From Struggle, To Suicidal, And On To The Super Bowl
About six months before she would dance in front of one of the largest audiences in the world, taking to the football field during the Super Bowl LVI Halftime Show while some of the biggest names in hip hop and R&B performed, Angela Harrison called the National Suicide Hotline.
Alone in a friend’s Los Angeles apartment- facing divorce, a paused nonprofit due to COVID-19, and barely able to get out of bed to bartend the shifts she needed to make rent- none of her friends were answering their phones, and she felt that the world would be better off without her.
“I was in a depression, like a full-on depression. Suicidal,” Harrison said. “I knew nobody here, I had to sit with my marriage [being] ended, and along with that comes feelings of worthiness… am I lovable?”
The call was the culmination of a lifetime of fighting to fit into spaces not meant for her; faking smiles and masking a scarcity mindset with a bright, bubbly personality.
“I tried so desperately to fit in with my friends, to fit in at a church, to fit in with a husband; trying to fit in places where I don't belong. And I always I got used to the feeling of not fitting in and forcing myself into friendship circles, forcing myself into certain lifestyles,” Harrison said.
The classically-trained dancer is no stranger to struggle. While she was learning her craft- late in life compared to many of her peers- she was taking public transit to and from an Orlando-area homeless shelter to her high school and a part-time job at the mall. In some ways, Harrison says that time she spent at the shelter was the most stability she experienced growing up.
“I will never forget that time,” Harrison said. “Meanwhile, I'm on the cheerleading team. I'm taking the city bus from downtown to Dr. Phillips every day, doing the dance magnet, managed to get the best grades I've ever gotten ever in like my high school history, because I think it was motivation. I just was like, I never want to be here again. You know?”
The shelter was a big change after moving around from hotel to hotel, or family member to family member. It meant steady meals, birthday and Christmas presents, and exposure to the realities of just how many people struggle to get by.
“I met so many women at the homeless shelter. I met a lawyer who happened to be schizophrenic, but she was a lawyer. I met a woman who was a nurse and she had two young boys. There was a girl who was there by herself. She went to Jones High School. She was 17,” Harrison recalled. “I met so many people and I think that fueled me that year, because I was just like, I never, ever, ever want to be in this situation again.”
The fuel fired her passion for dance- a study often reserved for the privileged due to the costs and demands- which she was able to hone through a magnet program at her high school. It was the first time she had ever worn dance shoes or tights, and she had a lot to learn.
“If it were today's standards, I would not have gotten into that program,” Harrison joked of the pep squad routine she used to audition. “That program has grown so much. I'm talking kids going to Juilliard from Dr. Phillips… it has gotten really prestigious and really big.”
The four-year crash course started her freshman year, exposing her to classical training for ballet, modern dance, jazz, hip hop, and even cultural dances. The schedule and work was challenging, especially for a teen without stable housing, and only possible with the help of friends and teachers.
“My passion for dance, I really leaned on that. I leaned on my friends. I had friends whose parents would help to get me to cheerleading practice or to a dance show,” Harrison said. “For me, it has not been easy. But dance was always there for me, and it came at the perfect time in my life.”
“I think during that time in my life, dance saved me and that was my out. That was what I focused on. I had a very tumultuous personal life growing up. It was not easy at all. My outlet was to throw myself into this thing that I loved so much. It allowed me to get my mind off something, it allowed me if I was having an emotional day, everything went into my craft and being better at something, it gave me something to fight for. And I was so busy I couldn't really get into trouble, because I had a lot to lose and dance was important to me, and the opportunities that came along with it were very important to me.”
The hard work led to a scholarship for a private University in Jacksonville where Harrison would study psychology with a dance minor. Though she preferred the latter, she says growing up in scarcity led her to go with the ‘safe’ option—the degree she thought would help her make more money.
“At that point, I'm tired of living a life that I'm broke and struggling,” Harrison said. “I was really fighting myself. I was fighting hard, because I loved dance so much, but I grew up in poverty and I didn't want that to be my future.”
With her degree, she was able to get back to her passion quickly; becoming a dance teacher in the Orlando-area. Soon after, a dream role opened up; she applied to help run the program at Doctor Phillips High School where she had gotten her start.
“I had a great interview. I knew the principal, it was the same principal who was there when I was there. And I just knew I had it in the bag,” Harrison said.
Harrison didn’t pass the test required to teach in the district where she graduated.
But when something is for you, it’s yours… regardless of an initial denial.
“I remember, I was reading the Bible and I get this voice and it said, ‘The job is yours.’ That's all I heard. Literally moments later, I get a phone call from the new principal that was there who happened to be in my interview originally,” Harrison said.
Turns out the teacher who got the job instead may have embellished her resume, and leaders called Harrison back to take the test again.
The job was hers.
“I was teaching alongside my mentor,” Harrison said. “I was teaching the dance elective classes, and she was teaching the dance magnet classes… I got a lot of training, I got a lot of learning the behind the scenes on running a major program. She runs one of the biggest programs in the U.S. It's a big deal.”
But it didn’t come without hustle. The teaching job was only part time; she also worked in a dance company teaching classes, and the burnout was quick.
“I wasn't making enough money, could not barely even pay my rent,” Harrison said.
I can tell you, as someone else who grew up poor, we’re always running. Running from our past. Chasing money. Feeling like we’ll never catch up.
Harrison decided to chase the dollar instead of her dream.
“I switched to sales,” Harrison said, planning only to do so for a year. “I needed to make money, because I was so broke…. I didn't have any food in the house, like my past life was coming back. It's something that I worked so hard to distance myself from, you know, and to be in a better place. I went to college... Why am I not making money?”
She told herself it would just be a year. That she could walk away at any time. She would still teach classes here and there. Trying to convince herself the dream was still within reach, that she just needed to dig out of a hole. It was temporary. Right?
“Slowly each year, I did less and less with dance. Wasn’t taking classes, wasn’t teaching much… I started gaining weight… I didn’t move like I used to. My confidence just started falling and I kind of stopped teaching altogether, stopped dancing altogether,” Harrison said. “I was just money driven. And I did get to the point where I was making pretty good money with sales, but I was so unhappy and not living my life... and meanwhile, my dream is gone.”
You can run toward money, but you can’t run from yourself. Though her finances were finally in a good place, without dance, Harrison wasn’t.
“I think I was in a fog and I think I wasn't awake during that time. It had been a good solid eight, nine years of just trying to be something that I wasn't, trying to be this sales mogul… things that just weren't natural to me,” Harrison said. “I just felt like I was trying to fit in. I didn't belong there. I was trying to fit in with people that weren't my people… I just was not living my life. It was so far from my hopes and dreams, and things that I had planned out for myself. So far from that.”
After almost a decade of not regularly dancing, Harrison had a lot of conditioning to do. She took it one class at a time, teaching part time while still working sales.
“After a long week of working hard and trying to meet quota, and trying to make money and, this is something that I don't have to try. I'm good at this. I'm really good,” Harrison said. “If I wasn’t confident about anything else in my life, I know I'm a good educator, hands down. And I love kids. I love the youth. And I just felt like that's what I needed.”
She continued working in sales for two more years; getting married and saving up money before she eventually knew it was time to walk away. She planned to get back into teaching full time at a middle school, and she launched a nonprofit in Orlando to help other underserved young girls gain the same experience she had.
“It was just free dance classes, you know, for girls in the hood,” Harrison said.
It was a dream that she didn’t even claim at first. Angela says the idea for the nonprofit came as an intrusive thought in 2016; specifically, to teach free dances in Orlando’s Paramore neighborhood. She scoffed at the idea.
“I was like, I’m going to L.A. I wanted to move so bad. I was supposed to have moved to L.A. after college,” Harrison said. “I got scared, didn’t do it. I let people talk me out of it.”
She ignored the idea until the voice got so loud she couldn’t.
“2018, I stayed up with a friend. It was New Year's Eve. We didn't go to sleep at all. All we did was write down things that we wanted to have happen in our lives-- no holds barred, anything. If we could do anything, what would our life look like? That year, I started my nonprofit.”
The difference she made is immeasurable. Girls who were homeless, like she had been in high school, were given the opportunity to dance, and the resources they needed to do it. It made a difference for Harrison, too.
“[I learned] I cannot approach these kids the way that I had to learn. Even though I was in similar situations, my path was just a little different. I was entering into something,” Harrison said. “I'm trying to bring these kids in, and expose them to something, which means that I have to meet them where they are.”
As her true passion came back into her life, less authentic parts became more exposed; the most of which, her marriage. Her relationship was getting tense as the world changed with COVID-19, and teaching became more difficult; both in the school where she was a teacher and in her nonprofit.
The pull to pursue something bigger just never went away.
“I felt like the biggest fraud when I was teaching in public school, and I'd be like, well, if you want to try out for the basketball team, just do it. What do you have to lose?” Harrison recalled. “I’m pushing them to do all these things that they want to do, not just dance… but I have not ever tried to go out, totally. I tried, but not really. I never actually did it. And I felt like a fraud.”
