Anthony Burrell: The Dance Phenomenon Behind Beyoncé, Mariah Carey, and Today’s Youth in Performing Arts

Anthony Burrell, photographed by Conrad Khalil

Five minutes after wrapping up a conversation with his daughter, 13-year-old, Sifare, who he describes as  “a huge source of light, actor, choreographer and creative director, Anthony Burrell returns back to his passionate day-to-day as he awaits the soon to come two weeks he gets to spend with his child.

Just a year older, at the age of 14, Burrell himself was receiving $100 to $500 checks, that rooted from choosing dance camp over basketball, simply for the fact of sleeping in on summer days as a middle schooler still figuring out what they enjoyed.

There was a benefit for Burrell diving into the dance styles of jazz, hip-hop, and ballet, but the downfall was the interference of those surrounding him, who were maybe insecure within their own masculinity, or installed perceptions by society, retorting to homophobic slurs and negative perceptions of his choice of art. “After years of being tormented, I even got jumped a couple of times, it still never took me away from it [dance], and I knew it would be an important part of my life. It was something I enjoyed, it was something that was my escape. Any kid in the hood, mostly come from single family households. My mom was drug addicted, I was living with my grandma. Most of those situations, I had no one to talk to, and dance became my escape. That’s why I stuck with it, it became my therapy.”

It wasn’t until Burrell was featured on the front cover of one of Philly’s biggest media outlets, next to no other than the queen herself, Beyoncé, who he would go on to add over five years of work with on his resume, and caused the naysayers to begin to genuinely identify his talent.

Anthony Burrell performing alongside Beyoncé, @anthonyburrell on Instagram
Anthony Burrell and Beyoncé, “The Beyoncé Experience” (2007), @anthonyburrell on Instagram

Beyoncé, who Burrell describes as his motivation for consistently putting in 150% in everything he does, and a person of passion, dedication, and focus within creating any final product, was just one of the many icons who inspired his journey.

“Any kid in the hood, mostly come from single family households. My mom was drug addicted, I was living with my grandma. Most of those situations, I had no one to talk to, and dance became my escape. That’s why I stuck with it, it became my therapy.”

Alvin Ailey’s well-renowned choreographic work “Revelations,” was the original beginning of Burrell’s love for speaking to others through dance, and what it did for him as a young, black man. So drawn into Ailey’s technique and training, Burrell would soon become the youngest dancer to get into Alvin Ailey’s American Dance Theatre. From that day forward, I knew Alvin Ailey was it. I didn’t think it would take me to the level of dance I have achieved, and the success I achieved in dance. The history of Alvin Ailey, who he was,  I saw he had a similar background to me. If he could do it, I can do it. It was real life, experiencing life, and knowing people and how to connect with people. Alvin Ailey is a huge part of my life and a pinnacle of my career. He has this quote: “Dance comes from the people, and should be delivered to the people.”

Burrell’s connection to Ailey’s mark on the dance community grew greater than admiration, with the opening of his very own training studio at the end of last year, the Anthony Burrell Center for Dance (ABCD).

Located in the heart of East Atlanta, the center focuses on opening doors to dancers of all ages, demographics, beginners, or advanced, who find a sense of security in dance, or are simply interested in being introduced to its versatile limits. I kind of modeled that program off of what I experienced as a young dancer. Not having a lot of support from family members, and not because they don’t want you to dance, but because resources to support dance. A lot of people think it’s a hobby. I wanted to create an opportunity for kids in the inner city and make art accessible to them, and give them an opportunity like someone gave me. It sometimes takes that one person to see that spark in you and allows you to shine, and develop into something so fruitful and so full of life. I just wanted to be that person for the next generation of dance. And of course, there were obstacles that I faced getting here. This was four years in the making. Atlanta was always on my raider because I knew Atlanta was going to be the next big thing in the industry, commercially and artistically. Whatever it is, it’s my objective to help these kids find their passion. We’re easily forgotten about, especially as minorities in the inner-city, we’re like the last to get noticed.”

“Dance comes from the people, and should be delivered to the people.”-Alvin Ailey

His childhood experiences played a huge role in creating the center at the height of his career, but it was also those moments during his peak that sculpted the vision as well.

