Leslie Watanabe: a life awakened by dance – ‘It’s the only thing that made me feel alive’
Living > Leslie Watanabe: a life awakened by dance – ‘It’s the only thing that made me feel alive’

Leslie Watanabe: a life awakened by dance – ‘It’s the only thing that made me feel alive’

A renowned dancer lives among the UP adjunct faculty. It's time for the community to meet him.

Leslie Watanabe beginning class with a few review steps for his students.
by Natalie Gordon / The Beacon

At 20 years old, Leslie Watanabe, an adjunct ballet professor at the University of Portland, became estranged from his mother. They didn’t talk for three years.

Watanabe’s mother was ashamed of his untraditional aspiration to become a professional dancer. She doubted his ability to excel in the competitive dance world.

Decades later, he vividly remembers her objections. 

“She said, ‘You’re never going to make it,’” Watanabe said. “‘You’re too short. Your arms are too short, your legs are too short. And you’re competing against six-foot-tall blonde Americans. How are you going to compete?’”

Despite his mother's disapproval, Watanabe pursued his dream. He knew that there was nothing else in life he wanted to do. He was born to be a dancer.

“I felt like if I didn't do it [dance], it would be like not breathing,” Watanabe said.

And, a decade later — when Watanabe invited his parents to witness his performance in Las Vegas alongside the renowned Puerto Rican-born actress and dancer Rita Moreno —  his parents finally accepted that dance was his true calling.

Leslie Watanabe in New York at 30 years old, dancing Donald McKayle’s choreography in 'Salsa Caliente' Photo courtesy of Martha Swope

“On the way home, she [Watanabe’s mother] said ‘Ah, I guess you’re never going to change,’” Watanable said. “And I said ‘Mom, I’m 30 years old, this is what I chose. I’ve chosen this.’”

Now 75, Watanabe chooses to share all he has learned as a professional dancer by teaching college students. At UP, Watanabe teaches Introduction to Ballet I, Introduction to Ballet II and Ballet II. He also teaches Ballet, Modern and Dance Seminar at Western Oregon University. 

Students who take his class benefit from decades of dance experience in the U.S. and abroad. 

Benny Bui, a senior at the University of Portland, was a student in Watanabe's Introduction to Ballet I class this fall semester. From the outset, Bui was struck by Watanabe's humility regarding his numerous accomplishments. It became evident to Bui that Watanabe's primary aspiration was to impart his wealth of knowledge to his students. 

Leslie Watanabe dancing with his students in class.
by Natalie Gordon / The Beacon

“He’s very humble about it,” Bui said. “He’s more of like, ‘When I took a class in this, I learned this, and I want to teach you guys, so let’s learn.’”

Throughout his career, Watanabe achieved significant milestones, dancing alongside and collaborating with world-renowned figures like dancer, director, choreographer and activist Alvin Ailey, composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, American theater director Harold Prince, dancer and choreographer Donald McKayle and others.

“I was lucky in my career because I sort of targeted people that I really liked,” Watanabe said. “They were legends in their field, actually the best of the best in the world at what they do.”

However, Watanabe didn't initially envision his passion for dance to transform into a career. He began dancing purely for the joy it brought him. 

Watanabe's journey started in junior high school in Los Angeles when his classmate, Marvin Cassio, introduced him to the Motown dances of the 60s.

“He asked me if I was going to go to the school dance,” Watanabe said. “And I said ‘No, I don’t dance,’ and he said, ‘What?! My house. Saturday.”

From then on, every Saturday afternoon, Watanabe boarded the bus to Cassio's house, where the duo refined their moves to the tunes of one or two record albums.

“If he didn’t know it [dance moves] and I did, I showed it to him,” Cassio said. “At least my understanding in how I did it.”

Their Saturday dance sessions gradually expanded, drawing in more friends who eagerly exchanged moves in anticipation of the school's weekly dance event.

Now, 60 years later, Cassio still marvels at how quickly Watanabe grasped and mastered the dance steps of Motown moves.

“He always picks things up quickly,” Cassio said. “You only had to show him once, maybe twice at the most, and he goes on to the next thing. The dances weren’t all that difficult. You just had to have a feeling for it — and he did.”

Watanabe danced throughout middle school and high school, ultimately leaving L.A. for Gardena, California due to the pervasive gang violence in the city.

After graduating high school, Watanabe enrolled at Harbor junior college in Wilmington, California. It was in a transformative Modern Dance class, guided by choreographer Janice Gudde Plastino, that Watanabe's passion for dance was sparked. Inspired and encouraged by Plastino, he made the pivotal decision to commit to a career in dance.

Leslie Watanabe and Janice Gudde Plastino at UC Irvine in 1993. Photo courtesy of Leslie Watanabe’s website.

