Today we’d like to introduce you to Marinda Davis.
Marinda, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
I was adopted at just a few days old. It was the 80’s and a closed adoption, so for many years I knew very little about my origin. I grew up in Tampa, Florida. From the time I could formulate words, I was unexplainably talking about dance. At 2.5 years old, my parents put me in ballet class. By age 4, I was talking about moving to NY to be a professional dancer. And as much as I loved dance, I loved it’s counterpart, music, equally as much. I remember finding my parents’ record collection and feeling like I had discovered gold. I specifically remember hearing the “Funny Girl” soundtrack for the first time. I would play Barbra Streisand singing “My Man” over and over again, curling up next to the speaker, pressing my ear into it as deep as the fabric would allow me. It was like I couldn’t get close enough to the notes. I honestly can’t remember a time that I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do with my life.
I started my dance training at a small studio but when I was 8, moved to a bigger, much more reputable one called Mary Jos’ Performing Arts Academy. We trained rigorously and competed in every genre including voice and acting in a disciplined, competitive environment. It was so much more than dance. The faculty was deeply invested into each of us, not just as dancers, but also as humans. I spent more time in that studio than I ever did at home.
I had always felt overwhelmed by my passion for dance but my dance teacher, Ms. Mary Jo, matched and challenged it and me at every turn. As a child and throughout my adolescence, I experienced several challenging and mysterious medical symptoms that doctors couldn’t explain. I was constantly in and out of the hospital for testing. Through all of that, the studio was my constant and through all of it, Ms. Mary Jo’s expectations of me never wavered. She never accepted a single excuse for anything less than excellence. It felt unfair and impossible at the time, but that “no excuses” mindset is what set me up to be able to survive the many obstacles that would present themselves throughout my life. My relationship with her began a life long affinity for tough mentors and a willingness to let them in fully, to mold me.
When I was 15, I got selected to be a part of a summer program called Power Pak. At the time, it was like the All Stars of dance. They brought all the top dancers together for a month-long summer tour around the country. It changed my life forever and introduced me to so many working choreographers in the industry. From Power Pak, I’d go on to assist Dennis Caspary, Ray Leeper, the late icon, Gus Giordano, and the woman that would most shape me as a choreographer, Lisa Allain. Her creativity was decades ahead of her time. By spending countless hours by her side helping to bring her unique creative visions to life, I found the inspiration and permission to develop my own.
In high school, I attended Blake High School of the Arts which sparked a love for Modern Dance (Horton specifically), only further encouraging my desire to pursue a degree in dance. At 18, I left home to attend Marymount Manhattan College on a scholarship for a degree in Dance and a minor in Musical Theatre. I simultaneously trained with legend, Sheila Barker at Broadway Dance Center. I had first met Sheila a couple of summers back when she would sub for the late Frank Hatchett. I knew from the couple of hours I had spent in her class that I wanted to train under her.
I was lucky to have three extremely tough but exceptional mentors in my life that most shaped my career. I’ve spoken of two and Sheila would be the last of those 3. Her mentorship was more involved than I could have ever imagined. I caught her at the end of the old school era and I was fortunate enough to have experienced that last train of real tough love. That method of training just isn’t possible now. I thank my lucky stars every day I was alive for it. She broke me down only to build me up to a height I could have never imagined. People described us like gasoline to a match. She poured herself into me. She drove me so hard but it fueled me. A lot of people couldn’t have taken the heat and questioned my willingness to accept it, but I didn’t care what anyone else thought. The harder she pushed, the more brightly I burned. Through all this, I continued to suffer terribly with my health but seldom led on. The “no excuses” mentality my childhood dance teacher had set all those years ago, Sheila intensified by 10. She trained me like a soldier preparing for war. Her training would be what repeatedly saved my life for the many battles to come.
