Danielle Polanco: From screen to the Broadway revival of West Side Story

Does the girl on these pages look familiar to you? You might recognize her from Omarion’s “Touch” video; or from Step Up 2: The Streets, in which she played Missy Serrano; or from a slew of Beyoncé and Janet Jackson videos.

 

But if you don’t know who Danielle Polanco is yet, don’t worry—you will. This month, the half-Puerto Rican, half-Dominican 23-year-old from the Bronx makes her Broadway debut in a somewhat serendipitous fashion: She’s playing Consuela, the bleached blonde, America-loving Shark (her favorite role) in the much-anticipated revival of West Side Story (her favorite show)—despite having never been in a musical before!

 

Gorgeous as she is, Danielle is a bit of a clown, with a goofy, pseudo-tough girl energy, and a loud, warm laugh. She started dancing at age 4 at her local studio in the Bronx, NY, and attended MS 180, a performing arts middle school, where she studied ballet and jazz. In the sixth grade, she joined K-Company, a dance troupe from the Kips Bay Boys and Girls Club (whose alumni include none other than Jennifer Lopez), where she learned salsa, hip hop and West African. Plus, she spent two middle-school summers at Ballet Hispanico, studying flamenco, ballet, pointe, Horton, modern and mime. “I learned early on that versatility is really important,” she says. “I picked up everything like a sponge. I wanted to breakdance! I wanted to do pointe! I wanted to do everything!”

 

She went on to high school at the Professional Performing Arts School (whose alumni include Danny Tidwell and Afra Hines), where she took academic classes in the morning and was bussed over to Alvin Ailey studios in the afternoon. After dancing with BFA students from Fordham University there, Danielle decided she was ready for a professional career.

 

She soon scored her first real job—performing with Beyoncé at the Video Music Awards—at 17. “I showed up at the audition wearing Jordans, baggy pants, a bra with a fishnet top and red lipstick,” she says, laughing. “It was a mess! All the girls were wearing heels, but I didn’t know! When they asked me for my resumé, I said, ‘Oh I forgot,’ but I didn’t have one!” Nonetheless, she blew everyone away and was hired.

 

Since then, almost every gig has been followed by a period of joblessness in which she eagerly sought out master teachers in a range of styles. “If I see something I like, nothing’s going to stop me,” she says. “I’m going to learn it.” After the VMAs, she studied popping, locking and waving, and immersed herself in the voguing scene, which she credits for bulking up her confidence: “When I started to vogue, I found out who I was as a dancer and a freestyler,” she explains. “People have so much fear—they’re afraid to take it there. Once I started voguing, it made me want to try more things and challenge myself even more.” (She eventually became a member of the House of Ninja. For more info on this incredible troupe, check out the July/August 2008 DS!)

 

In her late teens and early 20s, Danielle danced in several movies (Idlewild and Bolden!, which is set for a 2010 release) and was cast in the aforementioned “Touch” video. This led to more gigs with Beyoncé, including choreographing the videos for “Suga Mama” and “Green Light,” and to work with Janet Jackson. But while co-choreographing “So Excited” for Jackson was cool, L.A. was not: “To be around Janet was amazing, but that time was really depressing,” Danielle says. “I was homesick. I was alone. The job wasn’t satisfying to the point where I forgot about everything else.”

 

Last summer, back in NYC, after the excitement of Step Up 2: The Streets had dwindled, Danielle went through a down phase. “I asked myself, ‘Where do I want to go after this movie?’” she recalls. “I don’t want to dance behind people for the rest of my life. I’m not knocking anyone for wanting to do that—I wanted to do that and I did it—but it wasn’t fulfilling anymore. I was ready for a change of pace.”

 

At the time, she was hearing rumors about a West Side Story revival, and walked around the city singing “When You’re a Jet.” Then last July, she got a call from the show's assistant choreographer Lori Werner, who remembered Danielle from the Beyoncé tryout. “She asked me to audition. When I got the message, I started shaking,” Danielle says. Despite having only been to five ballet classes since high school, she brushed up her technique, prepared her song (“A Boy Like That”) and got ready to audition.

 

“You’re always looking for someone who has the right body type, facility and length, but you’re also looking for someone that you can’t take your eyes off of,” says West Side choreographer Joey McKneely. “And Danielle just exuded that ability immediately. We were like, ‘Who is that?’” After only two auditions, she was cast as Consuela, “a standout with personality” says McKneely.

 

Her classical technique may not be quite on par with that of the other Shark girls’, but McKneely explains that Danielle’s years of hip-hop training and Puerto Rican heritage give her tremendous authenticity in the role: “She’s so organic to what our needs are because she’s Puerto Rican, and she’s got a lot of street credit,” he says.

