Emma Portner (photo by Jayme Thornton)

Emma Portner's Unstoppable Career

Emma Portner is at a crossroads. At only 21 years old, she's already had the kind of opportunities most seasoned pros dream of: starring in a viral dance video, choreographing for Justin Bieber, working on a Broadway-bound musical, teaching internationally and performing at venues like New York City Center. Portner is playing by her own rules and embracing the challenges of being a choreographer, company director and dancer in nearly every style—and all at once. So where will she take her career next? Where will she focus her time?


While a certain degree of success can be predicated on serendipity, it's much more accurate to credit Portner's intuition and tireless work ethic with getting her where she is today. She's an incredibly focused, multi-hyphenate artist whose dedication to her craft has caused people across the entire industry to sit up and take notice. Powerful yet seemingly boneless, hip-hop infused and classically technical, she's a melting pot of dance—instantly recognizable and almost impossible to imitate. The zillions of movement phrases she posts on Instagram prove you're more likely to catch her sweat-soaked and alone in the studio than anywhere else. There are no posed shots and definitely no filter. Portner is showing just how cool it can be to put the effort in. And the payoff? Gig after gig in the contemporary, tap, commercial and Broadway worlds, and an industry that's scrambling to catch up with her.

From Canada to NYC

Portner's self-direction started early while training at Leeming Danceworks in Ottawa, Ontario. “I've been filming myself in the studio since I was 12 years old as a way to remember patterns, or break them," she says. “I thought it was normal until I started telling people about it." She attended summer intensives, including at The National Ballet of Canada, and, at 16, she moved to NYC for The Ailey School's Certificate Program.

From Ailey, Portner diversified her training, spending a summer with RUBBERBANDance Group, the über-cool Montreal-based contemporary company directed by Victor Quijada, and two summers at Springboard Danse Montréal.

In a surprising move for most contemporary dancers, Portner has also trained in tap. She first took Michelle Dorrance's class at NYC's Broadway Dance Center in 2013, where she started, in Portner's words, “struggling in the back corner, working my butt off." She was a quick study: Portner went on to dance featured parts in the MacArthur fellow's choreography and continues to perform with Dorrance's company, Dorrance Dance.

Big Breaks

As a teen, Portner asked Leeming Danceworks' director to invite choreographer Matt Luck to the studio. “We had an instant connection," Portner recalls. Luck must have felt it too: He called Portner just a couple months later and asked her to collaborate on a dance video.

Portner fans will know that the result, “Dancing in the Dark," catapulted Portner (and Luck) to a new level of visibility. “I never expected the video to generate the reaction it did," Portner says. “Dancing in the Dark" went viral in 2012, and among its more than 640,000 viewers and fans was hip-hop choreographer Parris Goebel, who gave them a shout-out in the comments.

Jayme Thornton


It wasn't long before Goebel reached out to Portner about a huge opportunity: the chance to collaborate on the music video for Justin Bieber's “Life Is Worth Living." “At first, I thought Parris was choreographing the video," Portner says, “and I was really nervous because I'm nothing like the dancers she normally works with." But Goebel wanted Portner to choreograph and had no doubts that she'd also be perfect in the video: “I wanted different styles for each song on the album, and I knew Emma would bring this one to life," she says.

Goebel gave Portner free range to create the duet with partner Patrick Cook. “We had six hours to make a dance," Portner says. “I did my best to make something that would be well received on a commercial platform, but still pushes the platform in a new direction." If its 33 million-plus views are any indication, she succeeded.

The “Life Is Worth Living" video opened yet another door. Nick DeMoura, the creative director of Bieber's Purpose World Tour, messaged Portner on Instagram and asked her to choreograph a piece of the tour. The catch? He wanted her to go to L.A. in January 2016, which Portner describes as the busiest month of her life. She'd just finished A Primitive Cinema—a major piece for her company (then named Flock'd Dance), supported by her second-runner-up win at the 2014 Capezio A.C.E. Awards— and was teaching at Intrigue Dance Intensive and performing with Dorrance Dance. Still, she couldn't turn it down.

