The Road to "Glee"
Once you spot Heather Morris on the hit TV show “Glee,” you’ll sit on the edge of your couch anxiously awaiting her every scene. As the unintentionally hilarious airhead Brittany, Heather delivers priceless one-liners with deadpan seriousness.
“Brittany can figure certain things out, like cheerleading and performing, because those are her passions,” says Heather. “But she doesn’t pay attention to anything else!”
Heather nails this obtuse character so perfectly that it’s hard to believe she’s a dancer first and an actress second. “Heather has incredible comedic timing,” says “Glee” choreographer Zach Woodlee. Plus, she has the kind of charisma that catches the audience’s attention. As a result, the 23-year-old is now finding out what it means to be famous.
Sweet Home, Arizona
Heather didn’t start out with an acting career in mind. Born in Thousand Oaks, CA, and raised in Scottsdale, AZ, she grew up around dance. Her two older sisters took lessons and Heather’s mom put her into classes as soon as she could walk.
Choreographer Brian Friedman remembers when Heather came to his school, The Dance Source, at the age of 7. “The first time she took my class, I thought, She’s a star,” says Friedman. “I put her with the 9 to 11 year olds and she danced circles around every one of them.”
Heather threw her heart into her dancing. She took jazz, tap, ballet, hip hop and tumbling. Plus, she says, “I attended every competition and convention possible!”
But more than winning any medal or title, one tragic event made a major impact on Heather’s life: Her father died of cancer when she was just 14. His death still motivates her today. “I do everything for my dad,” Heather says. “I wish he were here to experience this with me now.”
The City of Angels Beckons
After high school, Heather enrolled at Arizona State University. But after a year, the lure of auditioning for “So You Think You Can Dance” Season 2 drew her to L.A. Although she didn’t make it onto the show, she fell in love with the idea of a Hollywood dance career. “I said, that’s it, I’m moving to L.A.” And she never looked back.
“I worked my butt off all day, every day,” Heather says. She landed her first gig within two months, and soon she was dancing in fashion shows and at local clubs. Heather hit the big time when she booked a 2007 world tour with Beyoncé (and later became one of her “Single Ladies,” performing with the singer on “Saturday Night Live” and the “Today Show”). But a major turning point in her career came when she nabbed a tiny role in 2008 in Fired Up—a movie Zach Woodlee was choreographing.
“Heather came in as a double for a tumbling part,” Woodlee says. But she was so impressive that he added her into more scenes. “Once you work with Heather you don’t want to stop,” he says. “Her work ethic is unparalleled, and everyone loves her.” After the film wrapped, Woodlee started bringing her in to assist him on other projects, including episodes of “Eli Stone” and “Swingtown,” and the movie Bedtime Stories.
Then, Woodlee was hired to work as the choreographer on a new show that was creating a lot of buzz in the industry: “Glee.” Heather had just turned down a second tour with Beyoncé when she got a call from Woodlee. He wanted Heather to teach the “Single Ladies” dance to Chris Colfer, who plays Kurt, for an episode they were preparing to shoot. A week later she was cast as Brittany. “I didn’t even read for it!” she says.
Being on “Glee”
“Working on ‘Glee’ is the coolest, most fun thing ever,” Heather says. But it is work. Between rehearsals, filming, and a live tour, it’s a full-time job and then some. Cast members have to memorize lyrics and choreography—and then there’s the acting! Heather has to simultaneously recall her character’s back-story and her blocking.
But being a dancer gives Heather a leg up. “I have an easier time with things like spacing and movement,” she says. “As a dancer you’re aware of what’s around you.”
Woodlee adds: “Dancers have a different sort of discipline. Heather’s first response is always, ‘Yes, I can do that.’ ”
With the show garnering so much attention, Heather is finding herself in the spotlight more than ever before. “It’s weird,” she says. “People want to do things for me, like drive me around in a golf cart. I’m like, I can walk—I’m a dancer! But it’s awesome how much positive attention we get.”
But no matter how successful Heather becomes as an actress, she says she’ll always think of herself as a dancer first. She still goes to class—not just because it’s her job, but because it’s fun. Friedman sees a future in which Heather uses both of her talents: “Keeping dance in your back pocket and using it as a secret weapon is incredible,” he says. “I think Heather should follow in J.Lo’s footsteps.”
