It's been a crazy few years for dancer, singer, and actress Ariana DeBose. After performing in Hamilton's original cast (where she earned viral fame as The Bullet), she scored a Tony nomination for her portrayal of Disco Donna in last year's Summer: The Donna Summer Musical. Now, she's set to play Anita in Steven Spielberg's remake of the iconic West Side Story movie, which starts filming this year.
DeBose's star turn is coming at a time when true triple threats have become a rarer breed on Broadway, with shows favoring dancers who dance and singers who sing. But the multifaceted DeBose has always defied categorization—and her versatility has proved to be the key to her success.
Something's coming, I don't know when
But it's soon...maybe tonight?
Those iconic lyrics have basically been our #mood ever since we first heard a remake of the West Side Story film, directed by Steven Spielberg and choreographed by Justin Peck, was in the works. THE CASTING. THE CASTING WAS COMING.
Well, last night—after an extensive search process that focused on finding the best actors within the Puerto Rican/Latinx community—the WSS team finally revealed who'll be playing Maria, Anita, Bernardo, and Chino (joining Ansel Elgort, who was cast as Tony last fall). And you guys: It is a truly epic group.
The world isn't always a welcoming place for LGBTQIA+ people. But for those figuring out their sexuality, dance can provide welcome opportunities for expression. We talked to five star dancers about their experiences coming out and growing up, and how dance helped them live their full truth.
One year into its Great White Way run, Hamilton continues to revolutionize Broadway—and how Broadway moves. Check out this sneak peek at our July/August feature, and get to know two of Hamilton's all-star swings, Ariana DeBose and Sasha Hutchings (and get the full story right now in our digital edition!).
Every now and then, all the blood, sweat and oh-so-many tears dancers put into their craft result in an ultra-satisfying payoff. Here, seven professional dancers share the moments that can make them smile whenever they’re feeling down.
Jared Grimes performing at the Dancers Responding to AIDS Fire Island Dance Festival (photo by Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy Jared Grimes)
Tap dancer; faculty member, Broadway Dance Center and New York City Dance Alliance
“In 2007, I spent an afternoon with trumpeter, composer and Jazz at Lincoln Center director Wynton Marsalis. We’d performed together many times, but often, I wouldn’t know what song we were doing until I got onstage, and I’d have to catch his orchestrations on the fly. That day, he told me that I instinctively have the type of musical knowledge most musicians must study for years to develop. It was a major compliment. Not only is Wynton someone I admire, but I also love playing with music’s inner workings and defying its rules. What Wynton said gave me confidence that I’m following the right path.”
Beckanne Sisk and Thomas Mattingly rehearsing "Rubies," from George Balanchine's Jewels (photo by Beau Pearson Photography, courtesy Ballet West)
Soloist, Ballet West
“Early in 2012, I applied for a Princess Grace Award. The process is pretty nerve-racking. Once you send in your materials, it’s a long waiting game: If you’re not selected, no one tells you—you have to wait until the winners are officially announced. So by August of that year, I had kind of forgotten about it. Then I got a voicemail from a number I didn’t recognize: ‘I’m from the Princess Grace Foundation, and we’d like to speak with you.’ I called back immediately and found out I’d won. It was totally surreal. Getting that call made my whole year.”
(photo by Franziska Strauss, courtesy Francesca Romo)
Contemporary Dance Wyoming
“I went to the Royal Ballet School for seven years. It was pretty stressful. There was never any guarantee that you’d get to stay in the school, because you had to pass an exam after each semester. My best day was graduation. At the ceremony, everyone performed, and my family came to watch. The day was monumental—I knew I’d finished something big. And looking back, I wouldn’t be where I am today if not for those ups and downs throughout my training.”
(photo by Brooke Roberson, courtesy Ariana DeBose)
Pippin on Broadway
“I’d just turned 20, and it was the opening night of the New York Philharmonic’s production of Company. I was the youngest in the cast—which also included Neil Patrick Harris, Patti LuPone and Stephen Colbert. I was dancing with legends! In the ‘Tick Tock’ dream ballet, I got to perform with Chryssie Whitehead, who was in the Broadway revival of A Chorus Line. In my opinion, she’s one of the best dancers to ever grace a Broadway stage. I kept thinking ‘I’m sharing the stage of Avery Fisher Hall with Chryssie Whitehead—at the start of my career?’ That was an incredible moment.”
Jacqueline Green in Wayne McGregor's Chroma (photo by Paul Kolnik, courtesy AAADT)
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
“I didn’t start dancing until I began high school at the Baltimore School for the Arts. I always felt behind. Everyone else had some dance training, but I didn’t know any of the terminology. The hardest thing for me was a combination my teacher used to help us learn positions, like effacé devant and derrière. I could never remember it, and I always had to follow someone. But one day—a whole month after we first tried the combination—I finally got it. My teacher exclaimed, ‘You did it!’ I felt so confident.”
Tory Peil in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's Crave (photo by Bamberg Fine Art, courtesy Whim W'him)
“There wasn’t a ballet school in my hometown. So I studied with a teacher privately and just picked up classes in any other genre I could find: jazz, African, tap—even swing dance in PE class! When I was 12, I auditioned with 60 other girls for a spot at Pacific Northwest Ballet’s summer intensive. I knew my chances were slim. Still, I nervously scanned the mail every day after the audition, praying for an acceptance letter heavy with paperwork. I’d almost given up when, a few weeks later, my mom brought in the mail. There was my letter! I opened it, read the first sentence and nodded, smiling. I ended up spending 10 summers at PNB. If it hadn’t been for that acceptance letter, my life could have been completely different.”
Abigail Mentzer in rehearsal for Phantom of the Opera (photo by Michael Thomas Holmes, courtesy Phantom of the Opera)
The Phantom of the Opera national tour
“I had been performing with Pennsylvania Ballet’s second company for two years when it was time for evaluations. Every member of the second company waited to hear his or her fate, one by one. It was an emotional day for sure. I had become so close with the other dancers, and I wanted to continue working with them. I had a good feeling about my evaluation—I was already being cast in ballets—but there was still no guarantee. In the end, former artistic director Roy Kaiser asked me to join the company. I was ecstatic! I called my mom and grandmother right away. That moment was the beginning of 11 happy years at Pennsylvania Ballet.”
Jakob Karr in Flashdance: The Musical (DRGPhotography)
Jakob Karr, with his amazing extensions, and Kamille Upshaw, with her captivating stage presence, made names for themselves by snatching up award after award on the competition circuit. The two were hired for their first professional dance jobs in 2007—performing together during the halftime show of an alpaca auction in Virginia. And from there, their paths continued to cross: They both moved to NYC for college and then traveled internationally with Rasta Thomas’ Bad Boys of Dance. But this past year, Jakob and Kamille switched gears and joined the touring cast of Flashdance: The Musical. Now the two friends are officially in love…with musical theater. “From the first day, I just thought, this feels right,” says Jakob. “This is something I could love doing over and over again.”
It’s not unusual for competition dancers to discover they’re destined for musical theater. And with the number of dance-heavy shows on Broadway today, technical dancers are more in demand than ever before. But it takes far more than a killer solo and an impressive collection of platinums to make it on the Great White Way. Read on before you book your ticket to the Big Apple.
Dance This Way
So what kind of dancers do Broadway casting directors covet? Annie choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler says the key is versatility, which many comp kids have in the bag. “The biggest asset young competitive dancers have is the ability to mimic a choreographer’s style,” he says. “At a convention, students take class from five or six teachers, each with very different styles. They’re smart enough to adapt accordingly.”
Kamille Upshaw in Flashdance: The Musical (Courtesy Kamille)
Being a smart dancer also means knowing your strengths and understanding what kind of dancing is expected from you at an audition—a lesson Jakob learned the hard way. “My very first audition was for Mary Poppins, and it was so humiliating,” he admits. “They made us tap, and I’m probably the world’s worst tapper. When I had to perform for the casting directors, I just did time steps over and over again. Believe it or not, I didn’t get the job.” Do your homework before the big day, and take classes in any styles you’re unfamiliar with so you won’t be taken by surprise.