“She [Plastino] said, ‘It is going to take you a long time but you are one of the few that can make it,’” Watanabe said.

So, despite facing a lack of support from his family, Watanabe made the decision to apply to UC Irvine’s dance program. 

“I was totally committed,” Watanabe said. “Didn't matter what happened in life.”

His determination paid off as he was accepted to the program, embarking on a transformative five-year journey under the mentorship of acclaimed dancer and choreographer Eugene Loring.

Leslie Watanabe and Eugene Loring in rehearsal at UC Irvine in 1968. Photo courtesy of Leslie Watanabe’s website.

After learning from Loring, Watanabe launched his professional career by dedicating three years to working with the world-renowned dancer and choreographer Donald McKayle. 

Throughout this period, Watanabe traveled through the U.S. and Europe, staging one of McKayle’s most famous works, “Rainbow Round My Shoulder,” a powerful piece that conveys the plight of men in a prison chain gang.

“I was the one who knew that work [the choreography] the best because I did it for three long years,” Watanabe said. “It is a super hard, super hard dance. So, he’d send me places to put those dances to people.”

Leslie Watanabe and Martina Young in Donald McKayle's “Rainbow Round my Shoulder” at the Inner City Cultural Center Company in Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of Leslie Watanabe’s website.

At 25, Watanabe left McKayle's dance company to join a modern dance company in Paris. He showcased his talent on various television specials before eventually returning to the U.S. and settling in New York. There, he crossed paths with Alvin Ailey, a director, choreographer and activist, who became another of his significant inspirations.

Watanabe felt well-prepared for working with Ailey because much of the dance he focused on was similar to the Motown dances he grew up practicing.

“If you look at the Motown dancing, it’s African based,” Watanabe said. “So when I worked with Alvin Ailey and he did the 30s kind of jazz step, I knew exactly what they felt like from Motown.”

Leslie Watanabe in New York at 31 years old, dancing Alvin Ailey’s choreography “Reflections” while with the Joyce Trisler Danscompany. Photo courtesy of Leslie Watanabe.

During his time in New York, Watanabe also worked with legends like composer Stephen Sondheim and director Hal Prince. He made a notable appearance on Broadway in "Pacific Overtures," a musical production set in the 19th-century that tells the story of Japan's westernization, featuring an all-Japanese cast.

“I think it was a humbling experience because you saw all these Asian Americans coming together and having diverse talents,” Watanabe said. “Just to see that on Broadway, you know, it's pretty amazing.”

After Broadway, at the age of 30, Watanabe went on a nationwide tour with Rita Moreno, best known for her iconic role as Anita in the original “West Side Story” film.

“She [Moreno] started a nightclub act, and I was one of the three dancers,” Watanabe said. “We toured the U.S for a year doing all the hotels and the night clubs.”

Transitioning from performances in Lake Tahoe, where breathing masks were necessary due to low oxygen levels, to intimate, smoke-filled nightclubs in New York, Watanabe gained exposure to a diverse range of performances while working for Moreno.

Watanabe also cherishes the memories of his interactions with Moreno, which contribute to his fond recollections of the tour, especially appreciating her respect for the talents of the dancers.

“Her husband, who was also her manager, would come and watch [us practice],” Watanabe said. “We would have to dance behind Rita because she was the star – it was her show. And then the day that he left, she would say, ‘Come on, go in front of me because you are the dancers – you dance better than me.’” 

After Moreno's tour concluded, Watanabe journeyed to California and choreographed shows at the Pacific Conservatory Theatre and Solvang Festivals. It was during this time that he met dancer and performer Jaime Rogers, who is also renowned for his role in “West Side Story.”

“I think he [Rogers] was my finishing school,” Watanabe said. “He was trained by Donald McKayle, but he had other qualities about him – black belt in karate, Puerto Rican, strong as a mighty mouse and just a crazy person.”

Soon after meeting Rogers, Watanabe enrolled in one of his dance classes, recognizing that to pursue a career in television in Los Angeles, he needed to learn from the best — even if it meant enduring challenging classes.

Leslie Watanabe in Los Angeles at 31 years old, dancing Jaime Rogers’ choreography.

Photo courtesy of Leslie Watanabe.

“He could be very inspiring — brilliant, but also very brutal — it was like going to war,” Watanabe said. “I would just go in there and have coffee and do a full ballet bar, and then when he came in, I was ready. And I said to Jaime, ‘No matter what you do to me, I’m still going to be here.’"

After two years of studying under Rogers, Watanabe returned to Europe and began teaching dance in Vienna, Paris, Amsterdam, Bonn, Madrid and Barcelona. 