Despite the added pressure of working for one of the world's biggest pop stars, Portner approached the experience with her usual blend of determination and research. “The tour was something so unlike me, but I'm really grateful for that opportunity. It opened me up to this elite world of artists that I never would have been exposed to," says Portner. “Now, I'm experiencing an influx of people contacting me to work on their videos and tours, and I'm able to be specific about what I choose to do."

Next Steps

Despite her newfound professional clout, Portner is still choosing to do everything. So far this year, she has revamped her company, renaming it Emma Portner and Artists; debuted and performed in a new work, Water that Came to My Waist; performed with Dorrance Dance in Dorrance's Myelination; choreographed a music video for indie artist Blood Orange; and is collaborating with Dee Caspary on a bicoastal show.

As if that weren't enough, she also went to London to start choreographing a new Broadway-bound musical, Bat Out of Hell, a contemporary take on rock singer Meat Loaf's 1977 collaboration with composer Jim Steinman. The show premieres in Manchester, England, in 2017 before hitting London, Canada and, eventually, Broadway. “All of my 12-year-old dreams are coming true," Portner says.

Even though her achievements are high-level, Portner's expectations for herself are even higher. “I'm not ready to commit totally to choreographing or directing," she says. “My body is at a point where I still have so much to discover. Right now, I'm interested in diving into contemporary ballet a little bit more."

She continues: “I feel like I'm trying to do 700 things, but that's what feeds my soul. I'm learning to play the piano and about neuroscience. I'm working to get nonprofit status for my company and a green card for myself. My attitude is always, 'Do it. Make it happen.' "

Emma's Choreography Workshop

Jayme Thornton

“I spend at least two hours a day exploring in the studio," Portner says. “I record everything and then watch the whole thing forward and in reverse. I give myself tasks to improve my dancing." Try some of Portner's prompts the next time you're in the studio. She often uses them to challenge herself as both a choreographer and mover:

  • Test your extremes. Redefine your understanding of slow and fast, in and out of control.
  • Only move with transition steps.
  • Channel a dancer you admire.
  • Partner the floor.
  • Film an improvisation, and then quickly learn it. (“This one is hilarious because I get a glimpse into what it may be like to take my own class and pick up my own material. It's frustrating!")
Tapping Into Something Different

Sure, she's got a hip-hop groove and sick contemporary skills. But Portner is equally at home in tap shoes, something that hasn't gone unnoticed by tap icon Michelle Dorrance.

“I asked Emma to be part of my 2015 work, Myelination, because of her incredibly singular voice," says Dorrance. “But what struck me most when first working with her was that she sought experiences as an ensemble member more than she did as a soloist. Not many dancers who receive so much individual attention prefer to humble themselves in an ensemble." The respect is mutual: “Michelle constantly pushes me. She's the only person to have ever 'benched' me as a dancer, and I love that," says Portner—who, true to form, stuck with tap because of its difficulties. She also stresses the importance of learning tap dance history and culture, and how that knowledge benefits all dancers, not just tappers.

Jayme Thornton

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What’s in Your Dance Bag—Based on Your Zodiac Sign

Sometimes our dance bags feel like portals to another dimension—we have no idea what half the stuff buried in our bags even is. (Note to self: Clean out dance bag.)

But have you ever wondered if there's a method to the madness? We're pretty sure there is, and as always, we're pretty sure it's something to do with astrology. That's right, your resident Dance Spirit astrologers are back with our best guess at what you keep in your dance bag—based on your zodiac sign.

Aries

You're always going 100 mph Aries (or maybe even more), so it's pretty much a guarantee that your dance bag is fully stocked with snacks to power you through the day. Granola bars, trail mix, yogurt, fruit. It's like a Whole Foods in there.

You've also usually got about six different pairs of shoes in your bag. As an Aries, you love adventure, trying new things and, most of all, a challenge. So when it comes to classes, you're all over the map. Tap, jazz, ballet, character, modern—you'll try them all.

