Dancer to Dancer

Strength In Numbers: The Payoffs of Being an Ensemble Dancer

Mishay Petronelli onstage in Janet Jackson's Unbreakable world tour (Solaiman Fazel, courtesy Petronelli)

In 2015, Mishay Petronelli was one of nine dancers to book a spot on Janet Jackson's Unbreakable world tour. After a grueling audition process, the group learned iconic choreography, traveled and performed with one of the greatest pop divas of all time.

“It was my dream job," says Petronelli. “Not only was it crazy to be onstage with Janet, but I also never expected our group to become such a unit, too. We called ourselves the 'J Tribe.' "

When you train so intensively to stand out in a crowd, getting cast as one in a large group can feel like a blow. But, as Petronelli, who's also performed in groups on “Lip Sync Battle" and “Saturday Night Live," will say, the payoffs can be pretty great, too. And while few ensemble gigs seem as glamorous as being a member of the prestigious J Tribe, they all come with a few similarities. For one, being in an ensemble isn't easy: It requires an extraordinary amount of precision, teamwork and stamina. Whether you're backing up Jackson's iconic “Black Cat," working it second from the right in a world-famous kick-line, or shielding Odette in a line of white swans, your presence onstage can mean just as much as the artist's in front. Read on to find out how and why dancing in an ensemble can be so rewarding.

Improve Your Technique

While being one of two dozen Wilis in Act II of Giselle may not seem too challenging, Houston Ballet's Natalie Varnum disagrees: “Don't let standing on the side fool you," she says. “It might look simple, but it requires extreme focus and precision." Corps members might not always get to perform the most virtuosic steps, but that meticulous attention to detail—an exact tilt of the head, or an arm placement on a specific count—can be a boon for a dancer's artistry. “Paying attention to these little things has really refined my dancing," says Varnum, who, as a seven-year corps member, regularly steps into soloist roles. “Having danced as a snowflake in our production of The Nutcracker for so long, I felt like I had an extra edge when I was given the opportunity to finally do Snow Queen," she continues. “The sets, lighting and formations were all familiar, so I was able to focus on performing my new role and getting into character."

Make Connections

Being part of a group can also improve your ability to connect with others onstage. While most roles often require dancers to rely on their peripheral vision to ensure they're in the right spot at the right time, sometimes, says Paul Taylor Dance Company's Sean Mahoney, “it's OK to really look at each other. When we're all dancing together, there's a sense of community onstage—unity. It's less about showmanship and more about what we're doing as a group." This kind of work doesn't go unnoticed: Audiences often recognize and appreciate a group of dancers who can move as one and look like they enjoy doing it. And for a dancer, the opportunity to make those connections can improve partnering and storytelling—all traits that will help in a future soloist role, too.

Addison Ector takes center stage in Dwight Rhoden's Strum with Complexions Contemporary Ballet (courtesy Complexions Contemporary Ballet)

Stand Out While Blending In

Dancing in an ensemble doesn't always mean you have to relinquish your artistic individuality. Complexions Contemporary Ballet's Addison Ector loves how the troupe's 15 members have varied dance backgrounds and how that can shine through the choreography. “Sometimes, we have the freedom onstage to smile and let our personalities out, even though we're all doing the same thing," he says.

Petronelli loves the opportunity to learn from her colleagues in an ensemble. Jackson's tour group, for example, was all female, but the dancers shared little else in common. “We were such individuals, and were all able to give something unique," Petronelli says, noting that performing with the crew was a constant source of inspiration. “It made me want to push myself further as an artist."

Build Relationships

Emma Love Suddarth, who joined Pacific Northwest Ballet's corps de ballet in 2009, loves the atmosphere in her theater dressing room. “There's no place like it," she says. “The laughs, the tears. We're all in the same boat and support each other through everything." If a PNB program doesn't require much corps work, the dancers actually miss it, says Suddarth. “It's about the dynamic, that dependability. We spend 90 percent of our time together, and there's comfort in that." Even if you're ultimately setting your sights on star status, don't diminish the value of a group experience. “Dancing in an ensemble is about learning to function well with other people," says Suddarth. “Embrace it, because you won't get that experience elsewhere."

Show Comments ()
Dance News
2018 graduate Meredith Santoro in a shot from the PURCHASE DANCE x SUPREME series (screenshot via @issadancelook on Instagram)

Our story begins on January 3, 2018, when an account called @issadancelook suddenly appeared on the Insta-horizon. Almost immediately, the page was chock-full of artsy shots of SUNY Purchase dancers in their quirkiest, most stylish classwear and rehearsalwear. Barely half a year later, the page has an intensely engaged base of followers, and even mainstream fashion has taken notice—but more on that in a minute.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

Lucky you! You get to spend a week full of dancing with amazing choreographers, teachers and dancers! As exhilarating as this is, you need to know how to get the most out of your camp experience in order to create those memories that last a lifetime.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Fashion
Photo by Erin Baiano

Throwback jazz duds that feel impossibly current? Groovy, baby.

Modeled by Amber Pickens and Carey Segal

Photography by Erin Baiano

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

Once competition season has ended, it can seem like forever until you're ready to compete again. Don't let the down time between competition seasons drag on. Dance conventions are an easy and fun way to learn new skills, meet inspiring choreographers, and stay involved in dance all year long. Showstopper's Dance Conventions offer dancers an experience you cannot get anywhere else. Here is why you cannot miss Showstopper Dance Conventions!

