The Story of Two Competition Kids Turned Broadway Dancers
It’s not a stretch to say that Shanna VanDerwerker and Marty Lawson’s path-crossing has been a bit serendipitous. They had a fleeting exchange at StarQuest Nationals at age 15 and 16, respectively. The next year, they were paired together for the Mr. & Miss Dance routine at Dance Masters of America Nationals. Coincidentally, they both decided to study dance at Point Park College (now Point Park University) the following year.
Their careers have followed the gives and takes of a serious relationship. Shanna graduated from college in three years because Marty planned to; after graduation he moved to Florida to work at Walt Disney World because Shanna wanted to. Nine months later, they moved to NYC so Marty could apprentice with The Parsons Dance Company. Currently they are balancing careers on Broadway—Shanna in Wicked and Marty in Movin’ Out. Still dating after six years but displaying the sarcastic repartee of an old married couple, they often meet for dinner dates in Times Square between shows.
“As far back as I remember, dance is all I’ve ever done, and all I’ve ever wanted to do,” says Shanna, who studied ballet, jazz and tap. By age 12, she was spending seven days a week at Fran’s Studio of Dance in Oxon Hill, MD. And when her mother, a seamstress, opened a retail and custom costume store above the studio, Shanna spent even more time in the building. “In high school, I would come directly from school and while [the studio] was vacant, I’d work on my solos. Then I’d go upstairs [to the store], do homework, eat, then go back down for class. I truly lived there.”
Marty came to dance at age 11 while studying gymnastics in southwestern Pennsylvania. His coaches suggested he take dance classes to improve his balance and flexibility. He began with acro and jazz and added tap and ballet as well as competitions the next year. “I got a lot more attention dancing than [in] gymnastics, being the only boy, so eventually I ended up switching to just dance,” he says.
The details of the day they met are still clear in their minds: Shanna was preparing for her duet with Rasta Thomas, while Marty sat in the audience, dressed in his muslin tunic costume for a trio to “Close Every Door” from Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat. For a reason she can’t explain even today, Shanna was compelled to introduce herself. “I was the shyest kid you’d ever meet. I don’t know what came over me, but I went over and sat next to him, and said ‘Hi, I’m Shanna. Who are you?’”
Marty says that he was intimidated not just by Shanna’s initiative, but by her dramatic makeup, dark pixie cut and strong dance style: “Shanna put off a different vibe than what her actual personality is. People thought she was going to sound different than the sweet voice that actually popped out of her.” Shanna’s performances were also more racy than what he’d seen in his conservative hometown. Marty begins, “The girls from her studio were not the kind of girls that we were used to at our studio. They danced more maturely and uhhh…” He trails off, smiling, as Shanna laughs and interjects, “[My teacher] Fran taught us about sexuality [in dancing], but she always said there was a fine line between sexy and trashy.”
Having shared only a few words that day, they went their separate ways at the competition’s end and didn’t meet again until the following summer at Dance Masters of America Nationals, where they were randomly paired together for a finalists’ finale. “I got stuck with this sick girl who had tissues in every pocket,” says Marty, feigning disgust. Shanna laughs and comes to her own defense: “I was really, really sick. I showed up with like four different infections—sinuses, throat, ears and lungs. I was gross, and he got stuck with me. But I was happy—I thought he was cute!” Illness aside, the two hung out all week. “He would give me a hard time and tease me—typical teenager stuff,” Shanna says. “We all signed each other’s programs, and what does he write to me? ‘You are a dork.’ It was cute.”
Except for one letter Shanna wrote Marty during the next year—which was unreturned, she reminds him even today—they didn’t speak again until the next DMA Nationals, the summer after their high school graduations, when they discovered they both planned to major in dance at Point Park College in Pittsburgh that fall.
The Comp Circuit
Marty and Shanna credit competitions for helping them grow as dancers. “[Competing] makes you understand that you’re not perfect, that there’s always going to be someone better than you. And that makes you work harder,” she says. For him, competitions were a chance to check out styles from around the country and to improve his own skills: “[My hometown] wasn’t a big area where they staged Nutcrackers or had a lot of community theater where they brought in dancers, so the only stage time you got was doing your dance recital at the end of the year and during the summer at competition,” Marty says. He explains that no matter how poorly he danced, he was still the boy onstage and everyone at the studio loved his performances, so it was good to hear from the judges what he needed to improve.
Shanna says the trick ante has been upped since her competition days, but dancing with artistry is still what makes a champion: “[My solos] had maybe a few grand jetés and layouts. What made me stand out is that I was taught how to interpret the music with my body. You can do kicks and fouettés and all the jumps and stuff, but that shows no artistry. As I’m judging and teaching, I’m finding that a lot of kids aren’t learning musicality. They don’t know how to breathe; they don’t know how to feel the music. I always say, ‘Don’t do this if you don’t love it. And if you love it, let me see you love it. Because it’s not worth the pain, the money and the time if you don’t.’”
The biggest thing the couple learned on the competition circuit is that the dance world is small. “I find it fascinating the amount of people we competed against who we still run into now,” Marty says. Both Marty and Shanna remember Wicked cast members from competition, and Ron Todorowski, whom Marty competed against, has performed in both The Parsons Dance Company and Movin’ Out. When Shanna and Marty shot a Riz-Biz Productions theater dance video with choreographer Christopher Gattelli (Altar Boyz) four years ago, Gattelli recognized Shanna from a competition. She recalls, “He said, ‘I remember watching your solo and thinking you were fantastic, and you touched me, standing all the way in the back of the audience.’ For him to remember me five years later, that just shows you how small the dance world is.”