Something else you won't go without? Your signature red lipstick, obv. How else are you going to show off your fiery personality? (And look amazing while doing it, TYSM.)

Taurus

As a child of Venus, you always want to look your best, Taurus. So your dance bag is a hair salon/makeup station, all in one. If your dance besties need to borrow a hair tie, or are looking for a fun accessory to spice up their bun, they know you're the one to go to.

Also important to you? Smelling your best. Taureans love comforting, luxurious scents, so your dance bag is typically equipped with a favorite perfume or deodorant. (Or both.)

But what's most important is the bag itself—admit it, you've been using the same dance bag for years. We get it, Taurus, nobody likes change, and least of all the stubborn bull of the zodiac. But if your dance bag is really starting to smell like feet (or if your bobby pins are starting to slip through the holes in the bottom), you might want to consider investing in a new bag.

Gemini

Gemini, you love to switch it up. So you're pretty much guaranteed to have at least three different dance fits in your bag at any given time. And your dancewear is always on point. You love to keep up with trends and try edgy, new looks.

Ever the intellect, you usually have a book in your bag, as well. You're always making book recs to your fellow dancers, and you refuse to be bored between rehearsals or backstage.

Though you might act carefree, Gemini, we know that at heart, you're ruled by Mercury—and you have more in common with your sister sign Virgo than you'd like to admit. That's why you always have a toothbrush, toothpaste, and some floss in your dance bag. No way you're getting caught with food between your teeth (or bad breath during partnering class).

Cancer

Not to be obvious, but as a water sign, the first and foremost thing a Cancerian keeps in their dance bag? A water bottle, of course. (Preferably a Hydroflask, S'well or any bottle that comes in a fun color.) No dehydration here, please and thank you.

Your dance bag also functions as a de facto vending machine for your dance besties, since you always come prepared with the best snacks, and you're always willing to share. As a bonus, your snacks are almost always homemade, since you're practically a five-star chef.

And while we're wary of zodiac stereotypes, there is a pretty good chance your dance bag is stocked with tissues. And there's no shame in that—because, really, who can get through a performance of Romeo and Juliet without shedding some tears? Props to you for being in touch with your emotions, Cancer.

Leo

We'll state the obvious, Leo. You love to look at yourself, and sometimes the studio mirrors just aren't enough. So, naturally, you always keep a compact mirror in your dance bag, just in case your makeup or your bun needs an extra touch-up.

You also love bright colors, and you're not afraid to wear more daring dancewear than any of your besties. You've usually got a couple of leotards packed in your bag, just in case you need to make a fashion statement, and they're always fun. Bright colors, loud prints, stylish necklines—you'll try anything.

But something not everyone knows about you? You're an amazing friend, and incredibly loyal, Leo. That's why you've usually got something in your bag for your dance bestie, be it her favorite brand of granola bar, a fun sparkly pin for her hair, or a note reminding her she's a star, on and off the stage.

Virgo

You're incredibly hardworking, Virgo, so you've always got the tools for success in your dance bag. TheraBands, foam rollers, tennis balls—you're the one dancer your teacher can always count on to be stretching between classes.

You also love to be prepared, so you've usually got a makeshift first-aid kit in your bag. The thought of suffering a blister or floor burn without the appropriate salves or bandages makes you shudder, and, hey, it's always better to be overprepared, right?

What's most noticeable about your dance bag, though, isn't what's inside of it. It's what it looks like—your bag is pristine. It never smells like feet, and you've got a hard-core system for what you keep in each little zip pocket or compartment. And TBH, all of your dance friends are jealous, though they'd never admit it.

Libra

Like your sister sign Taurus, appearances are important to you, Libra. You like to look good (no shame in that), so your dance bag is always stocked with the essentials: extra hair spray, lip gloss, concealer, bobby pins and a spare leotard, in case you get just a bit too sweaty.

