I met Michelle Ottley-Fisher (“Mama O,” as we like to call her) as a soon-to-be middle-schooler auditioning for LaVilla School of the Arts in Jacksonville, Florida. The school was looking for students who were confident enough to get out there and move. I had never danced before, and according to Mama O, I was the first kid on the dance floor, ready to do whatever she asked of me. I was accepted into the program, and Mama O was the head of the department. She made sure I stayed focused in class so I got good grades and knew that my mom would have pulled me out of the program if my academic work wasn’t up to snuff. She wanted me to succeed.
Mama O is a small woman with a powerful voice that could silence an entire theater or a rowdy cafeteria at lunchtime. She is super-smart, and in college she double-majored in dance and science. By emphasizing the exact terminology of the steps while demonstrating them for us, Mama O taught us how to count music with clarity and made it fun. For example, if we were dancing to a song that had a 4/4 time signature, she would play other popular songs with the same time signature that we might recognize. It really helped us understand the concept.
While Mama O is direct, to-the-point and serious about dance, she is also warm and teaches with a young spirit. She never just corrected us, but would use imagery we could connect to. Rather than telling me to pull up on my standing leg, she painted a picture of what it might look like so I could see it in my mind before feeling it in my body. She also had a gift for explaining the “why” behind her corrections—why a step is one way and not another, how to spell it or how to approach it correctly. Once my foundation was set, she taught me to be free in my movement.
The most important lesson Mama O taught me was to keep pushing forward. She would say, “David, you have ideas in your head. You know where you want to end up. Just do it. Don’t look back, and you will get everything you want out of your career.” The first professional dance company I ever performed with was called Missouri Ballet Theater. But midway through my time there, the company closed, and I had no idea what to do next. I was tempted to stay in my hometown and teach, but Mama O told me I needed to keep moving forward. So I went to SUNY Purchase for two years, which turned into three seasons with Ailey II, some time with the Metropolitan Opera House and, finally, L.A. Dance Project.
Because of teachers like Mama O (and everyone else at LaVilla School of the Arts, and Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, where I attended high school), I have accomplished more in my career so far than I ever could have dreamed of. I’ve traveled the world, won a Princess Grace Award and danced with incredible companies. Mama O told me to keep going until I reached my dreams. Well, I’ve reached them, and now I get to make new dreams.
I want to thank Mama O for everything she has done for me. She was my first dance teacher and taught me my first pliés and tendus. She has shaped me as a dancer and as a person—and I am so grateful.