11 Secrets of Backup Dancers

Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images
Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images

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.

Kodak’s New Cameras Don't Just Take Photos—They Also Print Them

Your Instagram account wishes it had this clout.
Your Instagram account wishes it had this clout.
Kodak

Snapping a photo and immediately sharing it on social media is definitely convenient, but there’s still something so satisfying about having the printed photo—like you’re actually holding the memory in your hands. Kodak’s new STEP cameras now offer the best of both worlds.

As its name implies, the Kodak STEP Instant Print Digital Camera, available for $70 on Amazon, lets you take a picture and print it out on that very same device. Not only do you get to skip the irksome process of uploading photos to your computer and printing them on your bulky, non-portable printer (or worse yet, having to wait for your local pharmacy to print them for you), but you never need to bother with ink cartridges or toner, either. The Kodak STEP comes with special 2-inch-by-3-inch printing paper inlaid with color crystals that bring your image to life. There’s also an adhesive layer on the back, so you can easily stick your photos to laptop covers, scrapbooks, or whatever else could use a little adornment.

There's a 10-second self-timer, so you don't have to ask strangers to take your group photos.Kodak

For those of you who want to give your photos some added flair, you might like the Kodak STEP Touch, available for $130 from Amazon. It’s similar to the regular Kodak STEP, but the LCD touch screen allows you to edit your photos before you print them; you can also shoot short videos and even share your content straight to social media.

If you want to print photos from your smartphone gallery, there's the Kodak STEP Instant Mobile Photo Printer. This portable $80 printer connects to any iOS or Android device with Bluetooth capabilities and can print whatever photos you send to it.

The Kodak STEP Instant Mobile Photo Printer connects to an app that allows you to add filters and other effects to your photos. Kodak

All three Kodak STEP devices come with some of that magical printer paper, but you can order additional refills, too—a 20-sheet set costs $8 on Amazon.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Meet Ice Cream Scientist Dr. Maya Warren

Maya Warren
Maya Warren

Most people don’t think about the chemistry in their cone when enjoying a scoop of ice cream, but as a professional ice cream scientist, Dr. Maya Warren can’t stop thinking about it. A lot of complex science goes into every pint of ice cream, and it’s her job to share that knowledge with the people who make it—and to use that information to develop some innovative flavors of her own.

Unlike many people’s idea of a typical scientist, Warren isn’t stuck in a lab all day. Her role as senior director for international research and development for Cold Stone Creamery takes her to countries around the world. And after winning the 25th season of The Amazing Race in 2014, she’s now back in front of the camera to host Ice Cream Sundays with Dr. Maya on Instagram. In honor of National Ice Cream Month this July, we spoke with Dr. Warren about her sweet job.

How did you get involved in food science?

I fell in love with science at a really young age. I got Gak as a kid, you know the Nickelodeon stuff? And I remember wanting to make my own Gak. I remember getting a little kit and putting together the glue and all the coloring and whatever else I needed to make it. I also had make-your-own gummy candy sets. So I was always into making things myself.

I didn't really connect that to chemistry until later on in life. When I was in high school, I fell in love with chemistry. I decided at that point I should go to college to become a high school chemistry teacher. One day I was over at my best friend's house in college, and she had the TV on in her apartment. I remember watching the Food Network and there was a show on called Unwrapped, and they go in and show you how food is made on a manufacturing, production scale. In that particular episode, they went into a flavor chemistry lab. It was basically a wall full of vials with clear liquid inside them. They were about to flavor soda to make it taste like different parts of a traditional Thanksgiving meal. So you had green bean casserole-flavored soda, you had turkey and gravy-flavored soda, cranberry sauce soda. And I was like, "Oh my gosh, like how disgusting is this? But how cool is this! I could do this. I'm a chemist."

I love the science of food and how intriguing it is, and I had to ask myself, "Maya, what do you love?" And I was like, "I love ice cream! I’m going to become one of the world’s experts in frozen aerated deserts." I found a professor at UW Madison [where I earned my Ph.D. in food science], Dr. Richard Hartel, and he took me under his wing. Six and half years later, I’ve become an expert in ice cream and all its close cousins.

How did you arrive at your current position?