You also love to socialize, so if this were the 1950s, we would say that you always keep your date book in your dance bag. As it is, you always have your phone with you, and it's usually blowing up with texts from your dance besties asking to make plans.

Your dance bag wouldn't be complete without your secret supply of chocolate. But to be clear: This isn't your average Hershey's bar. Libras aren't afraid to indulge, so you keep a bar of luxury dark chocolate tucked away for when the cravings hit.

Scorpio

You can't fool us, Scorpio—the contents of your dance bag aren't some big mystery, like you'd like us all to believe. In fact, they're pretty basic: For starters, you always have a black leotard or two in your bag. After all, black is your signature color.

One thing that isn't in Scorpio's dance bag? Toe pads. You love to look tough, so you'd never be caught dead wearing toe pads with your pointe shoes. However, this does mean you need a hefty supply of Band-Aids for the inevitable blisters.

You also love all things mystical and, dare we say, witchy. You're the Halloween queen of the zodiac, after all! So it's no surprise you always have a crystal or two in the front pocket of your dance bag. Let us guess…moldavite?

Sagittarius

You're an explorer, Sagittarius, and that applies to your dancing. You're always trying new dance styles, and that's reflected in your dance bag. You always have the trappings of your latest obsession in your bag: heeled shoes for ballroom, kneepads for contact improv, sneakers for breaking, the list goes on and on.

But on all of your adventures, there's one consistency: You love making memories. And that means literally—you document everything. At each performance or recital, you're bound to be the one with a Polaroid or disposable camera in your bag, and you can usually be found snapping backstage candids of your dance besties.

Your other favorite form of documenting? Writing it down. You love to learn, so you're always taking notes. You can usually be found after class scribbling down your dance teacher's latest piece of wisdom. Your dance bag is crammed with half-filled notebooks, and you wouldn't have it any other way.

Capricorn

You like to be prepared, Capricorn. And we mean prepared—for every bad scenario imaginable. That's why your dance bag is a mini survival kit. The first Capricorn dance bag guarantee? A stitch kit, of course. Losing a ribbon on your pointe shoe mid-rehearsal is your worst nightmare.

You also always have at least three spare leotards handy. After all, what if you spill something, or get too sweaty or, worst of all, show up to an audition in the same leotard as your dance rival? No, thank you. As a Capricorn, you're expecting the best and preparing for the worst.

Another key to your survival kit? Headphones, so you can drown out the noise around you and focus on your dancing. And before anyone asks, the answer is yes, you have the perfect playlist—for each and every occasion.

Aquarius

Aquarius, you love helping others. That's why it sometimes seems like your dance bag isn't even for you—it's filled with stuff you bring for your friends. Snacks for one dance bestie, Band-Aids for another, and tampons, of course, just in case anyone needs one.

But when it comes to you, you're all about originality. That's why you always have tons of fun accessories in your bag: striped legwarmers, colorful socks, tie-dyed sweats and more than a couple of fun additions to your ballet bun, just to make it a little more interesting.

You're also a rebel at heart, Aquarius, which is why there's usually something in your dance bag that just borders on breaking the rules. Maybe your studio is strictly black leotards only—and yours is gray. Or phones are completely banned—and you just put yours on vibrate. We see you.

Pisces

Like your fellow water sign Cancer, you're big on hydrating during dance class. But as a Pisces, you're a little more imaginative (and a little less practical), meaning you're usually carrying your water in something aesthetically pleasing, like a mason jar, a tumbler, or one of those fancy water bottles with a crystal in the base.

Unlike Cancer, you're a mutable sign, meaning you can adapt to just about any situation. Counterintuitively, this actually means your dance bag is pretty sparse. Unlike other zodiac signs who feel the need to overprepare in case of disaster, you're comfortable in most situations, and your dance bag reflects it. You like the basics, nothing else.

Something most people might not know about you, though, is that you get cold easily. We're not sure why, but it's a Pisces staple. That's why if you keep anything in your dance bag, it's the coziest of warm-ups.

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