And how lucky are we that we get to watch?
Birthday: February 1, 1987
Most played on her iPod: The entire album xx by The xx
Favorite movie: Atonement
Favorite dance movie: Moulin Rouge!
Must-see TV show: “‘Glee’... duh! And ‘Modern Family.’ ”
Favorite food: Guacamole and chips
Favorite dance class: Jazz Funk and Hip Hop with teachers like Tovaris Wilson or Lee Daniel. “There’s no pressure to be good. It’s all about how it makes you feel.”
Who would play you in a movie? “Me!”
Dream dance job: Being a lead in a film like Dirty Dancing, Moulin Rouge! or Nine
Dance crush: Tony Testa. “He’s a dreamboat and one heck of a talented dancer/choreographer/director all in one!”
Advice for DS readers: “Work hard and make sure you’re doing what you love. Take constructive criticism, but don’t
listen to haters.”
Dream co-star: Dakota Fanning
It’s a small Arizona world: Growing up, Heather lived next door to Brian Friedman and she danced with Lauren Gottlieb in high school. Plus Brooke Lipton, the assistant choreographer on “Glee,” went to Heather’s dance studio!
Much of Janelle Ginestra's career has been about helping others shine. She's dedicated herself to supporting and cheerleading her partner, WilldaBeast Adams; the emerging talents in their dance company, ImmaBEAST; and the countless dancers she inspires at master classes and conventions. Her YouTube channel has become a launching pad for young talents like "Fraternal Twins" Larsen Thompson and Taylor Hatala, thanks to viral videos featuring Ginestra's creative vision.
But Ginestra's a skyrocketing success in her own right—an in-demand choreographer, a social media influencer, and a dance entrepreneur, building a legacy one eight-count at a time. It's time for her turn in the spotlight. And she's more than ready. "I want to be a legend in whatever I do," she says. We'd argue that she already is.
Almost a month out, Puerto Rico continues to suffer the devastating aftereffects of Hurricane Maria. Many of the island's residents still lack power, clean water, and safe housing. Ballet classes? For Puerto Rican dance students, they must feel like an impossible luxury.
But a dance studio in Florida is working to allow a group of young Puerto Ricans to continue their training. And it needs your help.
Yes, I am a dancer, and yes, I am fat.
There's nothing quite as soul-crushing as the reactions I've received when I've told people I dance. They can range from disbelief to confusion to shock. To many people, it's somehow incomprehensible that a plus-size person like myself could grace a stage. While the body-positive movement has been trucking along at full force over the past few years, it hasn't made much progress in the dance community yet. In fact, the words "body positivity" and "dance" are almost never used together in the same sentence.
Despite that fact, dance is what helped me learn to love my larger frame. In honor of National Body Confidence Day, I wanted to talk about my first time in a studio, and about the tremendous progress I've made since.
If you've ever seen a Janelle Ginestra class video, you know how lit her combos are. What you don't see in those clips is how devoted Ginestra is to her students. We went behind the scenes at one of her sold-out IMMA SPACE classes to see Ginestra in her element, mentoring some of L.A.'s most talented dancers. It was an inspiration feedback loop.
All photos by Joe Toreno.
In our "Dear Katie" series, former NYCB soloist Kathryn Morgan answers your pressing dance questions. Have something you want to ask Katie? Email email@example.com for a chance to be featured!
I love ballet, and I've been told that I have a lot of potential. I can see myself dancing professionally one day. But I'm also working toward my black belt in karate—and I'm passionate about that, too. How can I keep up my technique while also making time for the other things I love? Is that even possible?
What do you get when you combine a Beyoncé anthem, fierce girls from all over the world, and choreography by legends like Ellenore Scott and Lamar Lee? You get the epic music video below. The viral video features little girls who live everywhere from Tanzania to Washington D.C. dancing and lip-syncing to Queen Bey's song "Freedom," and the result is electrifying. These littles can dance—and they bring a determination and enthusiasm to their movement that's truly inspiring.