Music helps Donald Isom remember — things he’s seen, who he is, and where he’s going.
“When I was in second grade and getting ready for a test, I started playing music to help myself study,” Isom recalled. “My mom thought I was being ignorant, but I was like no, this helps me think. My grades went up when I started listening to music. She said, yeah you an artist, you have your grandfather’s ways.”
His grandfather was a painter, know for his storytelling style. A visit to Georgia in 2009 to try out for “So You Think You Can Dance?” and a stop at that same grandfather’s house set in motion a whole career — no, career isn’t the right word — passion path for Isom (you’ll read how).
The 27-year-old Cleveland native founded I Am D.A.N.C.E. four years ago. The performance and visual art company’s name is an acronym for I Am Determined And Never Concealing Energy.
“That right there is a state of mind,” Isom said. “I got so much energy traveling the world, traveling state to state, trying to see where I need to be in life. It’s beautiful. We also try to help other individuals in the community. The members right now are really growing. The community is what made I Am D.A.N.C.E. strong and that connection is what we want all around the world.”
The group is now 52 members deep, despite a lengthy but important (you’ll read why) application process, in Philadelphia, Indiana, Chicago, Ohio and California.
The dance and visual arts collective performs at various dance events, offers classes, volunteers in the community with groups like Columbus Parks and Rec and presents b-boy and b-girl dance competitions.
Right now I Am D.A.N.C.E. is raising money to support Battlegroundz: Road to The Championship on Feb. 28. Battlegroundz will culminate with a championship, with internationally renowned entertainment, in the fall.
The money helps support a quality program and event, which, Isom said, “means you can bring in professional judges and we can educate a new generation. We want to be able to give quality knowledge about the street dance culture here.”
Since I Am D.A.N.C.E. started hosting this competition three years ago, attendance has gone form 100 to more than 1,000.
A lot of that has to do with the sheer talent present at these events. And it has a lot to do with Isom. He is dedicated and driven (you’ll read… well, you get the idea. Take notes. It’s so worth it.)
“I have so much more in me I have to give,” Isom said. “I’m just getting started.”
How’d you end up in Columbus?
I basically just jumped on a bus and took a leap of faith. Seeing my best friends starting to go to school down here. Cleveland at the time really felt like it was going through a great depression with jobs, especially for an artist. It was Oct. 30, 2008. That’s the day I threw my couch out the window and said, “Alright let’s go.”
At that time I tried some things in Cleveland. It wasn’t that Cleveland wasn’t good enough, but my grandfather told me sometimes you have to travel and go out and bring those resources to your city even if it takes you years and time. You have to go out and expand your mind. Because of that we do have a Cleveland chapter of I Am D.A.N.C.E.
Then I took another leap of faith and tried out for “So You Think You Can Dance?” That was fall 2009.
When I performed at Fox theater, even though I didn’t make the show, I started to really realize what I wanted to do. And I wanted to have a dance company. I did not want to have a dance crew. I did not want to own a dance studio.
I had a weird state of mind. When I sat there in line at 5:00 in the morning and saw that there were 100,000 dancers standing in one line. I was like, you all do know we can come together and build something on our own? Why do we have to stand in this line to get on one show? Great network, but why can’t we all just build our own? I know you all have your own resources out there. So that’s when I was like yeah, I don’t want to do this show again.
You also got to say goodbye to your grandfather during that trip, right?
It was an incredible experience but it also gave me a chance to say goodbye to my grandfather who had passed away years ago. I had never been to Atlanta to say goodbye. So I got to have that experience. He was a painter.
It was really peaceful because he passed away when I was 14. Everyday of my life people were telling me I looked like my grandaddy. Everybody said I was a storyteller when I danced and his name was The Art of Storytelling. Going to his house in Atlanta where he had all his paintings and all our history was in there, I could sense my grandfather’s presence and felt all his energy he had in this room because his art was there. His life was in that art. To say goodbye, I felt more at peace… After that I was like, I have to build something that’s going to build on not just for dancers but the arts of the world.
That’s such a spiritual and artistic journey. What did you do when you got back?
