Assistant to The Squared Division Mentors New Talent
Interview by Chris Duncan
From a shy, quiet teenager, Kaylie Yee has grown into a confident entrepreneurial woman and performer who is now ready to pass on her skills and knowledge to the next generation of performers. The pandemic recently presented Kaylie with the opportunity to finally develop her program to assist young dancers which has been stewing away in her mind since she was 21!
Kaylie received her ‘big break’ back in 2013 when she was both a dancer and assistant choreographer on Britney Spears show in USA. After working successfully for many years in the US, Kaylie is back teaching and recently ran workshops at the Light The Way Dance Convention by Kelley Abbey and Louise Telford.
Chris Duncan recently caught up with Kaylie who said she was blown away by the hunger, talent and stamina of the young Aussie dancers she saw at Light The Way.
Q: When you come back to Australia, do you feel that there’s more hunger and energy from Australian dancers than you see in the US?
I wouldn’t say there is more but I definitely feel the hunger in the Aussie kids and they’re just so eager to be noticed, to be seen, to get any kind of feedback or attention in class, because they’re working so hard. I feel that energy from them and they really just want to soak up as much experience and feedback as they can; which I love about Australian dancers! They’ve always had great attitudes and I’m happy to see that when I come back. Internationally there are a lot of hungry dancers too who are desperate just to work; but I think there’s also a lot of ego and attitude that comes in with it. Whereas Aussies tend to be a little bit more humble, and I love that.
I just wish that there was more work for all the great dancers Australia produces. Overall, that’s the hard thing about the industry here – there are so many great dancers and not enough work. They graduate from school and they might go to a full-time studio, and then they graduate from that and they’re so ready to work. But from what I’m seeing, a lot of dancers don’t really start to work until their mid-twenties, because there’s just not enough around. So everyone’s kind of waiting his or her turn… that opening. And they really have to be patient and work on so many other aspects of the industry, not just their dance steps. There are so many other skills that they have to learn and develop to keep the longevity and to actually get in with a chance.
In the meantime, I think it’s important to just get more performance opportunities. It’s great to dream of and go after the big glamorous jobs, but it’s the bread-and-butter work where it’s at. It’s not all about signing a contract with a big pop artist or doing TV shows. Take all the performance opportunities, whether it’s at local festivals, cabarets and club shows or corporate jobs you can… Hopefully more of those performance opportunities will return in Australia after COVID and the economy improves.
Q: How did your dance training and career start?
I grew up in the family dance business, as my mum owned Glenda Yee School of Dance and my dad managed the business. My grandfather was my singing teacher and my grandma was my first dance teacher when I was three years old. So I grew up just loving dance because it was my community. It was my family and friends and it just felt like a supportive community for a young girl to grow up in.
It wasn’t until I was in my early teenage years that I really developed a fire in my belly for dancing. My dance teacher, Jade Barnes, took me to my first pop concert to see Janet Jackson and that’s when I really started to see that dance could be a career for me. Watching her back-up dancers perform on that arena stage in front of thousands of screaming fans, I thought, “Wow, this is something that I could do when I grow up!”
So it was in my teens that I started to really take it more seriously and set myself goals and challenges. Ironically, I was a very shy child and didn’t like the limelight, which is funny because I’ve chosen a career as a performer. My brother loved the competition and performing, but for me it was just because it was my family and a safe place. That’s why I enjoyed it, but I didn’t actually like the spotlight of people looking at me. I felt it was nervous energy. It was something that I knew I had to work on, to get over as a teenager, if I wanted to become a dancer. I had to be better at communicating for myself and not be shy anymore and get better at promoting myself. And that was hard for a shy child, you know?
It really was all through our family business and the opportunities that my mum and grandfather got us… like doing ‘Nesquik’ shows at Stockland and Westfield malls where I would host and sing and dance.
I also grew up with Nikki Webster and we’ve been great friends since we were eleven. We had the same agent and grew up together in modelling shows and doing castings for commercials. Then she got the role in the Sydney Olympics’ Opening Ceremony and got her record deal, and she asked me to be one of her dancers. So in my teenage years I was so fortunate enough to perform with her. We did a bunch of music videos, like ‘Strawberry Kisses’, and toured around Australia. That’s when I was introduced to the role of being a dance captain, at around 15, and got a bit of a taste of what it would be like to be a professional dancer.
I completed high school at The McDonald College of performing arts and then my dad gave me one year to figure out if I could make a career out of dance or not, if I didn’t want to continue to study. That was a big test… a bit of good pressure.
Back then, there was a big dance convention called SourceDance. In my final year at school I did SourceDance and won a scholarship to the Broadway Dance Centre in New York. For me, personally, I knew that I needed life experience in my training and to be in a different environment. I needed to grow up and learn how to communicate and be an adult, and not just be ‘Glenda’s daughter’. It was important for me to get out of my comfort zone at home; and so I did that in New York and LA for three months. When I came back to Australia I just started auditioning for jobs as I was already signed onto Grayboy Entertainment from working with Nikki Webster.
