"My mom said there was never a time when music played that you did not dance. I do that to this day," Susan Kelechi Watson tells PEOPLE

By Karen Mizoguchi
February 19, 2019 10:00 PM
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This Is Us fans finally got the Beth backstory episode they’ve been asking for — and it was so worth the wait!

Viewers learned the deep importance of dance, specifically ballet, to Susan Kelechi Watson‘s character. After all, as her on-screen mom, Phylicia Rashad, said Beth was the “little island girl who danced before she could walk” at 18 months old.

And much how Beth reconnected to her love of ballet after so many years, the actress also has a personal passion for dance. Rather than bringing on a double for the choreography in the “Our Little Island Girl” episode, Watson insisted on putting in the work herself.

“Dance is so important to me because it’s a way of expression without speaking,” Watson tells PEOPLE.

“I think for me it’s a more thorough way of expression. I can dance something and people will know exactly how I feel. Things that I can’t even find the words for,” she explains. “I love to be in my skin in that way. For Beth, she was dancing before she could walk, so there’s something about it, it’s innate.”

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Not only did the TIU writers incorporate Watson’s Jamaican background into Beth’s backstory, but they also mirrored Watson’s real-life experience as a dancer into Beth’s ballet journey via actresses Akira Akbar, who played young Beth, and Rachel Naomi Hilson, who portrayed teenage Beth.

“My mom would tell me how she would take me to department stores and they would play the music over the loudspeaker. I would walk off somewhere, and she would find me between the clothing racks, and I would be dancing to the music,” says Watson, who studied ballet, modern, tap, jazz, African, Brazilian and Caribbean dance.

“My mom said there was never a time when music played that you did not dance. I do that to this day. … I think Beth and I have that in common,” she adds. “Her way of even moving through the world started through dance. Not walking, but dancing. That says a lot about your spirit in terms of how she communicates and wants to communicate in her life.”

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Watson studied ballet when she was younger but stopped at around age 12 or 13. “My body didn’t fit the dance form, and I received a lot of criticism because of that. They made me feel unwanted in that dance form, but I found my voice in different forms,” she explains.

Though she no longer regularly practices ballet, Watson reveals her pointe came back right away during rehearsals for Beth’s backstory. “It’s so funny what your body remembers and just doesn’t let it go,” she says, adding that a lot of the plies, releves, batmas and chasmas also came right back thanks to muscle memory.

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Credit: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

“I felt amazing. I danced and danced this dance, I mean we must’ve done it maybe 15 times in a row, and I never got tired,” Watson recalls of shooting the dance scenes with director and choreographer Anne Fletcher, who’s known for her work in Step Up, Bring It On and Hairspray.

“Every time we did it, it was different and I felt her spirit move through me. The joy that she would feel being able to do this again, and I also felt my own experience of being back in my dance body again,” Watson says. “This control you gain over your body again. We don’t do this every day, we are walking, sitting and running. There’s something different when your body flutters to the music or you fly across the room or move in a certain way that you don’t normally do every day. You can feel the freeness of it and yet you feel the control there as well — that’s dance.”

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Credit: NBC

The episode was also a chance to bond with Rashad, who was involved in the creation of a scholarship at Howard University that Watson earned.

“We’re special to one another,” Watson says. “It was a great chance to reconnect. I’m always learning from Phylicia and she was really quite generous in our scenes together. It was an amazing opportunity to act with her in this way, with this material. And for us to be in this relationship, mother and daughter.”

As fans previously learned in a flash-forward scene, a fiftysomething Beth has found her second act as a dance teacher and is running her own studio. Watson wants fans to know that if Beth can do it, they can also live out their childhood aspirations. “We owe it to ourselves to fulfill our dreams,” she says.

This Is Us airs Tuesdays (9 p.m. ET) on NBC.