Other than being one of the nicest and funniest people on earth, Ellen DeGeneres also happens to have a knack for spotting talented dancers. Thanks to the comedian's dance obsession, world-class dancers like Tiler Peck, Lex Ishimoto, and Travis Wall have performed on her hit talk show "Ellen," with dance all-star tWitch retaining a permanent role as the show's DJ.
How did hip-hop prodigies Taylor Hatala and Larsen Thompson become the “Fraternal Twins"? Well, let's see: Both are rising stars on the commercial scene, booking coveted gig after coveted gig. Both are members of Will “WilldaBeast" Adams' immaBEAST crew and Brian Friedman's Suga N Spice crew. Both dominate in Janelle Ginestra's crazy-popular YouTube videos. Both are known for giving profoundly, overwhelmingly impressive stank face.
Six sets of identical twins share the joys and challenges of taking on the dance world two at a time.
Leigh-Ann (left) and Sara Esty backstage during The Nutcracker (courtesy Sara Esty)
Sara, soloist, & Leigh-Ann Esty, corps de ballet, Miami City Ballet
Do you have the same strengths in the studio?
Leigh-Ann: Sara is a quick mover, and I’m more of a lyrical mover. Our ballet mistresses have given us opportunities according to our strengths. But they also challenge us to do some of the same roles.
Has having a twin worked to your advantage?
Sara: In Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room, we danced as the “bomb squad” girls, two dancers in red pointe shoes who do fast sequences across the floor in complete unison. We did one show in Chicago on tour, and afterward, our director said, ‘OK, that was just scary,’ because we were completely in sync with each other, doing the same exact little things with our heads and feet. It happens a lot when we get to dance next to each other, but this time it was extra creepy.
Samantha (left) and Jenelle Figgins (by Jefry Andres Wright)
Jenelle, Dance Theatre of Harlem, & Samantha Figgins, Complexions Contemporary Ballet
Did you always want to be in different companies?
Jenelle: We do want to dance with some of the same companies—we just don’t necessarily want to be there at the same time. We each want to maintain our individuality, and if we were in the same company at the same time, that might be difficult. We have different things to offer a company.
How are you different as dancers?
Samantha: I’ve always been a really good turner, and Jenelle is a beautiful jumper. I think she’s more striking and I have a smoother quality.
Do you stand next to each other in class?
Jenelle: Not at the barre, but we tend to dance together in grand allégro or waltz.
Samantha: It’s never a competition, but we push each other.
Do you share dance clothes?
Samantha: We live together in NYC, and sometimes I’ll sneak into her room when she’s at work. She does the same thing. I was looking at a video of her with DTH online, and I was like, “That leotard looks really familiar.”
Travis (left) and Tyler Atwood (by Darlene Froberg)
Travis & Tyler Atwood, competition dancers
How can people tell you apart?
Tyler: Travis has a mole on the right side of his nose. That’s really it. But once you get to know us, we’re definitely different, even our dancing. In hip hop, Travis is more contemporary, while I have an edgier style. Plus, Travis is a lefty, and I’m a righty.
How do you handle competition with each other?
Tyler: When Travis wins something, sometimes I get a little jealous.
Travis: In the end, we know it will benefit both of us. In 2011, I won National Mini Outstanding Dancer at New York City Dance Alliance, but we both got to travel during the following season and spend time with the faculty.
Do people ever confuse the two of you?
Travis: Sometimes when we’re at conventions, one of us will get called up onstage and the teacher will see the other brother dancing on the floor and get really confused.
15-year-old Kenzie (left) and Kierra (by Levi Walker)
Kenzie & Kierra Fischer, competition dancers
How can people tell you apart?
Kierra: Only our closest friends and family can tell us apart. Some people think they can, but they really can’t. We don’t always tell them when they’re wrong. I’m like, “Yeah, I’m totally Kenzie!”
Kenzie: Even our dad can’t tell us apart all the time.
Do you ever intentionally switch places?
Kierra: One time, Kenzie had a solo she didn’t feel comfortable with yet, and she was begging not to go to rehearsal. I went and pretended to be her, and the choreographer totally bought it. Later I taught Kenzie the part I’d learned.
Do you always get along?
Kierra: We get along, but we also annoy each other. I get second-hand embarrassed easily. If Kenzie does something embarrassing, it feels like it was me—because people may not know it wasn’t.
Do you share dance clothes?
Kenzie: Yeah, we share everything. I keep all the dance clothes in my room, and she keeps all the dresses in hers.
Kierra: But we’ve come downstairs in the same outfit many times. Sometimes we’ll go with it, but there are those days when we fight about who had it on first and who has to go upstairs to change.
Kellie (left) and Katie Cockrell at the premiere of Jack and Jill (by Byron Purvis/AdMedia)
Katie & Kellie Cockrell, commercial dancers
What’s it like auditioning with your twin?
Katie: Most of the time, when people audition, they don’t have someone in the room who is family and loves them no matter what.
Kellie: At auditions with Katie, I feel more confident. There are actually a lot of “twin auditions,” too. We see the same sets of twins at every one, so we’ve made friends with a lot of them.
