YaYa DaCosta is more than just a pretty face. As a triple threat of actor, dancer, and model, she has set out to take the industry by storm since her time on America’s Next Top Model. While many reality television stars utilize their newfound fame as leverage for an entry into acting, YaYa’s been doing this for years. Her latest project Take the Lead has given YaYa the role closest to herself – a young woman who finds her inner strength through dance.
Speaking with YaYa, she recounts her days on the set of the film, learning a brand new dance style and her early struggles as a dancer. Let’s not forget to mention, she’s an Ivy League graduate and connoisseur of World music. With both brains and beauty, Hollywood better brace itself.
AllHipHop.Com Alternatives: For those who have not yet seen Take the Lead, please describe your character.
YaYa: My character’s name is Lahrette Dudley. She is a 17-year old girl who spends her afternoons in detention in a New York City public school. She’s a good girl that hasn’t had the easiest life. She raises her younger siblings while her mom turns tricks. [laughs] She’s really finding herself, kind of like an ugly duckling becoming a swan through ballroom dance. Antonio Banderas plays Pierre Dulaine, who’s a real life ex-ballroom dance teacher who really helped a bunch of kids like the ones in the movie find their inner strengths. It’s a really beautiful story and I’m glad that I got to be a part of it.
AHHA: What was it like working with Antonio Banderas?
YaYa: It was great! He’s a really serious actor so it was nice to see him on set, nice to see him prepare, nice to see him work. But then at the same time, he was a really cool down to earth guy. He was really friendly and hung out with everybody when the cameras were off. We had a ball.
AHHA: Did he really grasp the Hip-Hop culture the way he perceives to in the movie?
YaYa: Well I think the point of his character wasn’t to get down completely with Hip-Hop, but only to the extent that he could connect with the students and gain their trust, which he did totally. I mean in real life, he danced with us occasionally. He has rhythm – he’ll tell you that he’s not a dancer- but he’s good! It was just more about the universal aspect of dance that is fun, and when you’re dancing you feel good. He was able to transform that same feeling from the Hip-Hop to the ballroom. He didn’t necessarily have to pull his pants down and turn his baseball cap backwards to make them believe he was one of them. Obviously he wasn’t, so that was the whole appeal too!
AHHA: How did your past dance training play into your role?
YaYa: I had danced on and off my whole life, actually doing different styles like ballet, modern, West African. But I’d never done ballroom dancing before, so this was really new and exciting for me…and everybody! All of the actors started from scratch [with ballroom dancing]. Some people had dance experience, some didn’t, but we all just learned it together and grew together.
AHHA: Was it difficult to learn ballroom dancing, especially with a dance partner?
YaYa: Yeah it was definitely harder than I thought it would be. As a woman, you are actually following and never know what the next step is gonna be. Someone’s hand indicates. So it’s nice, a totally different kind of dance.
AHHA: Was acting something you’ve always wanted to pursue?
YaYa: Absolutely. I had done educational films when I was younger, and had a great acting coach when I was eleven years old, in public school actually. We had electives, so my school was a little different than the one we had at John Drake, but one of the teachers that inspired me was Ann Ratray. After college I got back in touch with her, and through her got a manager and started going out auditioning for things.
I found this audition [for Take the Lead] and the casting director cast me without ever seeing my face [in person] before. They didn’t see me on TV, just my audition tape, which was nice. You approach this as an art, and want people to see you as an artist. It was really crazy because the casting director said, “If I had known you had been on reality TV, I probably wouldn’t have cast you.” That was crazy to hear because some people think that it’s helpful, but sometimes it’s not. It was a very organic process, I loved working with everyone there, and yeah just definitely encouraged me to go out and door more and get better and better.
AHHA: Did you feel that it was easier this time behind a camera, playing a character, as opposed to America’s Next Top Model?
YaYa: No, because you’re not really yourself on television, and acting is definitely a craft that takes a lot of concentration and skill. It’s a lot harder than it looks. That’s why I’m working to get better!
AHHA: Do you mind the constant attachment to America’s Next Top Model?
