If you’re not familiar with Yanis Marshall‘s work, you might one be one of the last people on Earth to be in the dark. The YouTube videos of his choreographies have garnered millions of views and have changed the way people look at men’s performance, even if challenging gender expression was never his initial intent. Long before his Spice Girls video went viral this summer, he had been slowly chipping away at internet stardom with his in-studio performances, made with such consistent quality that his energy seemed as limitless as it was contagious (just try not to dance along while watching one of his numbers).
When he sat down with me in a Paris café — in-between the many dance classes he teaches weekly — to talk about his work and his life, that energy was visible, even as he kept himself still for a few questions. Whether he was slipping from French into an English expression, or attending to his well-behaved dalmation (named “Prince,” for those who might be curious), everything he did was as fluid and as effortless as his hundreds of routines. It would have been intimidating, but he made being nice look effortless, too.
Thought Catalog: So, first things first: let’s talk about how you got into dance.
Yanis Marshall: I’ve been dancing all my life, it never really felt like something I “got into” in that way. My mother is a dancer and a dance teacher, and so I grew up with that around me and began doing it from a young age. I was maybe three or four when I started dancing, but I was probably dancing before that.
TC: Did you study it formally?
YM: Yes, I studied dance all my life, as well as at a conservatoire for college. I studied all kinds of dance — classical, jazz, lyrical, pop, really anything.
TC: The kind of dance you do for your videos — is that your favorite kind? I guess it would jazz-pop?
YM: Yes, I love it, that’s what I teach. But I really love everything, honestly. I know it sounds cliché but I love almost all of the dance I have done, I love classical and lyrical, but no one wants to see those videos as much on YouTube. [Laughs] You have to embrace what’s popular at a certain point, and I don’t mind doing that.
TC: Did you set out to become internet famous?
YM: No, and I don’t think that you really can. I think that if you set out to be famous, and you’re constantly pushing your stuff on people, no one will care about it. I don’t want to be the best dancer or the most popular, I just want to do the things that I like and be true to myself. If you’re doing something that isn’t honest or isn’t what you care about, people can tell. They’re not stupid, you know?
TC: How long does it take you to choreograph one of your dances, like we see in the video?
YM: Not very long, maybe a half hour or an hour.
TC: Wow, that seems so fast!
YM: [Laughs] I mean, after, we rehearse it all week and then film at the end of the week. But the actual choreography doesn’t take that long, no. I’ve been doing this for a long time! It’s the rehearsal and getting to perfect everything that takes a long time.
TC: Are all of your students advanced, like the ones we see in your videos?
YM: No, I have all levels, really. I mean, you have to have some basic skill when you take one of my classes, but I don’t mind starting with real beginners. I love being a teacher, you get to learn new things every day and you get to watch people progress. I wouldn’t be a teacher if I didn’t like taking people who weren’t perfect. I know that there are some people who don’t have the patience for that, but I think it’s one of the best parts of being a teacher.
TC: What made you decide to do your performances in heels?
YM: I started doing it a few years ago, and it just kind of caught on! People seemed to like it, and I enjoyed it. It never really seemed like a big deal to me, it’s just that a lot of these dances — when they are choreographed for the star — are performed in heels. It seemed natural.
TC: That’s cool. I think it seems like a big deal maybe to some of your followers — I think it must be nice to see someone who is so comfortable being who they are, it’s still shocking for a lot of people who don’t live in New York or Paris, you know?
YM: I know that there are young gay kids in small towns who probably look at this and think, “Wow, I wish I could be open like he is being,” but I never looked at it like it was a gender statement. It was just me dancing, and doing what I wanted to do. If I wear heels, it’s just a man wearing heels. I appreciate that I could be a role model for some younger people, but it was not my intention. I think that might be inspiring, though, just someone living their life.
TC: You must get a lot of fan mail.
YM: People are so supportive! I get so many kind messages, and I want to respond to them all, but sometimes you just can’t. I even miss some big opportunities that people send by Facebook message or Twitter message because I can’t keep up with them. It’s actually really frustrating sometimes, like, I wish I would have seen that message! It was important!
TC: You dance to a lot of different artists from different eras, who do you think is the best performer right now?
YM: Beyoncé is the best overall, no question. She has the best look, the best music, the best overall image. She is a pure diva. She knows who to surround herself with, and that is the most important part of being an artist right now. You have to know who to work with, because no one could do it alone, and whoever you pick to do your choreography is going to be a reflection on you.
TC: Who is someone that is not surrounding themselves with the right people right now?
YM: Britney. I will always love Britney, but she just doesn’t know what’s right for her, and the people who are working with her are not giving her the right kind of choreography or look for her body and her age. She’s not being smart about it.
TC: Is Beyoncé your favorite artist?
YM: No, that will always be Barbara Streisand.
TC: [Laughs] Really?
YM: Oh, yes. She is classic, she’s untouchable. I love her so much, she will never go out of style.
TC: I know you also have a really big admiration for Madonna. What do you love about her so much?
YM: Well we have to think about her in terms of her era, she was so revolutionary with the stuff she put out, and she was supporting the LGBT community way before it was something that was okay to do. She was pushing the boundaries of sex and femininity and sexuality and no one knew how to respond to her. We’re so used to it by now that we forget how different she was, but she really changed so many people and she allowed people to feel like they could be themselves. She was doing it honestly.
TC: Do you think she’s aging gracefully, though? Sometimes it seems like she doesn’t know how to adapt.
YM: Fuck that! People get on her in the magazines for having old-looking arms or still wearing certain clothes, but fuck them! She’s not in a club showing her vagina or sleeping with a new man every week, but even if she was? She is an artist and she created so many opportunities. We owe her so much, and we forget about how much she did. She was there for us when no one else was.
TC: It sometimes seems that the way Lady Gaga does LGBT support, it’s almost cynical, almost like a commodity.
YM: Absolutely. But Lady Gaga is a commodity. When you look at her old videos — and she’s incredibly talented, she’s an absolute genius of marketing and performance, don’t get me wrong — but when you look at her old videos, you see a totally different person. She made this image for us, and she is using what we want to hear. She is not doing it like Madonna. That’s who Madonna was, this is who Lady Gaga thinks we want.
TC: But to some degree, isn’t that what all artists need to do?
YM: Yes, of course. There is a lot of pressure to look and be a certain way. But people know when it’s just marketing, I think.
TC: Do you feel pressure to be a certain way?
YM: Of course. I mean, I’m not perfect. I drink, I smoke, I eat (probably more than I should). But that’s life, you know? I’m not going to give up being a human to have the perfect body or the perfect look, because you can never keep up. At a certain point, you just have to accept that there is a balance between having the right image and also having a life that you enjoy.
TC: Do you think that pressure is greater for women?
YM: Oh, of course. Without a doubt. Look at the way we talk about Madonna!
TC: Do you have any advice for people who would want to make it big on the internet?
YM: I think two things are important, in any kind of art: Be yourself and do the things that interest you, not the things that you think people want to see or will be the most popular. People can tell when it’s not sincere, and they won’t like it. And when it comes to promotion, just be available. You don’t need to promote yourself constantly, you just need to give people a way to find you. If you’re on social networks — and you’re kind to your fans — people will grow and come to you. There’s too much self-promotion right now, and the good stuff speaks for itself.
TC: Where do you want to be in ten years, do you think?
YM: I want to be dancing. I want to be dancing at whatever age, and I hope it’s possible. That’s what should matter, I think. If you’re still doing what you love, that should be enough.