Choreographer Yanis Marshall, in heels and in demand
July 09 2015 12:00 PM EST
July 08 2015 11:24 PM EST
Choreographer Yanis Marshall, in heels and in demand
Photography by Winni Wintermeyer
Gays! Lesbians! Bisexuals!"
It's late January, and Yanis Marshall is yelling from the front of a packed studio in Manhattan's Broadway Dance Center. For the past hour, a class of 75 has been listening to him sound off, shouting playfully -- but with purpose -- lyrics to "Fabulous, Baby!" the number from Broadway's Sister Act musical that he's chosen for today's choreography lesson. And he's ditched the filter and gone gleefully graphic too, as when certain dancers can't get their thrusts right. "Noooo, tighter!" the black-haired Frenchman barks with a grin.
"Like there's a cock up your ass. Does that visual help?"
Loose, liberal, and transgressive talk is expected in a class taught by Marshall, the 25-year-old YouTube sensation. Since blowing up globally in 2013 as the queer European who dances in heels, he's made his name by bucking norms. And yet the seemingly random shout-out to gays, lesbians, and bisexuals is, ironically, the only line that seems to make the record skip. Evidently, the sold-out class is well-populated with all of the above, yet the demographic is hardly exclusive. Next to a six-foot-something, bleached-blond boy in pink suede platforms (a sort of Barbie-Ken hybrid), there's a sassy chick in leggings covered with planets and cats, and a T-shirt that reads slut cracker on the back. Sashaying past a young guy in blue wedges and a cutoff white shirt (the front reads kiki; the back reads speak with distinction) is a petite girl in a flannel top and black ankle boots who's getting off on merely watching herself in a mirrored pillar.
So, while the class might not be attracting every type of participant, in this environment where gender and orientation don't seem to matter a lick, why bother calling out the queers?
"I say it because if I don't, who's going to?" Marshall says later over coffee. "Nobody does that in dance classes. Usually you say 'girls group' or 'boys group' or 'group one' or 'group two,' and people come forward. I call out 'gays, lesbians, and bisexuals,' and they all come forward. One time I did this in Manchester and this 14-year-old boy came out of the closet by doing that. He was the last one to walk up, and everybody clapped. Before taking my class, he kept saying he was straight."
In a few short years, Marshall has become a self-made and ravenously in-demand liberator, particularly, if not specifically, for dance-inclined gay men.
"I think he made it OK for me even to think of the idea of wearing heels in general," says Eric, the student in the Kiki shirt with the wedges. "He made it OK not to be afraid to walk down the street in six-inch heels or go buy a pair of Jeffrey Campbells and run around your house in them. You can do it because he can do it."
Marshall, who grew up in Vallauris ("a small, shit town near Cannes"), has always loved heels. "It's not just about the shoe," he says. "It's also about what it represents. Men aren't supposed to wear them, and I love that. I'm a rebel. You say 'no,' I say 'yes.' I've always been like that with everyone, even my mom. I'll ask, 'Why not?' and if, for me, your answer is not clear enough, then I will do it."
Still, Marshall didn't actually dance in heels until 2011, when he advised a female cabaret act to use them in their performance, then accepted their challenge that he do the same. He came back, "killed it," and started teaching a heels class in his native country, gaining a following before YouTube paved his runway to worldwide fame. It was June 2013 when Marshall dropped a video choreographed to a Spice Girls medley, wherein he and two close friends, Arnaud Boursain and Mehdi Mamine, strut around Paris in platforms to tunes like "Wannabe" and "Stop."
"They started with me," Marshall says of Boursain and Mamine.
"They were maybe the first two men to take my class -- the first two to wear heels, when everyone was still saying, 'Oh, you look like a whore; this concept isn't going to work.' They were always supporting me. We never attempted to create a group -- it just happened." The trio released more videos, set to tracks by Britney and Beyonce, and last year, Britain's Got Talent came calling. Appearing on the show's eighth season, which ran from April to June, Marshall, Boursain, and Mamine placed last among the finalists, but the fact that they didn't win didn't matter. "It was good publicity, and it was the first time they had three boys in heels, in England, on TV, at 7 p.m. -- family time," he says. "We danced to Scissor Sisters' 'Let's Have a Kiki' and Donna Summer and RuPaul and the Spice Girls and Beyonce. We were seen by everybody on TV and got huge applause. I was like, Fuck yeah, that's exciting."
Marshall admits there was more strategy behind doing the show. As a man building his brand on YouTube, he saw that he had 300,000 subscribers versus Britain's Got Talent's 2 million. He also noticed that most of the show's videos were hitting 10 million views online. As of press time, Marshall has boosted his subscriber total to 818,000, and his total channel views to more than 100 million. A video of a Beyonce medley that sees Marshall and his sidekicks in sickening unison (and that was released just a week after Britain's Got Talent wrapped) has surpassed a whopping 22 million views on its own.
