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Dance pro brings joy amid isolation with virtual dance parties

Mark Kanemura, a former Lady Gaga backup dancer and a “So You Think You Can Dance” contestant, isn't letting the pandemic stop the party.
Image: Mark Kanemura.
Mark KanemuraCeleste Byers / for NBC News

“Just dance, gonna be OK.”

Those Lady Gaga lyrics, while simple, can be considered a mantra of sorts for professional dancer Mark Kanemura. Amid the tragedy and the isolation of the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe, the former Lady Gaga backup dancer and “So You Think You Can Dance” contestant is using his art form to bring joy to himself and thousands of others.

Since early March, Kanemura, 36, has been regularly hosting virtual dance parties on Instagram, broadcasting from his studio apartment in Los Angeles. Each event averages 1,300 attendees and includes 30 minutes of upbeat pop music, confetti, wigs and cardio.

"Dance always has been like therapy to me, so the fact that people are able to experience some lightness or a release or a letting go is just so wonderful."

Mark Kanemura

Kanemura said he got the idea to start these isolation-friendly parties after the bulk of his work got canceled or postponed due to the COVID-19 crisis.

“I was in a space where I was freaking out a little bit, because I just wasn't sure what was going to happen in terms of my livelihood, paying my rent and my bills,” he said. “I was very anxious, and I was trying to think of something that I could do that would bring some lightness to my days.”

So Kanemura decided to use his social media platform to connect with his followers in a new way.

“I had this idea to start these Instagram dance parties that would allow people from all over the world to join in and dance with me,” he said. “I wanted it to be as accessible for everyone and anyone, because I've always believed that anyone can dance. Dance is one of those universal languages that we all can speak.”

Even children are joining in. An Instagram user named Chantal, who asked that her last name not be used, shared a video of her toddler wearing an Elsa dress from Disney’s “Frozen” and dancing during one of Kanemura's parties.

“I have been following Mark for about a year, and I love his energy and spirit," she told in March. "We recently canceled our trip to Disney World, and my 3-year-old was very sad she wouldn’t get to meet Elsa. We saw the dance party, and I knew it would brighten her day."

Kanemura said seeing parents allow their children to express themselves so freely has been another positive takeaway from this experience.

“I am so touched and inspired by the parents who allow their kids to dress up, to dance around, wear wigs,” he said. “It’s so wonderful to see that and gives me hope for the future.”

Out on the Frontline: Mark Kanemura is one of NBC Out's 2020 Pride Month honorees. To see the full list, click here.

While his dance parties started out daily, he now hosts them a few times a week. He’s also using his platform to give back to charities doing critical work during these unprecedented times. In May, he hosted a dance party with pop star Carly Rae Jepsen, raising more than $10,000 for The Trevor Project, an advocacy group for LGBTQ youth in crisis, in less than one hour.

“I think about all those teenagers, kids that may be with family that don't necessarily support them or accept them,” he told NBC News. “I can imagine that being extremely tough and challenging during these times. So to have an organization like The Trevor Project that provides a safe space for LGBTQ youth to come and talk and express how they're feeling, it’s always important, but especially now during this time.”

Kanemura also said he hopes his dance sessions can be a respite in themselves for people who are struggling.

“Mental health has always been such a focus for me, because of my own personal journey,” he explained. “So, yes, I love that people are dancing, and I love that it's creating the space for that, but I also love that it's helping people with their mental health.”

“The messages that I get from people that have been expressing to me that this has been helping them mentally, that’s why I am doing this,” he added. “Dance always has been like therapy to me, so the fact that people are able to experience some lightness or a release or a letting go is just so wonderful."

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