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."
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."
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."
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis are the kings of making the catchiest, danciest pop songs around. Case in point? Their latest hit, "Dance Off," which you can find us grooving to at any given moment here at DS. So we were super excited when they took their performance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon to the next level with—wait for it—a true dance off, featuring DS favorite, Mishay Petronelli. Check out all the fun below!
Mishay Petronelli in Dana Foglia's "Cy.clo.thy.mi.a." Photo by Zach Zealand.
Mishay Petronelli demands your attention. It might be the electric energy radiating from her petite, muscular frame. Or maybe it’s the way she plunges into the music, filling every nook and cranny with sinewy, sensual movement. One thing’s for sure: It’s impossible to take your eyes off her.
Mishay, 24, didn’t start dancing until she was 12. It was only after seeing her friends dance that she discovered her natural ability. “I would go to a nearby studio and watch their classes,” the Ohio native says. “When I got home, I’d show my mom the combos that I’d learned in my head.” She started taking classes soon after—everything from ballet to hip hop to tap—and threw herself into the competition and convention scene. After high school, Mishay spent eight months dancing on a cruise ship, but she soon realized she didn’t belong on the water; she belonged on a larger stage.
In 2006, Mishay moved to NYC, where she began an intense training regimen (which she continues today) under teachers like Rhapsody, Dana Foglia and Jared Grimes, while auditioning for commercial work in NYC and L.A. “Since coming to the city, I’ve grown so much,” she says. “The students, the teachers, the different styles—they’ve changed me completely.”
Mishay isn’t just a well-rounded dancer—she’s a chameleon. Hip hop, contemporary, ballet, commercial, tap: She does it all. The musicality of tap seeps into her contemporary; the dynamism of her contemporary makes her untouchable in a hip-hop combo. And all of this makes her a choreographer’s dream.
Mishay has performed in Whitney Houston’s music video for “Million Dollar Bill,” on “Saturday Night Live” with Kanye West and in Dana Foglia’s shows VATIC and Cy.clo.thy.mi.a. But she’s not just shooting for commercial superstardom. “I would love to dance with Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet or Nederlands Dans Theater, or maybe even on Broadway. I want to do it all!” she says. And with her magnetic energy and loveable personality, she probably will.
Birthday: January 4, 1987
Favorite book: The Little Prince
Must-see TV show: “30 Rock”
Must-see movies: The September Issue and Love Actually
Most-played on her iPod: CocoRosie
Dance idol: Benoit-Swan Pouffer
Favorite day-off activity: Sleep!
Who would play her in a movie: Reese Witherspoon