Five years into her mentorship, just as I had found my confidence and stride, she cornered me after class. Her nose 2 inches from mine she said, “We’re done here. Today was your last class. Don’t ever come back. I have nothing left to give you. You’ve learned it all. You have to go, it’s time to fly. You are too talented to become a professional class taker. Get out of here and don’t you dare look back.” I cried my eyes out every night for more weeks than I can count. At the time I didn’t understand, it just felt like abandonment. But now I know that it was such a selfless act of belief and love. I have always possessed the kind of loyalty that stays forever. Had she not set me free, I would have never flown. She knew that, so she selflessly kicked me out of her nest, making me learn to use the wings she had so meticulously built on the way down.
As I was full time at Marymount and training six days a week with Sheila, I was also assisting on conventions, judging for dance competitions, and teaching full time at a dance studio in New Jersey. I fell in love with their Senior and Teen students, a group of 19 kids who aesthetically, were far from the “competition kid” norm. They lacked technique and finesse but made up for it in tenfold in passion. Once I was given the reigns, I poured everything I had into them. I loved all 19 of them as though they were my very own. I was a mom to many of them, a kid raising kids. Some of them had very diverse, tough backgrounds, but I made it my mission to give them the tools they needed to be successful in whatever they would go on to pursue with their lives. So I began using the tools my mentors gave me to turn them into winners. But it wasn’t about the wins, it never was. It was about getting them to strive for something bigger than themselves and learning what it takes to be a champion. I knew that if I could somehow take their ability to emote and combine it with my ability to tell stories, we could find success. Little did I know that these kids were the lab of my choreography career. I had begun to develop a style that relied very little on technique so I could camouflage their weaknesses but play to their strengths of musicality, dynamics, and artistry. Within two years, they were winning Nationals against teams that never saw them coming. Suddenly I had developed a choreographic style that hadn’t yet been seen. For many years, no one even knew what genre to label it as. And then one day, the world caught up and we went, “Ahhh, it’s contemporary!”
In the midst of all this, I had an amazing professional career of my own. I danced for Sting in the Super Bowl and 98 Degrees in the Pro Bowl the same year. I was a founding member and principal dancer for Anthony Morigerato’s company, “AM Dance Project.” But as my dance career gained momentum, my medical problems worsened. I had been trained to push through anything and I did. But one day my body made the decision for me.
I was 24 the first time my heart stopped. It would happen three more times over the next three years. Seemingly unrelated, I was sustaining injury after injury. At one point, an orthopedist told me I needed surgery on six different joints. I was also routinely passing out, throwing up blood, and having seizures. Despite having so much physical evidence that something was wrong, nobody could figure out a diagnosis. Instead of continuing to search, many physicians referred me to psychologists. It was heartbreaking and maddening. For a couple of years of my mid 20’s, I simply gave up on the medical community and believed I would always have to live on edge the way I was.
Around the time my body stopped working, my choreography career had taken off to such a degree that I barely noticed I had stopped dancing until almost a year later. I was so very lucky as so many dancers don’t have that smooth a transition. Still with medical symptoms mounting, I started my own professional company, marInspired; the storytellers in NY in 2009. In the beginning, we mostly performed at festivals and charity events. But in 2010, Dance.com recognized me as a Top 10 Young American Choreographer 25 & Under and we began to find momentum. In 2012, I premiered marInspired’s first full-length show, “Breakable” in New York. That same year I received my 1st Capezio ACE Award nomination. By this time, I had a hungry passion for teaching and choreography that was as ferocious as the one I once held for dance. I joined the faculty at Peridance, Broadway Dancer Center, EDGE, Wild Dance Convention, The in10sive, Dancerpalooza, Dance Teacher Summit, and Power Pak. Dance education will always be at the heart of my existence.
In 2013, I relocated to Los Angeles. I felt a shift in the industry and decided it was time to climb a different mountain. When I moved, once again, my medical problems worsened. I was very fortunate to get in with a group of top specialists at Cedars-Sinai who believed me, encouraged me to self-advocate, and weren’t too arrogant to say, “I don’t know, but let me send you to somebody who does”. Within two years, I was diagnosed with Hashimotos, POTS, Mastocytosis, Vascular Ehlers Danlos, Lupus, Sjögrens, and IST. At first, it was oddly validating, but as the reality of these prognosis’ sunk in, the validation I felt turned to heartbreak. The diagnosis of Vascular Ehlers Danlos was particularly difficult to cope with as 80% of people don’t make it to 40 and having children was taken off the table. Not one of my diseases have a cure. It’s a reality I fight every hour of every day. I am 36, and while I plan on shattering my prognosis, it has placed a clock in my ear that I hear ticking every day.
Around the same time that I was diagnosed with all this, I found my birth family. My birth parents were heroin addicts. While heroin use in utero does not directly cause conditions like Lupus or POTS, the specialists said my susceptibility to having so many diseases affecting so many systems certainly was very much increased. Having that knowledge was heavy. It gave myself and my medical team “whys” for so many unanswered questions, but to carry the knowledge that your life is so deeply affected by someone else’s choices is a tough concept to wrestle with. Yet still, no excuses, keep going.
I was nominated for my 2nd Capezio ACE Award in 2015 & was awarded 2nd place & funding for our 2nd full-length show. A few months after winning, my Lupus flared badly enough to hospitalize me and start a treatment protocol that would change my life forever. I began a heavy regimen of chemotherapy, immunosuppressants, and high dosage steroids. Within a week of this treatment, I was physically unrecognizable. In seven days, I lost my hair, gained 60 pounds, and nearly lost all of my muscle mass and function. I developed another disease, Cushings, just from the medications alone. I could barely walk from my bedroom to my front door. It was the scariest time of my life.
Yet still, no excuses, keep going. Despite every doctor and person I love telling me otherwise, I began working on my second full-length show, “UNbreakable.” I truly thought it would be the last thing I ever created. “UNbreakable” is loosely based on the Kübler Ross model of the five stages of grief. While every character in the show loses something, the main character is losing her gift, her job, her ability, her health, her body, and her life, which, of course, was echoing my own loss’ at the time. We previewed at Dancerpalooza in Long Beach in July of 2016 & then premiered our full show at the El Portal in North Hollywood in August. I believe it was because of that show that I survived the attack Lupus waged on my body. I had something to say and it gave me something to fight for.
In the fall of 2016, I received a DM on Instagram from Director, Producer, Actor, Justin Baldoni. He wanted me to be a part of a show called “My Last Days” a docuseries on the CW. Every time he would message me I would scan it, see the title “My Last Days” and then immediately exit out of the message. I didn’t really know who he was at the time and while it would have taken just a single click to find out, I think my brain simply wasn’t ready to accept that I would qualify for a show with a title like that. After some significant urging from a friend who did know who he was, I wrote back.
I’ll never forget our first FaceTime. As he pitched me the show, everything in me resisted. I almost felt angry. Towards the end, he asked me if I had any questions. I said, “Yeah, I have a big one. I don’t understand how this could possibly be good for me. The people in my life closest to me don’t even know my prognosis and you want me to announce it to the world? I just got to LA. How will being on a show called “My Last Days” be good for me or for the trajectory of my career? I have so many dreams I want to accomplish before I go and this will derail everything I’ve been working for. Don’t you think this is a terrible idea?” The truth was I was less worried about my career and more in complete denial that I qualified for a show with that kind of reality. I didn’t want to face that part of my life, so blaming it on my career seemed like an easy out.
I remember Justin leaning in closer to the camera. He said, “I know you don’t know me but you just have to trust me. I watch you on social media and am so inspired by the way you live your life. Take that inspiration and put it on that kind of platform, and you’re going to inspire the world. Your entire life is going to change for the better, you just have to trust me.” Justin and I became friends and as we grew closer and earned my trust, I knew if I was going to tell this part of my story, he and his company, Wayfarer were the ones to do it. In a last ditch effort he sent me a text with a link to a My Last Days episode featuring Zach Sobiech’s story. He texted it with a single phrase, “Think about your legacy.” Zach’s episode was so deeply impactful that it made me immediately set aside my fears and say, “yes”. Justin would eventually become one of my best friends, the big brother I had always searched for, and my living angel on this Earth. I’m so glad I said, “yes”.
