Britt Stewart already had a full dance career before "Dancing with the Stars" came calling. Growing up, the Colorado native had trained in just about every style except for ballroom, landing a spot in Disney's High School Musical at 15 after she met one of the movie's choreographers, Bonnie Story, at New York City Dance Alliance.
Soon, Stewart was appearing on television shows and touring the world for artists like Katy Perry and nationally with Demi Lovato. "I like to say that 'Dancing with the Stars' is the cherry on top of my dance career," Stewart says. "It came at a time when I had just gotten off of tour with Katy Perry. I was with her for three years, and I loved it, but I was really craving something new."
While in a dance rehearsal, Stewart was invited to audition to become a troupe member (the performers who used to serve as the show's backup dancers) on "Dancing with the Stars"' 23rd season, which aired in 2016. "When I got on the troupe, I had had no formal ballroom training, so I learned during my first season," says Stewart. "After that, I ended up competing on my own because I just really wanted to dive into the world of ballroom."
Though troupe dancers are no longer part of the show, Stewart was eventually invited to audition for a coveted spot as one of the show's dancing pros for Season 28. The audition process included choreographing cha-cha and Viennese waltz routines, taking part in an on-camera interview and teaching one nondancer a short dance sequence. But Stewart wasn't invited to join the pros—at least not right away.
Then, ahead of the show's 29th (and current) season, Stewart got the call she never expected. "It was a shock," she recalls. Now, she's the first Black female pro on the show in its 15-year history.
Kelsey McNeal, Courtesy ABC
"I know that now I'm in a position where there are little Black girls and Black boys—anybody who thinks that they are a little bit different in a group—seeing that it's possible, and it can happen for them too," she says.
With Johnny Weir as her partner, Stewart and the former Olympic figure skater have been rehearsing four hours each day since the end of August—work that's made easier thanks to the pair's "instant connection," she says, and fan support. "I think when something like this happens, you automatically assume that your support will be from the Black demographic," Stewart says. "And there has been a lot of support in my own community, but what's really surprised me is it's everybody. I've had a really diverse support group—dancers, nondancers, people from all walks of life—and that's inspiring too.
Stewart is quick to note that "Dancing with the Stars" has always had a diverse celebrity cast, and instead points to ballroom specifically and the larger dance community as the real issue when it comes to a lack of diversity. "When I started competing in ballroom, I was one of maybe two Black people in the room," says Stewart.
"I really think that here in America, there are underserved communities that just don't have access to certain things for many different reasons," she adds. "Ballroom is really expensive—it's an expensive art, it's an expensive sport. I think it's also really hard for dancers to break molds and to step out of what they are typecasted for."
But Stewart is already looking to change that. The 31-year-old is currently developing her own nonprofit organization, Share The Movement, which aims to support children of color both financially and emotionally.
"Representation is something that I was already really passionate about before 'Dancing with the Stars,'" Stewart says. "I have hope because I really believe it's changing," she adds, citing dancers like Misty Copeland, who's helped to push for more inclusivity. "Now it's a conversation, and it's something that can be worked on."