The Pitfalls and Perks of Launching Your Career on a Reality Competition Show

August 29, 2022

Reality TV competitions have given dance a larger platform and inspired a new generation of young people to step into a studio. They’ve also launched some major careers—West Side Story Oscar winner Ariana DeBose got her start on Season 6 of “So You Think You Can Dance,” after all. Though “SYTYCD” is undeniably still the OG, shows like “World of Dance” and “Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls” have created similar career magic. We spoke with four familiar faces about their defining moments on- and off-camera—and got their best advice on carving out a meaningful career when the competition is over.

Making a Good Impression

A successful postshow career starts the minute you get cast—even if you don’t realize it in the moment. “There’s so much going on, and so much choreography to remember, that your mind isn’t even really in that place of making connections,” says Gino Cosculluela of his experience on Season 16 of “So You Think You Can Dance.” “You just hope that your personality in the rehearsal space and who you are in a time of stress and anxiety—which is exactly what ‘SYTYCD’ brings out—is likeable.”

“So You Think You Can Dance” contestants Sophie Pittman and Gino Cosculleuela perform a Broadway routine to “Down With Love” choreographed by Warren Carlyle. Photo by Adam Rose, Courtesy FOX.

For Cosculluela, working with choreographer Warren Carlyle during the competition ultimately led him to his current role as Tommy Djilas in the Tony-nominated Broadway revival of The Music Man, starring Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster. “Warren did one of my duets for top-6 week, and he came in and just gave us this overwhelmingly fast and energy-filled routine,” Cosculluela says. “He saw something in me that, at the time, I really didn’t even see in myself, and he reached out to me during our ‘SYTYCD’ tour to ask if I was interested in Broadway.” With Carlyle set to choreograph the revival, Cosculluela was invited to meet with the show’s director, and after a standard audition process, he was offered the role.

Just making it onto a competition series can help you land representation with an agency. “Most of the L.A. dance agents came to our tour on ‘SYTYCD,’ and that’s when they scoped us out,” says Hayley Erbert, who competed in Season 10. “We were really fortunate to have a lot of options, which is rare for a dancer in L.A. to have, so we got to kind of pick and choose who we felt most comfortable with and who we felt would really help us grow,” she adds.

After competing on “So You Think You Can Dance,” Gino Cosculluela was invited to audition for The Music Man. Courtesy DKC/O&M.

Managing Nerves

Preshow jitters are something every dancer learns to deal with, but when your performance is reaching millions of viewers, those nerves are amplified. Reality TV can be even more stressful if it’s your first experience dancing in front of a camera, as was the case for Madison Brown during Season 2 of “World of Dance.” “I was also the youngest solo dancer out of the group, so I was very nervous,” says Brown, who turned 13 during the show’s filming. “There was a cameraman on the stage, and they had a camera that circled around the bottom,” she says, adding that the two tech rehearsals were especially helpful. “I tried not to focus on the cameras too much, but it was definitely a big adjustment between that and having Jennifer Lopez, Derek Hough, Ne-Yo­ and the audience so visible and so close.”

Sydney Bell backstage at “Saturday Night Live.” Courtesy Bell.

For Sydney Bell, who was one of 13 plus-size dancers competing for a spot as a backup dancer on “Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls,” reminding herself why she wanted to be on the show helped her to feel more confident. “In that type of situation, you’re thinking so much, ‘This step is next, don’t mess up, be sharp here,’ so getting over the thought that everything had to be perfect was really difficult,”­ says Bell, who was a body-positivity influencer prior to being on the show. “I really wanted to dance professionally, but I didn’t see a lot of women that looked like me in media or dance, so I thought dance was over after college,” explains Bell, whose training included The Ailey School. “I really wanted to show representation and help the younger gener­ation to see that they can do this despite what they look like.”

The Importance of Social Media

Yes, you can expect a competition series to bring some new followers your way, but as Brown and Bell can attest, your social media presence can even help you land an audition in the first place. “ ‘World of Dance’ actually found me from videos online and reached out to me to audition for the show,” Brown shares. “I didn’t even know I really existed to the outside world,” she says with a laugh, adding that the two-month audition process included an in-person audition and several interviews over FaceTime. Similarly, Bell received a message on Instagram about submitting an application for “Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls” nearly a year after one of her videos on social media made its way to Lizzo.

Madison Brown performing on “World of Dance.” Courtesy NBC “World of Dance”

Post–reality TV, social media can be a great way to keep fans of the show updated on your next moves, but Bell cau­­tions that it doesn’t need to take over your life. “During filming, we were not allowed to have any electronics in the house, which was very hard for me since social media was my full-time job,” recalls Bell of the monthlong hiatus. “But, honestly, it taught me that that’s something I need. I felt so calm and relaxed, and you don’t realize how much of the world you actually see and how many genuine connections you can make when you aren’t on your phone,” explains Bell, who learned from Lizzo that it’s important to take social-media breaks.

Launching Your Dream Career

Despite proving her talent as a commercial dancer on “WOD,” Brown knew exactly where she wanted to be, and the show only helped to solidify that. “The reason why I love dance is the live performance with a big audience, and that euphoric feeling like there’s nothing else going on in the world at that moment. To have everything so closed off with filming was almost suffocating in a sense,” she says, adding that she had wanted to attend American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School even before being on the show. “ ‘World of Dance’ gave me a lot of confidence to not be nervous to try a different style, and I wouldn’t trade that experience, but I’ve always hoped for ABT Studio Company, and now that I’m a member, I hope that I can continue to dance with ABT because that is the dream for me.”

Hayley Erbert in Derek Hough: No Limit. Photo by Tanner Jackson, Courtesy Erbert.

But as Erbert points out, it’s okay if you haven’t mapped out your career goals yet. “I really had no idea what I was wanting to do. I was just super-excited to move to L.A. and audition for everything,” she says. While her introduction to ballroom came during “SYTYCD,” her ballroom career took off a few years later while working with superstar siblings Derek and Julianne Hough on their MOVE tour. “That’s where I started doing a little more ballroom because I ended up doing a rumba with Derek.” An executive producer on “Dancing with the Stars” caught a performance, asked Erbert to audition for the show, and the rest is history. (Erbert and Hough even recently announced­ their engagement.)

When dancers are debating if they should audition for a competition series, Erbert’s advice is to go for it and see what happens. “I wasn’t the most confident kid or teenager, and that was the biggest challenge for me. But if I hadn’t auditioned because I thought I wasn’t ready, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” says Erbert, who is dancing alongside fiancé Hough in his Las Vegas residency show, Derek Hough: No Limit. “Nobody is ever ready, so you just have to go for it and fake it until you become it.”

Hayley Erbert performing with Stephen “tWitch” Boss on “SYTYCD.” Photo by Adam Rose, Courtesy FOX.