Dancer to Dancer

Strength In Numbers: The Payoffs of Being an Ensemble Dancer

Mishay Petronelli onstage in Janet Jackson's Unbreakable world tour (Solaiman Fazel, courtesy Petronelli)

In 2015, Mishay Petronelli was one of nine dancers to book a spot on Janet Jackson's Unbreakable world tour. After a grueling audition process, the group learned iconic choreography, traveled and performed with one of the greatest pop divas of all time.

“It was my dream job," says Petronelli. “Not only was it crazy to be onstage with Janet, but I also never expected our group to become such a unit, too. We called ourselves the 'J Tribe.' "

When you train so intensively to stand out in a crowd, getting cast as one in a large group can feel like a blow. But, as Petronelli, who's also performed in groups on “Lip Sync Battle" and “Saturday Night Live," will say, the payoffs can be pretty great, too. And while few ensemble gigs seem as glamorous as being a member of the prestigious J Tribe, they all come with a few similarities. For one, being in an ensemble isn't easy: It requires an extraordinary amount of precision, teamwork and stamina. Whether you're backing up Jackson's iconic “Black Cat," working it second from the right in a world-famous kick-line, or shielding Odette in a line of white swans, your presence onstage can mean just as much as the artist's in front. Read on to find out how and why dancing in an ensemble can be so rewarding.

Improve Your Technique

While being one of two dozen Wilis in Act II of Giselle may not seem too challenging, Houston Ballet's Natalie Varnum disagrees: “Don't let standing on the side fool you," she says. “It might look simple, but it requires extreme focus and precision." Corps members might not always get to perform the most virtuosic steps, but that meticulous attention to detail—an exact tilt of the head, or an arm placement on a specific count—can be a boon for a dancer's artistry. “Paying attention to these little things has really refined my dancing," says Varnum, who, as a seven-year corps member, regularly steps into soloist roles. “Having danced as a snowflake in our production of The Nutcracker for so long, I felt like I had an extra edge when I was given the opportunity to finally do Snow Queen," she continues. “The sets, lighting and formations were all familiar, so I was able to focus on performing my new role and getting into character."

Make Connections

Being part of a group can also improve your ability to connect with others onstage. While most roles often require dancers to rely on their peripheral vision to ensure they're in the right spot at the right time, sometimes, says Paul Taylor Dance Company's Sean Mahoney, “it's OK to really look at each other. When we're all dancing together, there's a sense of community onstage—unity. It's less about showmanship and more about what we're doing as a group." This kind of work doesn't go unnoticed: Audiences often recognize and appreciate a group of dancers who can move as one and look like they enjoy doing it. And for a dancer, the opportunity to make those connections can improve partnering and storytelling—all traits that will help in a future soloist role, too.

Addison Ector takes center stage in Dwight Rhoden's Strum with Complexions Contemporary Ballet (courtesy Complexions Contemporary Ballet)

Stand Out While Blending In

Dancing in an ensemble doesn't always mean you have to relinquish your artistic individuality. Complexions Contemporary Ballet's Addison Ector loves how the troupe's 15 members have varied dance backgrounds and how that can shine through the choreography. “Sometimes, we have the freedom onstage to smile and let our personalities out, even though we're all doing the same thing," he says.

Petronelli loves the opportunity to learn from her colleagues in an ensemble. Jackson's tour group, for example, was all female, but the dancers shared little else in common. “We were such individuals, and were all able to give something unique," Petronelli says, noting that performing with the crew was a constant source of inspiration. “It made me want to push myself further as an artist."

Build Relationships

Emma Love Suddarth, who joined Pacific Northwest Ballet's corps de ballet in 2009, loves the atmosphere in her theater dressing room. “There's no place like it," she says. “The laughs, the tears. We're all in the same boat and support each other through everything." If a PNB program doesn't require much corps work, the dancers actually miss it, says Suddarth. “It's about the dynamic, that dependability. We spend 90 percent of our time together, and there's comfort in that." Even if you're ultimately setting your sights on star status, don't diminish the value of a group experience. “Dancing in an ensemble is about learning to function well with other people," says Suddarth. “Embrace it, because you won't get that experience elsewhere."

We bet Tate McRae would love these. (Photos by Erin Baiano)

What's better than a good dance joke? They're corny, they're punny, and they're exactly what you need to get you through long Nutcracker days. These 10 jokes are guaranteed to put a smile on your face—no matter how much your feet are hurting.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer
Photo by Joe Toreno

Some might say Charlize Glass' fame kicked off with a single three-letter word. In 2014, Beyoncé shared a video of the then–12-year-old dancer performing to "Yoncé" on Instagram, along with a simple caption: "WOW!"

But by that point, the hip-hop mini had already performed at the MTV Video Music Awards and on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," and won first runner-up with her crew, 8 Flavahz, on "America's Best Dance Crew." And her Queen Bey Insta shout-out wasn't even the pinnacle of her tween career: She earned a spot on The PULSE On Tour as an Elite Protégé for the 2014–2015 season, and performed with Missy Elliott at the Super Bowl XLIX Halftime Show in 2015.

These days, the 16-year-old spends her time touring the country as Brian Friedman's assistant at Radix Dance Convention and blowing up YouTube and Instagram with her class-video cameos. And while the Char Char we fell in love with was a hip-hop cutie pie, the more mature artist we see today is sure to rock the dance world for years to come.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Photo by Erin Baiano

You're obsessed with class videos. We're obsessed with class videos. The passion, energy, and talent showcased in these clips, which give us an insider-y peek at the commercial dance world's hottest classes, are totally irresistible.

But at what point does the phenomenon go from being a good thing to a bad thing for dancers and the dance world? Is the focus on filming distracting from the work dancers are supposed to be doing in class? Are overproduced videos presenting a dangerously misleading picture of the dance world? Is the pressure to be a class video star becoming too much for dancers to handle? These are some of the questions A-list dancer and choreographer Ian Eastwood—no stranger to the class video himself—has been asking on Twitter. And they've sparked a lively, important debate.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer

Getting corrections from our dance instructors is how we grow, and as students, it's important that we do our best to apply every correction right away. But sometimes—whether it's because we're in physical pain, or have a lot on our minds, or are just not paying attention—those corrections don't sink in. And from a teacher's standpoint, giving the same corrections time and time again gets old very fast. Here are 10 important corrections dance teachers are tired of giving. Take them to heart!

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer
Lex and Taylor in Mia Michaels' "You Matter To Me" (photo by Adam Rose, courtesy Fox)

"So you Think You Can Dance" Season 14 finalists Lex Ishimoto and Taylor Sieve shocked fans at home (at least the ones who hadn't thoroughly scoured their respective Instagrams) during Episode 14, when choreographer Mia Michaels asked if either of them had ever experienced "the kind of love that takes your breath away." They confessed that, yup, they had—with each other. The two met at The Dance Awards in the summer of 2016, where they were each named Senior Best Dancer, and went on to tour with the convention as assistants. Before long—and long before their "SYTYCD" journey—they became a couple.

Take a look at Dance Spirit's exclusive interview where they dish on everything from their favorite dates to the dance moves that give them all the feels.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Melina and Regina Willoughby (photo by Ashley Concannon)

There's a surprising twist to Regina Willoughby's last season with Columbia City Ballet: It's also her 18-year-old daughter Melina's first season with the company. Regina, 40, will retire from the stage in March, just as her daughter starts her own career as a trainee. But for this one season, they're sharing the stage together.

Read more at dancemagzine.com!

Watch This
National Ballet of Canada principal Svetlana Lunkina being amazing (via Instagram)

Yes, we all know dancers are strong. But sometimes it takes a truly epic workout video to remind us JUST HOW INSANELY STRONG they actually are.

Behold, National Ballet of Canada principal Svetlana Lunkina's oh-so-casual pre-class exercise:

Keep reading... Show less
Watch This
via YouTube

Beyoncé's choreographer + Beyoncé's dance captain + the greatest duets of our generation = dance video greatness. Yes, it may seem too good to be true, but the dance gods have gifted us with this very sequence—and it's the best thing we've seen in a long time.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer
Future Star winner Kaitlyn Chapa (photo by Rainbow Dance Media Center, courtesy Jennifer Chapa)

Dance Spirit is beyond excited to announce the first round of 2017 Future Star winners! Every year, DS partners with competitions to recognize dancers with exceptional presence and ability. The second round of winners will be featured in our January issue, so stay tuned!

Keep reading... Show less
Quiz

It's time for a tutu test! So many iconic ballets, so many beautiful tutus. Can you figure out which ballet each of these costumes comes from?

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Want to Be on Our Cover?

covermodelsearch-image

Video

Sponsored

mailbox

Get Dance Spirit in your inbox

Sponsored