Has being a twin worked to your advantage?
Kellie: We’ve booked a lot of jobs because we’re twins, like our very first gig, which was a Disney Channel movie when we were 17. And we had small parts in the recent Star Trek movie. They wanted girls who looked alike, and being twins helped us stand out from the other auditioners.
How do you handle the competition when they’re only hiring one dancer?
Katie: Luckily, it usually happens that when one of us gets something, the other will book a job the next time. But it’s difficult—it’s your sister, your best friend, but you’re like, ‘Well, why did you pick her?’ It’s a delicate balance.
Kellie: It comes down to perspective and realizing that ultimately we’re family first. Having Katie as my twin is more important than booking a job.
David (left) and Jacob Guzman (by Heidi Gutman)
Jacob & David Guzman, Newsies on Broadway
Do your castmates confuse the two of you?
Jacob: Once people get to know us, they know the difference. They don’t even have to think, Oh, he has a freckle, so he’s Jacob. They can just tell by how we walk and talk and respond to things.
David: Jacob’s more outgoing. I’m more reserved.
Do you always get along?
David: We’re both competitive people. Whether it’s a video game or a physical sport, sometimes we’ll get so into it that we’ll get mad at each other. But then two seconds later we’ll say, “What-ever, it’s just a game.” We’re best friends.
How have you handled competing against each other?
Jacob: In 2009, we competed for America’s Teen Male Dancer of the Year at the American Dance Awards. David got first runner-up, and I won. In my speech the next year when I gave up my title, I said, “It was so hard to rejoice when I won when my brother had just fallen short of the prize.” Then, that year, David won the title! I’d rather be onstage competing with him than competing against him. I’m strong by myself, but we’re stronger as a team.
Larry (left) and Laurent Bourgeois (by Erin Baiano)
Larry and Laurent Bourgeois—known in the dance industry as “Les Twins”—are easily recognizable by their big hair, chiseled jawlines and so-far-out-there style. They wear their pants backward and topped with kneepads down around their ankles, and rock enough bling, bracelets and accessories to arm an entire competition team. The youngest of 18 siblings, these 24-year-old French party boys don’t seem to take anything too seriously—and that includes their dancing. “I just freestyle,” Laurent says. “I have no talent.” Though Les Twins don’t boast a resumé filled with training credits—they’re self-taught hip hoppers—the “no talent” point is worth arguing against if you’ve seen them in action.
Beyoncé would certainly stand against Laurent’s claim: According to her choreographer since 1997, Frank Gatson Jr., it was Beyoncé herself who spotted the twins and told Gatson to bring them onto the team. “Beyoncé is a monster,” Laurent says. “That’s her name—I call her that all the time. I give her power when I don’t have any power left.” Larry and Laurent danced alongside Beyoncé at the Billboard Music Awards in 2011 and now they’ll join her on The Mrs. Carter Show World Tour as the only male dancers. “I want to bring everything onto the stage. I want to sleep on the stage,” Larry says. “I just want to go out there and kill the stage.”
Photography by Erin Baiano
New Complexions Contemporary Ballet dancer Samantha Figgins is a showstopper. During the company’s recent Joyce season in NYC, she wowed critics and audiences alike with her impeccable technique, emotional intensity and ability to layer a hip-hop sensibility on top of classical training. She bopped through Camille A. Brown’s hip-hop piece Memories with boundless energy and joy. In company co-founder Dwight Rhoden’s The Curve, Samantha’s movement filled every musical phrase to the brim. Throughout the performances, her face was a palette of emotion—but whenever she broke into her huge smile, her love of dancing was undeniable. Personality plus crazy skills? Check!
Rhoden says he just had to have Samantha’s style and passion in his company. “When I first saw Samantha in a master class, I thought, ‘Wow.’ She has a majesty and elegance about her that doesn’t take away from her being able to interpret grounded movement,” he says.
Now, the 23-year-old Washington, D.C., native is enjoying being a standout in a company of stars. So how’d she get so cool and talented? DS sat Samantha down to find out.
The Take-Charge Twins
Samantha and her “built-in best friend,” identical twin sister Jenelle, jumped into ballet classes at age 5, following their older sister Dionne’s lead. Though she enjoyed it, Samantha admits she wasn’t thrilled by the discipline. So she didn’t mind when they left classical dance behind three years later and started to run track and perform with their school’s dance team instead.
But by the time they were 13, the girls were back on the ballet path, auditioning for the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, a performing arts high school. “Though we hadn’t had formal classes for a few years, dance was still there for me,” Samantha says. “Watching my sister Dionne travel the world as a soloist with Dance Theatre of Harlem had shown me that I wanted to be a dancer. I knew Ellington would be the place to start honing my craft because it’s focused on shaping potential, not teaching kids who are already formed artists.”
At Ellington, Samantha developed a serious work ethic and fell further in love with the art and athleticism of classical ballet. Later in high school, she discovered modern dance. “I wanted to do them together even though I hadn’t quite seen it done yet,” she says. “When we choreographed on our own, I explored combining the two.”
