Off-stage: Dancer Isaiah Tillman is tall, demure, and humble


Originally published March 15 in PQ Monthly.

Isaiah Tillman uses dance to explore than many facets of his identity. Photo by Xilia Faye, PQ Monthly.
By Erin Rook, PQ Monthly

On stage, Isaiah Tillman exudes a quiet confidence. Even without the 6’5″ frame and muscular physique, he would still be statuesque. But behind the façade — which is alternately sensual, emotive, and grooving — lies a shy guy with an aversion to the spotlight.

“I’m over-the-top confident on stage,” Tillman says, “but that’s not who you are going to sit down and have coffee with later.” (The coffee-shop Tillman is humble, sincere, and easy-going.)

Still, each of the 26-year-old’s many dance projects speaks to a part of who he is. Burlesquire — the boylesque group he is best known for in the queer community — may not be his “neutral,” but that doesn’t mean it isn’t authentic.

“Burlesquire is definitely a far out there part of me,” Tillman says. “It’s been really empowering for me to take on my sensuality and my sexuality and my body. … Burlesquire allows me to be most confident comfortable version of myself.”

While Burlesquire helps Tillman make peace with his body, his work with the contemporary dance company Polaris Dance Theatre allows him to connect with his heart.

“[Polaris is] really emotive,” Tillman says. “There’s so much heart and emotion and thought; it’s like a whole other planet for me.”

Polaris’ contemporary style is new to Tillman as well. Though it’s hard to believe, Tillman has no formal dance training. He was first exposed to choreography as a high school sophomore on the Parkrose dance team. His education in contemporary didn’t come until he was rehearsing to fill in for a show with Polaris, where he had been teaching hip-hop classes.

“My gift, I guess, is being able to execute what I see, if I can feel it. If I feel it, my body just naturally has the ability to do it,” Tillman says. If not, he can still learn the choreography; it just takes longer. “I’m a feeler not a thinker when it comes to dancing.”

That Midas touch has created a wealth of dance opportunities for Tillman, who admits he hasn’t been terribly proactive about seeking them out.

“I’ve been kind of lazy when it comes to trying to do a whole bunch with my dancing,” Tillman says. “I’ve done what’s come organically. Thank god that’s been some really cool things.”

In addition to performing with Polaris and Burlesquire, Tillman recently began a dance collaboration with figure skater Lee Graham called Echo.

“[Graham and I] have a very similar aesthetic and a similar presence or prowess, a similar concept about sexuality and identity. We are on the same page,” Tillman says. “I’ve rarely been as excited about a partnership the beginning of something. It just works.”

Tillman is also performing with The Detail later this month in its show Around the World Through the Movement of Detail, a professional showcase of diverse dance styles directed by Durante Lambert.

In addition to performing, Tillman is the staff choreographer and creative director for the Portland State University Steps of Rhythm dance group and just wrapped a nine-year gig teaching choreography to the Parkrose Dance Team (which won the state championships in 2011 and 2011). He has also taught dance teams at 12 other area high schools.

For as much time as he spends on stage — he recently had five performances over one weekend — Tillman is actually averse to attention.

“I’ve always hated people looking at me,” he says. “I’m fine if nobody notices me.”

But he clearly loves to dance, so he psyches himself up for the spotlight. He imagines himself telling the crowd, “You’re not ready for this.” With his first movement, he is transformed.

“Once the music is on all of my insecurities, all of my flaws, either don’t exist, don’t matter, or are now a good thing,” Tillman says. “Afterward, I’m right back to quiet me.”

He has felt music’s pull since childhood. As a boy, Tillman was painfully shy and, because he stuttered so badly, only spoke to or through his grandmother.

“She would interpret for me,” he recalls. (Tillman doesn’t stutter now.)

Dance, on the other hand, provided Tillman both a means of expression and an escape from the trials of growing up different.

“[It’s] is an outlet for me. It’s the only thing that gets me out of my head,” Tillman says. “I felt alive; I felt special in a good way. It was the first positive response I got for being different.”

Tillman, who identifies as queer, came out when he was 12 and got teased for his stutter, his big butt and lips, and the way he dressed.

After seeing Janet Jackson’s Velvet Rope Tour, dance also became the dream. While he’s still open to dancing back-up for Janet, Tillman wants his own studio or company, where he can share his approach to dance.

“You dance because it’s a gift,” Tillman says. “You’re fortunate to be able to do it and receive those things.”

For more on Tillman’s upcoming performance with The Detail, visit

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