Native Californian Maria Del Bagno chose not to move to New York City, but remained in Los Angeles and achieved a wonderful career as a performer, choreographer, and educator. Drawn to music and dance at a young age, the path to becoming the founder and CEO of danceCREATE was not always a clear one. What was always clear for Del Bagno was her love for music, theater, dance and entertainment. It was a question of which path to take; to become an actor, a dancer or a teacher. The eventual answer to that question was affirmative to them all.
My introduction to Del Bagno came when Leah Zeiger, Business Operations & Program Development Manager for danceCREATE, sent me an email requesting that Del Bagno’s classes be added to LA Dance Chronicle’s Growing List of Online Classes. Zeiger cc’d Del Bagno on the email in the hopes of connecting the two of us with the possibility that LADC readers might be interested in learning more about Del Bagno and danceCREATE. After reading through Del Bagno’s promotional material and visiting the danceCREATE website, I contacted her and set up an interview.
After listening to Del Bagno’s story and hearing her talk about danceCREATE, I revisited their website and decided that it is the statement of the company’s core values that sums up what is the center of what Del Bagno holds dear regarding what she does: “We are building a creative and artistically diverse community. We are all about inclusivity – all kinds of artists and people are welcome. We are collaborative and make original art together. We honor legacy, we inspire innovation, we constantly create because…We are danceCREATE!”
It is the collaboration and making “original art together” that I came away with understanding what is the driving force or passion that draws dancers and actors from all styles and genres to study and work with Del Bagno in LA.
Del Bagno grew up in Granada Hills, a residential community in the San Fernando Valley portion of the city of Los Angeles. Her father was Italian and grew up in New York. He was a great lover of music and social dancing. Her mother was of Irish and German descent who grew up in Hollywood. With unfulfilled aspirations of becoming a dancer, she did, however, become a model.
“My mom and dad met at a church dance” Del Bagno said. “and they were incredible swing dancers. Dancing was big part of our lives. On the weekend my parents would invite the neighbors and their friends over, my dad would make pasta and they would swing dance.” Del Bagno grew up listening to big band music. Her parents and their friends all loved music and they loved to move. “I thought everybody was like me with dance parties on the weekend. The first thing my mom did in the morning was turn on music, so I woke up to music”.
Like many young dancers-to-be, Del Bagno could not stop moving. When her parents took her to parties Del Bagno said, “Just put Maria by the music. She’ll be good.” Social dancing was a family affair, her parents, her three older brothers and her cousins, all knew how to dance. Del Bagno’s father thought that there was no bigger high than dancing to live big band music.
At age 5, it was the movie Born Free and the song by the same title written in 1966 by John Barry for the film, that totally captured the young Del Bagno. “I think for me,” She said, “that song was about love. It was that love had no barriers.” Her mother purchased the record for Del Bagno and she freeform danced to Born Free for a solid month. It became a routine that her mother would then take young Maria once a month to buy a new record for her to dance to about the house to while her mother did the daily chores.
When she saw her first ballet performance at school, Del Bagno then wanted to become a ballerina. Her parents enrolled her in ballet classes and for the first couple of years everything went well. It was when the classes became more structured that she began to have problems. She began studying at the Rozann-Zimmerman Ballet Center in LA who taught a Balanchine based ballet technique, and indeed a two of Rozann’s students, Heather Watts and Zippora Karz went on to become members of New York City Ballet.
It was in class with Rozann that Del Bagno found herself wanting to stand by the piano and express herself to the music instead of adhering to the discipline Rozann’s class required. At age 7 or 8, Del Bagno had a passion for free expression of moving, which wasn’t always encouraged in a strict technique-focused ballet training. Del Bagno had an abrupt awareness that there was more to dance than freedom but felt stifled in her desire and love for self-expression.
Recognizing this, Del Bagno’s mother pulled her now 12 year old daughter out of that school and enrolled her in Patrice McCoy’s ballet classes, which were held at Moro Landis Studios in Studio City – one of LA’s most popular dance studios along with the Roland Dupree Studio in Hollywood. At Moro Landis it was not just dancers in class, there were actors and performing artists there too such as Helen Hunt and Jeff Goldblum. It was there that McCoy retrained Del Bagno so that she could go on pointe and restored her love of ballet.
While at Moro Landis, Del Bagno joined Trish McCoy’s company and began to sneak into classes taught by Bobby Danas, Joe Tremaine, and Fred Walton, among others. “I thought, wow, there’s life after ballet!” she said. It was Jaime Rogers, however, who taught her how to turn and jump, not in class, but as she was practicing alone in the studio. Rogers would walk in, give her some instruction and then leave. After he did a few times, Del Bagno said that she became good at turning and jumping. It was also at Moro Landis Studios where Del Bagno fell in love with entertainment. She would hang around the studio and watch rehearsals of shows like The Brady Bunch and other variety shows.
