A young Juliet Doherty performing as Clara in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular (Gene Schiavone, courtesy Doherty)

"My First Job": Six Dance Icons on the Gigs that Helped Them Break into the Industry

Nowadays, you know them today for their flawless work and enviable resumés. But today's industry heavy-hitters were once newbies hoping for their big breaks. A few of our idols took a trip down memory lane to look back on their first gigs—and how they changed everything.


Courtesy Kyle Hanagami

Kyle Hanagami

Sometimes, a career-defining moment boils down to finding yourself in the right place at the right time. For renowned choreographer Kyle Hanagami, that was L.A.'s Movement Lifestyle studio seven years ago. Hanagami took one of legendary dance couple Napoleon and Tabitha D'umo's classes, and afterward, the two pulled Hanagami aside and insisted he help them on their upcoming project: choreographing an "all-stars of K-pop" TV special. (Fun fact: The crew for that special was stacked with other up-and-comers, including Ian Eastwood and Brian Puspos.)

Fast forward to 2019, and Hanagami himself is making dances for plenty of international stars, with the likes of BlackPink and Jennifer Lopez on his resumé. But Hanagami credits that first group job with setting the tone for his collaborative career. "Napoleon and Tabatha taught me about moves, but they also taught me about everything else that it takes to be a choreographer," Hanagami says. "They have that kind of energy where it's like, 'Let's work together to make the best product'—there are no egos involved. It's about creating something that's bigger than ourselves."

Lee Gumbs Photography, courtesy SILLAR Management

Chloe Arnold

When hoofer Chloe Arnold—fearless founder of the Syncopated Ladies tap company—was 16 years old, she heard about an audition for Debbie Allen's Brothers of the Night show at Washington, DC's Kennedy Center. The DC native raced over, excited about rumors that the show included a tap duet. But at the audition, she found herself well out of her comfort zone, competing against Kirov Academy of Ballet students in musical theater and jazz combos.

Eager to impress Allen, one of her idols, she committed fully to every style. Arnold walked away with the coveted job—plus a new perspective on the dance world. "I tapped, I did jazz, I did musical theater, I did swing dancing, I sang, I acted," Arnold says. "That audition expanded my lens of appreciation, and changed my vision. It was this realization that I can have endless reach—the more knowledge I have, the more access and freedom I have to express myself however I want."

Although she mostly sticks to slaying the tap world today, she still advocates for dancers to diversify their learning. "I went in quite shy and scared, and I came out with a sense of pride, and self-awareness, and self-love," Arnold says.

Courtesy Juliet Doherty

Juliet Doherty

Today, you can see Juliet Doherty on the big screen in The Accompanist and High Strung: Free Dance. But the ballerina's pointe-shoe-in-the-door moment came when she was just 11. That year, she played Clara in the Seattle/Pittsburgh tour of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. The following season, she did the same part in the Florida/Texas leg of the tour, and the year after that, she played Clara in the flagship NYC production.

"I feel like I matured so much in an instant, just stepping into that rehearsal room," Doherty says of the initial experience. From the very first day, the Spectacular team—especially director and choreographer Linda Haberman—expected, and projected, professionalism. "Before that tour, my mom was my teacher, and I was a very challenging student, I think," Doherty says, laughing. "I was very stubborn. I was never really pushed to challenge myself, to look at myself honestly." Dancing in the Spectacular taught her how to self-motivate—and how to take criticism. "I had to tell myself, 'This person is giving me a note, and it's not personal,' " she remembers. "And I have to do this for the greater good of the show."

Courtesy Eden Shabtai

Eden Shabtai

Entertainment veteran Eden Shabtai—who now crafts choreography for pop favorites like Chris Brown and Ava Max—made her first foray into the commercial dance world back in 2009, performing in the music video for one-hit wonder Jadyn Maria's "Good Girls Like Bad Boys." Her biggest takeaway from that first job? The value of the connections made on-set. One of Ne-Yo's reps happened to be there; the rep saw potential in Shabtai, and ended up bringing her onboard a Ne-Yo project in 2011, shortly after Shabtai moved to L.A.

"It's so important that when you're working, you're thinking not just of the moment you're in, but also about who you could be talking to, who you could be learning from," she says. "Manifesting is such a big deal, and something that I feel like a lot of people don't understand. Yeah, dance is a lot of hard work, but 98 percent of it is literally the way you think—your vision. You need that vision to be clear, and you need to move towards it."

Lee Gumbs Photography, courtesy Janelle Ginestra-Adams

Janelle Ginestra-Adams

Before immaBEAST queen Janelle Ginestra-Adams was choreographing her own powerful pieces, she found herself working as a stand-in for none other than Jennifer Lopez. During the pop star's 2014 AKA Tour, directed by Tabitha and Napoleon D'umo, Ginestra-Adams had to master not only the background dancers' choreo, but also every single one of J.Lo's steps. Napoleon and Tabitha were so impressed that they offered her the chance to choreograph one of Lopez's interludes—which meant that Ginestra-Adams' first-ever choreography job was for J.Lo herself. Talk about pressure!

Ginestra-Adams took it all in stride, and says the experience taught her about the courage it takes to find your creative vision. "It forced me to have confidence in my voice as a choreographer," she says. "You have to believe in yourself, and make others believe that what you're teaching them is great." Now, whenever she choreographs, Ginestra-Adams tries to command the room in the most uplifting way possible. "By working with so many people, I've learned how I want to make my own dancers feel: passionate, loved, supported, inspired," she says.

Alex Wong

Yes, "So You Think You Can Dance" All-Star Alex Wong is blessed with the flexibility of the gods—but he says the key to his success is actually self-motivation, a skill he learned at his first job. In 2004, the then–17-year-old earned a spot with the ABT Studio Company, the ultimate ballet career launching pad. Wong loved dancing alongside the other up-and-comers in his Studio Company group (including Isabella Boylston, Cory Stearns, and Matthew Golding), but the biggest lesson he learned that year was about professional accountability. "I remember I was wearing warm-ups all the time in class, and a few months down the road, I took them off and I was not pleased with how my legs were looking and my dancing was looking," he says. "I had to tell myself, 'OK, I'm in charge of maintaining myself now.' "

Now busy with multiple projects in various parts of the dance world, Wong always makes time for technique. "When you leave your school and no one is forcing you to take class every day, you have to actively develop that self-discipline," he says.

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What’s in Your Dance Bag—Based on Your Zodiac Sign

Sometimes our dance bags feel like portals to another dimension—we have no idea what half the stuff buried in our bags even is. (Note to self: Clean out dance bag.)

But have you ever wondered if there's a method to the madness? We're pretty sure there is, and as always, we're pretty sure it's something to do with astrology. That's right, your resident Dance Spirit astrologers are back with our best guess at what you keep in your dance bag—based on your zodiac sign.

Aries

You're always going 100 mph Aries (or maybe even more), so it's pretty much a guarantee that your dance bag is fully stocked with snacks to power you through the day. Granola bars, trail mix, yogurt, fruit. It's like a Whole Foods in there.

You've also usually got about six different pairs of shoes in your bag. As an Aries, you love adventure, trying new things and, most of all, a challenge. So when it comes to classes, you're all over the map. Tap, jazz, ballet, character, modern—you'll try them all.

Something else you won't go without? Your signature red lipstick, obv. How else are you going to show off your fiery personality? (And look amazing while doing it, TYSM.)

Taurus

As a child of Venus, you always want to look your best, Taurus. So your dance bag is a hair salon/makeup station, all in one. If your dance besties need to borrow a hair tie, or are looking for a fun accessory to spice up their bun, they know you're the one to go to.

Also important to you? Smelling your best. Taureans love comforting, luxurious scents, so your dance bag is typically equipped with a favorite perfume or deodorant. (Or both.)

But what's most important is the bag itself—admit it, you've been using the same dance bag for years. We get it, Taurus, nobody likes change, and least of all the stubborn bull of the zodiac. But if your dance bag is really starting to smell like feet (or if your bobby pins are starting to slip through the holes in the bottom), you might want to consider investing in a new bag.

Gemini

Gemini, you love to switch it up. So you're pretty much guaranteed to have at least three different dance fits in your bag at any given time. And your dancewear is always on point. You love to keep up with trends and try edgy, new looks.

Ever the intellect, you usually have a book in your bag, as well. You're always making book recs to your fellow dancers, and you refuse to be bored between rehearsals or backstage.

Though you might act carefree, Gemini, we know that at heart, you're ruled by Mercury—and you have more in common with your sister sign Virgo than you'd like to admit. That's why you always have a toothbrush, toothpaste, and some floss in your dance bag. No way you're getting caught with food between your teeth (or bad breath during partnering class).

Cancer

Not to be obvious, but as a water sign, the first and foremost thing a Cancerian keeps in their dance bag? A water bottle, of course. (Preferably a Hydroflask, S'well or any bottle that comes in a fun color.) No dehydration here, please and thank you.

Your dance bag also functions as a de facto vending machine for your dance besties, since you always come prepared with the best snacks, and you're always willing to share. As a bonus, your snacks are almost always homemade, since you're practically a five-star chef.

And while we're wary of zodiac stereotypes, there is a pretty good chance your dance bag is stocked with tissues. And there's no shame in that—because, really, who can get through a performance of Romeo and Juliet without shedding some tears? Props to you for being in touch with your emotions, Cancer.

Leo

We'll state the obvious, Leo. You love to look at yourself, and sometimes the studio mirrors just aren't enough. So, naturally, you always keep a compact mirror in your dance bag, just in case your makeup or your bun needs an extra touch-up.

You also love bright colors, and you're not afraid to wear more daring dancewear than any of your besties. You've usually got a couple of leotards packed in your bag, just in case you need to make a fashion statement, and they're always fun. Bright colors, loud prints, stylish necklines—you'll try anything.

But something not everyone knows about you? You're an amazing friend, and incredibly loyal, Leo. That's why you've usually got something in your bag for your dance bestie, be it her favorite brand of granola bar, a fun sparkly pin for her hair, or a note reminding her she's a star, on and off the stage.

