she didn’t reprimand me or say, “are you sure that’s a good idea?” She was just very supportive and she backed me up every bit of the way. She drove me down. We had our little road trip from Vegas to California. She helped move me in and from there our bond has just been thick as thieves.

Jesse Nowak (23:21):

Amazing. That’s wonderful. So what stage do you feel like you are in your career? How do you want to move forward and what goals do you have? 

Imani Underwood (23:28):

Okay. So right now…

Jesse Nowak (23:30):

And we can re-ask any part of this question if needed. What stage do you feel like you’re at your in your career?

Imani Underwood (23:37):

Perfect. I feel like I’m in that, because it’s weird, I think I am restarting because I have moved, and I’m not with Disney on Ice. So I think that has helped propel me, but now I’m starting back over to grow my dance career. So, I feel like I’m on that stage where right before, because I’m getting a lot of opportunities, but it feels like I’m in that middle stage of you’re just starting out and then you’re about to land something really big. I’m in that middle stage, that incline. 

Jesse Nowak (24:24):

That actually goes up and down, potentially goes down to valleys and mountains. 

Imani Underwood (24:28):

So, oh my gosh, I think I’m on that little incline to the next hill, because I’ve already had that first valley, hill, that valley, and I think I’m coming up on that hill that’s next. So that’s where I think I am. In my mind, I see the image.

Jesse Nowak (24:48):

Of course. How do you want to move forward? What goals do you have? 

Imani Underwood (24:53):

So, my main goal, since moving here, I have pushed myself to connect more in the community because I feel like that is where you get to know a lot more people and for them, because in entertainment, it’s all about who you know. But I don’t want it to be transactional, that transactional. I would like to create those genuine connections, keep those connections, but also say, “hey, if you need a dancer or if you need someone who has dabbled in some voiceover work, you know me, you see what I have done,” just to be like, “hey, I’m here to help if you need me.” And then vice versa, which I’m working on getting more hats to put on more hats. So being a choreographer, I would love to be one and create more pieces, and I would like to go into film direction. I got a little taste of it when I was helping my cousin film a music video for his song that he made. So I would love to put that cap on and learn how to direct, learn how to choreograph and put it on people. So yeah, I’m working on learning from others as well as adding my own feel and creating those genuine connections to say, “hey, I’m here and I know you, you know me. Let’s work together and create something beautiful.” 

Jesse Nowak (26:30):

Love it. I love it. So how hard is it balancing administrative work with your own artistic pursuits and training? And I would add your other jobs, right? They’re administrative by nature, but just balancing those goals that you just talked about with the things that need to be done in life. 

Imani Underwood (26:56):

Oh, yes. I have noticed it is a little challenging because when I was in that valley before moving here and I’m on that incline, I noticed that when I would work so much, I didn’t make the time to really keep pursuing my passions. I could see that I’d procrastinate and say, “eh, do I want to dance today?” Or, “do I want to go and try that little challenge that’s going on for acting?” I watch it and then I just scroll past. So I can see that it is a challenge, but here I’ve noticed that even if I don’t feel it like I want to do something or I’m doing that procrastination in my mind, I’m like, “just do a little bit, at least do 15 minutes.” And now that I’m working so much, because moving is very expensive. I have two jobs now, but I’ve made it a must to express, “hey, I would love to work here, but I am a performer and I am still pursuing these goals for myself in my career.” And being transparent with my first job, they always work with me and they’re like, “oh my gosh, yes, if you need to go do that, offer up your shift and we’ll try and work things out.” So it’s nice that a job does do that, because I know some jobs might be like, “no, we have a strict, this is what you got to work. This is how much hours you got to do and what days.” So it’s nice that my job works with me. 

Jesse Nowak (29:05):

Yeah, definitely having that outside support and someone who recognizes that this may or may not be your career, like the artistic pursuits are your career, that your day job isn’t where you’re trying to build a career.

Imani Underwood (29:17):

It’s like, “wait, you don’t want to be with us forever?” <laughs>

Jesse Nowak (29:20):

Forever. Yeah. So you are new to Portland, but just give me your best description of the current dance scene in Portland as you see it. 

Imani Underwood (29:35):

How I see it?

Jesse Nowak (29:37):

What’s fabulous, what needs work? 

Imani Underwood (29:39):

Okay. How I see it is very integrated. They’re very welcoming to all people. Whether you’ve been dancing for years or you took a break and you’re coming back to it, or if you’re just brand spanking new, it’s very supportive is what I feel. I would say, well, since I haven’t been in it too long, I don’t see too many things. I like that the classes, there are classes that they’re not super packed because considering LA classes, I would not be able to dance, I feel like I would smack someone in the neck. But here, it’s like everyone is, there’s so many styles to choose from and different days. So it’s not, “oh, you got to come to this person’s class on this day, and they only do this day.” I feel like it’s that day, but some do two days and everyone teaches at other studios I’ve seen. So being able to have different places to go take that person’s class is very nice. It’s very accommodating to everybody. So that’s why I was saying it’s so supportive out here is what I feel. 

Jesse Nowak (31:02):

Love it. Yeah. I do think Portland is a great city for, not that you burned out, but for dancers recovering from burnout. And I do think I maintain that that is a part, it’s a normal part of any healthy dance career, because an unhealthy dance career is you burn out and you’re done. The first time you burn out, that’s retirement. So in a healthy dance career, when you burn out, you take break and then you come back to it when you’re ready. And yeah, I do think Portland is a very welcoming friendly city for that. 

Jesse Nowak (31:38):

You’re re-finding who you are as a dancer. 

Imani Underwood (31:42):

I agree. And because it doesn’t feel like everyone’s like, “oh, we have to go, go, go. Because if I don’t go go, then I can’t get that next big thing out here.” It’s like, “hey, you need a break? Take it. Don’t push yourself.” It’s very nurturing, so it’s really nice.

Jesse Nowak (32:03):

Love it. Alright, can you paint a really idealistic picture of the dance scene in Portland in 10 years? 

Imani Underwood (32:13):

Oh, 10 years. Whenever I get a question like this, “where do you see yourself in five years?” I’m like, “I don’t know. I could say something, but do I imagine it?” Going off of what you said, because I feel like that is something that is very beneficial to be that recovery and kind of, not retrained, but it’s kind of like PT, like physical therapy, it’s like, “hey, we’ve got so many ranges and everything in between those ranges of, you’re starting out, or it’s been years since you’ve danced and you want to get back into it. We’re here to nurture and support and just grow.” So I just feel like it’s a lot of, oh my gosh, I see it. I see it, but words! 

Jesse Nowak (33:22):

I know it. Words are hard. 

Imani Underwood (33:27):

Oh my gosh. It’s just that It’s like a mama bird. It’s a mama bird, and their little one is in the nest, and then they also have one that’s older and it has a hurt wing. So I feel like it’s that mama bird nurturing both at different paces, because the new one, it’s like, “I’m very sprightly, but I don’t have everything that I need yet. Can you help me?” And the other baby bird is a hurt one, but they know so much, but they just need that recovery. And it’s there, the mama bird’s there to hold, help, and nurture. So then when they’re both ready, it’s like, “you got this. I’m still going to be here for when you get back, or if you need me to help you out, or if you have other little babies that need to come and you need me to watch for them. I got you.” So that’s the image I see. It’s like that mama bird with two of her little chicks on different paths, but they both need the same thing. And I think Portland gives that to so many kinds of dancers, and not just the urban ones, not just stage ones. And it’s like all performers, all actors, all artists. Because I’ve seen a lot more of the acting scene come up and the film, so anyone who is like, I have a creative vision, mama bird is here for you, and Portland is mama bird. And it said, “hey, if you think it’s crazy, we’re going to try it out.” 

Jesse Nowak (35:16):

I love that. 

Imani Underwood (35:17):

So that’s what I see.

Jesse Nowak (35:17):

See, this is how we navigate the word thing. Just speak your metaphors. You know what? I see it in my head. It’s a metaphor. Go with it.

Imani Underwood (35:27):

Okay cool. Yes, there we go. 

Jesse Nowak (35:28):

Love it. Awesome. Well, thank you Imani for coming in and chatting with me today. It was great to get to know you a little bit more. Yay.

Imani Underwood (35:37):

Yay. Thanks for having me.