Watanabe then returned to New York, where he resumed working with McKayle, assisting him in choreographing Broadway shows. In 1995, Watanabe made his way to UC Irvine, appearing as a Chancellor's Fellow, where he pursued and earned his Master of Fine Arts.

Following the completion of his M.F.A., Watanabe moved to the Pacific Northwest. 

And, in 2013, he ventured into a new career just as he was getting ready to retire – dedicating himself to the art of teaching ballet to college students. 

His teaching philosophy takes a holistic approach, emphasizing the interconnectedness of various dance forms. Watanabe strives to cultivate well-rounded dancers by introducing his students to diverse styles.

Leslie Watanabe in New York at 25 years old, dancing Donald McKayle’s choreography in ‘Sojourn’ while with the Joyce Trisler Danscompany. Photo courtesy of John Dady.

“Even though I teach ballet, I try to introduce them to other forms so that they are well rounded,” Watanabe said.

Throughout the years, Watanabe's teaching style has left a lasting positive impact on numerous students. 

Initially, Benny Bui chose to audit Watanabe’s Introduction to Ballet I class because he was uncertain about time commitments with his demanding nursing schedule. But, as the fall semester concludes, Bui can't imagine what his academic term would have been like without the enriching experience of Watanabe's class.

“The class doesn’t seem real,” Bui said. “It feels so authentically personable. It's like, ‘Oh my gosh, like I'm not in a class.’ I'm kind of just hanging out with my friend and other people.”

Throughout the semester, Bui admired Watanabe's unwavering belief in his students and his remarkable patience with them as they navigate the challenges of being dance beginners.

Leslie Watanabe learning some hip hop with his students
by Natalie Gordon / The Beacon

“One time I think we all had to learn this specific choreo of this dance, and when we did it, it just looked terrible,” Bui said. “But he was like, ‘Don’t sweat it guys.’ It almost seemed like he knew how good we were going to be before we even knew it. And because of that it really pushed us to be better.”

Gabi Hamlin, a graduate of Western Oregon, initially crossed paths with Watanabe in her freshman ballet dance class in 2017. Hamlin passionately recommends that everyone seize the opportunity to take a class with Watanabe. She emphasizes the profound impact he has, not only as a dance instructor but also as a person. 

“He just impacts you in such a powerful way,” Hamlin said. “He’s one of those people you meet and you're just like, ‘you have had an impact on my life in such a positive way and I know I'm a better person for having met you.’”

Watanabe’s love and passion for dance has only grown during his career as a dance instructor.

“It's something that I loved for so long. I knew that it was my path,” Watanabe said. “And so I'm 75 now and I'm still doing it — you know, teaching.”

Watanabe has also developed a passion for dance videography, with his most cherished piece, "Bonsai," narrating the story of his mother's life.

“Years ago in the 80s, she [Watanabe’s mother] and I were watching my dad cutting the plants and bonsai,” Watanabe said. “Then she said, ‘He made my life a bonsai.’ That stuck with me for 15 years, and I finally made a dance and I made a video of it. And it was probably the hardest work I've ever done.”

The process of creating the video and choreography was arduous, requiring nearly four months to write the script. Watanabe meticulously delved into letters between his parents to grasp what might have evoked such emotions in his mother.

“I wrote this script from her point of view and you know, I read the letters and tried to figure out what he did in order to make her feel this way,” Watanabe said. “For instance, you know, he's supposed to give fertilizer to encourage growth. So what did he do to not encourage her growth? How did he stop her from growing?”.

Watanabe's videos have garnered numerous awards and accolades from film festivals, earning acclaim and positive reviews from viewers worldwide.

“It's pretty much resonating with a lot of people around the world because it's just so personal,” Watanabe said. “And it's her life constructed as a bonsai tree. It's brutal.”

Cassio, who has maintained contact with Watanabe since introducing him to dance, expresses hope that more people will come to recognize not only Watanabe’s abilities as a dancer but also his talent for choreography and videography.

“I was hoping that at some point, he would get more recognition because a lot of minorities have, but I think maybe our generation is right about past that,” Cassio said. “I just hope that one day he can also be known for his choreography. Not just as a dance teacher and that kind of thing.”

Overall, Watanabe is profoundly grateful for all the experiences he had during his time as a professional dancer.

“I had a full career dancing with these people and it was a great time,” Watanabe said.

Ultimately, Watanabe believes that his dedication to and love for dance enabled him to overcome any obstacles in his way, and he wouldn't hesitate to do it again.

“I mean, maybe there's some hardships but if you're committed 100%, the hardships don't matter,” Watanabe said. “You know I needed it. It's the only thing that made me feel alive.”

Julianna Pedone is a reporter for The Beacon. She can be reached at pedone25@up.edu.