I Was a Back-Row Dancer

Nicole Carol Schuman

She wasn’t the star of her studio, but that didn’t keep Nicole Carol Schuman from having an amazing professional dance career:

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a professional dancer. Sure, what I actually wanted to be was an astronaut-marine-model-princess-ballerina-lawyer-writer, but dance has always been a part of my career plan.

When I was 7, my parents enrolled me at Juliana’s Academy of Dance in Clinton Township, MI—this tiny storefront tucked inside a suburban shopping center next to a Weight Watchers. I started with a tap/ballet combo class once a week, then advanced to an hour each of jazz, tap and ballet. A couple years later, I started competing.

When I was 10, Juliana, the owner of the studio, gave me a solo. It was a lyrical number to “Evergreen” by Barbra Streisand. Afterward, she said she saw potential in me, and asked me to switch to her bigger studio an hour away in Troy, MI. It was an exciting but terrifying prospect, because in my mind, that studio was in the big leagues. It was where the “good” dancers went. I was so impressed with some of the girls there that I still remember their names to this day. They were rock stars.

With a great deal of pleading, I convinced my mom to start taking me to the new studio a couple days a week. Boy, was that a whole new world. I thought going there would be all sunshine and puppies, but instead, in a heartbeat, I went from doing no wrong to doing nothing right.

Not quite at Rockette height yet: 8-year-old Schuman (center) in a number called “Rockin’ Around the Clock”

I thought at least I was good at lyrical (I’d just done a solo to Barbra Streisand!), but then, in lyrical class, I was told I looked as if I had rigor mortis. I was mortified. There were times I wanted to run back to my old studio and hide. But I also wanted to be good. I wanted to be the girl whose name other girls remembered years later. There was no way I was going back

Not getting the parts I wanted in performances and competitions was hard, to say the least. My mother was never a stereotypical stage mom, but she was honest. She’d say, “You know, that other girl is better at that part than you are.” I knew I was surrounded by fabulous dancers, but getting constantly stuck in the back meant I had almost no confidence, and I always felt badly about myself.

Don’t get me wrong: I had a few glorious fouetté solos (I was always a turner). But the combination of adrenaline and a bad swayback usually meant something wonky happened onstage. More frequently, I was hidden in the back corner without explanation. At the time, that felt like the end of the world.

Schuman (far left) in costume for a small group lyrical number

A turning point for me was when Dee Caspary came in from L.A. to guest teach. We’d competed against his studio before, and their numbers were phenomenal. It was his first time teaching for us, and we were terrified. His movement was foreign and uncomfortable. We were doing an across-the-floor combination, and at one point, he pulled me out and made me do the combination over again by myself. He saw something special in me. When I did the combo again, it felt awful, but he had successfully given me the confidence I’d been lacking.

I didn’t suddenly go from being a back-row dancer to being the star of the studio, but that was the moment I realized how big and diverse the dance world really was. There were many parts I wasn’t right for, but there also had to be parts I was right for. And I was willing to put in the work to find them.

I realized I had two options: I could either resent my talented classmates or try to learn from them. And I could learn a lot more dancing in the back, able to see the talent I was surrounded by, than I ever could up in front where I could only see myself. I began to realize how insignificant my placement in the blocking of a routine was in comparison to the great training I was receiving. Every time I wasn’t chosen for a part I wanted, it was just more fuel for my fire.

Schuman (Left) In the “Let Christmas Shine” number

I auditioned for the Radio City Rockettes during my senior year of high school, and I was offered the job that summer. The offer surprised me, but it also helped me understand that not always being in the front had made me the dancer I’d become. I’m so grateful I was given the chance to work my butt off for every opportunity instead of having things handed to me.

I’ve now danced with the Rockettes for 11 years, and our motto is “Together we’re better.” Being a part of this company is about making these beautiful pictures no dancer could create by herself. It’s not about who’s the best, because we’re all the best.

Today I frequently judge dance competitions, and let me tell you: If you’re in the back row, that’s no reason to blow it off. I’m watching you!

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