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer
Photo by Nathan Sayers

Few things are more beautiful than perfectly arched feet. While us normal humans are on a never-ending quest to make our biscuits look a little bit better, some dancers are just born with gorgeous bananas. Here are 9 artists—from big-name icons to up-and-coming talents—whose feet are all kinds of #goals.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Videos
Screenshot via Vogue

Dancer and choreographer Sherrie Silver is living her best life. The 23 year old, who's most recent choreography was featured in Childish Gambino's controversial "This Is America" music video, continues to bring African dance to the forefront of pop culture with the help of Vogue magazine. Brooklyn is the perfect backdrop for this dancing queen as she breaks down five of her favorite Afro dance moves: the Gwara Gwara, the Hipjook, the Neza, the Snakula, and the Shaku Shaku.

Keep reading... Show less
Dear Katie
Photo by Travis Kelley, courtesy Kathryn Morgan

In our "Dear Katie" series, former NYCB soloist Kathryn Morgan answers your pressing dance questions. Have something you want to ask Katie? Email dearkatie@dancespirit.com for a chance to be featured!

Dear Katie,

I'm a lefty turner, and am more flexible on my left side than my right. My one-sidedness is especially noticeable because most people in my classes are stronger on the right side. How can I even myself out?

Camryn

Keep reading... Show less
Editors’ List: The Goods
Via @joandjax on Instagram

Summertime...and the dressing is eeeeeeeeeeasy. When you're heading straight from the dance studio to the pool or beach, you don't want to be messing around with complicated cover-ups. That's where these 5 MVPs of the romper room come in, bringing their breezy style to your pre-class, post-rehearsal, and everything-in-between looks. Oh, and three out of the five are on sale right now. So what are you waiting for? Go ahead and romper-ound! (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

The Soline, by Wear Moi

Via wearmoi.us

This oversized cap sleeve romper with a half zip in the front features four-way stretch and extra-comfy wide leg openings. You can get it now on Wear Moi's US website for less than half of its original price.

Dance News
2018 graduate Meredith Santoro in a shot from the PURCHASE DANCE x SUPREME series (screenshot via @issadancelook on Instagram)

Our story begins on January 3, 2018, when an account called @issadancelook suddenly appeared on the Insta-horizon. Almost immediately, the page was chock-full of artsy shots of SUNY Purchase dancers in their quirkiest, most stylish classwear and rehearsalwear. Barely half a year later, the page has an intensely engaged base of followers, and even mainstream fashion has taken notice—but more on that in a minute.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Adam Rose/FOX

At the start of last night's episode of "So You Think You Can Dance," 41 dancers remained. An hour later, we had a Top 20. And then there was a BIG FAT TWIST. (We'll get to that.)

The 41 still-standing Academy dancers showed up at the Dolby Theater in L.A. ready to tackle three rounds: contemporary choreography with seven-time Emmy nominee and one-time "SYTYCD" contestant Travis Wall; an "epic group routine" with jazz choreographer and La La Land she-ro Mandy Moore; and a last-chance solo showdown. Here's what happened.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Videos
The cast of All Styles (courtesy Shout Factory)

What do you get when dance all-stars like Fik-Shun Stegall, Heather Morris, and Christopher Scott join forces for a movie? That'd be All Styles, the new dance film that just might give Step Up a run for its money. And you can watch the trailer exclusively right here.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Quad Squad performing their routine on the "WOD" stage (screenshot via YouTube)

Last night's episode of "World of Dance" proves that there's literally an endless supply of talented dancers in this world. We're on week SEVEN of Qualifiers, and each week, we're continuously blown away by the competitors. Last night was no different, as eight more groups (all of whom deserved to advance) vied for a spot in the Duels.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Videos
The cast of All Styles (courtesy Shout Factory)

What do you get when dance all-stars like Fik-Shun Stegall, Heather Morris, and Christopher Scott join forces for a movie? That'd be All Styles, the new dance film that just might give Step Up a run for its money. And you can watch the trailer exclusively right here.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer
USC Kaufman Students in Class (courtesy Glorya Kaufman School of Dance At University of Southern California)

You can still dance at a high level while attending a school that has no dance department. Just ask these two recent grads—their post-college careers bloomed because they took charge of their dance education.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Videos
"My comeback on 💯" (via YouTube)

We've always been impressed by Ciara's very legit dance skills. But for "Level Up," the first single she's released since 2015, the star decided to create a dance vid that is actually on another level.

How'd she do it? By recruiting choreographer extraordinaire Parris Goebel and her epic ReQuest Dance Crew. We knew "Level Up" was a banger from the second we first heard it, but by their powers combined, Ciara, Goebel, and the ReQuest dancers make it into an absolutely irresistible dance jam.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Photo by Sophie Elgort, courtesy Isabella Boylston

Last year, American Ballet Theatre principal Isabella Boylston decided to bring world-renowned ballet to her hometown of Sun Valley, ID. The first three-day Ballet Sun Valley festival featured stars including Maria Kochetkova and Misty Copeland, performing solos, pas de deux, and a world premiere by Gemma Bond. Audiences raved so much that the festival will continue this year, July 17 and 18. The talent list has expanded: There'll be 25 dancers from companies including the Paris Opéra Ballet, Royal Danish Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, and New York City Ballet, and the festival will again offer a day of free dance classes for local students. Dance Spirit caught up with Boylston to get all the details—and to find out what starting a ballet festival is really like.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Giveaways