When I came back I bought some notebooks at CVS over there on Ohio State University’s campus and I just started writing night and day. I did not know exactly what I was writing about but everything that was on my mind, I just kept writing it. I got hungry to travel. So I went to New York, to Philly, took some buses, and just started to build my knowledge about dancing, about the industry, about visual arts and I just kept going. I was like, just feed me more. Whatever you know, just tell me. Forget being specific, what do you know about the culture of hip-hop and dancing and music and the history of art. Then I started touching on politics, on education, all that stuff was helping me filter what I wanted to do.
What is some advice you received as an artist that really influenced you?
I had a dance teacher… who exposed me to the art of dance and my state of mind as an entrepreneur. She said, “Don’t be scared to think outside the box. When you start to feel uncomfortable, that’s when you’re starting to do something.” When she told me that, that reminded me of my grandfather. After that it was like, sky’s the limit. She said, just do what you want to do. Just do it. Stop thinking so much. It was like this fire, I just flew like a mustang, just started going.
What did you learn during those early travels?
The biggest thing I learned as far as culture when I went to New York: They don’t care. Bottom line they just, when it comes to trying to succeed and trying to achieve goals, they’re not going to let nobody get in their way. So if you’re over here making a million dollars, they’re trying to pass you. So while you’re throwing money in the air, they’re still working toward their goals as a journalist, as a fashion designer, as a singer. I learned from their culture not to be scared. And don’t put nobody above me. Everybody’s a human being just like you. But the worst thing somebody can say to you is no.
Then I applied that to dancing. Don’t be scared to express what your body is really trying to tell you to do. Don’t try to stop it. Let it go. You don’t know what that move might do. That might be your million dollar move! I stopped trying to control all my movements. I started to study all the styles of dancing from the street dance culture to ballet to modern and African dance. When I started dancing more, my grooves and my rhythm started to change big time. So I went from this kid from Cleveland who had a couple dance moves in one or two styles to a young man who knew multiple styles. I understood the history and culture of them.
Was it difficult for you to let go like that? To not be scared?
Art is really mental to me. One thing I had to do was destroy my ego through this process of traveling and dancing and life. It’s really hard. That’s some nights, some days, took a couple tears. But it was this reality that if you want to go far, you’re going to have to destroy that ego or that ego will destroy you before you even see your own success. So when that happened I was opened to learning every single thing. I never held back. Someone want to teach me footwork? Yeah, show me! Traveling taught me about the culture of the individual. You have to understand the difference between a want and a need.
How do you think about I Am D.A.N.C.E. as a business?
I Am D.A.N.C.E. definitely is a kindergartener that is still trying to find its way. It started off as a baby. The more that we matured the more structure and responsibilities had to come. The older it gets the more accountability we have to take for what we do.
When we first started we were getting involved with everybody we could. At the beginning, I ain’t gonna lie, I think some members didn’t even know what they were in they were just happy to be there. But as I Am D.A.N.C.E. grew older I started to work with great people to figure out what is I Am D.A.N.C.E., what is our mission, what is our purpose, what goals do we have in the next five or ten years. And why? And how is this going to benefit the rest of the members of I Am D.A.N.C.E. Is it a visual company, is it a dance company, is it a movement with a bunch of people just coming together?
And I had to be realistic about my answers. Now I Am D.A.N.C.E. is a brand that is really starting to get to the moment of a true state of mind of what is it like to be a member. A member is someone that is willing to make a difference in their community no matter what part of the world they’re in.
What is the most important aspect of maintaining and growing that business?
Connection. Even in business as a customer service rep [at a bank] I had to learn how to connect with the customers. I had to learn how to sell the product of the savings account, checking account. Then with connection you have to know your product. I had to know my product before I could connect with my customer. I had to know the A’s and B’s of the product. I had to learn how every product and service of the business worked.
And that’s eventually what happened with I Am D.A.N.C.E. I had to learn how to connect with the members and the community and people who just wanted to support us. I learned how to connect with customers, especially in, like, five minutes.
What are you most proud of accomplishing through I Am D.A.N.C.E.?
TedX Columbus 2012 and TedX Youth 2013. It gave us a chance to do a performance on stage without even talking. We performed Michael Jackson “Stranger in Moscow,” and the crowd was crying. We told a whole story about three strangers coming together. I think that represents I Am D.A.N.C.E. right there. People could tell from there that we have a story to tell. From that we did America’s Got Talent in 2013.
Storytelling is important to me because you see a lot of dancers who get on stage and, you know, they’ll do a piece and then they get off stage. But when you go to a show where you see a professional artists, get on stage and perform you can see that that story that they’re doing is powerful because you can see the character, the creativity, the extra hits to the body, whatever style it is.
How do you think about dance now?
In New York they didn’t want you to just do the choreography. They wanted you to feel the choreography, put your life into the choreography. That’s what they wanted. Instead of short term dancing you were going to get that long term artist. So now when I teach I will make you run a move over hundreds of times until you make it yours. When you make it yours you are starting to write you story. You’re starting to write the beginning and the end of your style.
When members bring choreography into I Am D.A.N.C.E. I try to knit pick. “Hey make sure you get the crowd right there. That’s where you need to get the crowd at.” I’ve been like a creative director. You have to make sure that moment is part of your connection. That’s your chance right there. If you lose that chance, they’re not going to get you.
You want to become that Michael Jackson of dance, that James Brown, you want people to feel you. That’s why people love these artists. Michael Jackson was an entertainer but he made you feel Dirty Diana. And you be like, yeah, Dirty Diana!
When you see somebody move and they feel it, you are like, yes, I’m there with you. I don’t know your dance style, but I know the story you are telling.
Do you dance alone?
Oh yeah. I try to take all the time I can get. Whether it’s five minutes or 30 seconds. If I’m in the kitchen, if I could just get 30 seconds to work on a move. Music is like my truest therapy. I come from a family that loves music. I study music very tough because I’m breaking the sounds down and finding where the singer is really in their emotion. … It’s important to me to continue to dance because that’s how I express myself. That and my involvement within the community.
Who are your favorite musicians?
I love Maxwell. Kem Kemistry, he’s a jazz artist. Boney James. My R&B artists Musiq Soulchild, old Usher. I like these artists because I can feel their story. Neo-soul artists, I love almost every neo-soul artist I have ever heard — D’Angelo, India Arie. Hip-Hop is Nas, Jay-Z, J. Cole because there’s a lot of storytelling through their music. Everything I have been through in my life I can connect through a lot of my music.
What’s inspiring your work now?
People being more on their phones than they are on life. I’m inspired by people starting to get a little lazy. It’s kind of weird to say that. I was down in South Carolina not too long ago to see a good friend of mine graduate from the Marine Corps. And when I was watching him graduate, I was about to record him. I put the phone down and thought there’s some things you just can’t record. … So much terrible social media right now, I think people forget about how beautiful this world is. There are a lot of issues in this world that we need to pay attention to. So there’s a lot of pros and cons to social media. Life is making me motivated to continue on making I Am D.A.N.C.E. a bigger international company. Life brings stories and stories connect to people.
How do you find stories?
Just talking to people. Nobody just asks anymore, “Who are you?” I don’t do that on an everyday basis but if I’m out and you and I laugh at the same thing, I’ll start a conversation with you. I was in Starbucks once tying my shoes and I had an I Am D.A.N.C.E. shirt on and this guy came up to me and said, “My son is the guy who records all of J. Cole’s videos.” I was like where do you live? He goes, oh I live here in Columbus. Give me a call, man.
That’s why life right now is my motivation, because of how organic things are and the connections you can make. Some people forget to talk face to face now. Even friend to friend — they’re now arguing on Facebook. This is a part of life, having a face to face conversation about an issue or what’s going on. Social media has done great things to help people connect faster, but there are some organic things that social media just can’t replace. It can’t replace somebody’s passion.
What are your goals as a mentor?
As a mentor my goal is give whatever knowledge I have to the next generation or up and coming individual.
How do you become a member of I Am D.A.N.C.E.?
To become a member of I Am D.A.N.C.E. you go online and download an application, mail it back and we get in touch right away. But we don’t automatically say, “OK, you’re a member.” We take time to get to know you. What are your real goals? What is your gift? It goes back to the basics, that connection, not assuming he put in an application because he wants to be a dancer.
Some people put in an application and they need a family or they have goals but they don’t know how to pursue them or they’re trying to build a network. … What’s really going on? As a member you really go through that artist development. What’s your five year plan? We just had a representative graduate from the Marine Corps and he’s a b-boy. He loves the culture of hip-hop but he had dreams of being an FBI agent and that’s his community service active side kicking in. We make sure that for 30 to 45 days we take the time to invite you to community service, gatherings, training, fitness, everything we get into to learn more about you.