Virgo

You're incredibly hardworking, Virgo, so you've always got the tools for success in your dance bag. TheraBands, foam rollers, tennis balls—you're the one dancer your teacher can always count on to be stretching between classes.

You also love to be prepared, so you've usually got a makeshift first-aid kit in your bag. The thought of suffering a blister or floor burn without the appropriate salves or bandages makes you shudder, and, hey, it's always better to be overprepared, right?

What's most noticeable about your dance bag, though, isn't what's inside of it. It's what it looks like—your bag is pristine. It never smells like feet, and you've got a hard-core system for what you keep in each little zip pocket or compartment. And TBH, all of your dance friends are jealous, though they'd never admit it.

Libra

Like your sister sign Taurus, appearances are important to you, Libra. You like to look good (no shame in that), so your dance bag is always stocked with the essentials: extra hair spray, lip gloss, concealer, bobby pins and a spare leotard, in case you get just a bit too sweaty.

You also love to socialize, so if this were the 1950s, we would say that you always keep your date book in your dance bag. As it is, you always have your phone with you, and it's usually blowing up with texts from your dance besties asking to make plans.

Your dance bag wouldn't be complete without your secret supply of chocolate. But to be clear: This isn't your average Hershey's bar. Libras aren't afraid to indulge, so you keep a bar of luxury dark chocolate tucked away for when the cravings hit.

Scorpio

You can't fool us, Scorpio—the contents of your dance bag aren't some big mystery, like you'd like us all to believe. In fact, they're pretty basic: For starters, you always have a black leotard or two in your bag. After all, black is your signature color.

One thing that isn't in Scorpio's dance bag? Toe pads. You love to look tough, so you'd never be caught dead wearing toe pads with your pointe shoes. However, this does mean you need a hefty supply of Band-Aids for the inevitable blisters.

You also love all things mystical and, dare we say, witchy. You're the Halloween queen of the zodiac, after all! So it's no surprise you always have a crystal or two in the front pocket of your dance bag. Let us guess…moldavite?

Sagittarius

You're an explorer, Sagittarius, and that applies to your dancing. You're always trying new dance styles, and that's reflected in your dance bag. You always have the trappings of your latest obsession in your bag: heeled shoes for ballroom, kneepads for contact improv, sneakers for breaking, the list goes on and on.

But on all of your adventures, there's one consistency: You love making memories. And that means literally—you document everything. At each performance or recital, you're bound to be the one with a Polaroid or disposable camera in your bag, and you can usually be found snapping backstage candids of your dance besties.

Your other favorite form of documenting? Writing it down. You love to learn, so you're always taking notes. You can usually be found after class scribbling down your dance teacher's latest piece of wisdom. Your dance bag is crammed with half-filled notebooks, and you wouldn't have it any other way.

Capricorn

You like to be prepared, Capricorn. And we mean prepared—for every bad scenario imaginable. That's why your dance bag is a mini survival kit. The first Capricorn dance bag guarantee? A stitch kit, of course. Losing a ribbon on your pointe shoe mid-rehearsal is your worst nightmare.

You also always have at least three spare leotards handy. After all, what if you spill something, or get too sweaty or, worst of all, show up to an audition in the same leotard as your dance rival? No, thank you. As a Capricorn, you're expecting the best and preparing for the worst.

Another key to your survival kit? Headphones, so you can drown out the noise around you and focus on your dancing. And before anyone asks, the answer is yes, you have the perfect playlist—for each and every occasion.

Aquarius

Aquarius, you love helping others. That's why it sometimes seems like your dance bag isn't even for you—it's filled with stuff you bring for your friends. Snacks for one dance bestie, Band-Aids for another, and tampons, of course, just in case anyone needs one.

But when it comes to you, you're all about originality. That's why you always have tons of fun accessories in your bag: striped legwarmers, colorful socks, tie-dyed sweats and more than a couple of fun additions to your ballet bun, just to make it a little more interesting.

You're also a rebel at heart, Aquarius, which is why there's usually something in your dance bag that just borders on breaking the rules. Maybe your studio is strictly black leotards only—and yours is gray. Or phones are completely banned—and you just put yours on vibrate. We see you.

Pisces

Like your fellow water sign Cancer, you're big on hydrating during dance class. But as a Pisces, you're a little more imaginative (and a little less practical), meaning you're usually carrying your water in something aesthetically pleasing, like a mason jar, a tumbler, or one of those fancy water bottles with a crystal in the base.

Unlike Cancer, you're a mutable sign, meaning you can adapt to just about any situation. Counterintuitively, this actually means your dance bag is pretty sparse. Unlike other zodiac signs who feel the need to overprepare in case of disaster, you're comfortable in most situations, and your dance bag reflects it. You like the basics, nothing else.

Something most people might not know about you, though, is that you get cold easily. We're not sure why, but it's a Pisces staple. That's why if you keep anything in your dance bag, it's the coziest of warm-ups.

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