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.

Latest Posts


Viktorina Kapitonova in "Swan Lake Bath Ballet" (photo by Ryan Capstick, courtesy Corey Baker Dance)

Please Enjoy the Quarantine Genius of “Swan Lake Bath Ballet”

That old saying about limitations breeding creativity—hat tip to Orson Welles—has never felt more relevant than in these lockdown days. Here's the latest brilliant dance project born (hatched?) of quarantine restrictions: "Swan Lake Bath Ballet," a contemporary take on the classic featuring 27 A-list ballet dancers performing from their own bathtubs.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Project 21 dancers (from left) Selena Hamilton, Gracyn French, and Dyllan Blackburn (Photo by Quinn Wharton; hair and makeup throughout by Angela Huff for Mark Edward Inc.)

How Project 21 Is Shaping the Next Generation of Competition-Dance Standouts

"I wish I had a better story about the name," says Molly Long, founder of the Orange County, CA–based dance studio Project 21. In truth, it's a play on the fact that she was born on the twenty-first of August, and 21 is her favorite number. "I was away on a teaching tour, the audition announcement was going live on Instagram the next day, and I desperately needed a name. Project 21 was just the least cheesy of the options I thought of!"

The fact that fans might expect the name to have some profound meaning speaks to the near-mythic status Project 21 has achieved on the competition and convention scene since its founding in 2014. Long's dancers are all wholly individual, yet jell seamlessly as a group, and are consistently snagging top prizes everywhere on the circuit. Each season brings a slew of new accolades, high-caliber faculty, and legions of devoted followers.

The industry has taken notice of the studio's unique ethos. "Molly gets through to her dancers in a special way, and they have this incomparable level of commitment to their craft as a result," says dancer and choreographer Billy Bell, who's worked closely with Long and her dancers. "That's what sets them apart—it's like a little dose of magic."

Keep Reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks

contest
Enter the Cover Model Search