One of the first auditions I did was for Miss Saigon, and even though I don’t call myself a singer, it was a skill I had trained for… it was my first big contract that I did for 18 months touring Australia. Being an opera musical, I couldn’t fall back on just dancing. It was dramatic acting and singing and that was a brilliant experience for me to work with people who were so talented in those fields.
Q: But you didn’t stay in musical theatre … what happened next?
I was 21 and had done this incredible musical, and was trying to figure out what was next. I auditioned for So You Think You Can Dance, because I knew I needed to network more and meet other choreographers. Through that I met Matt Lee, Jason Coleman and Kate Wormald. I had actually met them all before, but as a child, or as a student still in training; but I wanted them to see me as an adult now… as a woman who’s ready to work and to book! Even though I didn’t get into the top 20, it was a great experience for choreographers to see me in that capacity. It was after that show that I just started booking anything and everything I could get!
I did a bunch of little corporate gigs and then I got a phone call from Wayne and Katie Kermond to join their first cast of a show they were putting together called Candy Man. I actually met The Squared Division through doing this show together and we sort of developed our relationship from there.
We started as friends who were performing together and then I started working for them as a dancer, which actually turned into me being an assistant for them on The X-Factor for three seasons. Around this time, Ash and Ant [The Squared Division] were so busy. They were working on big jobs like the Sydney Mardi Gras with Kylie Minogue, The X Factor was also bringing in a lot of international artists as guests that they were choreographing for. Singers like Ke$ha, Jessie J, Rita Ora, Flo Rida, Taylor Swift were some of the artists I was dancing and assisting The Squared Division on. And then on top of that there were so many Aussie artists too like Jessica Mauboy, The Rogue Traders, Delta Goodrem, Amy Pearson.
It got to a point in my mid-twenties where I was very comfortable here and I was loving my career, but I knew that there was something more for me. I started applying for my American visa so I could work with The Squared Division over there.
Ash and Ant had made their own connections over there and had started working for Kesha in America. I was getting my work visa organised when the job came in to be an assistant choreographer for Kesha on her world tour, so they offered me the job.
I waited weeks for my visa to be approved; everyone was stressed. Ash was about to replace me in the show because they couldn’t wait any longer. On the final day I got my passport back, booked a flight from the embassy and went straight to the airport for a plane to LA. I went straight to rehearsals from LAX. And that was my first job in the States.
Q: So what came after the Kesha job?
So after Kesha, I had signed the next year’s contract for X-Factor. As that contract was coming up, The Squared Division were offered the opportunity to audition themselves as Britney Spears’ choreographers. They told me they were going after the job and asked me to assist them. It was in 2013.
We flew back and forth from LA to Sydney quite a few times, but I was supporting them and wanted to learn from it. I knew that I had X-Factor coming up and that I had already committed myself to another job. But in the meantime, I thought, “If I can learn anything from this and help them and be a part of this experience, I’m there.”
It got to a point where one day I was choreographing with them here on X-Factor; I was in rehearsals and Ash told everybody to take a 10-minute break, as he needed to speak to me. I thought I had done something wrong, but he actually asked me to go to LA and assist with Britney’s show as the job was getting big and needed to happen quickly. Like, how do I say yes in every language?!! So I went home from work that day. Talked to my parents, packed my bags, and I was on the plane the next day.
Ash stayed here to finish off X-Factor and I went over to start assisting Antony with choreography. They had already started the auditions for dancers, but I had previously filmed myself and another Australian dancer just in case there was a slim chance I was even going to go to the US. I just filmed myself in this audition choreography and I had it with me ready anyway. So when I was going over to assist him, the director allowed me to submit the audition tape and come to the next round of auditions. I had worked with the director only once before, in Australia, for a Taylor Swift performance, so he knew me just from that one little experience, took my tape and asked me to come to the final call back … and I got the job!
Q: Where preparation meets opportunity, magic happens, doesn’t it?
Exactly. You have to be ready. I knew going for that audition, that there was a big chance that I wouldn’t get it as a dancer, but I’d already accepted it as the assistant choreographer. People assumed I got the job because I was already assisting The Squared Division, but I had to explain that it’s not the choreographer who gets to make all the decisions. There’s a huge team. There’s Britney’s management team, the production team, the director, his assistant, then there’s the choreographer. There are so many people involved, that it’s not down to just the two friends that I know on the panel. There were like a dozen people there who I didn’t know and still had to impress.
I explain auditions to my coaching students that it’s like a jigsaw puzzle; an individual piece can be so strong and stand out but it needs to fit into the bigger picture to succeed. It’s out of your control.
The process was a big risk for me, but it paid off in the end.
Q: How long did you work with Britney Spears on that job?
The first contract was for two years, and then we got extended another two years. And in the fifth year we actually went on tour with Britney, so I was with her for five years up until 2018.
All of the performance opportunities that I got with her were more than I had even listed on my goals list. It all happened in such a whirlwind for me, to even get there, it happened way quicker than I thought. She took us on two different world tours and we even went to London just for a quick five-day trip to do an iTunes concert and to perform on TV shows over there. We did multiple American award shows and TV shows. Working with Britney ticked so many boxes for me.
Q: That’s a long time on one job as a dancer, what did you do next?
As the contract was coming to an end, I needed to rediscover what it is that I wanted to do next. I really wanted to get back to my assisting and choreographing with The Squared Division, because that was something that I couldn’t keep up with while I was dancing full time for Britney. So we reunited and started working together again. Since then, the last few years of working with them has just been incredible. The experience I got performing with Britney really filled up my cup, and now I can actually say I’m happy to be on the other side. That’s not to say that I’ll never perform again, but I love assisting them. I love the work that I do on different TV shows and putting together the shows for the artists and teaching the routines to the dancers. I’ve loved teaching my whole life. I’ve been with them now the last four or five years and I’m always busy and working; they’re always going from job to job. And I’ve been lucky enough to be on this ride with them.
Q: Does all your experience as a performer bring a wealth of knowledge to your role as an assistant choreographer?
Absolutely. As an assistant in this capacity, I have to be across every area that they’re across. So when they’re creative directors, as well as choreographers, they have their fingertips on every single part of a show. So for me, it’s not just about listening and doing what they want, but I have to understand every single part and I have to be able to communicate with every single team, and that is a huge array of skills that you sort of have to pick up along the way. It’s not something that can be learned quickly.
Plus, I’ve always been interested in every aspect of the industry. That’s been a part of my personality, but also my upbringing, my family has always been so respectful to every department on a show. I love knowing about the musicians, the lighting concepts, the production and stage, and every worker that is involved in putting together a show… that is a part of me. So I think I’ve been openly observant to everybody, and that’s how I’ve picked up those skills.
Q: Tell us about the Beyond Dance program you have developed for performers?
When COVID shut everything down, I finally had the opportunity to write Beyond Dance, which is my intensive course for dancers. Back when my mum owned GY Dance I developed a program with her called Elite as I always felt like dancers needed more than just dance steps and physical skills in their training. Since then, it’s always been in my mind to write a course for young dancers who are either in full-time training or who have just finished, that will provide them with all the skills that they need to really give themselves a good long career.
Navigating this industry, just gets harder and harder. And everything that I’ve learned, like all the little skills that I’ve picked up along the way and mistakes that I’ve made, have taught me how to survive and succeed. So, I finally wrote Beyond Dance. It’s a six-week program with five different chapters. All the topics that have given me the career that I have in this industry. They’re just as important to me as your stretching, flexibility and being versatile in styles. It’s another side of being a professional in the industry that I think there’s not enough emphasis placed on.
Even though Covid was hard because all of my work was taken away, I actually spent the time writing this program and I ran my first course during the pandemic. I did it with nine girls that I had taught in my past and from there I just knew it was going to work. It just kept getting more solidified the more I did it. Now I’m about to launch season four.
Q: How can dancers participate in your program?
Super easy. They can just hop onto my website kaylieyee.com and go to the Beyond Dance page. This will keep you updated with when I launch the next program and how to sign up. You can also follow my Instagram @kaylie_yee because I’ll always keep that up-to-date.
I keep each season of Beyond Dance to a contained number of performers because I give as much as I can to every student. It’s not just about passing on information but for me, it’s about getting to know each other so that I can give personalised feedback and guidance. That’s how we really make the most of our time together. courses.kaylieyee.com
Q: It’s nice to see that you’ve come full circle from a very shy teenager … you’ve got so much to give …
Thank You. I think that is kind of the funny thing about it. It was a dance teacher. It was actually Keith Hawley, who said to my mum when I was 15. If she wants to be a professional dancer, she really has to concentrate on knowing how to have a conversation, because I was so shy. And since getting that feedback, when I was younger, I realised, okay, this is it. Like, somebody’s just given me gold. And I’m either going to do something about it or I’m going to ignore it. And I chose to really work on it. And now I see how helpful that has been. And throughout every job that I do, it’s all about communication, building relationships.
Q: Absolutely! Not enough people give that value …
Exactly. We don’t just want one job now. We want the next one and the next one and the next one. And you have to build trust, reliability, loyalty.
Q: In order for us to build an industry together as a community, we can’t be tearing other people down … you are actually destroying part of the industry by doing that don’t you think?
The industry is not big enough to have your own lane without other people in it. We all have our own pathways but it all intertwines, and we all have to work together. You can’t avoid doing that, unless you’re going to minimise the opportunities that you want to take. If you want to be out there and taking as many jobs as possible, you have to be able to work with people and you have to be able to communicate. It’s so important.