11 Secrets of Backup Dancers
What would "Thriller" have looked like without Michael Jackson's army of dancing zombies? What if Madonna had to preen and pose her way through "Vogue" alone? And how could the hype of Hammertime ever be conveyed without the high-kicking energy of those parachute pants-clad b-boys?
Backup dancers add depth and dimension to live performances and music videos, and though you might not always know their names, chances are you've practiced quite a few of their moves. But what is it really like to work in the industry? From the audition circuit to backing superstars on tour and in music videos, we got the answers for anyone who thinks they can dance.
1. THEY DON'T NEED FORMAL DANCE TRAINING, BUT THEY DO NEED TO CONSTANTLY BE LEARNING.
"I was late to the game," says Lori Sommer, a dancer who has worked with Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, and Eve, of her start in the dancing world. "I was a martial artist, and that discipline and training gave me the ability to pick up choreography." Sommer says she was out dancing with friends at a New York club in the mid-'90s when she was scouted and encouraged to audition to be a club dancer at the popular house music venue Sound Factory Bar. There she befriended resident DJ Louie Vega, house music legend Barbara Tucker, choreographers, and others who could help her get her name in with bookers. Based on those connections, she landed her first tour with Reel 2 Real (best known for their dance track "I Like to Move It"). "That club really opened the door for me, but dancers have to constantly take classes and learn new things," she tells Mental Floss. "There's always a new style or move that will help us improve our abilities."
Dancer Mark Romain, who also had no formal training beyond joining college dance teams but has built a career dancing with Britney Spears, Katy Perry, and Ke$ha, agrees. "You have to work your craft. Like going to the gym to maintain your strength, you have to work out your creative muscles and skills regularly," he told BuzzFeed in 2013. "There is a big difference between doing well in dance class and being able to perform on a stage; it's important to get performance experience. If you start late, that's okay, but train, train, train."
2. SOME WILL CHANGE THEIR LOOK TO BLEND IN BETTER.
Though backup dancers need to have enough personality and style to stand out at auditions, they often learn they can't draw too much attention away from the main performer or the theme of a shoot. When Sommer was working on Whitney Houston's 1999 video for "It's Not Right But It's Okay," she realized her blonde curls stood out too much for the video's dark set. "We were all dressed in these army fatigues, and once we started shooting, the director was like 'she's standing out,'" Sommer remembers. They pulled her hair back and tried again, but the director wanted it toned down even more. "They ended up putting hats on all of us to cover my hair, which is how we look in the final video. After that, a friend recommended I darken my hair, and I realized if I wanted to work more consistently, I needed to make that change to be more uniform. That was the last video I did as a blonde."
3. THEY LEARN HOW TO ADJUST TO AUDITIONS TO AVOID GETTING CUT.
Often, dancers will show up to auditions with only a vague idea of what the artist really needs. So they learn to read a room. Dancer Pam Chu, who has done everything from being a Radio City Rockette to Cirque du Soleil to touring with Demi Lovato, told Cosmopolitan that when she went to audition for Britney Spears's Las Vegas residency, she was apprehensive because she didn't know any of the people involved. So she psyched herself up and figured it out as the day went on. "From the way the choreographers were teaching, I knew they wanted people who had technique, style, and would dance full out—all the time," Chu says. "I knew not to sit down in the audition—ever. We were there for nine hours." After a round of callbacks, Chu got a contract.
4. THEY OFTEN HAVE TO MAKE LIFE-ALTERING DECISIONS ON THE ROAD.
Because their lives are often dictated by demanding tour schedules and opportunities that feel impossible to turn down, dancers regularly have to miss family events and other personal milestones. "I sacrificed a gig and a tour once because I didn't want to miss my goddaughter's birthday," Sommer recalls. "I'd missed her first birthday because I was in Europe, and I said I couldn't miss her second. It's hard because you put yourself at risk of being replaced."
