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Every ballet dancer knows the time, sweat, and occasional tears the art form demands. But many non-dancers are clueless about just how much work a ballet dancer puts into perfecting his or her dancing. So when the mainstream crowd recognizes our crazy work ethic, we'll accept the round of applause any way it comes—even if it comes via four men in tutus. Yep, we're talking about "The Try Guys Try Ballet" video.

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We may live all over the world and study different styles, but there are (at least) eight things that we can all relate to:

  1. We're not Hermione with her time-turner, but we come close: "So you dance 15 hours a week and take 3 Advanced Placement classes and compete every weekend and assistant-teach at your studio and make honor roll?" Yep.
  2. We can always get one. more. loop. out of our hair elastic.
  3. IT'S NOT CALLED PRACTICE! Say it with us: Rehearsal.
  4. An empty studio holds infinite possibility.
  5. A moment not spent stretching or doing self-massage is a moment wasted.
  6. We really wish we could make it to your birthday party/that concert/prom but we just can't. We have dance.
  7. We will verbally take down anyone who suggests dance is easy.
  8. Finally hitting the stage is the best feeling in the world.

 

(Dancers at the Houston Ballet Academy, including Cover Model Search finalist Tatiana Melendez!)

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Photo by Joe Toreno

The stars aligned back in 2013, when two young dancers walked into Tricia Miranda's class at International Dance Academy in Hollywood. Kaycee Rice, then 10, and Gabe De Guzman, then 12, plowed their way through an intricate hip-hop combo to Rihanna's "Right Now," showing dancers twice their age what it means to go full-out. Miranda, one of the industry's most sought-after choreographers, was captivated. "I remember thinking, 'Wow, these kids are aliens,' " Miranda says. "It's so rare to find a student who's mastered both performance and technique, and here I had two."

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(L to R) Ashley Everett, Hajiba Fahmy, Sarah Burns and Hannah Douglass (photos by Erin Baiano)

A year from now, many people won’t be able to tell you who played in that important football game on February 3, 2013. They won’t remember the first downs, the second downs or the touchdowns. What will they remember? Beyoncé, who absolutely threw down for her much-anticipated Super Bowl halftime show performance.

For 13 minutes that Sunday night, the superstar celebrated her greatest hits, bringing the roaring crowd at the Mercedez-Benz Superdome in New Orleans—plus 108 million home viewers—into Beyoncé nation. The Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers may have come to play at the 2013 Super Bowl, but Beyoncé was the night’s true victor.

That groundbreaking performance was all about girl power. Beyoncé and her team of more than 100 “single ladies” plowed their way into the stadium and showed the world that women can be sexy and classy at the same time—not to mention showstoppingly talented. And for eight of those lucky women, performing at the big game was the beginning of something even bigger: the sold-out, nearly 50-city The Mrs. Carter Show World Tour with Queen Bey herself.

Kimmie Gipson (photo by Erin Baiano)

“Dance for You”

When hundreds of dancers showed up in NYC, L.A., Atlanta and Chicago to audition for a spot on the Super Bowl stage, they were actually trying out for a much longer gig as well. “This year’s tour audition process was the Super Bowl,” says longtime Beyoncé choreographer Frank Gatson Jr. “We saw 800 girls and once we got down to 100, we paid close attention to who was professional and magical. Beyoncé was very clear on who to pick for the tour—she means business. She’s hands-on and she wants her dancers to shine like stars.”

“Countdown”

In the weeks leading up to the tour’s April 15 kickoff in Serbia, the dancers were in rehearsals daily, typically beginning at 9 am and lasting “until…” says Kimmie Gipson, who has been dancing with Beyoncé since her 2009 I Am…World Tour. Gatson and fellow choreographers JaQuel Knight and Chris Grant led the rehearsals; most days Beyoncé joined the dancers as well. “The whole rehearsal period was a lot,” says Sarah Burns, who joined the Beyoncé team in 2012. “Emotionally, physically, mentally—it was very stressful.” During rehearsals, the eight dancers were required to wear all black, and if Beyoncé was in the room, they also had to wear heels.

For Ashley Everett—one of the original “Single Ladies”—the rehearsal demands are no longer shocking, but that doesn’t mean the process has gotten any easier. “Don’t let the hair flips, heels and booty shaking confuse you,” she says. “Beyoncé’s choreography is very diverse—we do it all.” Ashley has been Beyoncé’s dance captain since 2009. “I have to know all the choreography, counts and timing,” she says. “I pay attention to every detail.”

Of course, attention to detail can be difficult when you’re learning choreography alongside the queen of pop. “The first time I met Beyoncé was the day after I auditioned for her tour in 2009,” says Kimmie. “She came in bright and early to rehearse ‘Naughty Girl’ with us. Everybody stood so far away from her, giving her so much space. She looked at us like, ‘Guys, I don’t bite!’ That day I began to see her work ethic firsthand. She was right there with us trying to get the steps.”

Ashley Everett (photo by Erin Baiano)

“Irreplaceable”

With so few female dancers accompanying Beyoncé onstage during this tour, it was crucial that the casting team pick eight girls perfectly suited for the job. Of course they had to be talented, and of course they had to be able to master that branded “Single Ladies” ring-finger point and Beyoncé stomp-walk-strut. But The Mrs. Carter Show women come from a wide variety of backgrounds. There’s Ashley, the master of all styles who trained at The Juilliard School, Complexions Contemporary Ballet, the School of American Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem School and American Ballet Theatre and then went on to become a Radio City Rockette. There’s Hajiba Fahmy from Paris, who boasts a contemporary dance background as a former member of Jean-Claude Gallotta’s company. And there’s Kimmie, who worked at McDonald’s (“It taught me how to remain calm in stressful situations,” she says) before going on to join the Philadelphia 76ers dance team. The Beyoncé “camp,” as the dancers call the group, hails from California, Australia and everywhere in between.

What brings the multifaceted group together is the carefully crafted choreography. A total of seven choreographers worked on The Mrs. Carter Show tour, but Gatson, Knight and Grant handle the bulk of the work. “We show Beyoncé at least four versions of each song,” Gatson says. “She wants options to choose from because she’s done all kinds of dance, from ballet to tap.” (When Gatson and Knight were choreographing “Single Ladies [Put A Ring On It],” they spent three weeks on the choreography and created 10 versions of the number.) In the end, Beyoncé makes the final decision about what she likes or dislikes. “She wants to have fun dancing onstage for two hours, so she has to love all of it. She wants to do everything the correct way—the best way. She doesn’t want watered-down choreography,” Gatson says. “She has such respect for dance. And she will do almost anything as long as she remains a lady. She has class with everything she does, even a booty shake. She knows technique will keep your movement classy. When you mix ballet with street movement, you get the Beyoncé brand. We call it country fried chicken with hot sauce.”

 “Once in a Lifetime”

When rehearsals are done and it’s time for the show to hit the road, the work really begins. It can be a tough adjustment for the dancers. “You’re in and out of hotels and airports,” says Kimmie, who takes her zebra-print Snuggie on tour with her so she has “something familiar” on the road. “The hardest thing about tour life for me is the lack of rest,” Ashley says. “Aside from doing the show five times a week, I want to sightsee, teach, shop, go out, eat and experience the world. We do all that and then perform and jump on a tour bus to drive all night to the next city—and we keep doing it over and over again. It can be draining.”

Despite the sore feet, muscle aches and exhaustion, each of the eight girls makes one thing clear: This is their dream job, and it’s all worth it when they’re onstage in front of thousands of screaming fans. “I love those moments onstage when we make eye contact and connect with each other—the band, the audience and Beyoncé,” Kimmie says. Adds Ashley: “I’m doing what I love night after night. I’m living my biggest dream.”

(L to R) Amandy Fernandez, Tanesha "KSYN" Cason, Kim Gingras and Kimmie Gipson (photos by Erin Baiano)

MEET THE LADIES

Ashley Everett (Dance Captain)

24; Chico, CA

First Beyoncé job: The Beyoncé Experience tour, 2007

On being one of the original “Single Ladies”:

“I get recognized, and it’s so weird when I do. I’m like, ‘Really? You were paying attention to me?’ ”

Hajiba Fahmy

24; Paris, France

First Beyoncé job: A commercial filmed earlier this year

On the best part of working with Beyoncé: “She does everything well. Dancing, singing…she’s like nobody else. You have to be a woman before you’re a dancer in order to work with her. You have to know your essence.”

Sarah Burns

26; Perth, Australia

First Beyoncé job: “Revel Presents: Beyoncé Live,” 2012

On how she scored it: “I was living in L.A., went to an open audition and got the call from my agent that I had booked the job. Everything I’ve done with Beyoncé since then has been a direct booking.”

Hannah Douglass

25; Austin, TX

First Beyoncé job: “Revel Presents: Beyoncé Live,” 2012

On rehearsals: “You have to be ready for anything at any time. There are so many elements—the band, the dancers, the stage—and you don’t always have every piece of the puzzle at once. Your job is to be on your game and master your field.”

Amandy Fernandez

29; NYC

First Beyoncé job: “Run the World (Girls)” music video, 2011

On getting to know Beyoncé: “I helped workshop for the ‘Revel’ show [Beyoncé’s first performance  after giving birth to baby Blue Ivy] with Beyoncé and two other dancers. It was just the four of us, so I got to do a lot of dancing with her. She’s a sweetheart. She’s down-to-earth and really nice.”

Tanesha “KSYN” Cason

29; Bronx, NY

First Beyoncé job: The 2009 MTV Video Music Awards

On her favorite Beyoncé routine: “ ‘Diva.’ It’s the perfect blend of hood and sexy choreography with a bit of acting.”

Kim Gingras

27; Montreal, Canada

First Beyoncé job: The 2013 Super Bowl halftime show

How she got the job: “When I saw Beyoncé’s ad about the Super Bowl show, I said, ‘This is it.’ I’m a strong believer in positive thinking and visualization. I listened to her songs over and over and pictured myself with her onstage.”

Kimmie Gipson

29; Plainfield, NJ

First Beyoncé job: I Am…World Tour, 2009

On taking the stage each night: “I anticipate the moment when the lights go out and everybody starts to yell. It sends chills all through my body and my nerves turn to excitement. We all hear it onstage, we all feel it, and then we’re like, ‘Let’s do it.’ It’s so powerful.”

Larry (left) and Laurent Bourgeois (by Erin Baiano)

Larry and Laurent Bourgeois—known in the dance industry as “Les Twins”—are easily recognizable by their big hair, chiseled jawlines and so-far-out-there style. They wear their pants backward and topped with kneepads down around their ankles, and rock enough bling, bracelets and accessories to arm an entire competition team. The youngest of 18 siblings, these 24-year-old French party boys don’t seem to take anything too seriously—and that includes their dancing. “I just freestyle,” Laurent says. “I have no talent.” Though Les Twins don’t boast a resumé filled with training credits—they’re self-taught hip hoppers—the “no talent” point is worth arguing against if you’ve seen them in action.

Beyoncé would certainly stand against Laurent’s claim: According to her choreographer since 1997, Frank Gatson Jr., it was Beyoncé herself who spotted the twins and told Gatson to bring them onto the team. “Beyoncé is a monster,” Laurent says. “That’s her name—I call her that all the time. I give her power when I don’t have any power left.” Larry and Laurent danced alongside Beyoncé at the Billboard Music Awards in 2011 and now they’ll join her on The Mrs. Carter Show World Tour as the only male dancers. “I want to bring everything onto the stage. I want to sleep on the stage,” Larry says. “I just want to go out there and kill the stage.”

Alexia Meyer performing her title-winning solo at New York City Dance Alliance Nationals in 2012 (photos courtesy NYCDA)

For years, Alexia Meyer struggled with comparing herself to other dancers. “I would feel confident going into a competition, but as soon as I saw other dancers’ abilities, I would second-guess what I was capable of,” says Alexia, who just graduated high school. “My self-consciousness definitely hurt my performance. When I wasn’t confident, I couldn’t dance 100 percent.” Alexia consistently placed among the top dancers at competitions, but never won at Nationals.

Then her studio, The Dance Club in Orem, UT, brought in performance psychology consultant Justin Su’a, who counsels elite athletes (including a few Olympians) and artists such as “Dancing with the Stars” pro Chelsie Hightower on improving mental skills for physical performance. Su’a led three group sessions at TDC. “He talked a lot about managing stress and fear, and getting rid of self-doubt,” says TDC co-owner Allison Thornton. “All of our dancers were excited to try the techniques he offered, but Alexia really took his advice to heart.” After the team sessions, Alexia kept meeting with Su’a one-on-one—and his advice worked. At 2012 Nationals, Alexia overcame her confidence issues and was named New York City Dance Alliance’s Senior Female Outstanding Dancer.

How could a sports psychologist’s methods improve your own performance? Here are five strategies you can take from the field, the pool and the rink to the studio and the stage.

Stop Negative Self-Talk

“Anytime you’re being judged on your performance, it’s easy to beat yourself up,” Su’a says. The first steps in silencing the inner voice telling you you’ll never be good enough are recognizing the thought and realizing you don’t have to listen. “People think, If I have this thought, it must be true,” he explains. “Believing that negative inner voice can lead to a physiological response that affects your performance.”

Alexia getting her start at NYCDA

Turn the tables by thinking about what you want to be saying to yourself before a performance or competition. For example, Su’a helped Alexia come up with “power statements” to repeat when she starts doubting herself or questioning her capabilities. “I say things like, ‘I’m here to dance, and that’s all I care about,’ ” Alexia says.

Use Imagery

Have you ever heard an athlete use the phrase “Be the ball”? Just as a soccer player might visualize the ball sailing past the goalie and into the net, dancers can visualize what they hope to do onstage. Picturing what you want to happen—rather than what you don’t, like falling or messing up—can help you relax and let your training take over.

Dr. Kate Hays, a performance psychologist who works with athletes and dancers, uses both realistic and metaphorical imagery with her clients. “For Swan Lake,” she explains, “realistic imagery would focus on the music and envisioning particular steps. Metaphorical imagery would be thinking about ‘swan-ness’—being a swan rather than being a dancer.” Try both types of imagery to see what resonates with you.

Breathe Through the Nerves

“Nerves aren’t bad—they’re your body’s way of telling you it’s show time,” Su’a says. However, if your nerves affect your breathing, your performance can falter. “When your breathing becomes erratic in a high-stress situation, carbon dioxide gets trapped in your muscles and you get stiff,” Su’a says. Slowing down your breathing can stop the cycle.

Alexia demonstrating during NYCDA convention classes. After winning the Senior Outstanding Dancer title at Nationals in 2012, Alexia began traveling with NYCDA as an assistant.

Hays teaches dancers and athletes a technique called diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing. To try it, put both hands on your stomach, middle fingers touching, and breathe in. Your fingers should separate at the depth of the inhale, showing that you’re fully engaging your diaphragm, and your middle fingers should come back together on the exhale. You can also curl up on the floor in yoga’s child’s pose and feel the inhale expanding your back, just below your ribs. Breathing like this for several minutes can help you regulate tension and calm down.

Create a “Pre-game Ritual”

Athletes use pre-game rituals as a way to get into the competitive mindset, and you can do the same before performances. “There are a lot of uncontrollable factors about performing, and a pre-show routine can help you feel in control,” Su’a says.

Hays adds, “What helps you feel most ready to be onstage? Do that, while avoiding things you know psych you out.” You might need to be surrounded by friends, or be alone. You might do a set warm-up backstage before every show, or listen to a specific song over and over. Whatever it is, establish a routine and stick to it.

Remember Your Motivation

Whether you’re hoping to dance with American Ballet Theatre or you want to play in the NBA, staying motivated is important. “Do you dance to win trophies, or because you love it?” Su’a asks. “It’s easy to lose motivation if you forget why you do what you do. If you reconnect with your purpose, you can be more effective in your behavior.”

For Alexia, thinking about her motivation for dancing helped her relax in stressful situations. “I remembered that I dance for myself and not for others,” she says. “I can’t let outside influences hurt my motivation for dancing.”

Change doesn’t often happen overnight. “Mental skills, like physical ones, take time to develop and practice,” Su’a says. But if you’re willing to train your mind just like you train your physical body, you can look forward to major benefits.

There's nothing we love more than a dancer who goes beyond the classroom to give back. And Kyle Hanagami's doing just that. You probably know him as the smooth-moving, super-cute hip-hop choreographer. (Remember this video?!) Well, now we're seeing a different side of him. After a recent injury sidelined him, he started thinking beyond dance and decided he wanted to make a difference in the world by raising money for cancer research.

Kyle started out by donating all of the proceeds from one of his classes to the cause—and the studio matched the amount. Inspired, he decided to take it one step further and give everyone else a chance to get involved. Enter, letters of love. Here's how you can help:

1. Write a love letter. Talk about any kind of love and decorate it however you'd like.

2. Send it:

P.O. Box 6339

North Hollywood, CA 91603

USA

3. For every 10 letters Kyle receives, he'll donate another dollar of his own money to cancer research.

Watch Kyle talk about the whole process here:

So easy, so awesome. Now, grab some paper and get writing! Together, we can be dancers who make a difference.

It's no secret we loved Beyoncé's Super Bowl halftime show. So naturally, we were dying to know more about the making of the production. We caught up with Just For Kix designer Alexandra Clough—who performed in the "Single Ladies" number and designed the leotards the dancers wore!—to get a behind the scenes look at the performance.

Five things you didn't know about the fiercest Super Bowl halftime ever:

1. "There were 74 dancers onstage during the "Single Ladies" number." 30 were Bey's dancers and 44 were dancers (mostly local New Orleans girls) who auditioned and scored a coveted spot.

2. "Beyoncé rehearses full-out. What you saw on TV was the same performance quality we saw in every practice." Okay, so maybe this isn't too surprising, but it makes sense: Kill it in rehearsal, perform it like a boss.

3. "Beyoncé is not a diva." Sure, she's got enough talent and star power to justify major diva status, but Alexandra says she was "very humble and down to earth."

4. "The whole cast only rehearsed together 5 times." Three of the practices were full dress rehearsals with everyone (including all of the fans that ran onto the field to their set places). Fun fact: It took 500 stage crew members to get the set on and off the field!

5. "The leotards I designed had a special pocket in the back for our radios and headphones." That's right, every dancer onstage wore ear pieces so they could clearly hear the music and dance together without fear of echoes or getting off count.

And no, Alexandra didn't get to meet baby Blue Ivy. (Of course, I asked.) She did, however, spot Jay-Z after the performance when they all posed for pics.

Now for a special treat. Check out this awesome vid of Bey and her dancer rehearsing for the big performance:

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