After high school, Shanna wanted to head straight to NYC to start her dance career; her mother wanted her to be a doctor. They met in the middle, and she chose to study dance at Point Park on a recommendation from an older dancer she admired from her studio. “If I had come to New York right away, I would have been eaten up, chewed and spit back home to Maryland. I never would have made it,” Shanna says. “I needed that experience. Your knowledge is so limited when you come out of high school, and you don’t realize that.”
Marty chose Point Park, because it was one of the few schools offering a dance major with a jazz concentration, but wasn’t sure he wanted to dance for a living—as a kid, he aspired to be an archaeologist or marine biologist. Partway through his freshman year, he realized he wanted to make dance his career.
From their first day at Point Park, Marty and Shanna were inseparable, forming a tightly knit circle with three other freshmen dancers. “We’d stay up all night talking, the five of us,” Marty recalls. “[At that time] I really reverted back to third grade, with me picking on her—that give-and-take banter,” says Marty. In March of their sophomore years, the two started dating officially.
Though they spent much time together outside of class, Marty and Shanna were never partners in department works. “We’d get put in the same pieces, then be on opposite sides of the stage,” he says. Finally they danced together at their senior concert in a secretly choreographed duet that moved even their toughest teachers to tears.
Working for a Living
Before their last year in college, they spent the summer dancing at Walt Disney World, Shanna in the Kids of the Kingdom stage show, and Marty in the Animal Kingdom’s Tarzan. Following their May graduation, they returned to Florida for extended performing contracts.
After nine months, Marty was itching to pursue a potential opportunity in NYC: He’d been offered an apprenticeship to The Parsons Dance Company but it never worked out because he was in Florida and it was unpaid. “Finally I saved up enough money and [got the] nerve to come up here,” says Marty. “I thought, we’re either going to be [in Florida] doing the same show for the rest of our lives or we can take a chance.” They moved into a tiny studio apartment in NYC and Marty, after taking a summer intensive and classes with the company, was offered a full-time contract. “All I knew [of the company] was from the summer intensive. I had never actually seen the company perform. I got really lucky, because it turned out to be exactly what I wanted,” he says. “I knew that [the company] was a big enough deal that I wasn’t starting out at the bottom of the food chain.”
Meanwhile, Shanna landed a job as dance captain for a Kansas City–based production of The Wizard of Oz and toured to Atlanta, Dallas and Pittsburgh. “It was the first time I was on my own away from Marty. It was a growth period for us as a couple,” she says. “It was hard, but it was the first time I was experiencing things by myself, so it was good for me in that respect.”
She went on to perform a holiday show in Wisconsin, assist Christopher Gattelli on a tour of Grease and perform Kiss Me, Kate in Houston before heading back to Wisconsin to appear in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Whenever possible, Marty and Shanna visited each other.
Though she enjoyed regional theater, Shanna’s dream was to dance on Broadway. After Marty took her to Wicked as a Christmas gift, her dream became more specific: to dance on Broadway in Wicked. “I fell in love with everything. It’s so sensory and stunning. It has beautiful music and sets and a fun story,” she says. “I was determined to go to every audition, because I wanted to be in this show.”
Last January, her dream came true and she was offered a position as a swing. The past eight months have left her feeling a bit like Dorothy: “Everything happened so fast, it’s been such a tornado for me. I’ve been waiting my whole life for my first Broadway show. It’s just amazing. If there’s a better word than amazing, then you can write it, because I don’t know what it is. Sometimes I wake up and I’m like, ‘Was it all a dream?’ I’m really afraid I’m going to walk into work and they’re going to be like, ‘Who are you?’”
Not everything has been easy for Marty and Shanna—a time in their relationship they now jokingly call the “the dark year” is still fresh in their minds. Before landing Wicked, Shanna was on the verge of quitting dance altogether; she had spent a year and a half auditioning like crazy and only getting short gigs here and there. “I was so miserable that it was starting to reflect in our relationship,” Shanna says. “[That time] is like the black hole. I look back at it and it makes me ill.”
Meanwhile, Marty was excelling with Parsons; he toured internationally with the company and won a Princess Grace Award. “I didn’t want to come home and brag about [these] great opportunities and how much I love my job, when I knew she was just miserable,” he says. In fall of 2004, Marty auditioned for Movin’ Out and was offered a short-term contract as a swing. Shanna remembers running laps around her day job’s office when he called with the good news. “He said to me, ‘I feel bad being excited because this is your dream more than it’s my dream right now.’ And I said, ‘Be excited! You’re on Broadway!’”
The two avoid competing with each other. “I can’t compare myself to a really talented, attractive man. But sometimes I felt like he didn’t understand just how frustrated I was, because three months after [we moved to NYC] he got in a company and was doing his dream,” Shanna says, adding that the most difficult situation of all was when Marty would complain about his problems or frustrations at work. “I would say, ‘You’re working, stop complaining! You’re doing what you love!’ I know that he was just venting to me, but that was so hard.”
Marty now has a permanent contract with Movin’ Out, performing as an ensemble swing and understudying the lead role of Eddie, which he dances at least once a week. Next on Shanna’s list is to secure a permanent contract with Wicked.
As they settle into their careers, Marty and Shanna are finding how different their lives are from their peers. “A lot of our friends talk about feeling so old—they’re getting married,going to bed early, buying houses, and they’re 26 years old,” Marty says. “It’s hard to relate to them. We don’t have the job security that they do. They’re talking about what vacations they want to take; we love what we do and don’t want to leave to take vacation.” Shanna made a similar observation when she went to her best friend’s wedding: “I saw all of this security, and it made me want it because things [for us] are so uncertain. Here we are in NYC living the glamorous life of artists, but we don’t own property, we’re not married,” she says.
This mood doesn’t last long. “I just want a dog,” Shanna says, turning to Marty. “I’ll lay off on everything else if I can just have a dog.”