Umi Akiyoshi is a dancer, model, photographer, and native New Yorker. In her second year as a cast member of Sleep No More, she opens up to { DIYdancer } about the ridiculous economics of dance, setting priorities, being mentored by Sidra Bell, and being both in front of and behind the camera.


I have very strong feelings about not being in a company. I was born and raised in Noho, and it is very expensive to live here and I value getting paid. I am not a huge fan of committing to eight hours of my week for a dance company that pays me less $15 per hour to be onstage for 15 minutes for one performance. 

I understand that a lot of dance is a passion project and the artist part of you accepts that, but I value the efficiency and structure of Sleep No More. You learn the choreography and you get paid for performing every night. I have friends that love the process [of a small dance company] and love spending time, and some people are willing to trade that experimentation for pay. Once you value your time, it is hard to get paid in dinner in two months time.

But everything has its pros and cons…


I never dreamed of being in Ailey or any company that was super technical. I like the gritty and the guttural. When I first saw Sleep No More I thought: I have to do that before I die. I have been a cast member for two years now. My senior year of college, the only places I wanted to dance were Sleep No More and or in Sidra Bell’s company. (I would be willing to dance in a company for her.) And Sleep No More was a huge reach for me. I knew if that didn’t happen, I wouldn’t dance—I would find another route, find something that pays me. 

Then I went to Springboard Danse Montreal. Maxine Doyle was there and I got cast in her piece. So when I did the audition for the show, I was able to skip the first round since I had worked with her. I threw myself into it, saying to myself: if I blow this I might not dance. I really wanted it and I was clear about that in my head, in my desires, and I hope that passion came out in my performance. People talk about being in the right place at the right time–that is luck–and there is that part of the equation; but another part of it is your own determination and being super clear about what you want, creating efforts toward that goal and the belief, however arbitrary, that something will happen. So I think it is about luck and being clear and manifesting. I am a big voucher for manifesting. 


I have to follow whatever passion is coming up in my life. There is no longevity without passion. I also do stream of consciousness journaling, so I can set my mind to actualize. If I find myself telling other people about my desires then I think there is something here. This is how I have identified what is really meaningful to me in my life—modeling, dancing, photography, fitness—and that has helped to shape my priorities. Currently, I am working on my personal training degree and I am trying to manifest a job for myself in the fitness industry. 


Jim and I linked up in your traditional instagram way. Jim is well known in the dance world for really awesome photos, and though I have a full-time job dancing, I also have to spend my time curating my modeling career and setting up test shoots. Instagram has become a portfolio and a business opportunity rather than just a personal sharing experience. I use it to connect with photographers I appreciate and want to be shot by. I had contacted him and said, ‘hey, let me know if you ever need a model,’ and he was like, ‘I’ll let you know.’ Which can mean maybe or never. Requesting a test shoot is never a given because you don’t what someone’s rates are or if they want to shoot you. But someone canceled on him last minute and he dm’ed me the day of and I said, ‘absolutely, yes,’ and changed my whole day for it. We created some awesome stuff with very little expectations. Those are the times, when you don’t have an outcome in mind, that you can create really cool stuff.


Generally when you find a photographer it pops up on a friend’s feed, so there is already some base level of trust and you can follow up with your friend to see how it was. But I once had a friend call me crying after a test shoot and say it was the worst experience…these situations have the real potential of becoming dangerous. A naive part of me thinks that most of us are good people but I have had strange experiences: one in particular where a method the photographer was using to shoot, one that he insisted on as necessary for capturing vulnerability, people made me uncomfortable. But mostly, you approach the shoot with a consensual agreement and aim to have had some sort of debrief over what to wear and what to shoot, but you really don’t know the process until you get in there. With Jim, we just created whatever was coming out and it brought out different sides of me: from goofy in the fuzzy jacket to bad bitch in black. Creating these collaborations is one of the amazing benefits of connecting on Instagram. So far it overrides those weird experiences I had.


I attribute so much of my work to Sidra Bell. I started shooting for her when I was 15. A flyer or trailer for one of her shows popped up on my screen. I had never seen her aesthetic before and my mom took me to an APAP show. Then when she was teaching at Blueprint at Peridance, I knew I had to take that summer intensive. I was in her piece and it was around the time I had just picked up a camera, so I asked if I could take photos of her company. I knew if I was not dancing for her yet, then I wanted to take photos. She said yes. She kept asking me to come back and take more photos…Sidra loves media. When she started posting them and tagging me, then people started reaching out. Budding and branching out from that, it became a really large hobby and people started paying me for it. I am not a tech geek, I don’t know what’s the latest hot shot Nikon model or specs, and I have never taken a lighting course, but I have watched Youtube videos and am self-taught. I don’t think I want to be the world’s best photographer, but it is really nice to be able to supplement the visual world I am in. Photography gives me the flip side, which really has informed me to be a better model. I very much owe Sidra for giving me the platform. It has been cool to be a part of it for almost eight years. She has seen me grow up and I have shot her company through many incarnations.

Images by Jim Lafferty, words by Umi Akiyoshi

February 2020

Related Works