In high school, Del Bagno knew that she was in better physical shape than most kids her age, and also didn’t want to do P.E., so she petitioned the school to let her teach dance classes to her peers, and they accepted her proposal. She created the curriculum and a teacher did the grading. It was when Del Bagno entered The American Academy of Dramatic Arts, founded by Franklin Haven Sargent in 1884, that she was able to combine her dance training with her singing and acting talents by performing in musical theater. She, of course, dreamed of performing on Broadway, but discovered that she had much more freedom right here in Los Angeles.
In the early 1980s, dance was booming in Los Angeles. Del Bagno had a full scholarship with internationally known dance educator, choreographer and performer Joe Tremaine, but at that time found herself leaning more towards acting than dancing. It was also around this time that the AIDS epidemic happened, causing a huge disruption in the dance and entertainment world as more and more men died as a result of AIDS related illnesses. Dance in Los Angeles took a big hit and it took a couple of decades for it to recover.
When she finished at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, Del Bagno felt a bit like she was in a boat without a paddle. It was at the Beverly Hills Playhouse studying with Milton Katselas that she found the structure and leadership that she craved as well as her voice as an actor. Not wanting to be type-casted, she did not let it be known that she was a dancer and even trained herself to not walk like one. And, as many dancers were led to believe, she felt that if she had not “made it” by the age of 21, that it was too late. “I also felt that time was chasing me.” She said.
Del Bagno had another struggle with being a dancer. “I found myself always chasing some kind of technical perfection”, she said. “And I wasn’t happy!” She began to find the freedom and expression that was missing in her creative self through acting, and also people were playing music in their scenes. “And that began to really impinge on me with the music people would play.”
It was the eagle eye of Katselas, however, who saw that Del Bagno was a dancer and said to her, “Once you’re a dancer, you’re always a dancer, and not to dance is not to be all of who you are. Whether you do it professionally or not, you have to go back to dancing.” Del Bagno said that this statement was a pivotal moment in her life. Katselas was not discouraging her from becoming an actor but felt that in order to see her entire artistic life come alive, that she needed to use what she had learned studying acting to express herself within her original art form.
She went back to Moro Landis Studios only to find that the AIDS epidemic had changed everything. “It was like the day the music died,” Del Bagno said. At an AIDS benefit concert she looked at the back of the program and was shocked to see all the names listed there who the production was in memory of.
Del Bagno knew that she had issues with the dance world. She needed to find a place where she felt comfortable. “I need some kindness,” she told her friend Doug Caldwell. “I need to be able to ask questions. I need to be able to express myself. I need to be able to make mistakes. I need to find that little girl, that 5 year old girl that would just dance freely in my living room.”
She had Caldwell and she found Michael Rooney, but most of all Del Bagno needed to go into the studio alone. She gathered together all her music and began dancing in the studio all by herself. “I began finding me again in the music, and how I danced.” She said. “That was a big step. I came out of it rehabilitated. I wanted to dance. I wanted to perform. I wanted to teach and choreograph.” She began creating again.
She got the part of Sheila in Chorus Line at the Curtain Call dinner theater in Orange County. “It was a result of my rehabilitating myself,” Del Bagno said. “Milton (Katselas) was right. Everything just started to come alive for me.” It was while working on a show called From the Heart of Love that Del Bagno said that she began to find herself as a choreographer and where she began putting together the type of classes that evolved into what she teaches at danceCREATE.
Del Bagno collaborated with the actor/director, Richard Lawson, to create the musical From the Heart of Love that was based entirely on a piece of poetry. Originally she was asked to be both dancer and choreographer, but as the show’s cast continued to grow, she limited her role to choreographer. She was also teaching dance classes for actors again at the Beverly Hills Playhouse where the musical was workshopping. The cast was truly diverse – multiracial and involved many different body types. It was totally inclusive. Lawson had to go away on a gig for a while and instructed Del Bagno to find out what was unique about this group of people. She was working with the cast for about 4 hours a day in the theater, and so she began teaching them. “It was here that it all began to come together for me.” Del Bagno said. “I suddenly realized that I had the ability to create a safe environment for artists.” She was working with actors, dancers and singers, as well as all types of people. She put together creative exercises and discovered that she “had found my niche!”. She watched as her classes helped unleash the people in class and drop their social demeanor. “They trusted me.” She added. “They trusted the space.”
It was a highly creative experience for Del Bagno and she knew that she could put together everything she had learned over the years. “This interests me!” she said. “I could put all those things together: my acting, my dancing, my singing and my story telling.”
