Lights, Camera, Action
Making the shift from the concert dance world to the commercial industry? Here’s what you need to know.
Ebony Williams advises dancers to highlight their personal style in auditions. Photo by Christopher Lane for Pointe.
When Ebony Williams goes grocery shopping, people often stop her. “Do the ‘Single Ladies’ dance!” they beg. Seven years after Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” video debuted, Williams—one of just two backup dancers in the video—still gets called out in public. “People have said they recognize my butt cheeks,” Williams says, with a laugh. Although she spent 10 years as a veritable star in Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, it was her performance with Beyoncé that skyrocketed her to household-name fame.
Concert-dancer-turned-commercial-superstar stories like Williams’ are inspiring. But they’re not typical. Making the transition from the concert world to the fast-paced and unpredictable commercial scene requires adaptability, persistence and thick skin.
Why Make the Switch?
Matthew Shaffer started his career with the Giordano Dance Chicago touring company. But he craved variety. “I get bored easily,” he says. “One of the biggest appeals of the commercial world is you’re doing something different every day.” Once you’ve wrapped, it’s on to new choreography, new costumes and a new set.
The same was true for Williams. “I wasn’t doing any hip hop,” she says. So she sought out the style in her spare time. “I would rehearse from 10 to 6 with Cedar Lake, and then I would go to Broadway Dance Center to take hip hop,” she says. “It felt like recess!” Williams booked her first commercial job performing with Rihanna at Fashion Rocks and eventually signed with Clear Talent Group.
Remember that commercial auditions are unlike company auditions. “Your look takes precedence,” says Williams. “A haircut can get you a job.” Know what you’re auditioning for, and outfit yourself accordingly—while maintaining your personal style, so the casting team will remember you. Consider having a signature hairstyle, accessory or shoe to brand yourself.
Typically, the casting team is looking for someone specific: They may need a tall blonde who can vogue, or a short Asian with huge muscles. Typecasting is unavoidable. “They’re looking for the best match, not the best dancer,” says Jessica Lee Keller, a former member of Cedar Lake who has danced on “Dancing with the Stars,” “The Voice” and in Teen Beach Movie.
Whether or not you’re the best match, you’re likely replaceable. “If you can’t make it, they move on to the next person,” says Williams.
Get an Agent
Most agencies hold open calls, but if you have connections, a referral helps. Once you land an agent, they will tell you about upcoming auditions and negotiate your working conditions, salary and other legal items, explains Shaffer. Your agent will also help you navigate the SAG/AFTRA union, which protects dancers.
When you were dancing with a company, you probably had class every day. Now you have to take control of your training. “Take classes that are foreign to you,” says Shaffer. “You’re already great at contemporary—now take jazz, hip hop or whatever class is taught by the choreographer you want to work with.”
While the best way to network is in person, there is tremendous power on social media. Post videos on your channels, interact with your favorite choreographers and share posts you find valuable. The more people in your network—both in real life and on the internet—the better.
It’s also wise to enroll in singing and acting classes. “We’re used to using our bodies to convey emotions,” says Shaffer. “But it’s no longer just about the kick-ball-change.”
“I make four times as much money on commercial jobs as I did when I was in a company,” says Shaffer. The major variable is that with a company contract comes a steady paycheck, plus benefits, while on commercial gigs, you may get one huge check, but you have to make it last until your next job. If you work on a television show or in a movie, however, you can expect residuals. “You can go to the mailbox and have a check for a movie you did two years ago,” says Shaffer. “It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”
To be honest, we never tire of watching non-dancers tackle a day in the life of the pros. From athletes to average Joes, these videos always give us a good laugh, and they remind the rest of the world that a whole lot of work goes into every dance performance you see. But often times, these dancer-for-a-day videos don't fully understand the importance of training (i.e., you can't just throw on a pair of pointe shoes and give it a go).
That's why we're especially loving this video by Refinery29 that actually gets it. Lucie Fink, host of the R29 YouTube series Lucie For Hire , got a private lesson from American Ballet Theatre principal Isabella Boylston, and it was endlessly entertaining.
"So why did you quit?"
It's a question I've been asked hundreds of times since I stopped dancing over a decade ago. My answer has changed over the years as my own understanding of what lead me to walk away from greatest love of my life has become clearer.
"I had some injures," I would mutter nervously for the first few years. This seemed like the answer people understood most. Then it became, "I was just not very happy." Finally, as I passed into my 30s, I began telling the uncomfortable truth: "I quit dancing because of untreated depression."
We'd love to know what it is that has Pina Bausch, Rudolf Nureyev and Gerard Violette so amused, or what Toer van Schayk (far right) is thinking here, but one thing's for certain: We're terribly envious of the journalist (second from right) who got to be there when this shot was taken in 1986.
It's the end of a long rehearsal day for the dancers of Abraham.In.Motion. They're reviewing phrases of a new work, Dearest Home. It's a pretty typical rehearsal scene. Some dancers cluster around a laptop trying to piece together steps learned long ago. Others review choreography together, working to figure out who remembered which arms correctly.
What isn't typical: The company's director and choreographer, Kyle Abraham, is nowhere to be seen.
That's because while the company is based in New York City full-time, Abraham spends most of his year teaching at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he joined the faculty last September. It's an unconventional model for a single-choreographer–led troupe, almost functioning like a repertory company in which choreographers drop in for a week to set a piece, leaving it up to the rehearsal directors and dancers to keep the momentum going.
La Scala Ballet has a knack for snagging exceptional guest artists, and the company's rare West Coast appearance this weekend at Segerstrom Center for the Arts is no exception. Principal dancer étoile Roberto Bolle will partner both Misty Copeland and Marianela Nuñez in Giselle. And in an extra international twist, they'll be accompanied by the Mikhailovsky Orchestra for the engagement. July 28–30. scfta.org.
Serious dancers interested in musical theater face a difficult choice when applying to college: Should you major in dance or musical theater? "You can make a career following either pathway," says Lynne Formato, associate professor of performing arts at Elon University. If you choose to go the musical theater route, find a program that will challenge your dance technique: