Three Dancers from the Movie Rent on How They Got Started in Hollywood and Where They're Headed Next
Although Michon Suyama has been living in L.A. since the age of 16, her homeland of Hawaii is where her dance roots lie and where she continues to grow. “I still go home all the time to teach jazz classes and workshops,” she says. “Back home, it’s a laid-back atmosphere where you perform for your friends and family, whereas here in L.A., this is city life and it’s a constant battle [with other dancers] for the same jobs.”
Not that Suyama has any trouble landing jobs in Hollywood these days; she has appeared as a dancer on the big screen in 13 Going on 30, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle and a slew of TV shows including “American Idol” and “Cedric the Entertainer Presents.”
Suyama has grown to love her hectic schedule. “Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been hyperactive,” she says, explaining that she began gymnastics lessons at age 2 and dance lessons at 4. “Dance was something I loved and happened to be good at, which was good, because I wasn’t really good at school.”
Suyama sharpened her dance skills by attending a performing arts high school and joining an all-girls drill team. “In Hawaii, it is such a small dance world,” she says. “Everyone knows everyone.” The close-knit community helped Suyama make local dance contacts and join 24/7 Dance Force, a well-known Hawaiian contemporary jazz company.
After graduating a year early from high school, she headed to L.A. to try her hand at a professional dance career. Although making the move at such a young age helped Suyama to become self-sufficient, she says her transition to the professional dance world wasn’t always easy: “At first, I wondered what I was doing here. For the first year, at every audition I would make it to the end and then get cut.”
Once she finally started to book jobs, she realized the pain was worth the gain. Her first gig was on “Viva Variety,” a show on Comedy Central on which she was the youngest dancer. “I was dancing alongside women who knew the business and were like older sisters to me,” she says gratefully. “I realized I was getting paid for what I love to do, and it was rewarding.”
As Suyama eased into her comfort zone, she was afforded the opportunity to work with choreographers such as Travis Payne, Fatima Robinson and Jamie King—all of whom Suyama says helped her hone her personal dance style. While her forte is stylized jazz, Suyama says she’s still perfecting her hip hop. “[Choreographer] Dave Scott always laughs at me when he sees me do hip hop,” she says.
Although Suyama has found considerable success in the commercial dance world, her career aspirations lie outside the bright lights of Hollywood. Inspired by former Miss America Heather Whitestone McCallum, a deaf ballet dancer, Suyama is learning sign language so that she can eventually teach deaf children to dance. “Dance inspired me as a kid,” says Suyama, who likens sign language to choreography. “As long as you are passionate about something, you can get through a lot of hard times.”
Gus Carr has MTV to thank for his dance career. If not for music videos, Carr may never have become interested in the artform. At age 4, he started to obsessively watch and imitate Janet Jackson videos. Now, Michael Jackson, Britney Spears and Destiny’s Child top the list of artists he has danced alongside.
When Carr was 9, his mother called on her friend, choreographer Frank Gaston, to check out an impromptu living room performance of “Miss You Much” and gauge whether Carr had what it took to make it in L.A., 55 miles north of their Orange County confines. Gaston promptly lined up an audition for Carr at Bobby Ball Agency, which Carr was initially apprehensive about. “I had always taught myself the steps, so the audition was my first time learning someone else’s choreography,” Carr says. “The process was nerve-wracking.” Nevertheless, he landed representation and, just a week later, a commercial audition.
Unlike many young dancers, Carr took few dance classes. With his mom working several jobs and Carr too young to make the hour-plus drive to L.A., time was a valuable commodity that had to be wisely spent on auditions and dance gigs. It wasn’t until Carr was tapped to join Generation Next, a teen dance company run by choreographer Marguerite Derricks, that he received formal training. At 17, Carr was somewhat behind the learning curve, but rose to the occasion.
“If I had studied the more technical aspects of dance when I was younger, [that situation] might not have been such a struggle,” he says. “It was like boot camp; seeing all the amazing kids in the company pushed me to get to their level.” Coupled with his traveling work on industrials for Reebok and as a member of Team Rollerblade, Carr’s participation in Generation Next helped him to round out his skills as a rising professional dancer.
