Dexter Carr Talks Dance, Life, and LA’s Greatest Playground

Photography by Nicole Azer on 35mm | Styled by Melanie Boppel

“That’s really what being a dancer means: it’s not just what we do, it’s who we are. . .”

I was strolling down Melrose with a friend when I first noticed Playground LA. We’d been thrifting – rather unsuccessfully, had pizza and prosecco at Ronan, and stopped in front of the wall to wall glass windows of the dance studio that was nearly packed and blasting hip hop. As we were both fans of watching dance either on TV or Tik Tok (or, oh yeah, real life), we were caught by the cool steps, swaggy sweatpants, and toned tummies of the participants. We tried not to linger too long, but the second I got home I was compelled to grab my laptop and dig up the deets on the savvy, street-side studio.

Because of its instant appeal, I found it no surprise that Robin Atin and Kenny Wormald brought Playground to the LA dance scene. I’d been a long-time fan of Robin, the creator of the Pussy Cat Dolls who made cameos on Keeping up with the Kardashians. She exemplified what it meant to capture your own version of sexy, not only through her sultry, signature choreography and the costumes she paired with it, but in her personal confidence and composure. Kenny Wormald, who has appeared in films such as You Got Served and the 2011 remake of Footloose, is another true artist whose dancing and acting skills swiftly set him on the path to stardom. From fitness dance to advanced hip hop, Playground has opened its doors to beginners and celebs alike, including hosting auditions for Mandy Moore, events for Red Bull, and sightings of Tracee Ellis Ross and Justin Bieber. Needless to say, for anyone in or interested in the world of dance, Playground is a one-stop shop.

Even the instructors are certified stars. Frozen at the window that evening, we watched as teacher and professional dancer Dexter Carr moved with unmatched soul, bringing his students along on his rhythmic journey. And though we were merely passersby, we were captivated by his charisma. Dexter has made Playground LA his home base, but his intrigue and influence has spread nationwide through a plethora of dance accolades and a resume built to envy. The tall, slender dancer was part of the original Broadway cast of Bring It On: The Musical and later, In the Heights during his tenure in New York City. An appearance in Chris Brown’s Kiss Kiss music video launched him into the hip hop scene, and he has since worked with nearly every well-known artist and then some: JLo, Missy Elliot, and Demi Lovato, to name a few. A creator through and through, Dexter now choreographs for a number of major music industry individuals, including Iggy Azalea, Kelly Roland, and Lil Baby. When I first received news that Dexter would be joining Loop Magazine for photoshoot and sit-down interview, I was dizzy with enthusiasm. . . and hoping I’d get to see him dance some more.

On set, my expectations were exceeded. “I think you need to add Professional Model to your resume,” I remarked as Dexter posed with a deep fierceness in his eyes and a softness on his lips, bold and unbothered as the camera flashed. Between pics, his stunning smile stretched across his face and the warmth of his personality filled the studio. Needless to say, he turned on music as we shot, and when our first few looks were finished and we were ready to have him sweat, he danced for us. Those of us in the room could immediately feel the unique energy that has carried his career to outrageous heights, including recently being named an official Nike athlete who appears on a video billboard near Staples Center. It is the kind of energy that makes you want to join him, let your body loose, celebrate movement, and savor the pure joy that comes from simply dancing – even if you’re bad it. Though the on-set staff half hid behind our camera phones, we couldn’t help but swing our shoulders and cheer along, all the while appreciating the art that Dexter shaped in front of us.

In our interview, Dexter shared incredible stories of dancing along side Janet Jackson with less than a day’s warning and dropped gems about the necessity for bravery and authenticity as an artist, life advice for his younger audience. As I left, I promised to return for his beginner class; and you know what, I really will – I was truly that inspired.

You started dancing at the age of 16, what inspired your beginning and how has dance changed your life?

Well, my friend actually pulled me up on stage at a school pep rally – she literally just dragged me up on stage, and I was like ‘what are we doing?’ And then we just danced. It was the biggest adrenaline rush, but also an eye-opener to realize that I kind of feel something with this. I only played sports and did drama club when I was in high school previously, so this was just a whole new world to me. After that, I started going to the studio that she went to and got wrapped up in it!

In an earlier interview you describe yourself as a ‘risk junky.’ What type of courage does it take to make a career out of an art form like dance?

My parents are both business people, they both work in insurance, so they’re numbers people. And since they’re in insurance, risk isn’t a thing that they really like. But me, I was like, ‘Let’s move to New York’ and go crazy!’ I just knew I had to do something bold, and I knew taking over my dad’s insurance company wasn’t the life for me. I decided to move to New York at 17; I looked for collages out there, got in. And then I went to my first Broadway audition for In The Heights and didn’t get it. At first, I was like ‘oh no, I don’t know what this means.’ Then, I went to my second Broadway audition for Bring It On: The Musical and I ended up getting it. That took me into this whole world of Broadway and musical theatre, and what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be in the arts. I was around a bunch of inspiring people who were doing this as a profession. I didn’t previously know a lot of people who were making a living off of being an artist or performer. So I got to meet a bunch of them, and talk to them, and talk about financial stability and savings and learn really what it’s like to be in the industry. So I basically just took that leap and decided I’m not going to go back now – I had to quit school because of the show since they didn’t allow anyone to do both – and so I was stuck with decision I made, and I had to make it work. And it turned out great!

Let’s dive a little bit more into Broadway. Do you have a highlight moment from your time there?

Lin-Manuel Miranda was the Director of our show, Bring It On: The Musical, and there was this whole rap and breakdown section that he was auditioning people in the ensemble for. So I was like, ‘oh my god, if I could just get this part’. I just need that little moment in my life to make me feel like I’m doing something right. And I ended up getting picked for it and getting to do the breakdown dance. For me, it was one of those moments that you know you’re on the right path and you know you’re doing the right thing in life. Lin-Manuel Miranda is giving me some sort of like props, so I’m alright, I’m cool in some aspects. This is all worth it. So I just kept going from that moment, and kept trying to get hired, and kept trying to be a principle on Broadway, and kept trying to push for better roles. Those little stepping stones in the industry that give you a little bit of leverage to go on to the next thing instead of just being stagnant are really important.

In addition to Lin-Manuel Miranda, you’ve worked with a ton of other major people in music and art, including Chris Brown, Missy Elliot. Can you describe a make it or break it moment in the hip hop industry?

I was in Miami visiting family and friends and the Janet Jackson tour dancers were in Miami for their stop. And my friend who was the dance captain on job was like ‘Yo! Where you at?’ And I was like ‘I’m in Miami with my family, I was actually going to hit you guys up to see if you wanted to hang out later.’ And they were like, ‘Well, do you wanna do the show?’ I was like, ‘What?!’ They explained that she wanted to bring some people on stage for some numbers and asked if I wanted to do it. And I’m like ‘stop messing with me, I’m not going to just like. . . get on stage with Janet Jackson.’ But they were serious. So I literally drove to their rehearsal studio, learned a couple of the numbers, and I ended up performing with them that night. It was the biggest rush! She is an icon, a legend, a perfect artist to me. She is what a perfect artist embodies – voice, performance, presence, the whole deal. So that was a big moment for me to be around and in the mix of someone like that. I’d dreamt of just going to go see the show, let alone being in the show. It was cool.

While you’re dancing or in the middle of a show like that, what brings you inspiration and motivation?

Like I was saying before, my parents are business people, you know. Nobody my family really does anything in the arts; I didn’t grow up doing this full-time or going hard since I was three years old like everyone else did. So when I’m on stage doing these amazing things, and whether I’m doing a campaign or whatever the case is, I always think in my head: you need to remember that this was not your path, it is your path now, but this was not laid out for you. I remember that I worked hard to get here, so I tell myself to keep working hard and keep pushing yourself and know it could all get taken away. Like we say last year, everything got taken away. So now it’s been slowly given back to us, so every day that I’m on a project or whatever I’m doing, I remind myself – these moments are not forever. So I stretch it as long as I can, and try to feel amazing while I do it. It’s dope that I get to do this for. This is not a normal job, so I remember to enjoy it!

Where do you like to go out in LA for nightlife?

I love West Hollywood; that’s always fun. Culver City is fun too, and Downtown LA is always a good time.

What is your favorite LA restaurant?
Sushi Enya

If you are ordering in food for delivery, what’s your go to?

Where do you like to shop in LA?
The RealReal

For someone visiting LA what’s one thing they can’t miss?
Melrose. You have to come to Melrose just to catch the vibe.

Is there anyone that you haven’t collaborated with yet that you want to?

Rihanna. Obsessed! Obsessed! I would do anything.