She realized her resentment toward students who wouldn’t apply themselves- wouldn’t chase their dreams- was actually a feeling she had toward herself.
“I had to deal with that emotional weight. I was sick every day, crying every day after work, gaining weight, migraines, physically sick. I had a lot of issues,” Harrison said. “My husband doesn’t want to be married anymore… it was a lot. And I just felt like I was being pushed to make a decision.”
After a full year of teaching during the pandemic, Harrison planned to truly take a summer break. She was going to go to L.A. to dance, just for the summer of 2021… putting a pause on her nonprofit, her marriage, her life.
“Within that first week that I was here, my then-husband and I decided, we're calling it quits,” Harrison said. “Go ahead and file for divorce. Let's get this done. Because at this point, I just felt helpless. I felt like my life was crumbling.”
The lifetime hustler—who had been running from poverty, chasing a dream, was at rock bottom.
“I was very lonely. I knew I had support, but at the same time, I was also losing friends that I thought were my friends and losing the support system I thought I had in Orlando,” Harrison said. “You find out who's really in your corner and who's not when you go through major changes like that.”
She was there for a few weeks, bartending to get by and staying in a friend’s apartment, when she made that call to the suicide hotline.
“I had never been suicidal, no matter how hard things got growing up,” Harrison said. “I never knew what feeling suicidal was until I had to deal with feelings that I always had, even before my marriage, of just not being worthy, of not being able to get the things that I truly wanted in my heart, of not being lovable… Regardless, if you're with someone or not, you have to face those things. You have to deal with those things.”
The call unearthed a history of shame and a feeling of not fitting in that dated back to her childhood.
“I just didn’t know, but for the majority of my life, I have been unhappy,” Harrison realized. “But because that was my life, it felt normal. I didn’t know.”
I remember the first time I met Ang, at a Mexican restaurant with a long table full of friends, crunching on chips and salsa and drinking margaritas for a mutual friend’s birthday party in Orlando. It might’ve been 2016. Looking back on it, I can say for certain that no one around her knew she was unhappy. I found her to be one of the brightest lights in the room, and I share this to urge you to check on your people. Check on those you think are the strongest around you. You never know what they’re battling beneath the surface.
But just as it had during every down time in her life, dance found a way back in.
“I was so depressed, any small little thing would send me in tears, I was very fragile,” Harrison says of the summer of 2021. “I was bartending two or three days a week, and that covered all of the basics that I needed, but during the weekday, I was in bed, could barely move. It was it was a good day if I could just get out of my bed and make my bed.”
Like so many people in L.A., she had active profiles on casting websites, and one day she saw a post that piqued her interest: A music video for Too Short.
As in, Blow The Whistle… that Too Short.
No shade, but I didn’t know he was still making music until this video came out.
“I kept ignoring it,” Harrison said. “But it was looking for dancers, looking for a plus size dancers like me, pretty much described me… I didn't think I was going to get it, but the next day, I got contacted.”
Her first gig in L.A. was to be in TOO SHORT’S MUSIC VIDEO.
She's right here in the red dress!
No Gen-Z reader will understand why this is such a big deal, but if want to test my theory, walk into any establishment with a Gen-X or Millennial crowd and yell out ‘What’s my favorite word?!’ and you’ll get the idea.
“It’s the funniest video ever… and for that to be my first gig in L.A… after getting over the hump of being suicidal, and even before I came out here, being told here's not going to be opportunities for you there,” Harrison recalled. “For the Too Short music video to be my first opportunity ever, I felt like it was God's way of showing, No, you're on the right path, babe. I got you. I got you. You're on the right path. Keep doing what you're doing. There's plenty of opportunity for you here.”
And in a city where everyone wants to be famous, everyone wants to entertain—it’s all about who you know. Angela made friends with some of the women on the set of the video, exchanging Instagrams and phone numbers, not knowing what it could lead to.
COVID restrictions were easing up, and L.A. was set to host the next Super Bowl. She started seeing fliers offering the opportunity to bartend during the game; a gig that promised great money.
For the first time, a woman with a lifelong scarcity mindset, didn’t chase the dollar. She wanted the dream.
“My first thought was that I don’t want to bartend. I want to dance at the Super Bowl,” Harrison said. “I was like, if I’m going to be at the Super Bowl, I want to dance. I do not want to bartend.”
She knew how crazy it was. She didn’t have an agent. She’d had exactly one professional gig in the entertainment industry. I, for one, love the audacity. And I also love that all the lessons she learned along the way— the way being homeless for a time- the ultimate equalizer- taught her the humility to treat everyone with the same energy she’d want to receive- ended up paying off in the form of a dream she didn’t know she had until she saw those fliers looking for Super Bowl bartenders.
