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Soul singer Leon Bridges on his inspiration — as a dancer

Every now and then, we ask interesting people to tell us about a piece of art or an event that rocked their world. Before he became a breakout soul singer, Leon Bridges studied to become a choreographer. He tells CBC Arts about the dancers that inspired him.

The voice behind 'Coming Home' studied to become a choreographer

Every now and then, we ask interesting people to tell us about a piece of art or an event that rocked their world. Before he became a breakout soul singer, Leon Bridges studied to become a choreographer. He tells CBC Arts about the dancers that inspired him. (Sony Music Canada)

"I feel like everything I learned in dance is helpful to my career now." And the music career Leon Bridges is talking about just happens to be on a nitro-powered fast track.

Last year, the 26-year-old singer was washing dishes by day and performing at open mic jams by night. By December, he'd signed to Columbia Records, who released his first album in June — the sweet, soulful time machine that is Coming Home. (Watch him perform songs from it on q.)

But before he was doing Vogue photo shoots and iPhone commercials, Bridges was pursuing another artistic career entirely — he wanted to be a choreographer. If you've scanned his Instagram, that bit of trivia should click. Posing in motion, or pulling long shapes, Bridges says he flashes back to his dance-school days when the camera comes out, his favourite example of how the art of movement is always with him.

"Whenever I do photo shoots I'm able to dance when I'm taking the photos," he says. "My dance teacher, Gypsy Ingram, she's so proud when she sees some of my photos, because it's like a dance pose."

Bridges — then called Todd, not Leon — studied at Tarrant County College in Fort Worth, Texas, his home town. A first-year elective in hip-hop dance put him on the path. By the next semester, he was filling his schedule with courses in modern, ballet, jazz, all sorts of styles, and thought about becoming a choreographer.

A 2011 photo from a college dance concert. Leon Bridges, then going by his birth name Todd Bridges, poses with a fellow student. (collegian.tccd.edu)

That dream has changed, he explains. "Music is just something that took over because it was easier to really share it with people around town." But his passion remains. Bridges says he wants to continue his training, albeit "on the side," and he still follows the dance world. He shared a few of his favourite performers with CBC Arts.

Dallas Black Dance Theater

"One of my favourite dance companies is Dallas Black Dance Theatre. They incorporate an African spiritual-type thing, it's amazing," says Bridges. "When I first got into dance I was very self-conscious, and my teacher used to always get on me for not extending when I was dancing. To see young black men on stage doing technique, and very tall and long – that was one of my insecurities, being tall and long – just seeing those tall guys killing it, it was a tipping point."

Brian Puspos

Puspos is a member of the Houston-based group, So Real Cru. (Maybe you remember them from Season 2 of America's Best Dance Crew?) Bridges has been following them ever since his college days, when taking class with Puspos and co. was one of his dreams.

"Those guys, they're able to support themselves off of dance, teaching class – I think that's amazing," he says. "That type of thing, that's not something you could have done 10, 15 years ago when the Internet – YouTube – wasn't something."

Keone and Mari Madrid

"I love how they'll take a song you wouldn't think someone could do choreography to, and just make an amazing dance out of it," Bridges says of this husband and wife duo from L.A. The couple went viral a few years back for their YouTube video of Michael Jackson's "Dangerous" and they've since become choreographers for So You Think You Can Dance. (One of Bridges' favourite shows, by the way.)

"Right around the time I really started to take dance seriously is when I first found out about them," says Bridges.

More recently, Madrid reached out to Bridges on Twitter. "We got to talking a little bit and he said, 'Whenever you're out in L.A., come take class,'" says Bridges — though he humbly claims he's not ready to accept Madrid's offer just yet. "I'm so nervous just 'cause I haven't trained in so long, so I'm very rusty. But I've got to get out, get back at it."

Tucker Barkley

Barkley has been choreographing music videos for the likes of Janet Jackson ("Feedback," "Rock with You") since his teens. Bridges first took notice of the fellow Texan when his college dance teacher showed him his work. "I don't really have any words to describe it, but he's just very fierce in his moves, very precise," Bridges says, citing a YouTube clip featuring Aaliyah's "Are You That Somebody" as some of his favourite choreography. "What he does is like Vogue, hip hop, jazz – some kind of fusion."

"I love how he can take a song that you wouldn't think would work for dancing and just make it amazing."

Would Bridges' own music — a gentle brand of throwback soul — be an example?

"Yeah!" he says. "That's why it always surprises me when people do choreography to it." (He has discovered a few routines through Instagram, where fans tag him in their dance videos.) "I wouldn't think of my music being choreography material."

But that won't stop Bridges himself from trying. When the time comes to make a music video for Coming Home love song "Brown Skin Girl," he's going to recruit some of his old dancing buddies from college and their instructor, too. "Hopefully, if I get to shoot a video for it, we'll come up with some choreography together," Bridges says. "Something very classy, you know? A little bit of contemporary, jazz, maybe a little bit of hip-hop fusion in there."

Leon Bridges with Kali Uchis. Oct. 22. Corona Theatre, Montreal. Oct. 23. Danforth Music Hall, Toronto. Nov. 3. Commodore Ballroom, Vancouver. All shows sold out.

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