Billy Blanks Jr.: From Shark Tank to southwestern Connecticut
After working with the likes of Alicia Keys, Britney Spears and Madonna, Billy Blanks Jr. is taking on Connecticut.
The dancer, director and choreographer, who this month moved with his son to Greenwich, has been named artistic director at the renovated Wall Street Theater in Norwalk. And he’s bringing along his distinctive approach to keeping fit.
“Fitness is beyond about getting sweaty,” he said. “It’s about being a place where people can come in and afterward be able to handle their week.”
Behind the scenes
For someone who’s spent much of his life in front of the camera and on stage, Blanks recalls some significant events that have happened behind the scenes.
As a young boy, Blanks helped his father — Tae Bo founder Billy Blanks — lead fitness classes. But his happiest moments were after class when he’d imitate Michael Jackson moves and crank disco jams, he said. Those times planted the seed for what’s become Dance It Out, which, with the help of the ABC business-pitch show Shark Tank, is taught across America and in countries around the world.
But it almost didn’t happen. the deal that “changed everything,” Blanks said, came after the cameras stopped rolling. After being offered a deal on Shark Tank, Blanks turned it down and was on the way to tell his wife..
Daymond John, an investor and one of the show’s “sharks,” cut off Blanks’ path to record his post-show interview. “I want you to take the deal,” Blanks said John told him after they’d failed to agree on terms of an investment during on-screen negotiations.
“I (had) felt like it was not a smart investment for me,” Blanks said. In a backroom on set, John ultimately persuaded Blanks to change his mind. “That changed my life,” he said.
Road to success
Before Blanks made the leap from son of a famous fitness instructor to a career of his own, he needed a push. He credits Paula Abdul, his “best friend and older sister figure,” for that. Blanks met the singer and choreographer while growing up in Los Angeles. Abdul trained with Blanks’ father, he said. “She was this pop star, and I was just a little kid,” Blanks said. “Now, she’s the most loyal friend I’ve ever had.”
Blanks saw the need for a fun, less serious fitness program. His father showcased Tae Bo on Oprah Winfrey’s show and spent time training her in the 1990s, but the talk show host didn’t stick with it.
“After seeing that, I was asking, so who gets her?” Blanks said. He now advertises Dance It Out as a workout that “anyone off the street and has never danced can do at the same time as a professional dancer can get a workout.”
As a young dancer, Blanks earned roles in music videos with the likes of Madonna and worked with stars including Alicia Keys, Tom Hanks and Britney Spears.
But the road to making it big was plagued with downturns and periods of great financial instability. In 2007, he with his then-wife premiered his first dance fitness format called Cardioke on Ellen DeGeneres’ show. That helped garner a DVD deal, but it was shelved after the company grew worried it would compete with another of its products, Blanks said.
The couple continued to teach their courses, but being a fitness instructor isn’t lucrative. “One day we finally decided, ‘We can’t keep doing this for no money.’” Before they shared the news, one of the students approached Blanks, he recalls, and shared how the classes had changed her life. “She said I could never stop teaching,” Blanks said.
His next hope was to get on Shark Tank. Months of auditions culminated in his on-air appearance in 2012. Leading up to his big shot, Blanks practiced frequently with his son, who would impersonate the sharks by yelling “I’m out!”
Between his son’s preparation and his familiarity with being on stage, he thought he’d do fine on camera. “I knew the hardest part would be the stare down with the sharks before I started my pitch,” he said. Despite his plan to whittle away the awkward seconds by staring at each shark individually, he got rattled. “I was so nervous that I forgot the names of the students I brought in as testimonials,” he said.
Once Blanks started dancing, he felt at ease and even convinced panelist Mark Cuban to join in the routine. He wound up striking the deal with John, but the financial problems persisted for a few more months.
“You can’t say anything until the show airs,” Blanks said. “So I knew I had this deal but, until it aired, I couldn’t even afford to pay our power bills.”
For the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas in 2011, Blanks said he felt like a failure as a father. He couldn’t pay to turn on the lights, much less buy Christmas presents. But his son said something that changed his outlook.
“We were boiling pots to stay warm at Christmastime and my son came up to me,” he said. “He told me, ‘I don’t care about getting presents, I just want to make sure I’m with you.’ I went to our shed and cried. It made me realize life really is about love.”
Blanks now looks forward to bringing his love for fitness, dancing and directing to Connecticut. He has ambitious plans for the Wall Street Theater, which include Broadway and off-Broadway shows and a concert by Abdul. “I want to help bring life back to (Wall Street) through quality entertainment,” Blanks said.
After being shuttered for 20 years, the Wall Street Theater is slated to open soon, theater president and Greenwich resident Suzanne Cahill said. “Theater brings people together in a community,” she said, “And we want to be a catalyst for creativity and place-making here.”
Blanks is also contributing to the Fairfield County theater scene by participating in Dancing With the Stars, a spring fundraiser hosted by Stamford-based nonprofit Curtain Call. Starting April 22, he will start teaching his cardio fitness class Dance It Out in Greenwich. Blanks Studios will take place in the mornings Monday through Saturday at Arthur Murray Grand Ballroom of Greenwich on Lewis Street.
“I’m all about the vibe being welcoming,” he said.
MBennett@greenwichtime.com, 203-625-4411; Twitter @Macaela_