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8 Movie Stars Who Were Dancers First

Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire in Band Wagon, 1953

It seems like more Hollywood actresses are taking on the physical challenges of action movies. For both Zoe Saldana, starring in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and Charlize Theron, the bombshell in The Fate of the Furious, previous dance training has been a plus.

Saldana has said that she felt her ballet background helped her get her breakout role in Avatar. "I thank god for something like ballet, which gave that space for me to be by myself and find peace," she said recently in an interview with The New York Times. "Ballet was my meditation, my therapy, my escape, my answer."

Zoe Saldana as Eva in Center Stage (2000)


For Theron, her high school years were spent training at the Joffrey School in New York until a knee injury made her rethink her career. In her more athletic movie roles, that training kicked in. "As a former ballerina, Charlize brings all that physicality, and a special awareness and discipline and sense of valuation of her character through gestures," said George Miller, director of Mad Max: Fury Road.

Charlize Theron

That got me to thinking of other movie stars who trained intensively, some of them hoping to dance professionally. They each have a special elegance, an aura that marks them as dancers first. Here's a partial list:

Neve Campbell

• Neve Campbell, who studied at the National Ballet School of Canada from age 9 to 15, starred in the fictional movie The Company (2004) about the Joffrey Ballet. About her training, she told SF Gate, "It was my life and my introduction to the arts." But with her, too, injury forced her to turn to acting.

• Claire Danes took lessons with master teacher Ellen Robbins in New York from the age of 6 to 14. Robbins' approach is to focus on creativity, which helped build a foundation for Danes' work in Hollywood. In Showtime's Homeland, she plays a bi-polar expert at solving intrigue.

• Sarah Jessica Parker, star of Sex and the City, studied at the School of American Ballet. She is the New York City Ballet board member who came up with the brilliant idea of making NYCB's annual fall gala a hub of collaborations between choreographers and fashion designers.

And of course, there are those stars of Hollywood's Golden Age that we can't get enough of: Audrey Hepburn, Cyd Charisse and Leslie Caron.

• Audrey Hepburn trained with Marie Rambert in London in the late 40s and performed the lead in Gigi on Broadway in 1951. In this 1952 film, Secret People, her youthful, unpolished talent is on full display. And then in 1953, she hit it big in Funny Face as Fred Astaire's gamin model and love interest—the same year she did Roman Holiday, a huge non-dancing hit. Her ballet ability ensured the effervescence of her dance numbers in Funny Face as well as her regal bearing in Roman Holiday.

• Cyd Charisse started lessons at the age of 6 and danced in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. In one of her early films, The Harvey Girls (1946), she played a dreamy ingenue who breaks into a lyrical solo steeped in romantic feeling. Later she played a vixen whose allure for Gene Kelly in An American in Paris (1951) and Fred Astaire in Band Wagon (1953) is legend.

Leslie Caron, MGM

• Leslie Caron danced since childhood in France. Gene Kelly spotted her with Roland Petit's company, Ballet des Champs Elysées, cast her in An American in Paris (1951), and the rest is history.

Tero Saarinen's Morphed. Photo by Darya Popova, Courtesy Helene Davis Public Relations

Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.


PC Break the Floor

Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.

"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."

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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.

Training
Sylvie Guillem, via 1843magazine.com

Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.

But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.

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Dance in Pop Culture
Roberto Bolle and Kenall Jenner on set. Photo via tods.com

I'll never forget something Roberto Bolle once told me when I was interviewing him about his workout regimen: Talking about how much he loved to swim, he said, "I would love to go in the Italian sea, but I am too well-known there to show up in my suit."

It always amused and kinda shocked me that a ballet dancer could reach that level of fame. But it's true: In his native Italy, Bolle is a bonafide celerity.

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Training
Anne Arundel Community College students, PC Kenneth Harriford

Everyone knows that community college is an affordable option if a four-year school isn't in the cards. But it can also be a solid foundation for a career in the dance field. Whether students want an associate in arts degree as a precursor to obtaining a bachelor's, or to go straight into the performing world, the right two-year dance program can be a uniquely supportive place to train. Don't let negative stereotypes prevent you from attending a program that could be right for you:

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Dancers & Companies
Joan Marcus

Conscientious theatergoers may be familiar with The School for Scandal, The School for Wives and School of Rock. But how many are also aware of the school of Fosse?

The 1999 musical, a posthumous exploration of the choreographic career of Bob Fosse, ran for 1,093 performances, winning four Tonys and 10 nominations; employing 32 dancers; and, completely unintentionally, nurturing a generation of Broadway choreographers. You may have heard of them: Andy Blankenbuehler and Sergio Trujillo danced in the original cast, Josh Rhodes was a swing, and Christopher Gattelli replaced Trujillo when he landed choreography jobs in Massachusetts and Canada. Blankenbuehler remembers that when Trujillo left, "It was as if he was graduating."

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Dancers & Companies
From left, Ethel Merman, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Debbie Allen. All Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

January 16 might as well be a Broadway holiday. Three gigantic names were born on this day, in 1908, 1950 and 1980, and they represent three distinct eras of powerhouse musicals. Without them, there'd be no belting Reno Sweeney, no "Fame"-ous Lydia Grant and no rapping Alexander Hamilton. Happy birthday to these indelible superstars.

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News
When it comes to BodyVox, it's best to expect the unexpected. Photo by Lois Greenfield, Courtesy BodyVox

In the midst of its 20th-anniversary season, BodyVox is taking a moment to look back. The Portland, Oregon–based company presents Urban Meadow, an amalgamation of some of its most popular works, at Philadelphia's Prince Theater, Jan. 18–21. Expect whimsy, and the unexpected. bodyvox.com.

Advice for Dancers
A dance career can send you on a roller coaster of emotions, but evaluating reality can help give you perspective. Thinkstock.

I never believe that I deserve to be happy. This reaction kicked in big time since I got a steady job. My emotions are a roller coaster: joy at the chance to perform, terror that the people in charge don't like me and resentment at not getting solo roles. I'm driving myself crazy.

—Terry, Philadelphia, PA

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