Yaya: I don’t really talk about it unless someone brings it up. I tend to forget about it. I know they still air it on the marathons on VH-1. I forget that it even happened sometimes, because I’m so into what I’m doing now. I mean it’s fine; it definitely was an experience. It had its wonderful moments and had its useful moments. I definitely have moved on. It’s interesting how people still attach me to it, but I think with the more that I do- because this is a field in the public eye- people will associate me with Take the Lead and other projects that I’ll do! In due time.
AHHA: What was your college experience like at Brown University?
YaYa: It was college. I was actually really curious because people make such a big deal about Ivy League schools. I researched why they are called “Ivy League” and I mean yeah, they are some of the best schools with the best faculty, but lots of colleges are hard that are not Ivy League. When I was applying to colleges in high school, I almost went to Swarthmore, which is not Ivy League but was rated the best college that year. Part of me thinks I should have gone there, because that was a full scholarship and no loans, unlike here at Brown. I thought it would be great to go to an Ivy League, but now I have all these loans to pay back, so all of my money goes there.
However, it was a wonderful experience, [laughs] and I loved the freedom to take all different kinds of classes since I am interested in so many different things. Brown allows you to take a little bit more time exploring than other schools do. It’s a great school; they have a great president, Ruth Simmons. I’ll give her a little shout-out! It was a nice community; I loved being in Providence. People are just running around, doing their thing and encouraging each other, rather than New York where everyone’s always in competition. That’s one thing I’ve grown to dislike: malicious competition.
AHHA: Since you are a very spiritual person, how does that spirituality translate into your dance?
YaYa: That’s a nice question. I think in any setting. Right now I mentally went to this Congolese dance class at the YMCA, and then I went to a ballet class, and then I went to the club where it’s late – but you really don’t wanna go home because you’re having too much fun. No matter what setting I’m in, there’s a certain level I’m really releasing. That can definitely be a spiritual practice. It’s a way to massage your heart; you’re paying attention to your most basic instincts. When you get to that place, you don’t care that people are looking at you. You’re not trying to do the latest dance move; you’re just doing what feels good with what the music indicates. That’s true abandonment and is really beautiful.
AHHA: What’s your opinion of dancers in Hip-Hop videos?
YaYa: [laughs] One of my favorite cousins is a guy and we’re about the same age. When we were younger, we used to dance a lot. He did more breakdancing and I did more… well whatever dance class I felt like taking that day. He was working [in dance] and I wasn’t. I was working in retail and proofreading, and I really wanted to dance. It’s so hard for dancers sometimes, because music videos are one of the few things you can get if you’re not in a company, which is really hard to do. So he was getting all of these jobs in music videos and dancing backup for this person and that person. And you know the kind of dancing I thought was like dancing backup for Janet. You know, people who actually dance.
But you know so few videos these days really have people dancing. I mean, yeah they’re dancing, they’re freakin’ it. But it’s more dancing you can find in the club, it’s not necessarily trained dancers, which really turned me off as a teenager. I would get to some auditions and be like “What?!” It’s hard because you never know. All you know is the name of the artist, and you just go to the audition because you love to dance and you need work. It’s really hard to discriminate, especially as a starving artist. So I decided not to really get into that, but it’s unfortunate. I love to see dancing in videos. It’s a treat now when something comes on and the background dancers are actually dancing! Because anybody can drop it like it’s hot.
AHHA: What music are you currently feeling?
YaYa: I’ve actually been listening to a lot of foreign music recently, because I haven’t had many people to talk to that much to practice speaking non-English. Just listening to lyrics in French or something. I like Youssou N’Dour; he’s from Senegal. He has this one song that’s half in English/half in French. “Seven Seconds Away” is like my new favorite song. But yeah I like to explore in what people like to call World music. I love real instruments. I’ve always been Mary J. Blige’s biggest fan. I’ve loved me some Mary! Always. Always. Ever since What’s the 411? she’s been my girl.
AHHA: What’s next for YaYa: more modeling or more acting?
YaYa: Honestly, it’s always been about acting. Modeling was fun, but a bit of an interlude. Acting’s hard work so we’ll see what’s next. I’m just trying to learn the craft and get better at it, and we’ll see what happens!
AHHA: If you weren’t here, where would you be?
YaYa: If I weren’t here doing this, I’d be here…in New York…trying to do this! [laughs]