Desirée Hall: Practice — since age 2 — makes perfect

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow! It hasn’t been much of a white winter so far, but that will soon be rectified.

Tickets are now on sale for Snowball, the annual fundraiser for the Philadelphia dance company JUNK. If you’re not familiar with Brian Sanders and his innovative dance company, this is a perfect way to get a sneak peek at the talented performers, have fun and support a good cause. The “over-the-top, no-holds-barred” event takes place on Feb. 15. In addition to live performances by JUNK dancers, there will be amazing giveaways, a DJ and dancing, prizes for Best Creative Attire and Best Creative Plumes and Philly’s best indoor snowball fight. We spoke to Desirée Hall, one of the dancers on tour with JUNK about her life as a dancer.

Tell me about the Hall family.  I grew up in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Back then, it was a small town, but it has since grown vastly. I have two brothers, both younger than me. My parents divorced when I was young, about 6 years old, but they both still live in the same city, so that made things easy. My mom is a ball of joy. I tell my friends that she still believes that she’s 16 years old and is always driving somewhere. She’s constantly asking me questions about makeup and what the hottest trend is, and she’s always been like that. My dad is a goofball, also with a big-kid-like mentality. I have a feeling of youthfulness and a good sense of humor because of them.

What did they do?  My mom worked in administration for an insurance company, and my dad is a construction worker and has his own company. He built his own community in Fredericksburg.

We need him here in Philly!  I know! I wear one of his shirts with his logo, and people are always asking me, “Hey, could he do such and such for me?” and I’m like, “If I could get him here, he could.” But that’s not likely; he loves his town.

What were you like as a kid when not dancing?  I was a happy kid, not much bothered me. I tended to gravitate toward leadership roles. I love organization and skill-building, so I was very studious that way. On the other hand, I was also very adventurous and would hop on a four-wheeler and ride in the woods. I was very much a tomboy and would, like, wrestle with my brothers — not always by choice!

I read that you started dancing very young?  Yeah, I was 2. The story I heard was that my parents took me to a family friend’s wedding, and during the reception, I was reigning on the dance floor having a ball. But when it came time to clear the floor for toasts and announcements, I was not happy. I didn’t want to stop, so the next day, my parents started looking up dance and movement classes, and I’ve been doing it ever since!

What styles of dance have you learned?  Oh, you name it: lyrical, classical, jazz, tap, hip hop, modern, just about everything. I also act and sing and do theater and acrobatics, circus work; I like to try different things.

I heard somewhere that you were a triple threat, that’s more like an octuple threat! When did you move out of Virginia?  So while I was still in middle school, I started to branch out to studios that were in neighboring states, mostly competition studios, and that’s when I started to learn acrobatics and also studied theater and singing. When I graduated high school, I moved to New York to dance with Alvin Ailey. I’d gotten into a certificate program to study with them for one year. After that, I came to Philadelphia to go to the University of the Arts, and I’ve been here, creating and dancing, ever since!

I read an excerpt about you and another dancer doing a duet. It said, “Desirée Hall and Nick Gillette tested the limits of their physical relationship — and she lifted him as frequently as he lifted her.” You’re obviously strong, when has your physical power benefitted you and when, if ever, has it been a drawback?  Oh wow, what a question. It has definitely benefited me in that — hmm, I guess, let me talk about ways it’s been a detriment first. Being a strong woman has been — and it’s going to sound weird to say, but in some ways, it’s been — my biggest struggle almost my entire life. Just because you’re looked at a little bit differently, sometimes typecast. For example, I was a cheerleader in high school, and I remember so badly wanting to be a flyer. I did not want to be the base, but because I had muscles, I was always stuck at the bottom. But I wished that other females would work as hard as I did, to find their power and not just settle for being lifted all the time. And I still feel that way a lot even today, not that I want to fly or be lifted all the time, but I want the option and the diversity. So yeah, I feel I lack there just a bit, and it’s actually somewhat of an insecurity now, feeling that I’m too strong or heavy to be on top or in the air, even though I know that’s not the case. But it’s hard when the first thing that comes out of people’s mouths is, “Oh, she’s so strong.” [Laughing] It’s either that or something about my eyes!

You do have lovely eyes.  Thank you! So, it’s been challenging, and I’m continually working through those insecurities, but, on the flip side, it’s certainly been beneficial and makes me proud to say, “Man, I’m a strong woman,” and women aren’t usually looked at that way. So within the insecurities, I look at myself, and I am proud for being unique. I try to remind myself time and again that it’s not a fault, it’s a strength.

