"My First Job": Six Dance Icons on the Gigs that Helped Them Break into the Industry

January 23, 2020

Nowadays, you know them today for their flawless work and enviable resumés. But today’s industry heavy-hitters were once newbies hoping for their big breaks. A few of our idols took a trip down memory lane to look back on their first gigs—and how they changed everything.

Courtesy Kyle Hanagami

Kyle Hanagami

Sometimes, a career-defining moment boils down to finding yourself in the right place at the right time. For renowned choreographer Kyle Hanagami, that was L.A.’s Movement Lifestyle studio seven years ago. Hanagami took one of legendary dance couple Napoleon and Tabitha D’umo’s classes, and afterward, the two pulled Hanagami aside and insisted he help them on their upcoming project: choreographing an “all-stars of K-pop” TV special. (Fun fact: The crew for that special was stacked with other up-and-comers, including Ian Eastwood and Brian Puspos.)

Fast forward to 2019, and Hanagami himself is making dances for plenty of international stars, with the likes of BlackPink and Jennifer Lopez on his resumé. But Hanagami credits that first group job with setting the tone for his collaborative career. “Napoleon and Tabatha taught me about moves, but they also taught me about everything else that it takes to be a choreographer,” Hanagami says. “They have that kind of energy where it’s like, ‘Let’s work together to make the best product’—there are no egos involved. It’s about creating something that’s bigger than ourselves.”

Lee Gumbs Photography, courtesy SILLAR Management

Chloe Arnold

When hoofer Chloe Arnold—fearless founder of the Syncopated Ladies tap company—was 16 years old, she heard about an audition for Debbie Allen’s Brothers of the Night show at Washington, DC’s Kennedy Center. The DC native raced over, excited about rumors that the show included a tap duet. But at the audition, she found herself well out of her comfort zone, competing against Kirov Academy of Ballet students in musical theater and jazz combos.

Eager to impress Allen, one of her idols, she committed fully to every style. Arnold walked away with the coveted job—plus a new perspective on the dance world. “I tapped, I did jazz, I did musical theater, I did swing dancing, I sang, I acted,” Arnold says. “That audition expanded my lens of appreciation, and changed my vision. It was this realization that I can have endless reach—the more knowledge I have, the more access and freedom I have to express myself however I want.”

Although she mostly sticks to slaying the tap world today, she still advocates for dancers to diversify their learning. “I went in quite shy and scared, and I came out with a sense of pride, and self-awareness, and self-love,” Arnold says.

Courtesy Juliet Doherty

Juliet Doherty

Today, you can see Juliet Doherty on the big screen in The Accompanist and High Strung: Free Dance. But the ballerina’s pointe-shoe-in-the-door moment came when she was just 11. That year, she played Clara in the Seattle/Pittsburgh tour of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. The following season, she did the same part in the Florida/Texas leg of the tour, and the year after that, she played Clara in the flagship NYC production.

“I feel like I matured so much in an instant, just stepping into that rehearsal room,” Doherty says of the initial experience. From the very first day, the Spectacular team—especially director and choreographer Linda Haberman—expected, and projected, professionalism. “Before that tour, my mom was my teacher, and I was a very challenging student, I think,” Doherty says, laughing. “I was very stubborn. I was never really pushed to challenge myself, to look at myself honestly.” Dancing in the Spectacular taught her how to self-motivate—and how to take criticism. “I had to tell myself, ‘This person is giving me a note, and it’s not personal,’ ” she remembers. “And I have to do this for the greater good of the show.”

Courtesy Eden Shabtai

Eden Shabtai

Entertainment veteran Eden Shabtai—who now crafts choreography for pop favorites like Chris Brown and Ava Max—made her first foray into the commercial dance world back in 2009, performing in the music video for one-hit wonder Jadyn Maria’s “Good Girls Like Bad Boys.” Her biggest takeaway from that first job? The value of the connections made on-set. One of Ne-Yo’s reps happened to be there; the rep saw potential in Shabtai, and ended up bringing her onboard a Ne-Yo project in 2011, shortly after Shabtai moved to L.A.

“It’s so important that when you’re working, you’re thinking not just of the moment you’re in, but also about who you could be talking to, who you could be learning from,” she says. “Manifesting is such a big deal, and something that I feel like a lot of people don’t understand. Yeah, dance is a lot of hard work, but 98 percent of it is literally the way you think—your vision. You need that vision to be clear, and you need to move towards it.”

Lee Gumbs Photography, courtesy Janelle Ginestra-Adams

Janelle Ginestra-Adams

Before immaBEAST queen Janelle Ginestra-Adams was choreographing her own powerful pieces, she found herself working as a stand-in for none other than Jennifer Lopez. During the pop star’s 2014 AKA Tour, directed by Tabitha and Napoleon D’umo, Ginestra-Adams had to master not only the background dancers’ choreo, but also every single one of J.Lo’s steps. Napoleon and Tabitha were so impressed that they offered her the chance to choreograph one of Lopez’s interludes—which meant that Ginestra-Adams’ first-ever choreography job was for J.Lo herself. Talk about pressure!

Ginestra-Adams took it all in stride, and says the experience taught her about the courage it takes to find your creative vision. “It forced me to have confidence in my voice as a choreographer,” she says. “You have to believe in yourself, and make others believe that what you’re teaching them is great.” Now, whenever she choreographs, Ginestra-Adams tries to command the room in the most uplifting way possible. “By working with so many people, I’ve learned how I want to make my own dancers feel: passionate, loved, supported, inspired,” she says.

Alex Wong

Yes, “So You Think You Can Dance” All-Star Alex Wong is blessed with the flexibility of the gods—but he says the key to his success is actually self-motivation, a skill he learned at his first job. In 2004, the then–17-year-old earned a spot with the ABT Studio Company, the ultimate ballet career launching pad. Wong loved dancing alongside the other up-and-comers in his Studio Company group (including Isabella Boylston, Cory Stearns, and Matthew Golding), but the biggest lesson he learned that year was about professional accountability. “I remember I was wearing warm-ups all the time in class, and a few months down the road, I took them off and I was not pleased with how my legs were looking and my dancing was looking,” he says. “I had to tell myself, ‘OK, I’m in charge of maintaining myself now.‘ ”

Now busy with multiple projects in various parts of the dance world, Wong always makes time for technique. “When you leave your school and no one is forcing you to take class every day, you have to actively develop that self-discipline,” he says.