 

Danielle couldn’t be happier to be working with writer/director Arthur Laurents (“He’s unreal,” she says. “91 and still kickin’ it, old school.”), Joey McKneely and the talented cast. “It’s been sort of boring these last couple of years,” she says. “Now it’s like I’m going to school for the first time. I’m going to remember this for the rest of my life.”

 

McKneely agrees that performing on Broadway will be great for Danielle’s career: “I think this experience is forcing her to be more disciplined. It’s going to open up a great many opportunities,” he says. “I see her as a very young Rosie Perez in a way. She has the potential to be a star.”

 

Photo: Eduardo Patino

Dance News
Photo by Jayme Thornton

Harper Watters is a ballet dancer for today's generation. A social media maestro and a charismatic performer, the Houston Ballet soloist is equally at home in front of the camera hosting his hit YouTube series, "The Pre Show"; interacting with fans on his crazy-popular Instagram account; or showing off his beautiful classical technique onstage. It's a multifaceted identity that's proven to be invaluable to his career—and it's taking him to places he never even dreamed of.

Keep reading... Show less
Ashley Wallen's choreography brought The Greatest Showman to life. (Photo by Niko Tavernise, courtesy Twentieth Century Fox)

The 2018 Oscar noms are here. Which is fun and all; we'll never not get excited about a night of glitz and glamor and, when we're lucky, pretty great dancing. But we'd be a heck of a lot more excited if the Academy Awards included a Best Choreography category. And really—why don't they?

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Screenshot via YouTube

Look out, 'cause here they come!

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer
Ballet BC's Alexis Fletcher says experimenting with structured improv can make you more comfortable with risk. (Michael Slobodian, courtesy Ballet BC)

The dancers who take our breath away are the risk-takers, the ones who appear completely fearless onstage. "When you see somebody trying to travel more, go farther, push the limits of their physical abilities, that's always going to be inspiring," says Ballet BC dancer Alexis Fletcher.

But dance training can feel like it's in conflict with that idea. We spend thousands of hours in the studio trying to do steps perfectly, and that pursuit of perfection can make us anxious about taking risks. What if we fail? What if we fall?

Luckily, fearlessness is a mental skill that you can work on, just as you work on your technique. Here's how you can learn to push yourself past your limits.

Keep reading... Show less
Via @maudiepooh on Instagram

Maud Arnold is one of the busiest tap dancers on the planet. As a member of the Syncopated Ladies, Maud—along with her big sis and fellow tapper Chloé Arnold—is on constantly the road for performances, workshops, and master classes. For the average person, that kind of schedule could lead to a serious derailment of healthy habits. But Maud's far from average. Here's how the fit, fierce, flawless tap star stays stage-ready—no matter what time zone she finds herself in.

Keep reading... Show less

Leap! National Dance Competition offers dancers of all skill levels an opportunity to showcase their talents in an event where the focus is on fun and competing is just a bonus!

Keep reading... Show less

Future Star winner Basia Rhoden (courtesy Starpower)

The second round of 2017 Future Star winners showcases more dancers with singular talent and ability. We're thrilled to celebrate their success!

Keep reading... Show less
Erin Baiano

If you're in need of a piece that's both trendy and sophisticated, look no further than this Só Dança crop top. Featuring elegant long sleeves, a high neckline, and a delicate lace trim, it's both classic and contemporary—perfect for everything from that big audition to a long night in the studio. Enter below for your chance to win it!

Keep reading... Show less
Trending-posts
Juneau Dance Theatre student Anna McDowell filming an audition video with Bridget Lujan (courtesy Juneau Dance Theatre)

Auditioning for summer intensives in person may be the ideal—but for Anna McDowell, a 16-year-old student at Juneau Dance Theatre in Juneau, AK, it's rarely possible. “Living in Alaska, it's difficult to travel to auditions," she says. “It gets way too expensive!" Instead, each year, with help from her teachers and a videographer, she puts together a well-crafted video and submits it to schools around the country. Last year, her high-quality video helped her earn acceptance to nearly every program she applied for. Most summer intensive programs, eager to attract students from far and wide, will accept video auditions from those who can't travel to take class. But major schools look at hundreds of submissions each year, which means video auditioners have just a few minutes—or even seconds—to make a great impression. If you're about to create an audition video, follow these tips from the professionals to put your best digital foot forward.

Keep reading... Show less
Christopher Perricelli leading class at Gus Giordano Dance School (courtesy Amy Giordano)

There are zillions of things to think about when choosing a summer program, but here's one you might not have considered: using an intensive as an opportunity to focus on a new style. Maybe you're a tap dancer who's ready to see where else your rhythm and quick feet can serve you, or a contemporary dancer curious about the more traditional roots of your genre. A summer program can be the perfect place to broaden your horizons, giving you the opportunity to make technical and artistic changes that stick throughout the year.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Want to Be on Our Cover?

covermodelsearch-image

Video

Sponsored

mailbox

Get Dance Spirit in your inbox

Sponsored