And for others, an opportunity can change their whole trajectory. Ashley Everett, Beyonce's longtime dance captain, was just 17 when she made the cut for her first-ever tour. The timing seemed impeccable—The Beyonce Experience tour would wrap up the week before she was supposed to start classes at her dream school, Juilliard. But then, the tour was extended. "I had to make a decision," Everett told Refinery29. "Go after the lifelong dream that had been on my bucket list my entire life, or stick it out with a legend, with no idea of what would happen next. I took a leap of faith and stayed on the tour. Obviously, it paid off!"
5. IT'S NOT A PARTICULARLY LUCRATIVE CAREER.
Despite the jetsetting lifestyle and getting to work with superstars, most dancers are essentially independent contractors. That means booking gigs piecemeal, working long hours, and, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, making roughly $14 an hour on average, or $34,000 a year.
"Yes, longer-term jobs like a tour or a TV show or a movie might keep us busy for months straight, but the reality of the situation is that eventually that job will end and we have to start back over—gigging or auditioning for something else," Everett wrote in a 2016 HuffPost piece. "I'll be in 12-hour rehearsals for two months straight, then on other days I'm left not knowing when my next job will come. It's the business. We always have to stay on our toes and stay grinding."
Sommer agrees. "It can be a struggle," she says. During their time between shoots or tours, dancers frequently have more steady side jobs. Sommer worked as a dancer-for-hire for entertainment companies, where she would go to bar mitzvahs or weddings along with the band or DJ and encourage guests to come out on the dance floor. Many others do projects as choreographers and teachers, and look for commercial work, which is usually short on hours but long on pay (think dancing in Gap, Target, or car commercials). "You gotta work when work is available," Sommer says. "There's a lot of eating on a budget, a lot of ramen noodles. But every dancer I know wouldn't change it for the world."
6. THEY HAVE TO KNOW HOW TO GO WITH THE FLOW.
While many artists are known to tweak routines between tour stops or switch up sets or transitions to keep things fresh, sometimes a dancer's hard work will get sidelined because the artist just isn't feeling it. That can be devastating, especially for major award shows like the Grammys or the VMAs, which are extremely sought-after roles with multiple auditions and rehearsals that can last for 10 hours a day.
Sommer recalled that at her first VMAs in 1999, she snagged a spot dancing for Jay-Z, who was also making his first VMA appearance with a medley of his recent hits like "Can I Get A…" and "Hard Knock Life." "My friend Ray [dancer and promoter Voodoo Ray] had choreographed this great piece, and it was a huge opportunity for him," Sommer says. "And on the day of the VMAs as we were rehearsing, all of a sudden Jay said he didn't want anyone dancing backup." Instead, he wanted his crew, which included DJ Clue, Amil, and 15 or so other friends, to hang on stage where the dancers were meant to be. The dozen backup dancers were moved to the side stages and were allowed to dance there, but it didn't have the same effect as the choreographed routine they were preparing for. "I mean, I got paid for my time," Sommer says. "But not to do what I'd practiced and really, really wanted to do."
7. THEY'LL SOMETIMES WEAR IN-EAR MONITORS ON STAGE.
It's common to see singers use earpieces during live shows in order to hear themselves or their band better. But dancers will often wear in-ear monitors as well, especially for large arena shows when the roar of the crowd can drown out any chance of staying in sync with the music. "It's an interesting experience … because we can't hear the audience," dancer David Shreibman told W Magazine about wearing "ears" while touring with Justin Bieber. "All you're hearing is Bieber's voice and the choreographer talking to us throughout the show. I took my ears out last night … and it was SO loud. When he goes into 'Baby,' it's crazy. I had to cover my ears."
8. TWO CAN SOMETIMES BE BETTER THAN ONE.
Sometimes having a built-in dance partner can help get dancers noticed and book gigs. French dancers Laurent and Larry Bourgeois, already known in their home country as "Les Twins," made a splash in the States when they started working with Beyonce in 2011; they've since toured with her multiple times, appeared in numerous videos, and recently won Jennifer Lopez's new competition show, World of Dance. Mark and Donald Romain often appear together as dancers at awards shows and have been in videos like Britney Spears’s "Till the World Ends." And up-and-coming Korean twins Kwon Young Deuk and Kwon Young Don, who have backed Psy and other KPop acts, are getting plenty of fan attention and calls to upgrade them to "idols" in their industry.
