Calgary dancer takes centre stage at Oscars during ‘Naatu Naatu’

Calgary dancer takes centre stage at Oscars during ‘Naatu Naatu’

It’s rare for a Calgary-born entertainer to push late-night host Jimmy Kimmel.

But 15 minutes into the 95th Academy Awardsthat’s all Billy Mustapha was doing as a preview for his dance performance to what would become an Oscar-winning song Naatu Naatu.

“Pushing Jimmy Kimmel was a moment I’ll never forget,” Mustapha told Global News from Los Angeles. “He’s fun and tells us to really push him, so it’s fun to surprise him with unexpected pushes in all directions.”

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Dressed in a blue shirt and gray suit, Mustapha is one of the two principal dancers representing the main characters in the number from RRRa 2022 Indian epic action drama film.

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“It’s crazy. The feeling that my heart was just pounding in my chest (as) the elevator was going up – I knew all the people in the audience were starting to see me and were like, ‘I got it.’ Reminding myself, ‘This is what I’ve trained my whole life for.’”

Mustapha grew up in Calgary and started dancing at the age of seven. But it took some work to find the artistic expression that would end up putting him center stage at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles.

“My family was very, ‘You have to have something.’ My mom always said, ‘You have to do something,’” he recalled.

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“I had two brothers, and we did hockey and soccer and kickboxing and wrestling and all that stuff. And I went to see my brother’s dance recital and I was like, ‘Mom, I want to do that.’ And in full support she was like, ‘I’ll sign you up right away.’ So he signed me up with Dance Spectrum.”

A musical theater class was his introduction to dance, and under the support and tutelage of Amanda Sturrock, Mustapha quickly immersed himself in all that the local dance school had to offer.

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Sturrock, or “Miss Amanda” as she was known to her students, watched awards shows in anticipation of seeing her former student, but didn’t know how she would appear on screen.

“When we saw him just jump on the screen, we were like, ‘Oh my God!'” she recalls. “And then you could see him basically the whole performance, it was so amazing, it was so, so special to watch. I cried.”

Sturrock remembers teaching Mustapha as a child, “with such a wonderful spirit, such a kind heart and a real kind of eagerness to learn.”

“I remember being so happy that he stayed after that first year.”

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During the early years of coaching Sturrock remembers starting something great with Mustapha, especially when he entered competitions.

Mustapha’s achievements serve as an inspiration for aspiring dancers in the city.

“For the kids in our studio right now, to show them all that this is Billy, this kid in the picture on the wall right here in this goofy costume recital — he danced at the Oscars or he’s in a music video,” says Sturrock.

“It’s fun for the kids to relate to him and see what’s out there after being in the studio.”

Preparations and returns for Sunday night’s performance are fast, with rehearsals for the viral sensation dancing beginning Tuesday in Los Angeles.

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“You learn the base of the steps, and then you start putting it in some stages and then hopefully you learn your lyrics (in lip sync) as that happens even though they’re in a language you don’t speak,” he recalls. , adding that it wasn’t until he got into the audition process that he learned the song.

“The song is a banger, but the movie is brilliant.”

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RRR became the first film from India and Asia to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song. It won both awards at the 80th Golden Globe Awards on January 10, another first for an Indian film.

The Oscars performance was criticized for its casting, including dancers on stage who were not of South Asian descent.


The performance of the song “Naatu Naatu” from “RRR” at the Oscars on Sunday, March 12, 2023, at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles features principal dancers Billy Mustapha (L) and Jason Glover.

AP Photo/Chris Pizzallo


A performance of the song “Naatu Naatu” from “RRR” at the Oscars on Sunday, March 12, 2023, at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles.

AP Photo/Chris Pizzallo


A performance of the song “Naatu Naatu” from “RRR” at the Oscars on Sunday, March 12, 2023, at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles.

AP Photo/Chris Pizzallo

Mustapha, a Lebanese-Canadian, said he believes in the importance of representation in art. And he struggled within the decision made by the casting department.

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“To walk into that room (audition) and not know what I’m walking into, and then to be told that I’m doing a certain role that may not be my ethnicity or maybe not the character that I truly am – it’s a lot it happens and it just comes to casting and who they chose for the role,” he said.

Mustapha would love to see more South Asian representation on stage as he dances alongside singers Rahul Sipligunj and Kaala Bhairava.

“I try to show what they show on camera, on stage.”

Monday morning, he was still buzzing from performing in front of a theater full of Hollywood stars.

“The celebration after completing that dance (to Naatu Naatu): it was successful, just because that dance was like running a sprint like a marathon,” he says, noting the unpredictability that comes with live performances.

Mustapha is not new to dancing roles on television, with credits in shows like Once upon a time, Fun Friday2019’s The Twilight Zone, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist and Zoey’s Extraordinary Christmas. She made the silver screen last year as a dancer in A Cinderella Story: Starstruck.

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The place at Once upon a time came shortly after Mustapha moved to Vancouver, where he also found mentors in Moe Brody and Jillian Meyers.

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Having also featured in commercials for the soft drink Pepsi and been an assistant choreographer for an Apple commercial, Mustapha is “very happy” with where his career is. He is looking for as many roles in the entertainment industry as possible, including acting and touring with a musical artist.

“If I told my childhood self that I’m here today, he’d be like the moon and he wouldn’t even believe the things I’ve done.”

A nation celebrates RRR

The Oscar win for the song from RRR with the best documentary short winning for The Elephant Whisperers became the cause of the celebration of the whole country.

“No words can describe this surreal moment. Dedicated to all our amazing fans around the world. THANK YOU!!,” the Twitter account for RRR posted.

Television news showed images of people dancing to the song on the streets of India, minutes after the award was announced, even as #NaatuNaatu was a top trend on Twitter.

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“The popularity of Naatu Naatu is global. This is a song that will be remembered for years to come,” Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi posted on Twittercongrats to the team behind the song.

In the film, made in the South Indian language of Telugu, and directed by SS Rajamouli, Naatu Naatu The two leads, played by Ram Charan and NT Rama Rao Jr., begin to flaunt their dancing skills after being bullied as the only Indians invited to a colonial-era British party.

When a young British man aims racist insults at the leads, they decide to teach him with song Naatu Naatu.

During the scene, filmed in Ukraine’s grand Mariinskyi Palace, everyone at the party, including the sneering British man, tries to master the moves.

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At the Oscars, composer MM Keeravani sang while accepting the award on stage, along with songwriter Chandrabose.

–with files from Reuters