Sarah Christine Smith on Her First Year Dancing in L.A.
“Mom, Dad—I got a yearlong scholarship to study at the EDGE! I’m moving to Hollywood!” When you’re 17, it sounds that easy. My first day in L.A. made it clear that it wouldn’t be: Thirty minutes after landing at LAX, I got pulled over by a cop on a bicycle. My very supportive parents had bought me a used Geo Metro, but I didn’t know how to drive a stick shift, so I was stalling and swerving all over the freeway!
Growing up in Clarkston, MI, I had always dreamed of moving to L.A. to become a professional dancer. I studied at Deborah’s Stage Door with Deborah Agrusa, who exposed us to the best dance conventions and competitions—Tremaine, L.A. DanceMagic and L.A. DANCEFORCE. I would be so pumped after conventions that I decided I wanted to do what the convention teachers did—teach on the weekends, and dance in movies, TV shows and commercials during the week. It was all set in motion when I received a yearlong scholarship to the EDGE Performing Arts Center in Hollywood.
The spring of my senior year of high school I got a scholarship to Oklahoma City University as a dance and theater student. Before starting college, I decided to visit L.A. for the month of August and take class at the EDGE. A couple of weeks in, classes were going well, and I felt like I wanted to become a professional dancer sooner rather than later. That’s when I saw the audition announcement for the prestigious scholarship program. I decided to give it a whirl despite my original plan of attending college that fall.
At the audition, we were tested in ballet, jazz and tap. I was really nervous because there was a lot riding on it—if I got accepted, all my classes (five classes a day, six days a week) would be free, and I would be able to take the “special” scholarship classes (acting, gymnastics and singing) and help assist at conventions. Plus, I would have the accomplishment of having been an EDGE scholarship student. When they posted the list, my name was on it!
I was so excited, but the decision to not go to college was hard. My heart knew I wanted to be in L.A., but my head thought it would be more responsible to go to college. My parents had stressed going to university from an early age, but I just knew it wasn’t for me. Although they weren’t ecstatic about my decision, they saw my determination and knew that their only option was to support their daughter.
During that first year I lived with three other dancers who were on EDGE scholarships. We juggled class schedules and work while learning how to cook, clean and do laundry. We became each others’ support system, which made it easier when we were homesick.
Since I wasn’t able to pay the bills by auditioning for dance jobs I was forced to get a “real” job. I thought a clothing store was an obvious choice, but I hate folding clothes and that’s pretty much all the job was. Needless to say, I got fired.Thankfully, my parents had taught me how to save money, so I lived off my savings from high school, which got me through the year (with a teensy bit of help from Mom and Dad!).
I never had the luxury of shopping sprees or dinners out, but that didn’t bother me. I was there to dance and in addition to my regular classes, I started taking one or two more daily classes, which meant I was dancing between nine and 10.5 hours a day.
I studied under amazing teachers: Helene Phillips, Bill Prudich, Jackie Sleight, Randy Allaire, Wes Veldink and Ryan Heffington (I could go on and on!). My car and I were starting to get along better and my daily commute was easy to handle. I hadn’t explored much of the city yet, but I didn’t care; I just wanted to dance. The instructors had a hard time keeping me out of the studio! Unfortunately, I found out the hard way that taking too many classes takes a toll on your body.
In June, we were nine months into training, and all 16 of the scholarship students were gearing up for our end-of-the-year show. This is where you’re introduced to choreographers and casting directors and when you hopefully sign with an agent. My knee had started acting up after a hard day of classes and rehearsals. One evening I got up in the middle of the night and fell flat on my face. I could feel my knee lock up, but I got back in bed and hoped it would miraculously go away by morning—but it didn’t.
I battled through for a couple of days but I finally had to accept the fact that my knee wasn’t getting better. I visited a specialist, who told me it was injured from overuse. He advised me to sit and watch classes. That was torture. Any injury is difficult for a dancer, but the timing of mine made it devastating. If I was too injured to perform in the show, all my hard work would be lost.
The show consisted of ballet, jazz, tap and hip hop. Before my injury, I had been chosen for eight pieces (the max each dancer was allowed to participate in), but that didn’t do me much good when I wasn’t able to rehearse them!
After a few weeks off, I was back on my feet a week before the show and got in enough rehearsal time to feel comfortable with the material—and was able to perform in all eight! After the show I met with Kazarian/Spencer & Associates (KSA), a high-profile agency, and they said they wanted to represent me!
I went on my first audition—for Austin Powers!—five days after signing with KSA. When I was called in to meet with Mike Myers and the director Jay Roach, they asked me to improvise a couple of counts of eight. When I finished they said, “Great! We’ll see you tomorrow.”
At the time I didn’t realize what had landed in my lap. I received three invaluable gifts from that job. First, the movie was a huge success, which meant I made good money off of my first audition! Secondly, I had the honor of working with Marguerite Derricks, one of the most respected choreographers in the business. Marguerite hired me for the next two Austin Powers movies, as well as many other jobs. And lastly, I received my Screen Actors Guild (or SAG) card! Getting a SAG card is huge—the problem is that you can’t do a SAG job without a SAG card, but you can’t get a SAG card without doing a SAG job! (It can be hard to find a production company that will do the extra paperwork and pay the money to get the dancer her SAG card.)
After Austin Powers, I danced in Batman and Robin and on TV shows like “3rd Rock from the Sun” and “Mad TV,” but there were plenty of unpaid gigs in between. Unpaid gigs can be a great way to network and meet new people—that’s how I met Adam Shankman. I was one of the main characters in his first short film, Cosmo’s Tale. Since then he’s hired me for She’s All That, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and many other projects.
I’ve been very fortunate to have never needed a side job (even though I’ve come close!). Persistence and dedication have saved me, even when I’ve wanted to give up—like when I auditioned for Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time” video. It was a last-minute audition at the end of a long day full of dead-end auditions. When I got the call, I was so frustrated that I almost didn’t go. Thank God I did! I booked the job and went on tour with Britney, shot her Pepsi commercials and did her House of Blues tour.
After that I was in *NSYNC’s “Pop” video, performed with Carrie Underwood at the Grammy Awards and with Paul McCartney on his world tour. Recently I’ve ventured into acting and have assisted creative directors in the production of industrial shows. And I traveled to Beijing, where I performed for Nike at the Olympics!
L.A. has provided many opportunities for me to grow. It’s not all roses, though. L.A. is a tough city and it challenges you to maintain your identity. The industry can be cruel and cutthroat, but if you surround yourself with honest, inspiring people and maintain a belief in your talent, the sky’s the limit!