Altogether, the visibility has allowed Marshall to become highly discerning and pilot his own success. It's allowed him to turn down "tacky" offers, such as appearing as a token gay instructor on an American reality show like Dance Moms. And while certain side projects are reportedly in the works, his increasing fame has allowed him to live full-time as a choreographer. When Marshall sat down for coffee in January, he was on a break from a three-month stint in Las Vegas, where he single-handedly recast and re-chor-eographed Zumanity, Cirque du Soleil's sultriest resident show. Zumanity will bear his signature for the next decade, and for the foreseeable future, Boursain will serve as the show's dance captain (Mamine, meanwhile, is currently working in French TV). Before that, Marshall was teaching in Argentina, New York, Connecticut, Barcelona, Italy, Amsterdam, Germany, Portugal, Paris, and London. And all of that, according to him, was just in November.
"I live in an airport with suitcases," he says.
Marshall can surely afford to fill those suitcases. He doesn't disclose how much the last two-plus years of touring have put in the bank, only that the gig "pays so much, you have no idea." He does say it's given him the security to splurge on roughly 50 pairs of heels, from designers like Alexander McQueen, Louis Vuitton, and Christian Dior. He also admits he names them all. There's a leather pair called Samantha and a pink pair named Mimi. But he's not wearing those beauties to work ("they'd get too fucked up"), nor is he wearing them -- or anything else -- when planning his routines. For a 90-second number to be taught in a 100-minute class, Marshall choreographs naked, for about two hours, usually around 3 a.m. He doesn't give a reason why. But he implies that it's all linked to being hyper in-tune with his body, which, despite the ostensible femininity of twerking, whipping his arms, and achieving stunningly high kicks, is notable for staunch precision and musculature -- things many would probably categorize as masculine.
And once the heels go on, all that registers to Marshall is power. He's still turned on by their rebellious symbolism, but there's more to it than that. "I dance better with heels than without because when I have them on, I know I can't fuck up," he says. "My body is in full mode not to fail. You have your whole balance to deal with, and you're always afraid to fall. Everything changes."
Of course, Marshall is by no means the first man to dance in heels, and it's possible that Eric, the 23-year-old with the wedges, isn't aware of the influence of someone like Jonte' Moaning, who was also present for Marshall's January class, and who's been rocking stilettos for years as a dancer, singer, and choreographer for the likes of Beyonce. But because of social media's viral power, Marshall is the first man to bring all-gender heel dancing to such a massive global audience. Literally. At the worldwide schools and studios he visits (invariably by invitation), he's seeing how all types of people are receiving his masc-femme, bitch-butch, stomp-and-strut brand of body movement. And it's catching on.
"In the last year of me touring, all I can see are these dance studios that have added a new class to their schedule -- a heels class," says Marshall, who is now booked through June of 2016. "They didn't have that two years ago. It's really becoming the new thing. I'm not the first, but I will say I definitely made it popular. I made heels for men -- for anyone -- popular."
When Marshall and I chat again in May, he has more coming-out stories to share, like that of a young gay boy in Mexico who spilled his truth before running into Marshall's arms. But Marshall's success isn't without a little blowback. Though most map points are drawing throngs of pupils (the average turnout is 400, more than four times that of the Broadway Dance Center bunch), not all of them are releasing the rainbow balloons. In places like Russia and Dubai, for example, the class is both frowned upon and, in the case of the latter, illegal, and no one in either locale is high-kicking his way to the front to declare his queerness. Online, Marshall has given up reading negative comments, such as one from a viewer who wrote, "This video is so gay, I got HIV watching it."
Even within the industry itself, Marshall says he can sense touches of animosity, particularly from instructors whose facilities he's popping in and out of, and whose classes are thirsty for members while his sell out in 30 minutes. Alec Piliafas, 25 (pictured above, center), is someone who finds himself in the middle. Though he no longer dances full-time, he teaches street jazz at City Dance, the San Francisco studio where these class photos were shot. He's in the rare position of being a devout Marshall fan and also someone whose turf the heel wearer recently trod across. For him, it wasn't a threat but an honor, on both rock-star and camaraderie levels.
Piliafas doesn't dance in heels, but he gladly joined the class, taking full, avid advantage of the guest pass his position afforded him. Eventually, he wasn't only one of five students selected by Marshall to demonstrate the routine -- he was one of the "gays, lesbians, and bisexuals" whose footwear squeaked on the wood as they shuffled to make themselves visible.
"It's empowering, and many times when you're gay and you're called out like that, it's not," Piliafas says. "But you want to be part of that group. I had straight girls I know who were there and claiming to be bisexual because they wanted to be featured -- and be proud of it. Overall, that's Yanis's energy. He is unapologetic."