Dance is famous for its ability to instill valuable life skills. But it can also be a conduit to so many other forms of artistic expression. And if you've ever watched the phenomenon that is "RuPaul's Drag Race," you've seen how interdisciplinary art can be—and how dance and the art of drag often work in harmony.
The show has made huge stars of its contestants, and among the most famous are those who trained in dance before they started drag. We spoke with four sickening "Drag Race" stars about how dance helped boost their careers in the direction of drag—and to eventual stardom.
Brooke Lynn Hytes
You might know drag artist Brooke Lynn Hytes from watching her compete—and dance on pointe—on season 11 of "RPDR." Or perhaps you know her as the main judge on the spinoff series, "Canada's Drag Race." But did you know Hytes had a full-fledged dance performance career before entering the world of drag?
"I found dance a little bit later in life," Hytes says, who took her first dance class in the eighth grade. "I noticed very quickly that I had a good facility for it." A year later, while attending a high school arts program, a friend asked Hytes to audition with her for a summer session at Canada's National Ballet School. "She didn't even show up to audition," Hytes remembers. But Hytes showed up—and made the cut.
She trained at the school from grades 10 through 12, and an additional two years after that, before moving to Germany to study at the School of the Hamburg Ballet. Just two weeks in, Hytes got a call from dance pioneer Rudi van Dantzig, who'd taken notice of her while teaching at Canada's National Ballet School. He was looking to see if she'd play a lead role in a ballet he was mounting in South Africa, and, later, Dantzig helped Hytes secure a full-time contract with Cape Town City Ballet. But after two years with the company, Hytes found the job wasn't fulfilling. "I just had no interest in doing a double cabriolet or all the male stuff," she says. "I wanted to be the tall, pretty girl."
Hytes moved to New York City to dance with Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, the all-male-presenting ballet troupe that performs on pointe, and in drag. "It was very freeing," she says. But having to be slapstick funny—a hallmark of the company—wasn't exactly her "thing." And at that point in her career, her passion for dance was withering.
So, after four seasons, she left the company to focus full-time on drag. But her dance past continued to play a role: "My dance career has taught me important life lessons and life skills, like the importance of working as a group and being professional, and being able to take criticism," Hytes says. "And those are all things that have served me very well in my drag career."
On the most recent season of "RPDR", contestant—and queen of throwing shade (#IFYKYK)—Rosé made a real name for herself. In fact, she clawed her way to the top four in the "Grand Finale" episode.
Rosé attributes her success on the show (and beyond) to her background in dance and musical theater. "In college, I started really forming better technique," Rosé says. "I was a part of several modern dance companies that toured the world through my university."
The theater training, in particular, boxed Rosé within traditional conceptions of gender. "I was going through a theatre program that, for the sake of working in the industry, was trying to shape my ability and form to be more masculine." But the dance classes she took allowed for the opposite: expression. "When I was a kid, dance was definitely a form of gender expression when I was confused about all of that," she says.
Years later, those experiences continue to show up in Rosé's high-octane, fully embodied drag. "Little things from ballet inform my posture—like how I walk and hold myself," the NYC-based entertainer says. "Dance has also given me an awareness of my body. And because drag is so physical in its nature, dance has contributed not just to the performance aspect of my drag, but to how I look and how I move in a drag."
Chicago-based drag artist Denali, who served as a cast member on the most recent season of "RPDR," says her drag is based "solely around my ability to move, perform, and dance." She developed her craft performing in nightlife scenes throughout the Windy City. "I was booked a lot as the 'high-energy performance girl,' and filled that spot in most shows, since Chicago has a lot of artsy, conceptual performers, but not a lot of stunt queens." (Stunt queens are known for their jaw-dropping, often acrobatic, tricks.)
Her time as a figure skater inspired her to take up dance. "As cross-training, we did a lot of ballet, jazz, and hip hop," she says. "But I gravitated more towards hip hop, and blended different styles on the ice." Being a figure skater also helped Denali understand that she didn't have to stick to traditional gender expressions. Dance, she says, reinforced that.
When asked which choreographers she dreams of working with, Denali names Parris Goebel (and The Royal Family). "She's leading the mainstream dance movement in all facets and truly creates some of the most intricate shapes and movement in her work," she says. "I would also love to work with Yanis Marshall, Spella, and Kiel Tutin."
These sources of inspiration—and the years of dance training that came before—have established a deep appreciation for what the art has given her. "I wouldn't be the drag artist I am now if it weren't for dance," she says.
Milan performing (Jess Eason, courtesy Milan)
For Season 4 queen Milan, their interest in dance began early—really early. "My mom says when she was pregnant with me that she'd go dancing, and I would kick in the womb," Milan says. But they fell in love with the art form watching the dance-heavy Emerald City sequence in The Wiz. Then, during their senior year of high school, Milan says, "I participated in show choir. A member offered to pick me up and take me to her ballet class at the Florence Ballet Academy."
While in college, Milan would be accepted to a summer intensive program at The Ailey School. "I loved studying at The Ailey School, but I also really wanted to showcase my acting and singing ability as well," they say. "So, I returned to college and completed my BA in Theater at the University of South Carolina." Such diversified training would not only propel Milan to the biggest platform for drag, but would also lead them to Broadway stages. Billed as Dwayne Cooper, they've been part of the Broadway casts of Motown The Musical and Hairspray.
Still, dance—above other art forms—is Milan's "happy place," they say. "It's where my freedom lives. And if you are thinking about parlaying your dance training into a drag career, do it! Don't limit your expression or abilities by staying in one lane. Drag can open doors you never thought of—and free you from the trappings of conforming to what others want you to be as a dancer."