Hip hop dancer Randall Mella breaks barriers
- Los Angeles, California
- Photography by Sebastián Brown
Randall Mella is a hip hop dancer and choreographer from Edmonton, Alberta. He has competed in world-class competitions such as Hip Hop International, Artists Emerge and World of Dance. Randall has danced on set for the Netflix series Julie and the Phantoms and performed alongside Lia Cole for multiple music videos and live shows including a tour in Asia. His dance crew, Cool Giraffes, have made their mark on the hip hop competition scene finishing in first place at Hip Hop International Canada 2019 and in the top ten at Hip Hop International 2018. Randall has worked closely with other industry leading choreographers including Kenny Ortega, Paul Becker, Alexander Chung, Fefe Burgos, Anze Skrube and Carlo Atienza.
This interview has been edited for readability, clarity and conciseness.
When did you start dancing?
I began dancing at the age of four with the well known Filipino cultural dance company Philippine Barangay Performing Arts Society. I learned traditional Filipino dancing along with hip hop. I fell in love with dance and especially hip hop because it was just so fun! Years later I began training at Kore Dance Studio and immersed myself in hip hop culture, attending street cyphers and battles. It was cool to be able to groove to music and so satisfying when you could do really cool moves. It was always exciting to me in so many different ways. I love learning new things in the studio, watching battles and competitions. I love to look back and watch old videos and witness your growth.
One of your specialties is break dancing. What do you love most about it?
Breaking is a freestyle dance, adding a new layer of creativity and power to my floor work. Each dance, each routine, they’re all different. Each dancer brings their own style to breaking that no one else in the world has. Each routine is different even if it is made to the same song.
What challenges have you had to face becoming a dancer?
I’ve been told so many times in my life that dance is a tough career path. That only the select few will be lucky enough to make it, and how dangerous it is when you are not one of those select few. I was told that I would have a tough time in the dance industry because I didn’t have the right look. That made me super insecure about my height and race. These insecurities lead to new ones. I felt I was always competing against every other dancer in the room and watching others succeed became hard for me. I even felt like newer dancers who started after me were being granted opportunities that I could not have because I didn’t look the part.
Did you also feel pressure to follow a more traditional and stable career path?
Yes, after high school I went to university to obtain a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering. I had certain family expectations and didn’t want to disappoint anyone. My parents had a lot of assumptions about the lack of stability in an artist lifestyle. They sacrificed the life they had in the Philippines and started over in Canada so that my brothers and I could obtain a better education. I have two older brothers who at the time were both finished university and engaged. Dancing less and less each year, I completed three years towards my degree, but I found myself unhappy with the idea of working as an engineer for the rest of my life.
Like a sign from the universe, World of Dance came to town at a time when you needed it most, pushing you to rediscover your love of dance. Tell us about that.
World of Dance came around when I felt like life really wasn’t going my way. I saw this competition as an opportunity to do what I love again after missing it for so long. Dance was slowly easing it’s way back into my life. I never imagined everything that came after World of Dance to happen.
You entered the competition with what is now your dance crew, Cool Giraffes.
Yes, I gathered my group of friends and entered the competition just to simply familiarize myself with choreographing, creating and performing again. Because of this performance, I was offered two jobs right away to begin teaching at studios and asked to co-direct a professional dance company in my city and eventually became the beginning of my dance career.
Watch the Cool Giraffes perform at Hip Hop International here.
How did you make the decision to follow your own destiny and stay true to yourself and your passion?
My decision to pursue dancing over my on-going engineering career was very tough for my parents to understand, especially with three years of engineering education completed. I was very lucky that my brothers were extra supportive of my dancing to help make up for some of the doubt from my parents. However, my parents eventually began to understand my work and found acceptance after being present for some of my successes. I found that to be very lucky considering even friends in my field still have not received acceptance for their artist career path. Although putting my dreams aside for education was a tough chapter in my life, I’m very grateful it happened knowing the timing of everything to come after felt like a sign that the universe had a plan for me all along. Only those with a certain amount of tenacity will make it, and at the time I did not have the mental toughness required to pursue my dreams. However, this all eventually changed once I learned that every and any career path is tough in it’s own aspect.
