Career

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.

Typecasting Truths

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.

Network Strategically

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.”

The Payoff

“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.” 

Ashley Wallen's choreography brought The Greatest Showman to life. (Photo by Niko Tavernise, courtesy Twentieth Century Fox)

The 2018 Oscar noms are here. Which is fun and all; we'll never not get excited about a night of glitz and glamor and, when we're lucky, pretty great dancing. But we'd be a heck of a lot more excited if the Academy Awards included a Best Choreography category. And really—why don't they?

Last year, La La Land's Oscars domination (FOURTEEN nominations) made the fact that Mandy Moore couldn't be recognized for her fantastic choreo—a huge, indisputable part of the film's success—seem especially cruel. This year, it feels weird not to recognize the dance contributions of Ashley Wallen (The Greatest Showman), Anthony Van Laast (Beauty and the Beast), and Aurélie Dupont (Leap!), to name just a few.

Read the full story at dancespirit.com.

Photo by Nicol Vizioli, Courtesy 14–18 NOW

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Breaking Stereotypes
Ash in Rochester, NY. PC Thaler Photography by Arleen and Daryl Thaler for the Swan Dreams Project

Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.

"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org

In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

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