In the beginning of 2017, as I prepared to bring UNbreakable to NY’s Symphony Space we simultaneously began filming “My Last Days.” Producing and directing a show and bringing it and a cast across the country is one thing, but doing it while on camera is another. It was the actual process of filming “My Last Days” that changed my life more than the airing of it. It forced me to talk to my loved ones about realities I might never have been brave enough to mention. It forced conversations that no one is ever ready to have. It helped me accept my diagnosis and prompted me to say the things that needed to be said. It helped me gracefully share that part of my story with the world and in turn, inspire others. And just as Justin has promised, it would change my career. Our season of My Last Days would go on to be awarded an Emmy Honor by the Television Academy. I could have never guessed that the key to unlocking so many doors would be to simply be me at my most authentic and truthful.
In late 2017, Julianne Hough was asked to guest judge for the Dancing With the Stars finale. Having never met me, solely from just watching my work, she wrote it into her contract that I had to choreograph a piece in it. They agreed. So that November, I choreographed a piece for Dancing With The Stars’ Season 25 finale starring Julianne Hough. She asked for me to create a piece based on my life and requested if she could play me in it. It was a dream. She selflessly opened so many doors for me. I will forever be grateful for her belief and trust. She danced it so beautifully and authentically. Once again, I was blown away by America’s response to my story. So many people felt seen and represented for the first time.
In the beginning of 2018, marInspired began filming Season 2 of NBC’s World of Dance. Purposefully using just two of our male dancers (Wyatt Rocker and Charles Fournier), I was intent on using the platform for the LGBTQ community to be represented with the same depth of dynamics we so often see of heterosexual relationships. We made history when they aired our 3rd piece on the show, with the first kiss between a same sex couple in a dance on cable television. We received so much support but also received a great deal of hate along with some pretty serious, violent threats. I don’t regret it for a second. I am so proud of the work we did, how far we made it, the way NBC embraced us, and the representation of a marginalized community finally got to feel.
After World of Dance aired, we were honored as the 2019 Los Angeles Models of Pride. Shortly after, comedian Daniel Tosh reached out to us for Season 10 of his show Tosh.0 on Comedy Central. The boys appeared on every episode of Season 10 as his “Fly.0 Boys” and I got credited with Executive Choreographer for the season. It was an absolute blast and Daniel couldn’t have been more of a pleasure to work with.
In 2019, I was commissioned to set work on Giordano Dance Chicago. “Flickers” World Premiered in March of 2019 at The Harris in Chicago to rave reviews. That August. marInspired brought “UNbreakable” to Orem, Utah, billed as the company in residency for Utah’s Dancing Under the Stars at the beautiful SCERA Shell Theatre. And in November, in a completely full circle moment, almost exactly four years after he sent me that link of Zach Sobiech’s episode, Justin Baldoni would go on to direct the Warner Brother’s film, “Clouds” made about Zach’s beautiful, unbelievable story, hiring me as the Choreographer. It is a circle of deep connection that I know came from the clouds above”
You know, culture teaches us that health determines our success and happiness. My life is a testament for the dismantlement of that idea. While there have been and continue to be so many daily obstacles and struggles, I am deeply in love with my life and all the people in it. I wish you could learn true appreciation for what you have without losing it, but I have yet to identify an illuminator to gratitude greater than loss. I am grateful for the perspective the tremendous loss’ I’ve experienced have afforded me. If life puts a mountain in your way, go around it, build a tunnel, or start climbing it. The journey might not look identical to your dream, but maybe it leads to somewhere braver. No excuses. Just move it. It’s not really in your way.
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