In 2017, vocal mogul Mariah Carey put on a New Year’s Eve performance that received quite a bit of backlash for its production quality and overall delivery of the singer. Burrell, who was serving as Carey’s choreographer and creative director at the time, felt the blame was completely put upon him for the performance, despite giving his all. Even on to my creative direction with Mariah. Mariah wasn’t always a mover until I got to her, but it’s not always about moving. It’s about making her just a focal point. Just stand there, you’re beautiful, use your voice, use your gift. I think I learned to just work hard, and bust my ass by all means. I’ve been able to work with these great individuals and create historical and monumental moments in pop culture. The best was all that I could give. Every opportunity I had to give my best, I absolutely did. So being burnt by that situation drove me to go out and take that risk, and I invested everything I had into my school because, at that point in time, I wanted to be my own boss, make my own decisions creatively, and if anything falls it’ll be on my back.”

Anthony Burrell performs alongside Mariah Carey, “Mariah Carey: All I Want For Christmas Is You” (Dec. 2016), @anthonyburrell on Instagram

Between providing numerous educational opportunities for the youth, choreographing and creative directing for major artists, and TV series such as Fox’s Empire and So You Think You Can Dance, films accredited for like Beyonce’s groundbreaking Lemonade (Choreography for “Sorry,” Super Bowl 50, The Formation World Tour, etc.), Burrell’s top priority is making sure his name and brand carry on.

“It sometimes takes that one person to see that spark in you and allows you to shine, and develop into something so fruitful and so full of life.”

This goal, carried by the importance of allowing every young and rising star he comes in contact with to prevail through the sometimes, many struggles of life.  The easiest and most effective way to do so, according to Burrell, is with finding love in the passion to do; something he calls his personal testimony.

Burrell is just weeks away from his next Breaking Barriers Dance Intensive, this year located in Houston, and has grown double the numbers. The intensive serves as a system used to put a lasting impression on dancers pursuing commercial and concert careers for the future. “We spend an hour every day in a round circle discussing things that make us insecure or things that have happened to us in our lives. The bullying, name-calling, harassment, sexual abuse. We sit and talk about that and cry, laugh, and comfort each other. I just want to let these people know that throughout all of my life, and my experience, I was sexually abused as a kid, my mother was drug-addicted. I didn’t have two parents in the household. So with all the adversities, I was up against, I prevailed, and that’s what I try to teach every individual that step into that program. I’m not perfect, I was never perfect, I had everything up against me, but I still found a way to prevail and find my true love, my true passion. I think using that, I like to call it my testimony, and telling these kids this, I think they find not only new respect for me, but they realize “Mr.Anthony is just like me,” and they feel like they can have the same opportunities as me. I try to make these opportunities tangible for these kids to know that you can have the same life as I have if you put in the work and you’re determined.

Dancer of the Anthony Burrell Center for Dance in the Salute to Her Showcase, photographed by Chris Mitchell

Burrell encourages readers to join in at the Anthony Burrell Center for Dance, for a guaranteed offering of a wide range, series of classes, created toward everyone remotely interested in moving.

“I’m not perfect, I was never perfect, I had everything up against me, but I still found a way to prevail and find my true love, my true passion.”

Open classes include ballet, modern, jazz, hip-hop, and afrobeat, which Burrell says is a huge movement right now in the dance community. He also conducts private lessons for non-dancers. Classes start from as early to 10 A.M. and operate until 11 P.M. “A lot of people say “I don’t have the training, I don’t know how to dance,” and that’s why you come to the dance class so you can learn. It’s a one-stop shop for dance, we have everything you can imagine, and it’s a beautiful space. God really blessed me. He was like, “Anthony, all the stuff you’ve done in your life and career, understand that this is what I’ve been preparing you for.” Realize that this school has honestly been my greatest creation outside of my daughter. My greatest moment besides having my little one. I’m so proud of it. I’ve never felt like this about anything.”

Anthony Burrell

For more information on the Anthony Burrell Center for Dance visit here!

Also, keep up with Anthony Burrell and all dance endeavors on Instagram and Twitter @anthonyburrell.

Diamond Jones

Jr. Editor Lifestlye/Entertainment Department

Diamond Jones, 21, is a St.Louis native, born on the west side of Detroit. She is currently a junior, studying Journalism, with a minor in Criminology and Criminal Justice. Her writing reaches to audiences everywhere, directing it toward the empowerement and excellence of black people and their accomplishments. She has written for The Daily Egyptian, LoveThisTrackTV, Georgia State’s The Signal and the National Association of Black Journalists, which she is a dedicated member of. She hopes to continue to inspire those through her words and make those who feel underrepresented, see their light.