And despite the inevitable comparisons and occasional friendly competition, Samantha says having her twin there to encourage and bolster her was invaluable. “Sometimes it would get tense at home, because as twins we’re constantly compared to each other,” she says. “But we would be upset for five minutes and then realize how much we appreciated each other. If she got a role, I’d learn it as an understudy and vice versa. It was a challenge sometimes, but it made our relationship stronger. She’s fierce.”
When college choices were on the table, Samantha looked for universities that would fulfill both her academic and artistic ambitions. SUNY Purchase fit the bill.
College turned out to be a time for Samantha to expand her artistry. “I had always thought I wanted to go off and dance hard all the time,” she says, with her trademark giggle. “But at Purchase I was able to bounce ideas off people and figure out who I was as an artist. I learned I don’t just want to be a dancer. I want to make a statement, have a process, use ideas and feelings.”
It was also at Purchase that Samantha honed her exceptional performance quality. “I worked on being a chameleon, being able to adapt to the choreographer and add my perspective to his or her vision,” she says. “Dance is a human artform and I wanted that to stand out in my dancing—that there’s something to relate to beyond legs and lines. It’s not just about tricks. It’s about a story and the emotions behind the dance.”
Samantha adds that she also came into her own socially at Purchase, enjoying a “normal” college life, even though she stayed focused on dance. “The person you are outside of dance is the person you are as a dancer,” she says. “If you don’t know who you are and you’re not comfortable with yourself, you’ll have a hard time becoming different characters onstage.”
After graduation, Samantha weathered a few hard knocks, like getting cut from Broadway auditions and not making the Dance Theatre of Harlem main company (where Jenelle is currently a member). But her determination and belief in her abilities to “do it all” kept her driven. “I came to NYC and didn’t quite know what I was going to do,” she says. “But I networked, took classes and asked Dionne to help point me in the right direction.” (Dionne is a former Complexions company member herself and recommended Samantha to the Complexions founders.)
Partly following Dionne’s recommendation and partly obeying her own instinct, Samantha decided to take a Complexions master class at Steps on Broadway in June 2011. “Desmond [Richardson, one of the company’s co-founders] saw me in the master class and we exchanged information right there,” she says. “Later that week, he invited me to attend the summer intensive on scholarship, and I started that three weeks later.” Complexions was a fit for Samantha right away. “I saw that the company did what I was looking for,” she says. “The dancers perform every style.”
During the intensive, Samantha was offered an apprentice spot with the company and started learning the repertoire the final week. “She was cast in things immediately,” Rhoden says. “After she came to our summer course, I thought, ‘As soon as I have a slot for a woman, she’s in.’ My work fit her and I’m always looking for that inexplicable quality of being just right. I knew I wanted to find a place for her. Samantha is versatile, bubbly and animated, but also focused and professional.”
Later in 2011—much to her delight—Samantha was made a full Complexions company member. “The company’s work is that perfect mix of ballet and modern I’ve always dreamed of,” she says.
“Samantha’s only challenge might lie in the fact that she’s a perfectionist,” Rhoden says. “Sometimes you just have to let it go in the studio, and she’s learning to let the process be. But it’s a good problem—she wants results!”
Samantha eventually hopes to choreograph, dance backup for her favorite singer Rihanna and perform more commercial work (she has already danced in the movie Bolden!). Whatever she does, Samantha is set on being “the strongest artist I can be—in my own way.”
Birthday: August 31, 1989
Most-played artist on her iPod: Rihanna
Who would play her in a movie: Zoë Saldana
Favorite dancer of all time: Sylvie Guillem
Favorite Class: Andrea Long’s ballet class at Dance Theatre of Harlem
Something people don’t know about her: “I can sing jazz and soul music.”
Strangest thing in her dance bag: “I have a stamp that says ‘Every little thing counts.’ I put it on my hand to help me remember that sometimes.”
Dance crush: Danny Tidwell
Her idol: Michael Jackson
Performer she’d have loved to work with: Josephine Baker
Dance BFF: Jenelle Figgins
Dance mentor: Dionne Figgins
The best advice she’s ever received: “Trust your gut. Don’t be afraid of your instincts.”
Advice for DS readers: “Approach everything you do with positivity, love and faith.”
Complexions Contemporary Ballet: Daring to be Different
Interested in Samantha’s new home, Complexions Contemporary Ballet? Here’s the scoop on the daring troupe:
•Complexions was formed in 1994 by Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson to “create a forum where dancers could explore and be created on,” Rhoden says. “We wanted a place where the differences between dancers—backgrounds, training and outlook—could be celebrated and serve as contagious inspiration.” Diversity, versatility and energy are the troupe’s trademarks.
•The repertoire of Complexions is largely Rhoden’s work, which requires extreme athleticism. Pieces by William Forsythe, Camille A. Brown, Jodie Gates and Jae Man Joo are also performed.
•Rhoden says he looks for dancers who demonstrate impeccable ballet
technique, versatility, passion and a desire to explore.
•If you’re interested in being part of Complexions, make sure your ballet
technique is top-notch. Explore contemporary and jazz styles, too, and try to attend the company’s summer intensive before the annual audition, which
is usually held in late March or early April.