by Taresa Schmidt
Ask most Americans what they know about being on a dance team or dance company and you will probably hear a joke about Dance Moms. The show, which premiered on the Lifetime Network in 2011, chronicled the lives and tumultuous times of dancers and their infamous studio director as they rehearsed dances and attended competitions. It was dubbed “reality TV”.
The reality? There is a lot of glitter. There is a LOT of practice. And the costumes are pretty amazing. And Dance Moms gave audiences a glimpse of that.
But the show failed to capture the true spirit of what it’s like to be in a dance company.
“There is so much more to being a company dancer,” says Angela Craft, director of Stage Stars Dance and Acro and the Stage Stars Dance Company, which is in its 16th year. “To get a real idea of what it takes to be a company dancer, you have to understand the whole picture, not just the drama portrayed in the show. Our company dancers are passionate, dedicated kids learning how to juggle life and hard work. They are focusing on their craft, but also on being well-rounded, whole people.”
So, what’s it really like? Teammates Hannah Meyer, Sophia DiGiacomo and Cassie Ryan all agree – it’s challenging, it’s rewarding, and it’s all about growth.
Twelve-year-old Hannah has been in the Stage Stars Dance Company for four years. She joined the team after a year of dance lessons. This season, she is performing 11 competition pieces. This means outside of the six hours a week she spends in her dance technique classes (ballet, tap, jazz, hip hop, lyrical and acro), she dedicates an additional six hours a week to choreography classes. During those classes, Hannah and her teammates learn their routines, perform them, and receive feedback from dance teachers and choreographers.
Company dancers aren’t required to perform that many pieces. Younger company dancers are given the option to start with as few as 2 competition pieces and 3 hours total of dance a week. As company dancers age and their passion for dance grows, there are additional opportunities to join classes and participate in company competition pieces.
Those dances are then brought to competitions and performed in front of an audience and judging panel. Judges are industry professionals who critique the performances, score them, and offer the dancers feedback in the form of videos, which they review later with teachers and sometimes their parents.
Dancers often wake up before 6:00 am to prepare for dance classes or their performances. “Competition mornings are really fun but also stressful,” said Hannah. “You wake up and even though you’re nervous, you have a really good feeling because you know that you are going to be on stage performing later. And you know you are going to be doing it all with your friends.”
Teammate Cassie Ryan, 12, agrees. “Mornings at competitions are stressful, and I feel nervous but also energetic,” she says. Cassie, who is competing in 14 dances this season, has been in dance company
for 5 years.
Sophia, DiGiacomo, 12, has a competition morning routine. “I wake up very early,” she says, “and it’s usually still very dark outside. But I can get Starbucks as a treat because it’s comp weekend! Then I work on my hair and make-up, and if it’s time to perform, I put on costume and warm up until I’m stage-ready.” Sophia is performing in 11 dances this season.
Hannah, Cassie, Sophia and their other teammates will make their way to dressing rooms to claim a spot together and set up everything they need for the day. This usually includes costumes, shoes, props, hair and makeup supplies, and enough food and water to keep them fueled for the day. Organization skills are a must for team dancers. They learn early that keeping themselves and their supplies organized helps them stay calm and ready.
“I stay organized by keeping my makeup in a separate travel case that hangs and has zip pockets,” says Sophia. “My costumes and shoes are all in their own bags by each costume. I list the name of the dance with what accessories and type and color of tights and type and color of shoes, so when it is time to get ready, everything is where it needs to be. I also like to keep everything inside of my glamor gear duffle, which is a large travel bag on wheels that fits my 11 costumes and all accessories. My mom helps me with my hair and gives me lots of hugs, which keeps me feeling encouraged.”
Cassie and Hannah also rely on their moms for support backstage. “My mom always helps me make sure I have everything ready,” says Cassie. Hannah agrees, and adds that having her team around backstage helps her stay calm. “It is really fun doing your makeup and hair with your friends,” she says. “I like hanging out together while I warm up too, because it helps me feel less nervous about performing.”
After the team has set up materials backstage and finished their hair, makeup, and costume, they warm up. This usually involves getting together as a group for stretching and light cardio with a dance teacher from Stage Stars. After, some teammates spend time by themselves mentally preparing for their dances. You can find many in a quiet place stretching again. Dancers like Cassie like to listen to music on headphones. You can find other dancers doing breathing exercises.
“When I’m backstage waiting to dance, I start to feel more relaxed and less nervous,” says Sophia, “because I am with my teachers and teammates. They are always supporting me and others until we walk out onto the stage.”
Dancers compete in a variety of genres and with varying number of teammates by their side. There are solos, duos and trios, small groups, large groups, and even productions, which feature 20 or more dancers on stage at one time. “I get nervous before my solo,” says Hannah. “I worry that I’m going to forget it. But I don’t worry as much about my group dances. They are really fun! You’re with a big group of people who are all preparing and practicing together backstage.”
Sophia agrees. “I usually feel excited and nervous,” she says. “It goes back and forth. As the time to perform gets closer, I get more nervous, but knowing my teammates will be there makes me start to feel better. My teammates and I have special friendships, and I get to be a role model for the younger dancers. And that might be my very favorite part.”
When dancers are performing, the rest of the team runs into the audience to cheer them on. When the dancers are done, teammates run backstage for hugs and words of encouragement. It can go on like this for hours.
After all the dancers are done performing, there are ceremonies where they receive their scores and placements in their respective categories. Teams gather together on stage to support each other and find out how they placed that weekend.
It seems like a whirlwind, but Hannah, Cassie and Sophia keep going. They agree that being in a dance company is challenging. The number of hours spent in training can seem overwhelming. But it teaches them how to manage their time outside of dance. “We put in a lot of hours at our studio,” says Hannah. “And sometimes we have to miss events to go to dance.”
But they agree that being company dancers teaches them so much about life. “Being a company dancer teaches me how to handle high pressure situations,” says Cassie. “It helps me learn how to work well with other people.”
Hannah feels that being a team dancer helps her become a better person. “It prepares me for all kinds of challenges in life,” she says. “It helps me learn how to deal with disappointment and also success. And it teaches me how to be the best person I can be.”
Sophia agrees. “It provides experiences traveling and learning life lessons to be flexible and to follow a schedule,” she says. “That might mean being up very early and prepared or staying up late. Dance team is working hard and giving 100% all the time even when I don’t feel like it. I’m not always going to win or place, but its okay as long as I do my best and come prepared.”