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By Jen Jones Donatelli
Three dancers on working their way up in L.A.
From left: Victor Rojas, Amanda Balen, and Mark Kanemura. All photos by Rose Eichenbaum. Styled by Brandon Ho. Hair and makeup by Chantal Moore.
Meet three dancers who have converged on Los Angeles from decidedly non–dance-job territories: Amanda Balen from Hamilton, Ontario, in Canada, Victor Rojas from Peru, and Mark Kanemura from Hawaii. They’ve each traveled different paths to L.A., keeping their own individual styles intact. But all three are hooked into today’s commercial dance scene. They’ve toured with a variety of big-name entertainers, the most recent being Lady Gaga. You can catch them all on the Lady Gaga Presents The Monster Ball Tour at Madison Square Garden DVD, available in stores and online now.
One would never guess Amanda Balen was a self-proclaimed “shy girl” to watch her dancing onstage. Fierce and feisty, Balen’s bold moves hardly match those of someone who shuns the spotlight, yet she comes to life when performing. “The Amanda that goes onstage is very different from who I am in real life,” says Balen. “Performance mode kicks in and I transform into a different person.”
It’s been quite a journey for the girl who says she grew up following in her older sister’s footsteps, which meant taking her first dance steps at 3. “We spent our entire childhood watching movie musicals and dancing—after school, on weekends, on vacations,” says Balen.
She took her first actual dance class in L.A. at age 15. “I remember stretching on the floor, looking at the ceiling, and the feeling came over me that I wanted to do this for the rest of my life,” she recalls. Right after her high school graduation, fate acquiesced and Balen booked a job dancing on tour with pop star Aaron Carter, thanks to friend and So You Think You Can Dance star Blake McGrath.
“When I moved to L.A., I had been saving money for two years to make that move possible. I didn’t know anyone, and the first day I was there, I felt so overwhelmed that I cried for an entire afternoon. I was staying at a temporary housing complex, which was more than I could afford, when by chance I met a friend at a dance class at EDGE who let me sleep on a mattress in her apartment. I slept on that mattress for about a year, until I could get my feet on solid ground.” She took dance classes “most hours of the day” aiming to become as versatile as possible.
The hard work paid off, and at 22, Balen landed a gig on Disney’s The Suite Life of Zack and Cody. “I’ll always remember that job,” she says, “because I was the newbie who felt really out of place, but I felt very fortunate.”
No longer the newbie, Balen has since danced with top stars like Celine Dion, Janet Jackson, and now Lady Gaga. In 2009 while working on the MTV Video Music Awards tribute to Michael Jackson, Balen was tapped for Lady Gaga’s music video “Bad Romance.”
For Balen, it’s the electric energy that Lady Gaga generates that makes it so gratifying to be in her sphere. “Whether it’s a club show with 200 people or an arena with 20,000,” says Balen, “there’s an incredibly magnetic energy coming from the crowd.”
Also rewarding for Balen is the opportunity to see the world through a dancer’s lens. From ballet in Vienna to burlesque in Paris to performance art in Japan, she makes a point of taking in local artistry wherever the tour takes her.
Victor Rojas’ life story reads like one of the characters from Fame: He lived in Peru until age 7; moved to Hell’s Kitchen in New York; learned to perform through The 52nd Street Project, a nonprofit arts organization for youth; and wound up at LaGuardia High School of the Performing Arts. However, Rojas was a drama major and didn’t take his first serious dance steps until his senior year.
“My friends took me to a modern class at Broadway Dance Center—it was the scariest thing ever,” says Rojas. He felt out of place but noticed another class across the hall that seemed a better fit. “The teacher was flashing the lights on and off, and the kids were thrashing and dancing to a Bauhaus song,” he remembers. “Everyone was in a freestyle circle going off.”
Rojas decided to try out that class instead—and soon caught the dancing bug. He immersed himself in training, taking up to 12 classes per week with instructors like Bev Brown, Sheila Barker, and Kat Wildish. He booked his first job dancing with recording artist Kelis, who’d graduated from LaGuardia one year before him. “She was also a drama major, and when her record deal came along, she asked me to come dance for her,” he shares.
