27-Year-Old Glaswegian born Steven McMahon has been dancing for 16 years now and is no stranger to being on the international stage.
Previously voted The Scotsman Young Achiever of the Year, Steven grew up in notoriously tough Sighthill in Glasgow’s Springburn area. An area rife with deprivation, high levels of crime and youth unemployment, the chances where not in his favor.
But like so many young people in his situation, his predicament was one he knew he had to get out of, and education, or in his case, dance was this route to a better life.
Having never danced before the age off 11 he gained a place in the Dance School of Scotland (DSS), Scotland’s national centre for excellence for young dancers, before heading to train at New York’s famous Alvin Ailey School. He is now Choreographer Associate and Dancer for Ballet Memphis, based of course in Memphis, Tennessee, and will next season commence his 9th season with the company.
He took the time out of his busy schedule to speak to me about the challenges of being a young male going into the ballet world and how the route he chose to go down, backed by those around him and a few extraordinary visionary teachers, led him to where he is today.
You gained a place at the Dance School of Scotland (DSS) having never danced before, what was your initial inspiration to begin dancing?
“I was involved in a local drama group, it was in a place called Springburn. I was there from about 9 years old, at the time I wanted to be an actor, everyone always said i had a natural flare for it. One evening we had an open evening and Scottish Ballet’s Educational Department came in, we where acting and at the end of it they spoke to the guy who was directing the drama group, asked how old I was, that kind of thing and told him I have some natural potential for movement – I should try dance. Not long after this my mother got a leaflet from the DSS. My mother always recognized that i enjoyed movement, as did she, my dad was a typical Glasgow man, playing football etc. He wasn’t unsupportive at all, quite the contrary, it was just something that was unconventional for a young boy.”
“At the audition I had wee tiny swimming trunks, they never asked us to do any actual ballet, Anne Rybarczyk (founding member of DSS along with Graham Dickie), took us for a creative movement class, we followed along, it didn’t see that complicated to me, it was when i had to go to the physical therapist it felt serious for me. I had a musical thing with Mr Dickie, and it was certainly an experience i hadn’t had before.”
The audition went well and 5 years later you find yourself heading to New York to the world-famous Ailey School, tell us how that experience was for you:
“I left DSS in 5th year, I had a really big year group, maybe 24 of us. By the end of it the class was much smaller, but that initial size did me good – taught me to always do my bit to stand out from the crowd.
I was a part of ‘Jazz Art’ with Sheridan Nicole, she always encouraged me to go to Ailey, to me it was only a wild dream and something I never thought would actually be a serious possibility for me.
I visited New York over the Christmas holidays in my 5th year with my family. During that trip I visited The Ailey School, just to have a look, see what its like and be able to come home and say I had actually been there! There was an audition on the Saturday for the Certificate Program, fortunately I had brought dance stuff, I wanted to do class whilst I was in New York.
I went to audition, did ballet class and some modern, they told me there and then I got in.
It’s a big school and I had a great time there. You really have to hustle to get by, my time in a big class back at DSS certainly prepared me for that. When i went back to Glasgow I decided i just wanted to dance and leave the academics behind. The funding came through and I got my opportunity that only a few months before had seemed a crazy dream.”
If you had to pick one highlight of your three years at The Ailey School, what would it be?
“I got to perform in my last year for William Forsyth, he came and watched us for 3 and a half hours, it was amazing. We danced one of his choreographies ‘Enemy in the Figure’. I was totally mesmerized but kept my focus, there was so many of us in that room, he came in and just started, there was no time to get to know him.
We had been working for nearly a year on this piece, we where well rehearsed in his movement ideas and as prepared as we could be for the experience of working with him. It was full steam ahead when he came in. 16 counts go by and he stops us, he did not put the music back on again. It was wonderful, but intense.”
When did it occur to you that dance was maybe more than a hobby and you realized there could be a career in this for you?
“My whole life I knew I wanted to be involved in the Arts, my mother would give us pens and paints as a child, I always wanted to make something, was never any good at it, but then when I found dance, or dance found me. I just learned more, felt it was this world I needed to be a part of. It was a way I could express myself that I never knew how to before. I was frustrated as a child and it was something that made sense to me.”
Where there any dancers in particular that you aspired to be like?
“I’m was so taken by everyone that was a great dancer, when I went to Ailey i started to look at a lot of the dancers in the company, it was incredibly inspiring. Desmond Richardson, a dancer with the Ailey Company, was a great inspiration to me – I remember watching him dance and being really moved.”
“I still spend a lot of time with my friends here watching ballet, I love that.”
Ballet is a notoriously tough technique to study and work in, what have you found the most challenging aspect of this?
“I’ve always had this giant desire to dance, I’ve always wanted it, it’s been in my heart. For most of my training and a big chunk of my career it’s been the driving force. I learned how to move fast, i’m 6ft.4, it takes a lot more for big guys to move and connect to the end of the movement than the smaller guys. It’s something I worked a lot on, doing Pilates, working out, I have a fairly flexible body which has been an advantage for sure.
Being consistent has become an instinct for me. I’ve always been a good mover, but at a certain point you can move as much as you want but it has to look nice.”
You’ve been in American for 8 years now, have you noticed a difference in the dancers there to here in Europe?
“American dancers are very different to European dancers, in America you have to stand out so much more, there’s simply a hell of a lot more guys out here competing for the same job – and they’re all damn good! This year alone with my current company, Memphis Ballet, we’ve performed 7 programs in Memphis and undertook 12 tours this season.
There’s a lot of talent out here, every place I get to go, New York, Chicago, I’m always blown away by the talent I see. It’s a different kind of thing here, the companies have to work so hard to survive, there’s just so many of them and the talent it’s just incredible.”
