Artist in Motion: Jennifer Nelson ’13 Sets Hip-Hop Piece

Monday, April 11, 2022

Jennifer Nelson ’13 has a broad smile, friendly demeanor, and boundless energy—all characteristics that were on full display as she encouraged, challenged, and praised Mercersburg dancers during a recent three-day visit to campus. Invited back to campus by her former teacher and mentor, Director of Dance Denise Dalton, Nelson choreographed a fast-paced hip-hop piece that includes 27 dancers. They will continue to refine and then perform the piece during the Spring Dance Concert on May 14.

A professional dancer with a background in classical ballet, Graham technique, modern, and jazz, Nelson has cultivated her dance and acting careers in New York City since 2018. Many fans will recognize her from her popular TikTok and Instagram channels. Using her dance background and business savvy, she has garnered 847,000 followers on TikTok and 84,000 on Instagram and is now a successful social media influencer. Her handle is @jennifermika_.

On her final day on campus, before joining students in Ford Hall for dinner and heading home, she sat for a discussion about her career in dancing and social media, the creativity of choreography, her Mercersburg experience, and her love of dance.

Putting it all together

Q: Does the piece have a name?

A: Every time I choreograph, the name is the last part and the hardest thing I do. It doesn’t have a name yet.

Q: How does one “set” a dance piece?

A: It is pretty typical of what an in-resident guest choreographer would do. A guest comes in for a short period of time and sets a piece. It doesn’t take that long [for dancers] to learn the piece. It takes the most time to practice and refine it. We have the framework now, and I know that the students worked really hard, but it takes time to get a piece into your body and that comes with practice.

Q: How did you select the music?

A: Hip-hop is a very entertainment-based movement. It is almost always a mix of different music. It is just very, very fast paced. It’s really flashy, so you need a lot of different styles, whereas something like a modern piece can be one piece of music.

I edited the music together from pieces, popular trends, and artists that I know the audience will recognize. I am an artist, but first and foremost I am an entertainer, creating work that will energize the audience and energize the dancers. The music I chose is relevant, and I was really intentional about that.

Q: How did you develop the choreography?

A: I tend to work really well under pressure. So in about a minute and a half, I came up with some choreography at midnight yesterday. I was also choreographing it [while travelling to campus] on the train. But once I was in the room with the dancers, I got a better idea and feel for the piece. I learned the dancers’ levels and what they could pick up.

A lot goes into creating a dance, and also coming up with stuff on the fly—trying new positions and asking the dancers. Every choreographer is different. For instance, I had a section where the dancers were facing each other and I said, “Let’s try it diagonally. How does that feel for you?” They said, “we want to face each other.” I said “OK, let’s do that.” Because if the dancers are happy, then they’ll dance with joy and that’s ultimately what I really want.

On her career in dance and as a social media influencer

Q: What was your path to becoming a dancer?

A: I started dancing when I was 6. At the time my family lived in Japan. My mom is Japanese, but we lived there for my dad’s job. My mom signed me up for a ballet studio in a woman’s living room. I was her very first student and I did ballet from ages 6 to 18. I did super, super strict ballet training, then I came to Mercersburg because my dad was working overseas. Ms. Dalton introduced me to modern and jazz. I was so stubborn about doing ballet, but I always had this love for hip-hop because it came a little bit more naturally to me. There was a hip-hop club that I created here, and I liked choreographing. I was also a camp counselor for Mercersburg Summer Programs. I worked for the Writing Camp, the Theatre Camp, and the Dance Camp. For each camp, I would ask my boss if I could teach dance classes, which they loved. And that is when I started to think: “Wow! I really like choreographing. I like watching people who don’t think they are good dancers.” But anyone can dance.

After Mercersburg, I went to Bucknell University as a dance minor, not thinking I would dance. But I felt this urge, and knew I needed to transfer to Southern Methodist University in Dallas. I didn’t know anything about the dance program. Everything was purely based on my gut feeling. It just felt right. I got my BFA in dance and advertising, then I immediately moved to New York City to work for a modern dance company. Since then, I have just done about everything from music videos, concert dance, and now I do almost all social media, which is a job in and of itself.

I have three or four jobs right now. I work full time in social media, and I also have a full-time job at a tech company [doing its social media]. In addition, I am a fitness instructor, which I only do twice a week. I am such a curious learner; I want to know how the fitness industry works. I also do freelance [dance] gigs.

Q: Describe your work as a social media influencer.

A: Honestly, social media is what’s fun for me. That is what I like to explore. I really like creating with other people… It’s about commercials and social media. I am also editing and creating the ads myself, if it is on my page. So, that’s another aspect of curating the deliverables—curating the ads for what the brands expect.

I am really lucky. Every single brand I work for is a dream brand. Some of the big names so far are Nike, lululemon, Netflix, Panera Bread, PacSun, Calvin Klein, Red Bull, and Starbucks. All of them reach out to me to help promote their brands on social media… I’ve learned how to speak to them professionally. I incorporate my social-media manager, who negotiates what’s expected of me. So, whether it’s a TikTok, Instagram, or InstaStory post, the reach of my followers equates to a business gain for brands… I have turned brands down as well. It wasn’t always this easy. It’s not easy now. There is an ebb and flow to being a freelancer, and I must know and be secure in myself and this work. It is nonstop.

Q: What are your future plans?

A: I have lived in New York since 2018. Tentatively—and I need to speak this into existence—I am moving to Los Angeles next summer. It is my time.

My manager lives in L.A. and has provided jobs for me in New York from L.A. I met her recently for the first time in person while on a trip there. While I spent time with her, I also met with other people. I made an announcement on my TikTok saying, “Hey, I’m going to be in L.A.,” and some friends—we follow each other—reached out to me. They said, “Let’s grab lunch, let’s collaborate.” And, “by collaborating together,” I mean we danced together and then we posted on our channels together. That was mutually beneficial.

My manager and my friends have said I have what is commonly called the “New York hustle.” I like to fit a million things into a day. She believes I would thrive in L.A. While there is a lot happening in New York, there’s not much in terms of working dancers, but there’s a lot of working dancers in L.A. I want to dance and I want to act. I was acting more pre-COVID… and that is something I would like to get back into.

About her Mercersburg experience and why dance is her passion

Q: How did Mercersburg develop your passion?

A: The most important thing about Mercersburg was the opportunity to try something more than just ballet. I was in school and I was doing lots and lots of ballet at home. But here, Ms. Dalton introduced me to all different styles of dance. I could also work on The Mercersburg News. I was part of so many organizations and I was meeting people from all walks of life. I think the beauty of creating art is also the art of experiencing life. I feel like I got the opportunity to do that here. Another thing is that Ms. Dalton is really good at letting students run free with creativity. I would come up with the wildest ideas for dances and she would say, “Just go for it, just try it.” She is really good at allowing students to take a chance on themselves and to experiment. If I hadn’t had the opportunity to do that, I might not be taking so many chances on myself today.

Q: What do you love about dance?

A: The simple answer is that it’s the easiest, most natural way for me to express myself—whether it’s sadness, joy, anger. But whatever I am expressing, it gives me joy. So, some things that I can’t put into words, I am able to do through dance, and I am also constantly learning. I am a student for life, which I love. Also, just moving my body is my favorite way to live, exist. I am best in motion. I also love entertaining, and I love watching people react to movement. I love making people feel things. My friend’s mom said, “There is a job, a career, and a calling.” And, I think I was meant to dance. I think I was meant to entertain. I think this is my calling.