Dancing her way to the top: Alexandria grad makes a name for herself in entertainment industry
Not many women can say they would be willing to let pop star Rihanna shave their head in order to land a job — but Mette Towley did just that.
Towley, who graduated from Jefferson High School in Alexandria in 2009, now lives in Los Angeles and recently landed the lead role in "Lemon," a music video collaboration between Pharrell Williams' band N.E.R.D and Rihanna.
She credits her loving family and upbringing in Alexandria for affording her the opportunity to get where she is today.
Before moving to Minnesota, Towley grew up watching her uncle accompany dancers at the Baltimore School for the Arts. That is where she fell in love with dance.
"I would go to those recitals and I would see these beautiful dancers with such ability to evoke the human spirit through their movements," she said.
Though Towley took some dance classes around age 5, it wasn't something she stuck with.
"One of my earliest memories is being in the parking lot after a dance recital and I looked at my mom and I said, 'I don't need to dance anymore,' she recalled. "It's so interesting because I was so certain I got what I needed at that time from training. Then I kind of went into my own world and explored movement at home."
In fifth grade, Towley moved to Alexandria. One of her friends took classes at Dancin Off Broadway, an Alexandria dance studio. Towley's interest in traditional training was sparked again, though it lasted only a few years.
"It was cool to start to explore technique a little bit," she said. "I took one year of regular classes and two years of competition. Then I left when I was 14. I had the same feeling, that it was time to explore on my own."
Towley says Alexandria teachers such as Linda Capistrant, a theater teacher at Discovery Middle School, had a profound impact on her.
"She (Capistrant) introduced me to Shakespeare, and introduced me to theater and performance in a way that was really inspiring," Towley said. "Her just seeing something in me and pushing me. ... I really appreciate her and I always think back to her."
Pursuing a passion
During her senior year of high school, Towley opted to take post secondary college classes at the University of Minnesota Morris.
"I really found modern dance there," she said. "I used to book space in the dance studio and do improv and just listen to music loud and sweat and get connected to my physicality in a way I never had before. It was in Morris that I really was like, 'OK, I want to dance.'"
So, after officially graduating in 2009, Towley set off for the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. Though she didn't initially plan to audition for the dance program, she did so at the last minute.
"I had a blackout moment (during the audition)," Towley said. "I think back to that solo I did and I just put my effort into it. That was one of the moments I remember feeling hungry for it, feeling like I wanted it. And I got in."
Towley earned her bachelor of arts in dance and cultural studies comparative literature, as well as a minor in political science. Though dancing was her first love, she felt it was important to broaden her education.
"Being a dancer who is also connected to what it means to be a scholar and talk about dance in a very refined way is important to me," she said. "I think that while dance is incredible and it moves people beyond the boundaries of language, when you're able to talk about your artform and discuss the methodologies behind it, you can really bring people into the world in a new way."
In order to reach the dreams she had, Towley knew she needed to leave Minnesota. She told her parents, who were living in Alexandria at the time, that she was moving to Los Angeles. She did so in August 2013. Her parents later moved to Florida, where they currently reside.
"My parents never questioned my decision to want to reach for the stars and pursue my dream of dance," Towley said. "I really credit them with giving me a safe space my whole life to be myself. It's just incredible to look back at that journey and have such appreciation for people that see something in you and ask you to push yourself."
She ended up signing a two-year contract with a talent agency and began going to six auditions a week for three weeks before landing her first role as a dancer for singer Jennifer Hudson on the "Dick Clark New Year's Rockin' Eve" TV special. That was followed by a role in a music video for Hudson.
Then, says Towley, it was a dry couple of months. She began to feel frustrated, but had promised herself she would see where the two-year contract took her. But soon, she received a call about an audition to be a dancer for Pharrell Williams, with one job leading to another.
Towley said she wants to keep dancing for Williams "because I was able to be my authentic self."
"I didn't feel as though it was just about dancing provocatively," Towley said. "It was about sharing who I am as a woman and my point of view and that's very rare in the dance community. I really applaud that creative team for the opportunity and the platform."
Now, Towley is working to introduce the world to the music of N.E.R.D, Williams' band. In September, she auditioned for the music video for "Lemon," a collaboration between N.E.R.D and Rihanna. If she landed the role, Rihanna would shave her head in the opening scene of the video.
Towley's work paid off when she got the call that the role was hers. The next day, weeks of rigorous rehearsals and shooting began.
"Getting through that was one of the times I had to really think back to my parent's work ethic and just go 100 percent for that entire period of time," she said.
For Jackie Noetzelman, previous director of Dancin Off Broadway, keeping tabs on Towley's career has been enjoyable.
"She was great (as a student)," Noetzelman said. "So many things set her apart. It was interesting just to watch her."
Towley says she is excited for her future in the entertainment industry and that being where she is wouldn't be possible without the support of the people in her life.
"It's about the trust I really feel I have in who I am and my abilities, the safety net of my family, the support of my friends," Towley said. "I'm able to wake up every day and do what I love in Los Angeles in a way that I never imagined was possible for me."