I was at William Way when I saw a flyer for the Society Hill Dance Academy, and the photo on the flyer had two men dancing cheek to cheek. I cold-called the number on the flyer and asked to speak to the owner or manager, about her business and if she employed LGBTQ folks.
Her response was priceless, “Actually, I think there are only about three of us here who are straight.”
With so many people to choose from, through a totally random process, we settled on Anthony Mauriello, a former instructor who has recently come back into the fold.
PGN: Hey Anthony, tell me a little about you.
AM: I’m originally from Winslow Township, New Jersey. Born and raised. I grew up playing music, singing, dancing, doing theater, I was in a show choir…. I’m on my way to do a drag show tonight at Frankie Bradley’s. Some woman just told me I look like a present day Boy George. South Philly, you never know what someone’s going to say at 4:18 in the afternoon. So anyway, I did a lot of community theater growing up. I went to school at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, but now it’s plain Stockton University. I got a degree in theater and dance performance.
PGN: What was the first show you ever did?
AM: Oh my goodness, do I have enough brain cells left? I think it was 4th grade. I was in “Jungle Book.” Don’t ask me what character, I don’t remember. But the first musical I ever did was in 6th grade; we did “Schoolhouse Rock.” I got to sing, “I’m just a bill.”
PGN: I love “Schoolhouse Rock!” Do you still remember the song?
AM: “I’m just a bill, just a lonely bill, sitting here on Capitol Hill.” To this day I could recite you the preamble to the Constitution because of “Schoolhouse Rock.”
PGN: Nice, tell me about your family.
AM: It’s a big Italian family. My mom is originally from South Philly, 8th and Fitzwater, and my dad was born and raised in the same house that they live in now. He’s from a farming family, and my mom was a city girl.
PGN: What traits did you get from them?
AM: It’s funny. I have a brother seven years older than me and a sister who’s six years older; everyone thought they were twins growing up. Anyway, my brother is my dad and my sister is my mom, and I’m a perfect mix of them both. I get my relaxed, take it as it comes, see the best in everyone attitude from my dad. He’s very in touch with people; from my mom, I get my street smarts — my everyone-is-guilty-until-innocent mindset and my ability to read someone right from the start. I get my loud mouth and hard headedness from both of them.
PGN:: You said you got your street smarts from your mom, but you didn’t grow up in the city.
AM: Yes and no. My parents have been together for 35 odd years, and yes, I grew up in Jersey, but I was very close to my grandmother who lived in South Philly. My dad’s mom died when he was 16, so she’s the only grandmother I knew, and I spent a lot of time in the city with her and my grandfather. I spent most weekends with them. As a budding gay boy, there wasn’t much for me in New Jersey. I begged my parents to let me go to Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA). They didn’t and after a while I felt like I didn’t belong in Jersey anymore. I’ve been in New York and other cities, but I found my tribe in Philadelphia. I love this city.
PGN: Me too. It’s great, and it’s manageable.
AM: Yeah, for $1,200 dollars, you can rent a three-bedroom house in South Philly; in New York, that’s a shoebox.
PGN: What’s the worst fight you’ve had with your siblings?
AM: It was always something petty. We never really fought over anything big. The worst fight was over Trump. My brother and I didn’t talk after the elections for two months. But I challenge them all the time to grow, and now they get it and they’re all kicking themselves in the ass over it. Every time something happens I get to do my I-told-you-so dance, which has now turned into my I-told-you-so smirk.
PGN: My brother and I used to come up with creative tortures for each other.
AM: Oh, now that they did! My brother was a sports guy and a roughneck, and back then both my parents worked so it was just the three of us at home after school. He was obsessed with [World Wresting Entertainment], so he would lock my sister in the pantry with a chair under the door and take me and practice all his wrestling moves on me, like the pile driver! I would run through the house until I found a phone to call my mother, and her coworkers would answer the phone, “Hon, your kids are trying to kill each other again…”
PGN: When did you become interested in dance?
AM: When I was 19 years old, I was doing “A Chorus Line.” I was playing Mike and the girl who was playing Cassie was taking lessons at Arthur Murray Studio. I grew up watching old classic films; I loved Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Ginger Rodgers. So when [Cassie] invited me for guest night, I went. Learning ballroom dance was on my bucket list anyway. I was a sophomore in college and was hooked immediately. I picked it up so quickly they trained me to become an instructor. My manager was Lily Von Rox, who moved on to become an amazing burlesque dancer in New York, and I eventually got more involved in drag. Long story short, I was with Society Hill Dance Academy for four years, and then after taking some time off to do other things, I’m back here now.
PGN: What are some of the dances that you do? Is there a specialty?
AM: I teach everything ballroom — tango, foxtrot, Viennese waltz and quick step, and then there’s your Latin dances which are your Rumba, your cha-cha, your hustle, merengue, Bolero. My favorite and specialty would be the Argentine tango.
PGN: I watch “Dancing with the Stars.” Are spray tans really part of the routine?
