From "High School Musical" to "Dancing with the Stars," Britt Stewart Can Conquer It All
A New York City subway car in the dead of summer 2005 was an unlikely setting for Britt Stewart to launch her career. But soon-to-be Emmy Award–winning choreographer Bonnie Story had spent the previous week quietly watching Stewart (then just 15 years old) compete at New York City Dance Alliance, and knew she was the perfect fit for Kenny Ortega’s next project, High School Musical. Taking advantage of the commute, Story approached Stewart and offered her the final female role in the Disney Channel movie. The hitch? It was slated to film in Salt Lake City the very next week.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Stewart says. “Embarrassingly, I didn’t know who Kenny Ortega was, and I had committed to assisting Brian Friedman at The PULSE on Tour and Broadway Dance Center for the following two weeks.” When she called Friedman to get his opinion, he responded emphatically, “You absolutely have to do it—Kenny Ortega gave me my start!” With his stamp of approval, she hopped on a flight, and her dance career was officially born.
Since then, Stewart has built a commercial resumé that looks more like a never-ending CVS receipt, and has seamlessly skated across genres to become the first Black female Pro in “Dancing with the Stars” history. Devouring space with her 5′ 5″ frame, her dancing is imbued with the bold, breezy confidence of someone who’s been in the game for more than 15 years. Whether sharp or smooth, quick or sustained, technical or groovy, Stewart can do it all. Still, she believes the crowning achievement of her career so far is in her decision to give back to the next generation of young dancers.
“Tap Was My First Love”
Although both of Stewart’s parents worked in business and were unfamiliar with the dance world, they put her in classes when she was 3 after a stranger at an outdoor music festival noticed Stewart moving to the music. “This may sound strange, but I think your daughter has a special talent for dance,” Stewart remembers the stranger said to her mother.
At the time, Stewart’s family was living in Seattle, and her training started with ballet and tap at a small, local school. “Tap was my first love,” she says. “I can still remember my teacher shutting off the lights and making us lay down and close our eyes while she did different steps. She would ask us to call out their names based on how they sounded. It really set my foundation for understanding rhythm.”
A couple years later, her family moved back to Colorado, where she’d been born. One of her teachers there, Jennifer Jarnot, saw that her talent for tap was putting her in a box that didn’t account for her full potential. She pushed Stewart to start taking private ballet lessons, and increase her focus on other styles.
“I haven’t been surprised to watch her adapt to so many different genres as a professional, because that’s who she was as a student,” says Jarnot, who adds that if there was a step or style Stewart was unfamiliar with, she would do whatever it took to learn it. “She was instantly full-out, no matter how comfortable she was with something. She never shrank to make others more comfortable, and she never cut corners.”
As her talent afforded her opportunities typically reserved for older dancers, Stewart faced some teasing and jealousy at the studio. “People would say things like ‘Britt, why do you have to show off?’ ” Stewart says. According to Jarnot, she would often shield Stewart from backhanded comments made by parents and dancers assuming Stewart’s success was tied to her race or personality. “She would come to me upset, saying she wasn’t trying to take attention, and I would tell her that the only reason dancers were being unkind was because they were threatened, and that she needed to embrace the attention she got, because it was coming from her technique and talent.”
Despite training rigorously at her competition studio, Artistic Fusion Dance Academy, as well as at Denver School of the Arts, Stewart wasn’t aiming for a professional career. “I really wanted to be a doctor,” Stewart says. “I didn’t put much pressure on myself in dance. I was dancing because I really loved it.”
Her Movie Debut
Stewart’s plans for a future in medicine were challenged by the six weeks she spent on the High School Musical set. The opportunity was her first major taste of a professional dance life, and she loved it. What’s more, a teen movie was the perfect prep school.
“Kenny is always teaching, even as he is directing,” Stewart says. “He knew he was working with kids, so he used the time to teach us about body language, listening to the director, and staying open.” Stewart, who identifies as an introvert, says she spent most of the experience quietly observing and soaking up information. “My shyness played to my advantage,” Stewart says. “One day Kenny even pointed me out as someone who is always paying attention.”
Though HSM took off as a massive phenomenon (equipped with sequels, stage musicals, books, comics, live shows, video games and a television series), Stewart’s parents and dance teachers wanted to keep her grounded. “It was like, ‘Oh that’s awesome that you did that, but you need to go do your homework,’ ” she says. Fortunately, Stewart’s enrollment at a performing arts high school gave her the freedom to travel and audition (and perform in HSM 2) while still having a semi-normal high school experience.
She enrolled at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, where she planned on double-majoring in dance and science, but halfway through her second semester, Ortega came calling for HSM 3. “I don’t like not finishing things,” Stewart says. “But it felt like God was presenting these opportunities with the door wide open to my dance life. So, I left school and got an agent.”
From there, Stewart was unstoppable. She performed in films including No Strings Attached, the 2009 remake of Fame and Teen Beach Movie. She booked shows such as “Glee,” “American Idol,” “The Voice.” She danced at the American Music Awards with Janet Jackson, and at the Super Bowl with Katy Perry (along with Perry’s Prismatic World Tour).
Then, at 23 years old, Stewart experienced a small lull in the pace of bookings. “For the first time I realized my life had no balance,” she says. Once dance became her primary focus and sole source of income, the stress caused burnout. Around the same time, Stewart was diagnosed with a chronic health condition, physical urticaria, which can present itself in hives when Stewart’s body temperature rises or falls. For a time, Stewart broke into hives after every class and rehearsal, and medication prescribed by an allergist stopped working.
