Arts Ian Eastwood on the Artistry of Dance

by Roger Kamholz | December 19, 2018

Growing up in an artistic family, Ian Eastwood — a dancer and choreographer from Chicago, IL — quickly gained an appreciation for the arts, especially dance.

Through social media, he was able to grow a large following and he now has his own company, YOUNG LIONS, and choreographs for some of music's biggest names.

He’s at the top of his game as a professional dancer, but his humble roots are fueled by everything from cartoons to Italian poets. Life and Money by Citi caught up with him to discuss where he’s at, what’s next and what it’s like to wear 40 pounds of cell phones.

Describe the coolest thing you did this year so far.

Ian: I’d say, easily the coolest thing I got to do so far this year was to work on a cell phone commercial. This experience was a huge honor, a major learning experience and a living science experiment with dance. With about five weeks of prep time from when I was brought in, we shot a one-shot video of me dancing wearing 89 cell phones (40 pounds) in front of an interactive video wall of 1,500 phones. The whole experience is something I never could have dreamed of doing when I started dancing and was more than I could ever ask for out of an experience to pursue perfection in a piece of art.

What’s a typical day like for you?

Ian: Most days I wake up and walk our little corgi, I either make breakfast or go to a great coffee shop in the neighborhood — coffee is very important. I watch some news, then usually go to a meeting, rehearsal or the set for a shoot day. My schedule is always pretty laid back as far as what is required of me on a job; it can sometimes just be long hours dependent on what's being worked on. I come home, grab some really good food and usually pass out watching a movie or something. This is when I’m in LA at least, when you start adding in traveling, then all structure goes out the window!

How long does the process typically take to choreograph a dance piece for a song — from getting to know the music to performing the routine?

Ian: In the past I would describe this process as an extensive experience, but in the current way I create, I try to listen to as many different types of hip-hop, pop, R&B, soul, funk and house music as possible in order to understand music better in general and not just individual songs with such small moments. By having a better understanding of music in general, this allows me to pick the song I want to choreograph to only moments before. I usually create about a minute's worth of choreography in about two hours at this point in time.

Besides from the music you dance to, where else do you draw creative inspiration for your work?

Ian: I draw inspiration very often from things that have nothing to do with dance at all. If I were to pick out something that is the most peculiar of the things I am inspired by, I would say that it’s cartoons. There’s something really brilliant about the physicality of the way all of the characters are animated, timed, stretched and warped that speaks to me as a dancer of the importance of the messages I can communicate through the exaggeration of a character in my body.

Portrait of influencer, Ian Eastwood against a colorful background

For Adult Lessons, the “dance mixtape” you released in 2015, you took on basically all aspects of the production, from the choreography to the writing, and even coloring the video. Why was it important for you to do pretty much everything? Did you have a clear vision of what you wanted to create?

Ian: While it was super important for me to be involved in every level because of how important the project was to me, most of my involvement on all of these levels was due to lack of money for proper production. I funded the whole film for around $8,000 out of my own pocket, so a lot of things that are really expensive for a longer project of this kind, like editor or colorist, were roles I filled myself, and executed with the hope that my basic skill level and knowledge of what I wanted and my understanding of how to use a computer would get me through it in the end.

So often, your dancing appears to “sing along” with the lyrics of a song, where gestures and movements give visual expression to the words we hear. Do you feel that’s true? How do you get to know a song in order to create a dance routine to complement it?

Ian: This is such a great question! Nuances and details of texture are what give such a specific sound to all the songs we love listening to and the reason we come back to listen to these songs over and over. Capturing the detail of the audio, translating it visually with the body while displaying the overall feeling of the song in my emotion in tandem with detail is my main goal. To explain what I see in my head when dancing is similar to a line graph that is constantly moving up and down to the frequency of the musicality I find most prominent to dance to —similar to what sound waves look like.

A lot of things that are really expensive for a longer project of this kind... were roles I filled myself.
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Both your parents are artists, and you’ve said in interviews that they were always supportive of your desire to make dance your life. Artist-to-artist, what’s the best advice you’ve gotten from them about pursuing a creative career?

Ian: The most important phrase I think of in my day-to-day life is my mom telling me that you should always be happy in your life if you’re able to support yourself and get paid from what you love to do. Even if things were out of my reach due to my level of talent, my courage to always reach for something that was considered obscure or abstract was greatly fueled by such supportive parents that made me feel like I could do what I set my mind to.

A couple of typical Eastwood phrases: “No means, next” referring to failure being another opportunity to find the best solution for what you’re searching. And “Ancora imparo,” which refers to a famous quote by Michelangelo translating roughly to “still I am learning,” meaning we can always learn, every day, no matter who we are and what we have accomplished. A true artist always remains humble to learn and gain more knowledge to adapt into their work.

Take us to your “happy place.” What would we see, hear and experience? What do you do when you’re there?

Ian: My happy place is very simple, anytime I get to freestyle I stop looking at everything in my surroundings and go to place in my mind where everything I do is based off an ongoing interpretation of what the sound looks like from moment to moment. The feeling of not being able to “mess something up” and just being able to express myself because of how I feel is the best thing I get to experience on a regular basis.

Portrait of influencer, Ian Eastwood, as he leans against a chain link fence

Not to make this sound like a job interview, but where do you see yourself in five years?

Ian: I would love to see myself in a position of leadership in the community that can create opportunity to so many people I see in the dance world that are some of my unsung heroes. There’s so many avenues and subgenres of dance that I think are completely awe-inspiring that I believe more of the world deserves to see. If it’s having a production company that can facilitate out a lot of creative work for the industry, or creating crew chapters across the country, or creating events for people to exchange at, I’m super excited to see where all my bottled up seedling ideas can take me and the people I believe in!

Can you share details on any upcoming projects?

Ian: Hmmm there's a couple things that I’m sure I can’t quite talk about yet, but one exciting thing I just completed is choreographing a music group’s first headlining tour.

Roger Kamholz

creates content for Citi’s Global Consumer Bank and has written about dining and travel for more than 10 years.