Using this process, Del Bagno and Lawson worked with the cast of From the Heart of Love for over four months and even Broadway was interested in this musical. Sadly, they ran into a rights dispute and the musical didn’t go forward.” She said, because they had all been focused entirely on the creative process, while not thinking about how to protect what they had created. “That was a hard lesson where I had to take a step back.”
Del Bagno knew, however, that she had found what she wanted to do with her life, and she knew that something incredible had taken place during those four months working with the cast. “I told myself that I should put this into my teaching modality.” Del Bagno said at the time. “As a teacher, I should find a way to blend technique and expression together.
From there she founded and ran the dance program at the Beverly Hills Playhouse for six years. Katselas was incredibly supportive and as a director and teacher, he was always telling actors that they should take a dance class and dancers that they should study acting. He knew that actors needed to learn how to express themselves physically and dancers how to express themselves through movement.
Del Bagno surveyed the Playhouse and discovered that actors were shy and self-conscious about going into a dance studio, so she decided to take her new method of teaching into the theater world. She found mirrors and with the help of Katselas, began teaching at the Skylight Theater in Los Feliz which Katselas also owned and was part of the Playhouse. Some of the actors who began training with her were former dancers, so Del Bagno started rehabilitating them back into dance as she had done for herself. Through word of mouth, the classes rapidly began to grow in numbers.
“We put up shows, we workshopped original shows, and we workshopped classic shows but with an original twist on them.” Del Bagno said. “It was a very, very creative time.”
This was from around 1999 to 2006 when Del Bagno was working at the Skylight with approximately 350 students taking her classes. “It was another art form. It helped them express themselves,” she said, it got them more in communication with their bodies. It taught them how to use their bodies, how to be more natural and how to bring movement to the stage.”
“What was really beautiful that started to happen in my classes then and to this day,” she went on. “I teach a class that really is a performing artists space. All kinds of artists; actors, singers, dancers, writers, composers, photographers – different kinds of people who are looking for how to use dance and movement to be more expressive and creative.” She discovered that the dancers inspired the actors with their discipline and posture, while the actors inspired the dancers with their ability to express themselves.
“I integrated my classes, expression based exercises that create community and collaboration.” Del Bagno explained. “It all starts in class as that kind of discovery, not just following but how do you originate and trust yourself.”
danceCREATE came about when Del Bagno said to her students one day that they were going to do a dance create. Each student would give a few counts of movement and then the others would learn it. Once everyone knew the movement, it was put into a sequence, added music and voila, a dance. She saw that this process was also helping to build self-esteem and self-confidence within her students.
She began to do shows called danceCREATE with original works, but the shows always began with building a dance live with audience members and some of her dancers right in front of the audience. It took about 20 minutes and the audience had a chance to learn one form of the creative process.
Del Bagno made the company danceCREATE official in 2016. A single word, danceCREATE, takes on the meaning to represent the process, the space Del Bagno and her students are working in, as well as the name for her company. “It is for the dancer and creator in everyone.”
During the pandemic, Del Bagno is teaching all of her classes remotely online through Zoom , including a stretch class and a class geared toward learning how to create called Let’s Create. In the studio she teaches jazz, leads the Actors Movement Workshop, and the Dance Basics Boot Camps. She hopes to add a legacy class to help keep artists’ styles and work alive.
Before the pandemic, danceCREATE was using Evolution Studios and they were planning to expand further out into the community. Del Bagno hopes to have her own workshop/performance space one day. “I am interested in production.” She said. “I’m interested in people taking what they have, and what they’ve discovered, and producing a product. Having people see them and their work.” It would be the main object of Del Bagno having her own space.
The vision for Del Bagno is to have danceCREATE be a global company and to travel, with Los Angeles being the company’s home base. She wanted the readers to know that danceCREATE is not just dance. It is entertainment. Their productions are story driven with music and dance integrated within them. “I have a passion for life-affirming and uplifting art” Del Bagno said.
Los Angeles Jazz Dance Foundation listed Del Bagno one of LA’s top choreographers. She worked with renowned Choreographer Alan Johnson where she co-wrote and produced “Alan Johnson – Let Me Entertain You!” A retrospect of his life’s work. She collaborated with actress Alicia Silverstone on a new project and her choreography for other musical theatre productions include Les Miserables, Fiddler On The Roof, Legally Blonde, Grease, Peter Pan, Shrek the musical, Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and Little Shop of Horrors.
Del Bagno feels blessed and fortunate to have been touched and mentored by such incredible artists throughout her career, including those mentioned above, as well as Alan Johnson, Hama, Jaime Rogers, Claude Thompson, Michael Owens, and others.
To learn more about Maria Del Bagno and danceCREATE, click HERE.
Written by Jeff Slayton for LA Dance Chronicle.
Featured image: Maria Del Bagno teaching at danceCREATE – Photo courtesy of the artist