Lights, Camera, Action
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."
What happens during a performance is the product of the painstaking process of realizing an artistic vision. Whether held beforehand, afterward, offsite or online, audience discussions tend not to be so preordained, easily thrown off track without a skilled moderator at the helm.
"I'm someone who dreaded talkbacks and Q&As," admits Bill Bragin, former director of public programming at Lincoln Center. "While I was in New York, a lot of the time it was just audience members trying to show off how smart they were."
These events present a pile of difficult questions: How much do you reveal about a piece before it's shown? How can a conversation designed to hit key points feel casual and spontaneous? How do you cater to the needs of diverse attendees, from novice dancegoers to lifelong fans to scholars and critics? And how do you avoid smothering dance with language, flattening all its complexity?
If you think becoming a trainee or apprentice is the only path to gaining experience in a dance company environment, think again.
The University of Arizona, located in the heart of Tucson, acclimates dancers to the pace and rigor of company life while offering all the academic opportunities of a globally-ranked university. If you're looking to get a head-start on your professional dance career—or to just have a college experience that balances company-level training and repertory with rigorous academics—the University of Arizona's undergraduate and graduate programs have myriad opportunites to offer:
Yes, we realize it's only August. But we can't help but to already be musing about all the incredible dance happenings of 2019.
We're getting ready for our annual Readers' Choice feature, and we want to hear from you about the shows you can't stop thinking about, the dance videos that blew your mind and the artists you discovered this year who everyone should know about.
I dance to encourage others. The longer I dance, the more I see that much of my real work is to speak life-giving words to my fellow artists. This is a multidimensionally grueling profession. I count it a privilege to remind my colleagues of how they are bringing beauty into the world through their craft. I recently noticed significant artistic growth in a fellow dancer, and when I verbalized what I saw, he beamed. The impact of positive feedback is deeper than we realize.