Teaching at multiple studios, you have offered workshops as well as choreography for stage. What do you love most about teaching dance?
Teaching dance, I’ve been able to share my stories, my hardships and my triumphs. I dedicate myself to helping my students grow in new skills, knowledge and confidence, while having fun in the process. I’ve been able to help shape the lives of others around me and inspire those with dreams to keep pursuing them!
What’s your teaching style?
Teaching is for the students! Good choreographers create amazing dances, but teaching is a different skill and I believe the root of it should always be to help lift students to new heights! I try to prioritize two things: making the process of learning new movement fun and ensuring that students are getting something new out of their experience. I’ve taken a lot of classes that have felt underwhelming for reasons that usually stem from a sense that the teacher isn’t doing it for the students. I love showcasing my choreography, but I believe class should simply be the opportunity for students to learn new things and test new ideas in a safe space. With that in mind, every time I teach it’s always a little bit different from the last. Different songs bring different energies. I like to find ways to emphasize that by either dimming the lights for moody pieces, raising the volume and my energy for hype pieces, or setting characters for students to try portraying themselves as while they perform the routine.
What do you wish dancers would or wouldn’t do at classes or workshops?
I think dancers are getting too wrapped in this idea that classes are actually auditions and add an extra pressure to themselves to “kill” the choreography and that can lead to dissatisfaction when those goals aren’t met. Having the mindset of just exploring something new will ultimately lead students to recognition of their hard work and I hope to be setting those environments for my students.
In terms of choreography, what’s your process?
It’s actually an inconsistent process: sometimes I choreograph just freestyling and putting random combinations together, and sometimes I sit down and close my eyes and envision what visuals I’m trying to create. However every time it consists of really listening to the music for all it’s details, choosing exactly what specific layers of sounds I want to dance to: vocals, percussion, horns, strings, synths. It’s essentially matching my movement to the feeling that a song is giving me; after feeling a certain way listening to a song I can construct my own story to tell through my movement. The hardest part of it all is starting and ending. Starting is always tough, putting your initial idea down can be critical as it sometimes directs the course of the whole piece. Knowing when to say I’m done is a tricky scenario every artist has to learn to balance since most artists are perfectionists within reason.
What books inspire you?
I love books! Ever since leaving university, I promised myself I would at least still keep learning in other ways and books have been able to fill that hole for me. My favorites are The Power of Focus, How to Win Friends & Influence People, and The Secret! I love books that grant me a new understanding of new topics and I try to find ways to incorporate what I learn and adapt it into my lifestyle. I’ve read books regarding personal finance, business, marketing, acting, producing, and parenting. For example, I am not a parent but reading parenting books has taught me how to understand kids better and new methods of approaching teaching new skills to children.
Do you have a favorite music genre?
When it comes to music, I can honestly say I listen to all genres. I love thinking about how different styles of music are just different stories being told by all sorts of interesting people from around the world. In hip-hop, the music is a reflection of the artist’s reality. It opens up a world that some people before would not understand because their lifestyle is different than what they are listening to, and yet they can relate to the artists emotions because although they live different lives they can understand why an artist would feel that way.
Do you listen to podcasts and if so which ones?
Yes, I love listening to podcasts especially from other professionals in the dance industry. Some of the particular podcasts I listen to a lot are The Dance Podcast by Lauren Ritchie and Kinjaz Podcast by Ben Chung and Jeremy Lai. Listening to them talk about their stories, trials, and triumphs not only gives me a lot of insight of what to look for in the industry but also reminds me that everyone has their own obstacles specific to their own lives and that there are ways to hurdle your obstacles to reach your goals.
What has been one of the biggest steps you have taken to take your career to the next level?