But for Canadian sisters Jenny and Jayme Rae Dailey, who have done music videos, TV shows like Smash and X Factor, and movies like the Step Up franchise, sometimes working together just isn't in the cards. "For us, it's not really competing because we go in together as twins. We are a team when we audition," Jenny told the Montreal Gazette in 2013. "Our mentality is, 'If it's not both of us, it's none of us,' although it doesn't always work out that way."
9. EVEN WITHOUT A SIBLING, DANCERS CAN FEEL LIKE FAMILY.
For all of the stories of artists who date their backup dancers (Mariah Carey and Bryan Tanaka, Jennifer Lopez with Cris Judd and Casper Smart, Prince and Mayte Garcia, Britney Spears and Kevin Federline, etc.), those long hours rehearsing and traveling together can really cement a familial bond. "I became very close to those who danced with me, but even closer with [those] who danced on tour with me," Janet Jackson told an audience in October 2017 before she brought out a number of those dancers to perform "Rhythm Nation," a staple at her shows since the song and its iconic video took the world by storm in 1989. One those dancers who returned was Jenna Dewan-Tatum, who got her big break touring with Jackson in 2001-02.
"Janet asked her 'kids' to come back and perform rhythm nation at the Hollywood Bowl," Dewan-Tatum posted on Instagram. "I dreamt of dancing with her since I was a kid and literally pinched myself every night of the All for You tour. And here I am pinching myself again last night. She created a legacy for her dancers and she personally began my career! It all begins with Jan. Thank you for this my love!!!"
(Another person who worked as a backup dancer for Janet before making it big on her own? Jennifer Lopez, who was in the 1993 video for "That's the Way Love Goes.")
10. FOR DECADES, DANCERS HAD NO UNION OR HEALTH CARE ASSURANCES.
The lack of health coverage and union benefits for dancers was widespread until very recently. Dancers Alliance, a group working to negotiate equitable rates, healthcare options, and ensure dancer safety, launched campaigns in 2011 to get contracts for work on music videos and in 2013 to unionize tours. "I believe dancers who have trained themselves to a professional level should be treated—and compensated—as professionals," Dancers Alliance board member Dana Wilson told Dance Magazine in 2015. The group had worked out a contract with SAG-AFTRA for music video shoots in 2011, but Wilson, who was dancing with Justin Timberlake at the time, pushed for a union tour contract so that the dancers would be eligible for health care and other benefits while on the road. It worked. In 2014, Timberlake became the first artist to protect his backup dancers under a SAG-AFTRA contract.
11. THEY ALWAYS HAVE A BACKUP PLAN.
As with most athletic careers, dancers know that eventually they'll have to back away from their sport. Injuries, from muscle strains and spasms to various tears and sprains, can take their toll. Many performers, like Paula Abdul and Lady Gaga, have discussed their issues with chronic pain.
"The wear and tear on body is tremendous," Sommer says. She would know—a herniated disc sidelined her dancing career in 2002. "Most dancers are going to find ways to work through injuries. A lot of Epsom salt, Bengay. It's a beautiful life that enables you to travel and see the world, but there was the point in time when I couldn't walk."
Many dancers find ways to stay active by teaching or going into the fitness industry, developing exercise and training careers. Some, like much of the staff of New York's Westside Dance Physical Therapy, were professional dancers who turned their specified knowledge of dancers' bodies into careers in the medical field.
In fact, the variety of post-dance careers can be as varied as those of non-dancers. Sommer went into comedy, becoming a mainstay stand-up in New York City and now managing the West Side Comedy Club. And at least one former '90s dancer became a football coach: One of M.C. Hammer's original "U Can’t Touch This" dancers, Alonzo Carter, is currently the running backs coach at San Jose State.