You talked about how last year kind of changed things, and social media in general has changed the way people view dance and how consumable it is. What does that mean to you and how has it change the shape of your own career?

I mean I can honestly say that just the content that I have been putting up on social media – Instagram, TickTock, or whatever – is what got brands like Nike to see me, or Givenchy to see me. Or even getting artist to repost your work, it’s such an easy, marketable tool where you really just get to show yourself and have a giant audience see it. I think, you know, we’ve all had our own stigmas with social media: ‘it’s too much,’ ‘it’s fake,’ this or that. It’s a marketing tool; that’s what it’s built for; that’s what it supposed to do. It’s supposed to show you in whatever light you want to show yourself! Once I stopped getting so personal about it (like, even feeling a way about what other people post), I understood it. Seeing it in a business aspect and also having fun with it – I get to put up dance videos for a living – keeping it fun and light and also remembering the purpose of what I’m doing has made social media really instrumental for me

You mentioned how brands can come to you on social media. What does being a Nike athlete mean to you? And what does it mean that Nike has recognized dance as a sport?  

Being a Nike athlete – it’s still surreal to say that! – is incredible. It’s something that people dream of their entire life. It’s something that can go up on a vision board. We’ve had the Nike check in our lives for everything we do – it’s everywhere! For me, it was a proud moment because I now know that somebody who is ten years old is going to get to do that. And somebody who is not even born yet, he’s gonna get to look at a billboard and be like, ‘I can do that one day.’ So maybe it’s weird to say while in the middle of this amazing experience that I’m really thinking about other people. But that’s really all I can think about: how amazing it is that other dancers are going to get this opportunity. After they worked so hard in these studios, and rehearsed for their entire lives, and bled on their ballet slippers, they’re going to be celebrated for what they do. And be celebrated for who they are. Because that’s really what being a dancer means: it’s not just what we do, it’s who we are – it’s our entire being, it’s how we dress, how we talk, how we move our hands. To be celebrated for that by such a huge brand is so exciting. This is amazing. This is what we all work for. I think everybody who works so hard should have that opportunity, no matter what it is that they do or what they consider to be their art.

If you could leave a legacy for, as you mentioned, the ’10-year-old dancer’ or the people that are watching you, what would you want them to take away?

There is no rules for how this game goes, in life. There’s no rules. You do whatever you want to do, be whoever you want to be, say whatever you want to say. Be a kind person and be a good person and have a good heart, but there’s no rules. There’s no right way to get the things you want in life. That doesn’t have to be just about material things that you want, it can be about relationships, the energy you want to attract – there’s no rules for how you obtain that. Don’t be afraid to be yourself, don’t be afraid to mess up, don’t be afraid to be loud, don’t be afraid to show your voice, don’t be afraid to disagree with people. Have your own thing, be your own thing, be YOU as much as you can. There’s a lot of times, and I think in this industry and in LA, where we’re told to be this person or fit into this box or meet this person because of what they can give. But YOU got it. And you got it no matter what. Even if it’s gonna take a long time, even if it takes 10 years, you got it. I never expected to be a Nike athlete at 30, but God has plans and we cannot interfere with that, and we just let things happen on their own. That’s what I’ve learned every day, especially this year. Work hard, be a good person, but let things happen the way they’re supposed to happen.

What has playground LA and that collaboration meant to you, and what’s next for you?

Playground LA is my home. It’s honestly where started my real teaching career here in LA. I was teaching at some other studios here and there, but this has been where I’ve gotten to build myself as an artist, build a brand, and build whatever vision I’m trying to put out in the world. They’ve been so supportive. With the content we put out and how accepting and supportive they are of me, and me being a valuable member of the family here. I really feel like Playground was, yes a dance studio that posted videos, but without the energy and influence that this studio has brought to the dance industry period, dance in general wouldn’t be what it is today. This studio has made people pull up with their video content, its made people pull up with their choreography. Even the way people dress in here is something special! I’m always looking around like what kind of secret sweatpants y’all got on? It’s a culture here. It’s more than just a studio. I’ve been fortunate to be a part of this culture. And get my own students and community within that.

What’s next is. . .we have a reality show coming out about the studio! There’ll be some dancing, there’ll be some drama. You’ll also get a really good insight of what it takes to be a dancer in LA – what struggles we go through and the relationships that are hard. And doing all of that while trying to keep the family together.

The hottest newsletter in nightlife.

We’ll deliver the most elusive stories straight to your inbox.