Everyone experiences up’s and down’s in any job, especially in the high pressure world of performing arts, what is it that keeps you going through the hard times?
“I had a massive injury at the Ailey school in my second year, two days before my 18th birthday, in mens ballet class. The bone that holds the patella tendon in place broke off, I had to have it re-attached and some screws placed. Fortunately I recovered and have never had any problems from it.
Emotionally it was really hard, it’s always really hard for any dancer to be off, for me it was my whole world, my whole life was built around dance. Even at my lowest point, no matter how hard I tried to think about anything else i could do, I couldn’t, I just had to see it through. In my mind until I was told I can’t dance any more, I was sticking to it. The doctors said I could continue and I would be fine so I went on through.
Recovery was a long time, it took some time for me to get back to jumps, you know the mens stuff that us boys love to do. I just wanted to dance, that was the thing that pulled me through it.”
Tell us about the moment you knew you had made it, and got your first professional contract:
“At the Ailey School, if they like you, they really like to look after you. The Artistic Director of Ballet Memphis comes on a tour of all the big ballet schools every year looking for new dancers to take, to Julliard, Ailey, San Francisco Ballet School and so on, when she came to Ailey she spoke to me after watching a class and asked me to audition.
Sure enough I went to the audition, there was maybe 150 dancers, I got through the class, and was kept behind with a few others after that class. Two weeks after that I found out I got a 20 week contract. I went to other auditions and I tried a lot of different places, its awful hard when your ‘foreign’ in America, with visa’s especially – it often puts companies off because they have to pay for this on top of your wage.
In the end I went to Memphis, and at the end of the year she hired me on a full-time contract. They had to get me a visa, which was very difficult. You have to prove you are of extraordinary talent – not video, only letters, and show your not taking a job over an equally qualified American. It’s a kinda crap system, there’s plenty of talented people here that don’t get the opportunities I was afforded, but we got there and they’ve been getting it every year for me. My Green Card is on it’s way.
A lot of people stay in New York or other big cities where they train when they graduate, they think they have to stay in the big city and wait for the right thing to come along. I knew I needed a job and I’m not hanging around here. I didn’t know a thing about Memphis, I just knew I wanted to dance and because they’re paying me I should take the chance. I found this place that i genuinely love.”
What would be your dream role to perform and why?
“One of the most surprising things happened to me, we do nutcracker every year, it’s our big christmas ballet, I was cast in the role of The Cavalier, not a role I ever really imagined myself in – a proper male classical ballet dancer you know, I went to the Ailey school not The Royal Ballet. Getting to do that I really enjoyed trying to become a real male dancer.
A lot of our work in the company here in Memphis is really Contemporary and we spend a lot of time exploring movement further.
‘Petit Mort’ by Jyri Kylian, if we could afford it, would be right at the top for sure. I’m also the resident choreographer at Ballet Memphis, and have been since 2007. From what I don’t get to dance, I get filled by what I make.”
You where appointed Choreographic Associate for the company in 2007, tell us some more about your role there:
“I remember I used to go up to the Common Room at DSS, to make dances for people, I just loved it. When I got to Memphis we have a choreography platform for dancers within the company every season, the boss saw the piece, I didn’t think it was too special but she liked it, she gives a lot of opportunities to dancers in the company.
I made another one and she asked me to make a full length ballet – The Wizard of Oz. It was something else, trying to make a 2 hour ballet. After that I was made choreographer associate in the company, and now make two small pieces a year.
Over 8 years i’ve created 25 pieces and several full length ballet’s including Romeo and Juliet, Carnival of the Animals and Cinderella.
I’m not done with dance now by any means, I still love it and want to continue for as long as my body allows, but choreography is also something i really love.”
Tell us about your current work, what are you performing in just now?
“Just now we’re on lay-off, but throughout the season and in general we work with a lot of american choreographers. This season we have being touring ‘In Dreams’ by Trey McIntyre which featured wonderful music from Roy Orbison and in which I danced the lead role. Juliet Adam, a principal dancer in San Francisco Ballet also created a new work. Next season we will work with Matthew Neenan from The Pennsylvania Ballet.
Big works cost a lot (Kylian,Forsyth etc), we find other ways to make good repertory, the choreographers we work with are more famous within the country than they may be in Europe.”
What advice would you offer to anyone wanting to make it as a professional dancer?
“One of the most important things that a young dancer needs is to take the leap into something that’s unknown, something that’s new. Its something I had to try otherwise I was going to be in a place I didn’t know or want to be in, where I grew up wasn’t an easy place for a young man.
Sure it’s something that’s terrifying, and dancers can have all the technique, but without tenacity they can’t survive, you just have to do it, be the best you can. None of this would have been possible without my mother telling me I had to do it, I had incredible support from people supporting me and saying we’ll help you along with this if we can.”
Finally, what does the future hold in store for you?
“I think eventually I’ll move into choreography, right now i’m happy to play both sides. I want to keep dancing, becoming stronger and better, learning new things. The same with choreography, the more I make the better I get.
I love it, if I can be successful than great. Still, I have to be realistic, there’s lots of choreographers making dance, right now its really hard trying to get your work out there as a dancer and a relatively new choreographer. I’m really happy right now at Ballet Memphis, I’m 27 not 47, I’m just going to see how it goes and take it as it comes.”
You can find more information on Ballet Memphis and the work Steven does with the company at:
And for further information about The Ailey School visit:
Thank’s for reading and as always, check back in soon for the next in the series of ‘profiles’ which you can now also access via the homepage using the ‘profiles’ icon on the right hand side.