Dancing for the Stars

January 9, 2008

Hilary Duff has a confession: Even she—the sweet, mature, 20-year-old pop star—can be a troublemaker. “We’re doing the same thing every night onstage,” she says. “So we do get into trouble sometimes: We play tag.” Julianne Waters, one of her four backup dancers (who’s sitting next to her on a couch during the interview), giggles.


It’s about an hour before an early September concert in upstate New York. Duff and her crew are one month into the six-week North American “Hilary Duff: Dignity Tour.” Night after night they are staging the same songs in the same order with the same dances. When it gets a little old, Duff and her dancers spice things up by playing tag, right onstage and smack in the middle of the music. They’re subtle about it—so subtle, in fact, that the audience doesn’t even notice.


“Do it tonight,” suggests someone in the room.


Duff turns to Waters. “I’ll start out,” she says.


“OK,” Waters says. “You’re it!”


Serving the Star

Duff is most definitely “it.” Though she and Waters call themselves friends, they’re coworkers first. And in this relationship, Duff is clearly the VIP. While her four dancers and eight band members cram into a dozen bunks on a single tour bus, Duff has her own bus. She shares it with a bodyguard, a few managers, and her dog Lola, but she doesn’t sleep on a bunk. Instead the back of the bus has been converted into a bedroom with a queen-sized mattress just for her.


Hanging above Duff’s bed is a photo collage made by Anjolie Marfori, a 19-year-old dancer who counts the Duff show as her first tour. The frame contains behind-the-scenes photos of Duff and her backups having fun and hanging out.


“[My] relationship [with the dancers] really developed before the tour, when we were rehearsing,” Duff says. “I was so nervous to dance—I’d never danced on my tours before.”


Waters, Marfori and choreographer Fatima Robinson helped Duff learn little tricks, like how to dance in heels (hold your stomach tight!). And in July, when Duff forgot her moves during the dress rehearsal for a performance of her song “Stranger” on Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance,” Waters went over the steps with her in the star’s dressing room right before the performance—which Duff nailed. At the end of the song, while still on camera, Duff glanced at Waters and breathed a sigh of relief.


“They’re always on it,” Duff says of her dancers. “I’m motivated and inspired by them.”


Getting (and Keeping) the Job

Waters, Marfori and their two male counterparts—Lyle Beniga and Misha Gabriel (see the DS cover, May/June 2007)—have a simple task: Make Duff look good. And that’s the same principle for every backup dancer on any show.


“If you’re a dancer,” says 29-year-old Nanci Anderson, who’s touring with Justin Timberlake, “you’re not a star.”


“You’re the background,” adds another Timberlake dancer, 22-year-old Tammy Fey. “We’re there for him. He hired us and is paying us. We’re there to make his show better.”


But getting—and keeping—the job is a grueling process that is driven not only by skill, but also by looks (hair color, skin tone and height all count), luck and who you know.


Marty Kudelka, who choreographed and co-directed Timberlake’s “FutureSex/ LoveShow,” chose Anderson after a seven-hour audition that started out with about 150 dancers. Though he knew most of the nine dancers who were chosen for the tour, Kudelka had never met Anderson, who had previously toured with Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears.


Fey, on the other hand, came from the same Dallas dance studio as Kudelka. They first met when she was 8 years old and Kudelka was a teenager teaching an advanced dance class. “She had big ol’ bangs, overalls—very country,” Kudelka said. “We laugh about it to this day.”


Fey has definitely transformed. She now has stylishly short blonde hair with a black streak that gives her a sexy, rocker-girl look. She and Anderson dance in lingerie for one of the show’s steamiest numbers, “Damn Girl.” Kudelka is only half joking when he says, “I try not to watch too much.” He considers Fey “my little sister,” and she refers to him as “my big bro.” As awkward as the sexy number might be for the pair, there’s a deeper lesson here for dancers: network. Get to know other dancers. Take classes from choreographers. Get good—and get noticed.


“There’s no not wanting to be seen in this industry,” Anderson says. “If you’re shy, you have to get over it.”


One of the best ways to be seen is to move to L.A., where most commercial tours are cast. But it’s not impossible to do it from elsewhere. Beyoncé dancer Byron Carter is based out of Cincinnati, OH. Three years ago he traveled to L.A. for an open audition with Clear Talent Group. He signed with the agency and shortly thereafter attended another open call, this one in Chicago for Destiny’s Child. A few days after the audition, while working his day job at a tuxedo shop, his cell phone rang. Carter remembers the conversation this way:


“This is Frank Gatson from Destiny’s Child.” The voice alone gave Carter a jolt. He kept listening. “We really like you,” Gatson continued, “and want to use you.” Carter then excused himself, dropped the phone, raced a lap around the tuxedo shop and came back on the line and said. “Okay, where do you need me and when do you need me to be there?” He’s been working with Gatson—first for Destiny’s Child, and now for Beyoncé—ever since.

The Hustle

Carter’s close relationship with Gatson has, so far, helped him avoid what Julianne Waters calls “the hustle”—the constant need to be searching for the next job. While dancing on tour pays decently—on a major tour, dancers can expect to earn $1,500 to $2,500 per week—it’s an unpredictable lifestyle. Tour plans change and dancers can’t do anything about it. In August, for example, Beyoncé decided to extend her tour by traveling to Africa, Europe and Asia in October and November. Her dancers had a choice: They could stay with the tour, or end in mid-September, as planned.


Most chose to stay. “I’m such a young girl,” says dancer Heather Morris, 20. “It’s so overwhelming to be traveling the world at a young age, and being taken care of so very, very well.”


Even so, during the month-long break that separated the North American and foreign trips, Morris started preparing for life after Beyoncé. While home in L.A., she got new headshots, took classes and attended more auditions.


At the same time that Morris was back in L.A., so was Waters—but she hadn’t planned to be. Back in early September, when she and Duff sat on the couch and talked about tag, Waters and the rest of the crew were planning to spend a month touring Europe. But later that week, she learned that the European tour had been abruptly postponed, with no new date set. The North American tour was about to end. So instead of several more weeks of steady paychecks, Waters would only be paid for the next few days.


“I’m going to go home, get new headshots, and start all over again,” she said after hearing the news. “I’m pretty sure I’ll also be waiting tables, because that’s what I have to do.”


Duff, on the other hand, would be shooting a movie later that month. That’s the difference between the stars and the dancers who back them up: They can sit on a couch together, dance together, even play tag onstage together. But when the music stops and the lights dim for the final time, Duff and Waters return to their very separate—and very different—lives.


“It’s culture shock,” Waters says. “From being on tour and making okay money, to having to save five dollars.”


But then again, the unpredictability can work in Waters’ favor. She did a good job with Duff and is well networked in L.A. There will always be stars, and they’ll always need people to help them shine. So it may not be long at all until the next artist watches Waters and says, “Tag—you’re it!”