Danielle Polanco: From screen to the Broadway revival of West Side Story
Does the girl on these pages look familiar to you? You might recognize her from Omarion’s “Touch” video; or from Step Up 2: The Streets, in which she played Missy Serrano; or from a slew of Beyoncé and Janet Jackson videos.
But if you don’t know who Danielle Polanco is yet, don’t worry—you will. This month, the half-Puerto Rican, half-Dominican 23-year-old from the Bronx makes her Broadway debut in a somewhat serendipitous fashion: She’s playing Consuela, the bleached blonde, America-loving Shark (her favorite role) in the much-anticipated revival of West Side Story (her favorite show)—despite having never been in a musical before!
Gorgeous as she is, Danielle is a bit of a clown, with a goofy, pseudo-tough girl energy, and a loud, warm laugh. She started dancing at age 4 at her local studio in the Bronx, NY, and attended MS 180, a performing arts middle school, where she studied ballet and jazz. In the sixth grade, she joined K-Company, a dance troupe from the Kips Bay Boys and Girls Club (whose alumni include none other than Jennifer Lopez), where she learned salsa, hip hop and West African. Plus, she spent two middle-school summers at Ballet Hispanico, studying flamenco, ballet, pointe, Horton, modern and mime. “I learned early on that versatility is really important,” she says. “I picked up everything like a sponge. I wanted to breakdance! I wanted to do pointe! I wanted to do everything!”
She went on to high school at the Professional Performing Arts School (whose alumni include Danny Tidwell and Afra Hines), where she took academic classes in the morning and was bussed over to Alvin Ailey studios in the afternoon. After dancing with BFA students from Fordham University there, Danielle decided she was ready for a professional career.
She soon scored her first real job—performing with Beyoncé at the Video Music Awards—at 17. “I showed up at the audition wearing Jordans, baggy pants, a bra with a fishnet top and red lipstick,” she says, laughing. “It was a mess! All the girls were wearing heels, but I didn’t know! When they asked me for my resumé, I said, ‘Oh I forgot,’ but I didn’t have one!” Nonetheless, she blew everyone away and was hired.
Since then, almost every gig has been followed by a period of joblessness in which she eagerly sought out master teachers in a range of styles. “If I see something I like, nothing’s going to stop me,” she says. “I’m going to learn it.” After the VMAs, she studied popping, locking and waving, and immersed herself in the voguing scene, which she credits for bulking up her confidence: “When I started to vogue, I found out who I was as a dancer and a freestyler,” she explains. “People have so much fear—they’re afraid to take it there. Once I started voguing, it made me want to try more things and challenge myself even more.” (She eventually became a member of the House of Ninja. For more info on this incredible troupe, check out the July/August 2008 DS!)
In her late teens and early 20s, Danielle danced in several movies (Idlewild and Bolden!, which is set for a 2010 release) and was cast in the aforementioned “Touch” video. This led to more gigs with Beyoncé, including choreographing the videos for “Suga Mama” and “Green Light,” and to work with Janet Jackson. But while co-choreographing “So Excited” for Jackson was cool, L.A. was not: “To be around Janet was amazing, but that time was really depressing,” Danielle says. “I was homesick. I was alone. The job wasn’t satisfying to the point where I forgot about everything else.”
Last summer, back in NYC, after the excitement of Step Up 2: The Streets had dwindled, Danielle went through a down phase. “I asked myself, ‘Where do I want to go after this movie?’” she recalls. “I don’t want to dance behind people for the rest of my life. I’m not knocking anyone for wanting to do that—I wanted to do that and I did it—but it wasn’t fulfilling anymore. I was ready for a change of pace.”
At the time, she was hearing rumors about a West Side Story revival, and walked around the city singing “When You’re a Jet.” Then last July, she got a call from the show's assistant choreographer Lori Werner, who remembered Danielle from the Beyoncé tryout. “She asked me to audition. When I got the message, I started shaking,” Danielle says. Despite having only been to five ballet classes since high school, she brushed up her technique, prepared her song (“A Boy Like That”) and got ready to audition.
“You’re always looking for someone who has the right body type, facility and length, but you’re also looking for someone that you can’t take your eyes off of,” says West Side choreographer Joey McKneely. “And Danielle just exuded that ability immediately. We were like, ‘Who is that?’” After only two auditions, she was cast as Consuela, “a standout with personality” says McKneely.
Her classical technique may not be quite on par with that of the other Shark girls’, but McKneely explains that Danielle’s years of hip-hop training and Puerto Rican heritage give her tremendous authenticity in the role: “She’s so organic to what our needs are because she’s Puerto Rican, and she’s got a lot of street credit,” he says.
Danielle couldn’t be happier to be working with writer/director Arthur Laurents (“He’s unreal,” she says. “91 and still kickin’ it, old school.”), Joey McKneely and the talented cast. “It’s been sort of boring these last couple of years,” she says. “Now it’s like I’m going to school for the first time. I’m going to remember this for the rest of my life.”
McKneely agrees that performing on Broadway will be great for Danielle’s career: “I think this experience is forcing her to be more disciplined. It’s going to open up a great many opportunities,” he says. “I see her as a very young Rosie Perez in a way. She has the potential to be a star.”
Photo: Eduardo Patino