By Karen Stokes
Milwaukee native Frank Gatson, Jr. is an award winning choreographer and a man on a mission.
His mission is to give back to the Milwaukee community where he lived, played, worked and was educated.
“After graduating from North Division High School, Mighty Mighty Blue Devils, I attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison and majored in political science and communications,” Gatson said. “My dad wanted me to be a lawyer.”
What brought dance to Gatson’s life was when teachers Arlene Skwierawski and Sarah Grant took him to see ‘The Wiz’ on Broadway in 1976.
“Being in high school in Milwaukee you don’t know about dance or how to choreograph,” Gatson said. “The Funky Monkeys in ‘The Wiz’ were dancers, when I saw the Funky Monkeys jump in the air, I said to myself, I want to do that.”
Gatson came to realize that he had to study to be a dancer, so he went downtown to take classes at the Milwaukee Ballet School.
“I didn’t tell anyone about it because it wasn’t cool for guys to take ballet back then,” Gatson said.
He never ended up attending law school and soon was involved in the singing group ‘Up with People’. He was the only Black guy at that time in a cast of a hundred.
“I was in ‘Up With People’. I traveled around the world for three years singing and dancing. We did Super Bowl halftimes back then before the star studded Super Bowl halftime shows,” he said.
Gatson made his way back to New York to audition on Broadway but realized more training was needed. He came back to Milwaukee, enrolled at UWMilwaukee and received a master’s degree in Theater and Dance.”
Gatson‘s big break was just around the corner.
“I started traveling around the world and got an opportunity in Los Angeles to audition for Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal video. I got the job and it was on and cracking,” said Gatson. “I later became a choreographer for Brandi, En Vogue and Destiny’s Child. Brandy‘s video was one of the first videos I choreographed.”
Gatson’s career spans over 45 years, and earlier this year he was called to use his talents right here in Milwaukee partnering with the YWCA to eliminate racism and empower women.
In April, Tracey Williams, the new president and CEO of the YWCA Southeast Wisconsin, invited Gatson to tour a 70,000-square-foot building.
The building located on King Drive and Reservoir is a block long with the idea of utilizing the facility as an intergenerational performing arts and athletic center.
“In re-imagining the YWCA Southeast Wisconsin, we are recognizing leaders who represent our mission in action, some who have left legacies in which we aspire to continue and those who are paving the way for generations to come,” shares President and CEO of YWCA SEW, Tracy L. Williams.
The center will offer classes in singing, acting, entertainment law, a recording studio will be on the premise, ballet classes, Pilates and more.
“Milwaukee has talented young people what better way to keep them out of trouble by working them so hard at what they love doing,” he said.
“Art builds bridges of understanding between races and cultures,” said Gatson. “Something bigger than me called me back to this to come back to my city and share my light and the YWCA is a blessing that it will be a hub.”
Gatson is planning a Gala/fundraiser at the Marcus Performing Arts Center in Uihlein Hall on Dec 28.
The YMCA Southeast Wisconsin Inaugural Gala and Awards Ceremony will be honoring people who have positively impacted the community. The leaders and legends who will be honored include acclaimed community organizer, journalist and leader in media relations Faithe Colas; the first woman of color to be elected Sheriff of Milwaukee County Dr. Denita Ball; leaders changing the lives of youth through education, Keith and Dr. Tanzanique Carrington; legacy in the arts Sarah Grant; legacy in athletics, coaching, and champions of the YWCA SEW mission by changing lives in the community Albert and Beverly Holmes; owners of Savoy’s, providing community engagement and intergenerational solutions to racism; Orlando and Tina-Johnson-Williams; organizational YWCA SEW leader going over and beyond duties to support the mission through the pandemic as CHRO and now COO Sheila Mayhorn; trailblazing former WNBA and Wisconsin Athletics Hall of Fame athlete and first woman to coach men’s college basketball.
Hosting the event will be Gatson, Brandy, Luke James and Tracy L. Williams with Brandy, En Vogue, Le’Andria Johnson, Chante Moore, Luke James, and many others are scheduled to perform along with local artists and youth.
“The theme is ‘To the Nines’ and what ‘the nines’ really means is doing anything to perfection. I’m going to put on a Frank Gatson production,” he said.
For more details on the event and to purchase tickets, visit isupportthemission.org.