She took a holistic approach to healing. “I remembered that when my life was about more than just dance, I was really happy, so I decided to switch things up and started taking acting classes,” she says. She also began paying attention to what lifestyle choices and foods impacted her histamine levels, and today she is rarely affected by her condition.
Breaking Into Ballroom
By 2016, Stewart realized she had checked most every commercial opportunity off her bucket list. “I started to think about what life would be like after dance,” she says. “I was craving something new.” She ended up finding what she was looking for in a different genre: ballroom. While she was rehearsing for Disneyland’s 60th-anniversary celebration, the producers of “Dancing with the Stars” saw her dance and asked her to audition for the “DWTS” Troupe, the group of professional dancers that used to perform on the show as an ensemble. Six months later she was on the show despite not having any previous ballroom training.
Stewart threw herself into her new job, training intensely and even competing in traditional ballroom competitions outside of the show. She fell in love with the variety of styles under the umbrella of ballroom (cha-cha, samba, rumba, etc.) and the fact that she could play with different characters each time she performed.
Even as an ensemble member, Stewart’s charisma drew the eye of audience members, and a change.org petition calling on ABC to promote Stewart to Pro began circulating on Twitter. “Make her a professional,” it read. “Give her celebrity partners…give her and other BIPOC [dancers]…the platform they deserve.”
By August 2020, Stewart’s talent and commitment led her to become the first Black female Pro in “DWTS” history. The fan support only intensified as the season commenced with ice skating partner Johnny Weir. The two hustled their way to the semifinal, and though it wasn’t enough to clinch that Mirrorball Trophy, they placed sixth in the competition and left with the fourth highest average score of the season.
“I hope I can inspire Black ballroom dancers to see that it really is accessible,” Stewart says, adding that ABC was supportive of her throughout the experience. “There were internal conversations about how I would be asked questions by the press, and that they wanted me to be prepared. Of course social media can also be the worst, and while there were a few negative things I saw, I felt really supported.”
Her promotion to Pro came with a high level of mainstream exposure, something Stewart hasn’t paid too much attention to. “I recently had dinner with a friend who said to me, ‘Britt, I don’t think you realize you’re on a major television show.’ It hasn’t changed much for me.” Still, encounters with starstruck fans have warmed her heart. At the Transcend Tour dance convention in Ogden, Utah, in February, a young dancer came up to a mask-clad Stewart and gushed to her about another woman named Britt who is on “DWTS.” “I told her I was the very same Britt, and her face was stunned,” Stewart says. “She couldn’t believe her dance teacher was the same person she watches on TV.”
Through her time on the show, Stewart has developed close relationships with her fellow dancers. “After every episode we sit down and talk about what happened, what went well and what went wrong,” Season 28 champion Alan Bersten says. “She is constantly wanting to improve.”
When it comes to Stewart’s performance, Bersten is most impressed by her expression. “She is a storyteller beyond just the dance steps—she has a lot of emotion,” he says. Bersten believes this quality is primarily tied to Stewart’s background in the commercial-dance industry, working with film and TV giants like Ortega and Mandy Moore, as well as her acting classes. “She brings something different to the show than anyone else does because of her knowledge outside of the ballroom.”
Today, Stewart continues to take on commercial gigs that fit within her “DWTS” schedule. “I’m really intentional with the dance work I take now,” she says. Recently, she danced in Being the Ricardos, an upcoming Aaron Sorkin film starring Nicole Kidman, and was a dance instructor to Academy Award–winning actress Octavia Spencer for her upcoming role in a new original musical film. She is also taking on choreography gigs like the Mayfair Supperclub at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, and hosting Dance The World events at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.
Stewart says she hopes to have another shot at that Mirrorball this season. “I absolutely want to continue on for many seasons to come,” she says.
Paying It Forward
During the summer of 2020, after the murder of George Floyd led to an eruption of protests for racial justice across the globe, Broadway dancer Daniel Gaymon and choreographer Kate Harpootlian were looking for ways to give back to a dance community struggling to meet the needs of its BIPOC artists. Gaymon got his start in dance when a dance teacher recognized his talent at an after-school program and encouraged him to join her studio, where Harpootlian also trained. A group of local donors helped fund his training, ultimately leading him to land a role in Hamilton on Broadway. Last year, Harpootlian, Gaymon and a group of artists developed a foundation to support promising BIPOC students, replicating Gaymon’s experience on a mass scale: Share the Movement.
Shortly after establishing their plan, Harpootlian asked Stewart to be president. “I’m so happy to be involved,” she says. The organization has already provided funding to a first wave of young students, offering scholarships to their preferred summer programs. Next year, the program will transition into a more complete support system that will cover the logistical costs of training (classes, dance competitions, costumes, dancewear, dance shoes, etc.).
“The studios will all be vetted to ensure there is a certain quality of dance training, and that they celebrate diversity,” Stewart says. “We never want to take a child within the BIPOC community and place them in an environment where they are the only one.”
Share the Movement will also offer inspirational support through its mentorship program in which professional artists like Stewart work one-on-one with students and families to guide them through their dance lives.
As president, Stewart ensures that all of the organization’s operations are aligned with its mission. The work tracks with the longtime focus of her life. “Since I was little my parents instilled in me the belief that as you receive, you also give,” she says. After a career overflowing with professional dance opportunities, Stewart is ready to invest in the next generation.