Switching gears, when did you come out, and how did you tell the fam?  I sort of, unwillingly, came out to my dad in 2011. My brothers found out that I was dating a woman, and they … well, they couldn’t keep their mouths shut! So one day at dinner, when the whole family was sitting down, I don’t remember which one, but one of my brothers said something about me dating this woman, and that obviously garnered a few questions from my dad. I was furious at the time, but in hindsight, it was a good thing. I’m now grateful for that push because I don’t know how long it would have taken me to come out otherwise. I would have done it eventually, but living in Philly made it easy to avoid.

They ripped the bandage off.  Yeah, and it was fine. My dad had a lot of questions; he wanted to know why, how, what, but it was a genuine interest in my life, and it was a beautiful conversation.

And mom?  Yeah, that took a little longer, I didn’t come out to her until kind of recently. We’ve had some relationship issues that made me uncomfortable about telling her, and she’s also really religious, which played a factor. I had it in my brain that she was going to disown me and exile me from her life, all of the things that pop in your head when you’re like, “I’ve got to tell her at some time that I’m not who she thinks I am.” But I’ve been with my partner for almost five years, and I want to be with her for the rest of my life, and I knew it wasn’t fair for her not to be known to my family. I felt like I was disrespecting her. So I decided I needed to not worry about anything and just tell my mother. So we drove six hours to West Virginia, and I told her. She got quiet and said, “You know I don’t believe in that, it’s not right,” and I said, [in a kid’s defiant voice] “Well, if you think about it, you like men, that’s your preference, and I prefer women. It’s just how we were made.” And to my surprise, I saw the gears turning in her head, and she said, “You’re right.” She told me she still didn’t believe in it but that she loved me and I had the right to be me. She has been supportive ever since. It wasn’t the disaster that I swore it was going to be for years. It felt so, so good to tell her.

Speaking of your partner, you had a very personal piece called “The Edge” last year that you did with Almanac Dance Circus Theatre that was about her.   Yes, she was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer, and I did a performance piece that was a mix of dance, theater, music and storytelling, tackling different aspects of what we were going through, along with another performer who told their story of dealing with a family member with Alzheimer’s. It was a beautiful experience to have so many people care about our lives.

What’s your partner’s name?  It’s spelled Shary but pronounced Chah-ree. [Laughing] She’s Latina so you have to roll the “R.”

How did you get involved with Brian Sanders?  I did a show in October called, “The Dancing Dead,” and I’ve been working on projects with him ever since then. We’re at a corporate gig in Florida right now.

I’ve interviewed Brian before; he is known for his outrageous and fun shows that push boundaries for both the audience and the dancers. What’s the wildest thing he’s had you do?  For “Dancing Dead,” he had me jumping out of a window and catching a leather strap about one story off the ground. We weren’t haltered in at all, just using our hands to hang on suspended above the audience.

Wow. OK, random questions. How many times did you fail your driver’s license test?  Oh gosh, ha, ha! I failed the written test three times!

If you were to be reincarnated as an animal, what would you be and why?  I’ve thought about this, and it’s always changing. But right now, I’m thinking Spider Monkey. I’d love the freedom of just swinging from tree to tree soaring through the air. It’s kind of the way I live my life, jumping from one thing to another, dance to acrobatics, etc.

I’m addicted to…  Nature. I’m a country girl at heart. I moved to Roxborough, so I’m right near the Wissahickon park, and I try to make every attempt to be there all the time if it’s not too cold. I need grass and trees and to hear some crickets at night.

What kind of music would people be surprised to know you listen to?  People who know me know I listen to everything! [Laughing] I know the words to every song, except for country!

I’m looking forward to the Snowball fundraiser. Why is it so important for people to support the arts?  It’s vitally important. In my personal experience, trying to fund our performance of The Edge — it’s really hard. There’s a shrinking amount of public funding for the arts, so we have to rely on everyday people to help out beyond just buying tickets to the shows. A lot of people enjoy the arts. Everywhere I go I hear, “It’s so cool, we go to shows all the time,” which is great, but we need to make people aware that unfortunately, that’s not always enough. Fundraisers like Snowball, help companies survive.

I love the fact that JUNK does so much gender-bending, just as part of the show. You have male dancers dancing together and female couples as well, just as routine.   Yeah, it really breaks the gender norm. It’s not something that you see a lot. And getting back to being a strong woman, that’s when I really enjoy it. When you are a lady base for another woman, it’s super empowering, and a lot of people will come up to me afterward, and their comments will reflect that. I’m still coming to grips with embracing it, but doing it in this context feels really good.

I think you should get a personalized license plate that says “Lady Base.”  I’ve actually thought of that! It’s got a nice ring to it.

For more information about Snowball, visit: