Singing and dancing simultaneously can be daunting. Add the challenge of staying in character and you might have a recipe for disaster. If this sounds like your worst nightmare, take a breath. Dance Spirit asked a team of professionals to address the most common reservations aspiring triple threats have about performing challenging song and dance numbers, like “One,” from A Chorus Line, or “Seize the Day,” from Newsies.
Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music students in Peter Pan (photo by Mark Lyons, courtesy University of Cincinnati, College-Conservatory of Music)
How can I sing when I’m so focused on the choreography?
Doing so can feel like you’re trying to rub your belly and pat your head at the same time. One of the key elements is matching the singing to the movement, says Diane Lala, resident musical-theater choreographer at the University of Cincinnati, College-Conservatory of Music (CCM). “When my students learn the choreography, I tell them to say the lyrics while they move,” Lala says. “That way they can see how the two pieces fit together.” Choreographers often use movements to accent certain lyrics or musical phrases. Don’t be afraid to ask if you need help making connections to the vocals.
Sometimes, even just moving around as you sing can be helpful. Broadway performer Sarrah Strimel used this tactic when learning musical numbers in Christopher Wheeldon’s dance-heavy An American in Paris. “Our musical director had us walk around the room while practicing our parts,” she says. This is also a good challenge if you have trouble singing when you’re dancing next to someone in a different vocal part.
When I sing out, my movements get smaller. How can I dance full-out and sing loudly?
Bethany Elkin, a director and choreographer at NYC’s Marymount Manhattan College, advises students to focus on their breath, since both dancing and singing require lots of air. “When you’re rehearsing the movement, try to find as much breath as possible in your belly and lower back,” she says. Dancers often learn to take shallow breaths in their chests rather than thinking of the roundness of their breathing in the stomach and lower back.
Elkin counteracts this training in her morning dance classes. “During barre or a warm-up in center, I have my students focus on taking deep breaths that will help support their singing,” she says. Elkin also suggests doing plank exercises, imagining a string connecting the belly button and the spine, to help strengthen the muscles you need for singing.
If you’re not sure you’re breathing deeply enough while moving, “turn profile in the mirror and watch yourself breathe,” Strimel says. “Dancers tend to be afraid of disrupting their lines with a ‘large gut,’ but it’s more about allowing your diaphragm to release.” Strimel also suggests trying yoga classes to learn how to relax and breathe deeply while strengthening and stretching your muscles.
Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music students in Legally Blonde (photo by Mark Lyons, courtesy University of Cincinnati, College-Conservatory of Music)
The choreography is so fast—I keep losing my breath!
Breathing is especially challenging in high-energy ensemble numbers—like “Whipped into Shape,” from Legally Blonde, in which performers jump-rope and sing. In these cases, staggering your breathing is key. This means that performers take short breaths at different times, but there’s no audible break in the music. Ryan Blackson, a dance major at Marymount Manhattan, used this tool in a regional production of Cats. “I was constantly listening to the person next to me to hear if they were still singing so I could take a breath,” he recalls.
If you’re really gasping for air, hit the gym for a cardiovascular workout on an elliptical machine or a bike. Challenge yourself to sing or speak your lyrics while you’re working out to build stamina.
I have to think about singing so much, I can’t remember the choreography.
The more complicated a vocal harmony is, the more concentration it requires. Tap into your strength as a dancer and get the choreography into your muscle memory—then add the singing. Don’t get discouraged. “Learning to sing and dance together is building a skill, just like working on your turnout,” Strimel says. “It’s a muscle that you have to train.”
For that reason, don’t hold back. Strimel’s motto is to sing loud and proud so the vocal coach can correct her if she needs help. “I tell myself to ‘Sing out, Louise!’ ” she says, referencing the famous line from Gypsy. “If you’re wrong, you’re not going to be fired. In rehearsal, it’s always better to be strong and wrong than timid and right.”
You guys, dancing is hard. Why am I stating the obvious? Every once in a while, it's important to give yourself a good ol' pat on the back. You're overcoming the hard parts—the sacrifices, the discipline, the pressure—and working towards your dreams.
Whether you feel like you've been in a bit of a motivation slump lately, or you just need an extra boost to get over hump day, we've got just the thing. Two talented teens from Vocational Ballet College, NSW, in Wales just released an introductory video for their blog, M&M: Minnie and Maddie. In the video, Minnie and Maddie discuss the sacrifices they've made to accomplish their dance dreams. More importantly, they talk about what dancing gives back to them. It's pretty inspiring to hear them describe the communicative power of dance—the idea that dancing can serve as a kind of therapy as you go through the inevitable challenges of growing up. (P.S. These BFFLs remind us of another adorable dancing duo, Broadway besties Beth Johnson Nicely and Amanda Kloots-Larsen.)
And the fact that their discussion serves as a voice-over to delightfully artsy dance shots—pointe shoes abound!—certainly ups the video's motivation factor. Check it out!
Photography by Joe Toreno
Kathryn McCormick’s dance life seems pretty fairytale-esque: The 22-year-old native of Augusta, GA, was the top girl on “So You Think You Can Dance” Season 6, which earned her a gig on the Academy Awards. She later nabbed a recurring All-Star role on “SYTYCD,” and this past summer she made her big-screen debut as the leading lady in Step Up Revolution.
But despite the eventual successes, the beginning of McCormick’s life in L.A. was anything but a dream. Her first gig on the movie Fame turned out to be a bust, and it took a series of failed auditions before she finally won the hearts of the judges on “SYTYCD.” Still, she refused to give up on her dance dreams—and she told us why in this exclusive Q&A.
How did you get started dancing?
Kathryn McCormick: I started before I was even born—my mom danced while she was pregnant with me! A few years later, she opened a dance studio, The Dance Connection, in Georgia, and I started taking lessons there when I was three. Later, my mom closed the studio, so I switched to the studio she grew up at, Augusta West.
Eventually I got into competitions and conventions. I remember taking class from [Step Up Revolution co-star] Misha Gabriel and thinking, “He’s so hot!” After graduation, I traveled as a Tremaine Dance Convention apprentice.
At what point did you decide you wanted to make dance a career?
KM: When I turned 18 I didn’t even know if I was capable of dancing professionally because I didn’t know anyone who’d done it. I decided not to go to college, which was hard. But I didn’t want to waste that time when I could be pursuing something I really wanted to do. It was a leap of faith, but I wanted to dance.
How did your parents feel about your decision?
KM: They were supportive. My mom had wanted to dance professionally but didn’t because she had kids so young. My dad had gotten close to becoming a pro golfer, but he had to support our family, so he went into the cable industry. My parents wanted me to pursue my dreams since they didn’t get to pursue theirs.
What did you do to get closer to your dream?
KM: I decided to train at a ballet school and teach at my studio to save money to get to L.A. I knew my technique wasn’t strong enough—there was so much I didn’t know about my body that I needed from ballet. I was the oddball in class with a ponytail and tan tights.
When did you get your big break?
KM: Keith Clifton, a choreographer I’d met doing competitions, offered to recommend me to his dance agency, McDonald/Selznick Associates in L.A. I didn’t even know what a dance agent was!
I met with them and they gave me a contract right away. I didn’t realize it was going to be the beginning of something huge. Two weeks later, I got an audition for Fame.
Very appropriate! Did you book it?
KM: I booked a gig as one of 30 featured dancers, which meant I had to move to L.A. for four months. My first week in L.A., I found out they’d cast too many dancers, and I was only going to have one day of work. I hung up the phone so discouraged. I had no friends, no car and no reason for being there.
How did you deal with that disappointment?
KM: I started riding the bus to EDGE Performing Arts Center every day, taking as many classes as I could in hip hop and other styles in which I didn’t have much experience. But I didn’t book any jobs for six months, so I did extra work on movies like Couples Retreat while my family continued to help me financially.
Perseverance seems to be a recurring theme in your dance journey—you auditioned for “SYTYCD” three times before you made it.
KM: The first time, I went with a group to audition for Season 5 just for fun. When I got in front of the executive producers, I was a mess. I got cut right away. Then my mom invited me to join her on a trip to Denver, adding, “By the way, ‘SYTYCD’ is having an audition while we’re there. You should try again.” This time, I got further and danced for the judges. When I got cut, I never thought I’d audition again.
What changed your mind?
KM: A few months later, my mom convinced me to audition for Season 6. When I got on the floor, the music kept messing up. I remember standing on my mark and getting so anxious. I told myself, “Don’t do this. Get out of your head.” I said a prayer, and when I opened my eyes, the music came on. After I danced, the producer said, “We want to see more of that!”
You made the show and got paired with Jonathan “Legacy” Perez. What was your reaction?
KM: My first thought was, “Oh no, he’s a B-boy. We’re so different.” But I couldn’t have asked for a greater partner. He changed me as a performer. I used to be so technical—
I didn’t like to freestyle. Legacy taught me to let the moment take over. He’d do things like throw his keys at me to try to get me to react spontaneously. He’d say, “I’m going to press play and you’re going to dance.” I was so uncomfortable. Finally, when I let myself go and freestyled, he was in tears. He showed me how to trust myself.
And then you came back to rock it as an All-Star.
KM: I didn’t expect to be the last Season 6 girl standing. After the show, I auditioned for Burlesque and was cut right away, which was humbling. So when “SYTYCD” asked me to be an All-Star, that blew my mind.
How does being an All-Star differ from competing?
KM: People think you must not be nervous anymore. Not true! As an All-Star, the pressure’s on: You have to be confident to support your partner. It’s about learning to be selfless in your dancing, which is a different mindset, but it’s just as challenging.
When did you get word of the Step Up Revolution role?
KM: In July 2011 my agent said they wanted me to audition for the role of Emily. I went in and hit it off with the casting director, and then I met with the director and producers. It’s a different energy than a dance audition—all eyes are on you in this tiny shoebox. I left feeling like I didn’t get the part, but ended up getting a callback where I had to pair up with the male lead, Ryan Guzman.
What was the final audition like?
KM: There were just two chairs and some cameras, and we had to do a scene while they shot different angles and tested our chemistry. Before Ryan and I went in, I was shaking, but once we got inside, everything clicked. We had a moment, and I felt so connected to Ryan and so comfortable.
How did you find out you got the part?
KM: Two days later, I got a call from [director] Scott Speer, Adam Shankman and Jen Gibgot on three-way. Scott was like, “Hey, I wanted to thank you for coming out. We appreciated your time. I’m sorry, but…you got the role of Emily!” He tricked me and I was speechless.
I freaked out. Auditioning alone was conquering a fear—I never even thought about actually getting the part.
KM: Two days after I found out, I texted Scott asking, “What do I do now?” I thought you had to memorize the whole script right away! He told me to eat healthy and get in the best shape possible. I thought, “That’s it?” But when he said the 3-D could be unforgiving, I put on my running shoes and ran around the block!
What were rehearsals like?
KM: The first month was dance training, from 9 to 5 every day. The mob would be in a room with Ryan, then Ryan would run over and do a duet with me, and then I’d go back and learn mob choreography. It was crazy having so much time to learn something. It allowed me to dive into the character more.
Which scene was the most real for you?
KM: When Emily is doing her final audition and it’s supposed to be a duet but winds up being a solo. Emily’s not always 100 percent in her dancing, so I had to let myself wobble or fall, which was hard with my perfectionist mentality. [Choreographer] Travis Wall would say, “No, that’s too spot-on. You have to mess up.” I needed to have that insecurity because that’s how Emily was feeling.
What was it like seeing yourself on the big screen?
KM: The first time I saw the movie I was with Ryan, Misha and Scott. My heart was pounding. I didn’t let myself be critical—I was just like, “I’m going to enjoy this.”
Is acting part of your career plan now?
KM: The film definitely pushed me in a new direction. I’m dancing and taking acting classes and trying to do it all. Along with being a “SYTYCD” All-Star again, I just did a music video for a group called Vienne to bring awareness to human trafficking, and I have a few more projects in the works. I’m trying to train so I’ll be ready for whatever comes next.
KATHRYN'S CO-STARS DISH
Stacey Tookey (“SYTYCD” choreographer and friend): “Kathryn is always at the top of my list when I’m looking for a dancer or assistant. She’s completely invested in whatever she’s doing—a quality I don’t often find in young dancers. She’s the perfect mix of passion, talent and beautiful spirit—you could say
she’s my muse.”
Jonathan “Legacy” Perez (“SYTYCD” partner): “We carried each other into the Top 10—as soon as I saw she was my partner, I was like, ‘Let’s go all the way.’ She looks ahead and doesn’t let anything discourage her.”
Misha Gabriel (Step Up Revolution co-star): “I was completely inspired by Kathryn’s work ethic on set. She pushed everyone around her to become better. Even though her technique is exquisite, Kathryn works at it like she doesn’t have it yet. Watching her dance in the film is mind-blowing.”
From the time I was a child until my last year of college, dance consumed me. I scheduled my life around technique classes, rehearsals, costume fittings and performances—and I loved it. I couldn't fathom a day when I wouldn't perform anymore.
But here I am, sitting at a desk, not having danced on a stage in almost three years.
It's funny, when I look back on my last performance—a Nappytabs-choreographed hip-hop routine at a college basketball game—I realize that I had no intention of that being my final performance. I knew I was moving to NYC to start and internship with Dance Spirit, but it was NEW YORK CITY! Of course I would continue to perform.
But I haven't.
I still love taking class at Broadway Dance Center and Steps, but it's just that—class. So, my questions to you is, how do you know when you're done performing? Do you plan your final performance knowing that you'll never perform again? Or does it just kind of happen?
I do know one thing: Dance will always be a part of me. Nothing can replace the feeling of being "home" that floods over me every time I put on my dance clothes and step into an empty studio. I may never perform again (although I'm still not convinced!), but I will continue to dance—in my teeny-tiny apartment, in the office, at the studio, down the aisles at the grocery store— and I'll never stop.