Getting an agent. Being selected among eight hundred other dancers in LA was a feat that I once thought would be impossible for me to accomplish. This was to me was not just about reaching another goal in dance, it was also proving to myself that all the doubts I had about myself being a thriving member in the dance industry were wrong. It was a true test of my talent, hard work and perseverance combined with some luck and having it work out in the end was the most satisfying feeling I’ve ever felt. It was an accumulation of everything I’ve learned and worked towards up to that point but also the beginning of the next chapter of my life and career as a dancer!
Do you plan on living in Los Angeles in the future to achieve the next level in your career?
Yes! The next level would be working as a dancer in LA. To me LA is the hub of the dance industry! Every time I’ve been to LA I’ve been inspired in so many new ways, both in dance and in lifestyle. There’s this sink or swim mentality that motivates me to keep hustling and grinding daily towards my goals. My personal goals involve specific jobs and opportunities that are more likely to be found as a working dancer in LA. There are simply experiences and opportunities, that although aren’t exclusive, are more frequent and accessible. I do want to travel the world, training and teaching in different communities, but there’s this intensity in LA that keeps me coming back. I find a lot of people also think the same and therefore in LA I find myself meeting dancers from all over the world in this central hub. Plus escaping the cold winters of Canada is enough of a reason for me to live there! I believe there are opportunities there that will be the stepping stones that will bring me closer to my wildest dreams.
What are those dreams? What’s on your vision board?
I really want to do it all! Dance on live televised stages such as the VMA’s, Grammy’s and the Superbowl Halftime Show. I’d love to perform alongside a music artist on their tour and be cast in a musical as iconic as West Side Story, La La Land or You Got Served. I also have aspirations to be an internationally recognized choreographer as well as creative directing for large-scale productions. I definitely believe that all of these opportunities are within my reach and that I will be able to accomplish these while establishing myself as a dancer living in LA.
What does dance mean to you?
Now that I’m older, dance has become more than just movement, it has become an universal language that has allowed me to connect with people all over the world. I’ve made friends in classes that don’t even speak the same language as me but we vibe together through sharing a passion for dance. Dance has given me a purpose, something that people go their whole lives searching for. I’m very privileged to have had dance with me my whole life and I could imagine my life without it!
What’s your advice for people who have doubters in their life?
When I think of doubters, I think about the Wright brothers and their dreams of creating the first inventing the first machine to allow humans to travel in the sky! Every idea seems crazy until it’s done! If other people are doubting you, you could listen to them but you don’t have to receive everything being said. The people who are really close to you in your life, such as friends and family, might have their doubts only because they care and worry for you. I’ve had these doubters in my life too, but I would not be where I am if I listened to every single thing others were telling me to do or not to do. Ultimately you have to know what’s best for yourself and have to fully believe in yourself.
You have to bring the right mindset.
Exactly. I personally choose not to think about the fears and doubts. Instead I focus more on the satisfaction of achieving my goals, especially alongside the satisfaction of proving my doubters wrong! Fear and doubt are recurring obstacles in everyone’s lives and the sooner you acknowledge its existence the sooner you can develop your own personal habits to push past them to achieve your wildest dreams!
What is your message to others who might not be following their passion?
As long as you’re happy! If you choose to live a life you’re not passionate about that’s a little weird to me to be honest! I think people enter into occupations they’re not passionate about yet they’re passionate about raising a family and giving their children fruitful lives and that makes sense to me. I personally also know people who initially don’t like what they do but learn to love it and find true meaning and purpose. But you really only get one life and you deserve to live for whatever makes you your happiest self! Life is always a battle. Whether you choose to pursue your passion or not there are always trials and challenges along the way in any path taken. With that in mind, I would rather undergo the trials that arise from pursuing my dream than undergo trials of a path my heart isn’t fully invested in. The last thing I would want for anyone is to look back at their lives in regret, wishing they took more chances towards whatever makes their heart sing! Your ambitions can become your reality if you truly allow yourself to go there!
“You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take.” – Wayne Gretzky
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