What are your goals for I Am D.A.N.C.E.?
Let’s say you go to Texas, I want you to be able to get online and say, hey are there any members of I Am D.A.N.C.E. in Texas? You should be able to say, “Yeah, I have three members down, what’s wrong?” “Ah, my car broke down and I don’t know nobody.” We want you to be able to have that resource.
I want to be like a Professor X. It was amazing to me to see the academy for people with special abilities, because I feel like that’s what artists are. We have special abilities and gifts. We’re not weird, we have a gift. And that goes for every style of art. We’re not weird we just have special abilities we’re blessed to have. One day I’d like to have schools and centers that represent that.
The biggest thing though is having resources. It’s like WWIII when you’re an artist trying to find opportunities and there’s no where to go. I hope to give that opportunity to people. I feel like we’re definitely en route.
What is the most difficult thing about being an artist?
Doing this without bank loans and investors. I made a promise to myself to try to stay away to getting investors. I have donors. My mentor was the one who said don’t you dare get a bank loan. He said, “I want you to do all you can without doing a bank loan. Don’t be a sellout to your own dream.”
The more I learn about business the more I understand now. When you bring certain individuals to the table they might squash your vision and they might think they’re doing a thing but they might cut off the head without even knowing it.
I’m realistic though. My dad told me to be ready. Study. Understand everything about it — pros, cons, numbers, just be careful.
Sometimes things get hard but I learn so much. There are other options out there. I’m blessed to be in the city where we have GCAC that’s so supportive of the arts. They’re an incredible organization. The Ohio Arts Council. Columbus Foundation. These are great community foundations that are very supportive. And there are individuals in this city that believe in our mission. I don’t feel like I have to hurry up and find an investor.
Sometimes I have a dream about stuff that I want to do. I write out the blueprint. And sometimes I have to bring myself back to earth so I don’t overdrive myself.
How do you differentiate, know when to scale back?
It’s instinct. It’s a gut feeling. You don’t have to rush for anybody. My uncle always told me to trust my own judgement. You work hard, you can trust yourself. If you feel that something’s wrong, than it’s wrong. You’re not ready? It’s OK. You will be ready someday.
What do you do when you get artist’s block?
When I get artist’s block I leave the state. I’ll find out what my two week plans are and I’ll get on a Greyhound bus and go to another state. I did it last summer. I went straight to Philly…. I just walk. I look at the culture of life. I people watch. I see how people act, how people react to things, how they move. They’re like pictures in my brain.
How is Columbus different from these places you visit?
A lot of other cities feel more hungry than us. Especially New York. It’s fast-paced. In Columbus it’s 3 am and the police are out making sure no one’s outside. In New York, it’s pizza and on to the next job or they’re in the studio creating their business. I love that. I love a city that never sleeps. They understand that if I stop now, someone else is about to get ahead of me. Or if I stop now I might not be able to remember this vision I had in front of me. My artist world kicks in between 3 and 6 in the morning.
What’s your greatest advice to young artists and dancers?
Be outside of the box. But do not try to reinvent the wheel. Don’t be scared to be different. Understand that connecting to the people all around the world is important. Don’t be scared to take classes, go to programs that will help you develop. The biggest thing about every owner, entrepreneur or artist is development. If you ignore development you’re going to have a long road.
How do you participate in self development?
I built myself around people that are challenge me on a daily basis. When I talk to my mentors or the people I look up to, they’re always challenging me to read about what’s going on in the world, in social media, traveling. They always challenge me on a different basis. I always try to make sure that I’m not getting comfortable. I’m always making sure my feet are still on fire.
If you could invite three artists, living or dead, to a dinner party who would they be?
Bruce Lee. His state of mind was ahead of his time. The way he felt about the world, the way he felt about martial arts. He felt that if you were a dancer, you were a martial artist. If you were a writer, you were a martial artist. Somebody who was thinking like that in the early 1970s. Where were you at in 1998 when I was going through all these changes in my life? It would be the most incredible conversation.
George Lucas. For him to sit there and build Star Wars as a religion for people? I need to know what is going through your mind as you built that!
Steve Jobs or JK Rowling. They’re brilliant. Or Jay-Z, of course. Whoever’s available to come over to dinner when Bruce Lee gets some time to fly down from the sky.