No matter how many dance styles you’ve mastered at your studio, don’t expect a job offer unless you can carry a tune. “I can maybe hire one person per show who can’t sing. Maybe,” says Blankenbuehler, who’s worked on productions including In the Heights and Bring It On: The Musical. And rocking out in the shower or along with your car radio doesn’t quite cut it. “Just as your body is your instrument for dancing, your vocal cords are your instrument for singing, and you have to know how to work them,” says former comp kid and “So You Think You Can Dance” alum Ariana DeBose, who’s currently in the ensemble of Motown: The Musical. “Find a vocal coach,” she says. “Then choose at least three songs and work on them until you can present your best you no matter what.”
Kamille walked into the Flashdance audition—her first musical theater audition—armed with only one semester of voice lessons from The Juilliard School. But she decided confidence would be her greatest weapon. “I figured they were looking for someone who could sell the performance,” she says. “You don’t need to be able to belt like Whitney Houston to be in an ensemble. Even if you don’t feel like you have the best voice, prepare something that showcases your personality.” For Kamille, that was Estelle’s “American Boy.” Jakob’s first audition song? “ ‘Happy Birthday to You,’ ” he says. “I was as clueless as they come, but the next time I had a song prepared. And now I see a vocal coach whenever I’m in New York.”
Ariana DeBose (right) in Bring It On (Joan Marcus)
While some studio kids may have taken voice lessons in addition to dance class, there’s a third component they must master before being a true triple threat: “You have to be a performer,” Blankenbuehler says. “In a musical, dancers won’t necessarily have to sing solos, but they will always have to project emotions.”
Newsies dancer John Michael Fiumara, a past New York City Dance Alliance Senior Outstanding Dancer, says the hardest thing about his transition to musical theater was getting into character. “I never really thought of myself as a musical theater person, but just to be safe, I took voice lessons throughout my dance training,” he says. “The biggest challenge for me in Newsies was understanding the story and imagining myself as my character, Specs. But the directors told me they chose me because they liked the flavor I gave to the role and the look on my face when I danced.” Unfamiliar with acting? Sign up for a class or join a local community theater production.
Even if they’ve never had an acting or singing lesson, competitive dancers have a built-in resource many others don’t: a wide network. “It’s amazing how many people I danced with at competitions who are doing Broadway right now,” John says. “Competing as a kid gives you so many connections to help you get there.” Blankenbuehler, who teaches at NYCDA conventions nationwide, commends the rare dancer who approaches him to ask about upcoming auditions. “The resources are there—you just need to take advantage of them,” he says.
John Michael Fiumara with childhood teacher Abby Lee Miller on the Newsies set (courtesy John)
Once you’ve left the competition circuit, viewing every audition as a chance to expand your network will make lasting impressions that may lead to more auditions. John auditioned twice for Newsies to no avail, but the casting directors remembered him and called him back for a third, invitation-only audition when the role of Specs opened up. And a casting director from an unsuccessful audition for the show Memphis called Ariana back to audition for what would become her Broadway debut, playing Nautica in Bring It On. “That’s how a lot of auditions happen,” Ariana says. “You go in for one thing and you don’t get the job that day, but they’ll like you for something else. That’s why I never turn an audition down.”
“You’re probably going to get a lot of ‘no’s’ before you get a ‘yes,’ ” adds Kamille, who auditioned for many shows while taking a short break from the Flashdance tour this spring. “This industry is hard. You audition more than you work.”
After countless auditions and callbacks, nothing beats the feeling of finally nabbing that role. “I got the call and had to leave for the Flashdance tour the next day,” Kamille remembers. “There were so many emotions happening at once. But jumping into it like that has been one of the highlights of my career.”
If you’re a comp kid who’s caught the Broadway bug, these dancers prove it’s never too late to start tuning your vocal cords, brushing up your acting chops and getting into musical theater auditions. “I didn’t grow up singing or acting—I was at a ballet barre in a dance studio,” Jakob says. “But with musical theater, I get to do what I love and get paid for it. I’m a part of this world now, and I hope to be part of it for the rest of my life.”