“I got a phone call from someone I met at the Too Short music video, on set,” Harrison said. “She was also in the music video with me, she wasn't like a big wig for the set or anything… and she was like, ‘Hey, I remember you saying you were a dancer. Would you be interested in dancing, performing at the Super Bowl?’”
I am not a dancer and *I* want to dance at the Super Bowl!
This was before the acts were announced, but shortly after getting that call and landing the gig, we all learned that our millennial dreams were coming true in the form of Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Eminem, Kendrick Lamar, and Mary J. Blige would be performing what I would argue is the best halftime show since Prince. Harrison was among the select few who knew that that 50 Cent would make a special guest appearance.
The job came with an NDA and a fair amount of controversy over performer pay, which in some ways was a catalyst for what we’re seeing now in Hollywood with the ongoing strikes; the entertainment industry has started to rise up and we’re all starting to feel it in the options available to us on streaming and network shows.
“Watching these talented artists, and not even just the artists, you know, like Dr. Dre, Mary J., not just them, but you have the people who make the show- the crew, the people who build the sets. You have lighting, you have audio. So much goes into this performance,” Harrison said of the Super Bowl. “The dancers, we had a band there, we had people in lowriders… all the people that come together, the people who make the costumes, the people who decide on what's going to be worn, intricate parts of putting together a show that just a normal person watching halftime would never think of. You know, we think of the artists, but there are people behind the scenes who make the artists what you get to see and what you love so much about them.”
Harrison sees the value in the behind-the-scenes crews as she works to secure more jobs, and she’s not limiting herself to dance.
“I got into doing a lot of background work. I can act. I can carry a note, too, and I don't want to stop myself. I'm out here for a reason. I already did the hard part, which was just moving across the and starting fresh. I want to do any and everything,” Harrison said. “I love the glitz and glam of it all. And I don't want to cap myself. I don't want to limit myself.”
She’s landed some commercials and background work, including the revamp of the Fresh Prince, and she’s taking acting classes.
She’s also learning about Hollywood secrets, and spilling some of them for us:
“I'm on set for Apple, I'm on set for Paramount, I'm on set for a Netflix series, movies, you know, things that I still can’t talk about because it hasn't come out yet,” Harrison said. “I was on Dr. Phil, debating on CRT, critical race theory, the most random topic. People don't know this, but the people you see in these talk shows, they're paid to be there!”
And even as the writer’s strike is slowing the amount of work available, Harrison is in a much better headspace than she was when she arrived out west.
“During this time, I'm focusing on other things I like to do,” Harrison said. “I'm picking up with travel, I am expounding on other gifts that I have, and then I'm just training, because I want to be ready when the industry opens back up. I'm ready for auditions, I'm ready to get an agent. I'm just strengthening myself, now that I have been able to focus on myself personally and have been able to heal.”
The background work- meaning the work she’s doing on herself- is truly a work in progress. And it hasn’t been easy digging out of the suicidal depression she found herself in not long ago. She’s forcing herself to take the same advice she’s given her students.
“Even as a dance teacher, that is actually my teaching philosophy: You have to address what's on the inside, because dance is very vulnerable,” Harrison said. “And if you haven't met yourself yet, how can you portray a character? How can you really make others feel what you're doing? If there are parts of yourself you're not willing to see, or there are parts of yourself you have closed off.”
It’s a constant hustle—Ang joked that she needs seven streams of income in one of the most expensive cities in the country—but even with a chaotic livelihood, she finally feels like she’s living her most authentic life.
“I feel like ever since I've been here, I've just been facing my wildest dreams and my wildest fears,” Harrison said. “Just facing myself, confronting myself and trying and fighting for myself and fighting for my dreams and I could not think of a better way to live my life. I feel like I'm actually living my life and making decisions that I've always wanted to make, and it feels really good.”
And those feelings of shame- the fears of rejection- the inner voice that led her to make that desperate call to the suicide hotline- they’re all slowly getting drowned out by a much louder purpose with every audition and booked job… and even the jobs she doesn’t get.
“I'm not going to take that rejection as disapproval, because I know there's space for me here. I feel like for me, I have been I've never been more celebrated for just being myself as I am living here and pursuing my dream here,” Harrison said. “There's something on the other side of the fear. There's something on the other side of all the doubts and the things that were kind of ingrained in us by other people, not even from ourselves. You owe it to yourself to try.”
September is Suicide Prevention Month, a time to raise awareness of this highly stigmatized topic. I thank Angela Harrison for being so brave in sharing her story, as I know it will help others. If you’re experiencing thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Hotline at 988.