AM: Oh gosh, I have on occasion, but I’m also an Italian boy from South Jersey, so when I was younger I was all about the spray tans. It was a way of life my senior year. You’d get out of school and go to a tanning bed before rehearsal, and then after rehearsal you’d go to another tanning bed across town since you couldn’t go to the same place twice in a day.
PGN: That sounds like a lot of tanning and a lot of theater.
AM: Theater was my life — like some people talk all about baseball, that was me and theater. I was in a show choir from 8th grade until I graduated high school. I did the lead in every musical, I was the Broadway baby of my school, and I did a lot of summer theater as well. When I was in school, the theater programs were funded, so we had theater in elementary school and by the time we were in high school, we were like pros. Now, they don’t start theater until much later and barely fund it, so the kids go into college not nearly as prepared as we were.
PGN: What was the most outrageous mishap on stage?
AM: Not to be all toot, toot, beep, beep, but I was always prepared so there were few mishaps. I knew my s--- backward and forward. No, I take that back, there was one time in my junior year when I was in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and I messed up a line. I walked off stage and when I got to the side I said to someone, “Aw F---! I blew that line!” I cringed as I heard it echo through the theater and realized that my mic was still on. So that happened, and that’s why you don’t talk when you’re backstage.
PGN: When did you come out?
AM: Officially? I was 23. I was a late bloomer. I had a girlfriend all through high school and into my freshman year of college, so I’m not what they call a gold-star gay. I dabbled in college and by senior year, I was like, “Yep, I’m gay.” I had a boyfriend for seven months and then told my siblings, and they told me I needed to tell my parents. I kind of did, but in a whisper-through-the-crack-of-the-door kind of way. When I opened that door fully it was New Year’s Day and my brother and sister were on me to tell my parents. I finally said, “F--- it,” ripped my covers off and marched in and told them. My mom cried for two weeks, and my dad was like, “If you thought I was going to be surprised, I’m not. We love you either way and by the way, you have a parking ticket you need to pay.” Like I said earlier, my dad’s very “Whatever, as long as you’re not killing anyone, we don’t care what you do.”
PGN: So your mom had no clue, even though you were big into drama…?
AM: I think she did, and she’d say things like, “God forbid you would be gay.” So there was a lot of pressure on me to stay in the closet. But she’s totally come around now. It’s funny, most people are worried about their father’s reaction; mine was the opposite.
PGN: Do a lot of gay couples dance at Society Hill Dance Academy?
AM: Now more than ever. It’s really exciting. We get couples who are getting married, folks who just want to learn for fun, you name it. At our studio, we don’t go by what the National Dance Council of America calls “the silhouette.” In most NDCA competitions, same-sex couples can’t compete. We are doing our best to fight that, not just for LGBT couples, but even for say, some straight women who come in and may not feel comfortable dancing with a strange man. It may make them uncomfortable. But by the rules, women can’t even complete in a pro-am competition with a female instructor. It should just be about dance. It really chafes my a--! And personally, I hate leading. I lead all day long, which means making the decisions all the time. I love being able to dance with a guy who leads and just follow. In our studio, guys will dance with women and let them lead. It gives them a chance to feel powerful and also to learn both sides of the dance, which is helpful. Often during groups, we’ll switch it up and a straight guy will have the option of being paired with a guy and you would think they might object, but it’s so professional here, and so much a part of what’s normal, that people just go along without it being a big thing. It’s amazing. Breaking “the silhouette” breaks a lot of stigmas, and I love that.
PGN: I’m always surprised that in several worlds like skating and ballroom dancing, as gay as they are, they can also be very homophobic.
AM: Girl! A lot of the dancers who work for the bigger dance studios, the big chains, are still in the closet. The NDCA is very conservative and old, so we’re just waiting for them to die off so we can bring the profession into the 21st century.
PGN: What’s your drag name?
AM: Maria TopCatt. She’s a very showgirl, burlesque, old school kind of gal. I’ve been doing drag for eight years in Philly, hosting The Dollhouse Revue back when that was about the only drag show in the city — when we were still freaks. [Laughing] Now there are drag shows every night of the damn week! I’m on my way to one right now!
PGN: That’s funny.
AM: Oh, and I also do a drag queen story time. Once a month I read to kids at Mister John’s Music. The next one is coming up on Thursday, July 25.
PGN: Do you have a favorite dance show?
AM: I really don’t watch them; I’m into cooking shows. I love “Iron Chef,” the original. Cooking shows, cartoons like Pokémon and the occasional Housewife is what you’ll find on my DVR. I use Facebook and Instagram to stay up on current events, and my drag daughter keeps me informed on what’s going on in pop culture.
PGN: What was a memorable Christmas gift?
AM: The first Gameboy that I got. It was a huge, big old gray square, which you could barely see if it was dark, and it sat in your lap.
PGN: If you could choose anyone to dance with, who would it be?
AM: Gene Kelly. He was amazing. Wait, he might be too short…