For Carr, dancing in Rent was a stepping-stone toward achieving another of his dreams. “One of my aspirations has always been to be an actor,” he says. “On set, I paid close attention to how Rosario [Dawson] and Taye [Diggs] would prepare for the scene and switch modes. I really enjoy the process and environment of film.”
Although Carr used his time on the set to soak up expertise from the surrounding talent, he says there was no shortage of fun. “Two of my best friends, Erin Hernandez and Blake McGrath, were also in the movie, so we had a ball,” he says. On the long overnight shoots that were common during the filming of Rent, Carr and fellow dancer Mickey Duran passed the time by reading each other’s fortunes with tarot cards.
With Rent soon to be out in theaters, what’s next for this veritable talent? As one of the new faces of clothing chain H&M, Carr recently starred opposite actress Tamyra Gray in a series of David LaChapelle–directed commercial spots. He’ll also be making the rounds on the convention circuit as an instructor for West Coast Dance Explosion. “I love teaching,” says Carr. “Seeing the inspiration and happiness on the faces of kids is so gratifying. My whole purpose for being in this industry is to inspire people.”
If versatility is the key to working as a dancer in L.A., it’s no wonder Shannon Beach is in high demand. Whether it’s performing as a glitzy Vegas showgirl, an XFL cheerleader, a Broadway triple threat or a backup dancer, Beach has been there and done that.
Her fascination with dance began at age 4, when she enrolled in ballet and tap classes. “As I got older, I started doing pointe and partnering work, and then salsa, swing and African dance,” she says. “I was like a sponge soaking up every form of dance possible. The art and the beauty of the movement was addictive.”
At 18, Beach was able to parlay her dance skills into a summer job on the Royal Caribbean cruise line, which enabled her to gain sea legs as a professional dancer and see the sights in locales ranging from Alaska to Hawaii to Acapulco. “I was so excited to get paid to dance,” says Beach. “It was all I’d ever dreamed of and it surpassed my expectations.”
After the tropics, the next stop on her dance journey was a stint as an acrobat at the Tropicana in Las Vegas as part of its long-running Folies Bergere. During her two years in Vegas, she also danced backup for singer Kristine W. and in Spellbound, a magic show at Harrah’s Las Vegas.
Beach says her broad skill set helped her fit into the unique Vegas marketplace. “I’m kind of a trickster,” she admits. “I’m a contortionist and I’m very flexible. At any audition I go to, I’m always doing crazy leg tricks. If you want the job you have to do something to get noticed.”
From Sin City, Beach made her way to the Big Apple, where she landed a role on Broadway in Saturday Night Fever and in the touring show after it concluded its NYC run. After completing that job, Beach, at 24, decided to give L.A. a shot. Several weeks after her arrival, she attended her first audition, which was for Cher’s Farewell Tour. “I got the job, packed my bags, and left for two and a half years,” she says, remembering that time as a state of perpetual transit.
Beach says her work as an aerial dancer on the concert tour was rigorous, yet rewarding. “The other dancers had been with Cher for 15 years and it was a well-established group of people,” says Beach, who was the youngest dancer there. “It was a very intense and exciting time; I was in awe of everything.”
After the tour’s conclusion last year, Beach was cast in the film Rent, a production she was well acquainted with as a result of her Broadway experience. “Once I found out that the original cast was going to be in the movie, I became really interested in being part of the project,” she says. “When we were rehearsing, we felt like this movie was going to be a part of history, knowing that there are fanatic fans who will see it hundreds of times.”
If Beach knows anything about her future, it’s that dance will always be in the mix. She recently had a rig installed in her backyard and plans to teach aerial dance from her home. For Beach, dancing is the spark that keeps her in motion. “Whenever I dance, I feel like I’m on fire,” she says. “It almost hurts sometimes, because it’s so intense, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”