After that came a promotional tour for Mya’s Fear of Flying album, which landed him an agent; he began flying to L.A. for auditions. It was booking Janet Jackson’s 2004 Super Bowl performance that inspired him to move to L.A. for good. Once ensconced there, Rojas found himself working on gigs for artists like Brandy and Faith Evans, as well as the 2009 MTV VMA tribute to Michael Jackson.
“With every job that I’ve done, the technical part of trying on the clothes or getting to see the stage for the first time is amazing,” says Rojas. “I absolutely love fittings and trying on the costumes—I have a secret inner model persona.”
Rojas relishes the opportunity to be part of something forward-thinking and provocative. “What I enjoy about this particular job,” he says, “is the amount of artistic freedom we’re able to experience as dancers. We’re involved and really a part of the visual process, which is an honor.”
Mark Kanemura has come a long way from his days as a musical theater buff growing up in Honolulu. He’d first discovered his love of the performing arts when his parents took him to see a production of Phantom of the Opera: “I was mesmerized by all the aspects of theater—lighting, sets, costuming, singing, and dancing. It was a completely different world.”
He went on to star in a local production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and enrolled in an after-school dance program. However, he says it was at Castle High School that he really cut his performing teeth. There he studied under 24-VII Dance Force’s Marcelo Pacleb, who has trained dance industry notables like Gil Duldulao and Leo Moctezuma. “It was a lot edgier and very different from anything I’d seen before,” says Kanemura. “The costumes were full-out and the dancing was incredible.”
Working with Pacleb helped Kanemura hone the quirky, raw dance style that won him a spot on So You Think You Can Dance, Season Four. Looking back at that experience, Kanemura remembers Lady Gaga’s song “Just Dance” as somewhat of a motivational anthem: “The song was something I listened to daily and got me through the whole process.” Referring to her focus on acceptance, he says, “I loved what she stood for, and she encouraged me to live my life.”
A “ginormous” fan of Lady Gaga, Kanemura set his sights on auditioning for Laurieann Gibson, who was Lady Gaga’s choreographer at the time. He received word that Gibson was booking dancers for Lady Gaga’s MTV VMA performance of “Paparazzi.” One might think landing such jobs would have been a snap after SYTYCD, but Kanemura says that wasn’t always the case.
“After the show, I quickly learned that I was right back to where the other dancers in L.A. were, that we were all fighting for the same jobs,” he says. “People were either receptive to the fact I’d been on SYTYCD, or it went the other way, where I was expected to prove myself even more.”
He didn’t have to worry this time around. He got the gig. “When I found out, I was beside myself—bouncing on the walls, crying.”
He wants to use his time in the spotlight to affect others in the same way Lady Gaga has affected him. “Touring with Lady Gaga has really helped me find my place,” says Kanemura, who was recently named one of the magazine Out’s “Out100.” “I had years where I struggled with finding my identity, and when I hear about teens taking their lives, it really affects me,” he says. He wants to “inspire and encourage others to live their real, honest lives.”
Jen Jones Donatelli is an L.A.–based writer who has been published in Dance Spirit, Dance Teacher, and many other magazines.
Ripped on the Road
How do Balen and Rojas stay in shape on tour?
Balen: I like to wake up and get in as much cardio as I can. I’ll also go to the hotel gym in the mornings. Before the show, I like to do yoga stretches, push-ups, sit-ups—whatever gets your body really warm.
Rojas: I always do P90x. I also do abs every day and 10 to 15 minutes of push-ups. I’m one of those bad dancers who doesn’t always warm up as much as I should. But I try to stretch out, roll my neck, and do some pliés and downward dogs right before the show.
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Win a Pair of Tickets to See Rioult Dance! Rioult Dance returns to the Joyce Theater in New York June 4-9. Dance Magazine is giving away a pair of tickets to the June 8th performance at 2:00 pm.(Click here to enter.)