I didn't actually apply for the job. Six years ago, I was running The Amazing Race, the television show on CBS. After I was on it, a lot of publications reached out wanting to interview me. I did a couple of interviews and someone from Cold Stone found my interview. They noticed that I’m a scientist, and they were looking for someone with my background, so they reached out to me. I was actually writing my dissertation, and I was like, "I'm not looking for a job right now. I just want to go home and sleep."

I originally told myself I wasn't going to work for a year because I was so exhausted after graduate school and I needed some time off. But I ended up going to their office in Scottsdale for an interview. At that time, I still wasn't sure if was going to do it or not because I didn't want to move to Arizona. It's just so incredibly hot. I ended up being able to work something out with them where I didn't have to move Arizona. I came on board back in 2016. I started as a consultant at first because I didn't want to move. But then I proved I could make this work from afar.

What does your job at Cold Stone Creamery entail?

I'm the senior director for international research and development for Cold Stone Creamery. A lot of what I do is establishing dairies and building ice cream mixes for countries all across the globe. Dairy is a very expensive commodity. Milk fat is quite pricey. Cold Stone has locations all over the world, and they all need ice cream mixes. But sometimes bringing that ice cream from the United States into that country is extremely expensive, because of conflicts, because of taxes, different importation laws. A lot of what I do is helping those countries figure out how they can build their own dairies, or how can they work with local dairies to make ice cream mixes more affordable.

The other part of what I do is create new ice cream flavors for these places. I look at a local ingredient and say, "I see people in this country eating a lot of blank. Why don’t we turn that into ice cream? How would people feel about that?" I try to get these places to realize that ice cream is so much more than a scoop. In the States, we have ice cream bars, ice cream floats, ice cream sandwiches. But many countries don’t see ice cream like that. So getting these places to come on board with different ideas and platforms to grow their business is a big part of my job.

Maya Warren

What’s your favorite ice cream flavor you made on the job?

I made a product called honey cornbread and blackberry jam ice cream. Ice cream to me is a blank canvas. You can throw all kinds of paint at it—blue and red and yellow and orange and metallic and glitter and whatever else you want—and it becomes this masterpiece. That's how I look at ice cream.

Ice cream starts out with a white base that's full of milk fat and sugar and nonfat dry milk. It’s plain, it’s simple. For this flavor, I thought, "Why don’t I throw cornbread in ice cream mix?" I put in some honey, because that’s a good sweetener, and a little sea salt, because salt elevates taste, especially in sweeter desserts. And why don’t I use blackberry jam? When you’re eating it, you feel the gritty texture of cornbread, which is quite interesting. You get that pop of the berry flavor. There’s a complexity to the flavors, which is what I enjoy about what you can do with ice cream.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

One of the most rewarding things is being able to produce a product and see people eat it. The other part of it is being able to have a hand in helping people in different countries get on their feet. Ice cream isn’t a luxury for many people in America, but there are people in other countries that would look at it that way. Being able to introduce ice cream to these countries is fascinating to me. And being able to provide job opportunities for people, that sincerely touches my heart.

The last part is the fact that when I tell people I’m an ice cream scientist, it doesn’t matter how old the person is, they can’t believe it. I’m like, "I know, could you imagine doing what you love every day?" And that’s what I do. I love ice cream.

What are some misconceptions about being an ice cream scientist?

When I tell people what I do, they automatically think I just put flavors in ice cream. They don’t know that there’s a whole other part of it before you get to adding flavor. They don't think about the balancing of a mix, the chemistry that goes into ice cream, the microbiology part that goes into ice cream, the flavor science that goes into ice cream. There’s so much hardcore science that goes into being an ice cream scientist. Ice cream, believe it or not, is one of the most complex foods known to man (and woman). It is a solid, it’s a gas, and it’s also a liquid all in one. So the solid phase comes in via the ice crystals and partially coalesced fat globules. The gas phase comes in via the air cells. Ice cream usually ranges from 27 to 30 percent overrun, which is the measurement of aeration in ice cream. You also have your liquid phase. There’s a semi-liquid to component to ice cream that we don’t see, but there’s a little bit of liquid in there.

People don’t think about ice crystals and air cells when they think about ice cream. They really don’t think partially coalesced fat globules. But it’s really fun to connect the science of ice cream to the common knowledge people have about this product they eat so much.

If you weren't doing this, what would you be doing?

If I wasn’t an ice cream scientist, I think that I would have been a motivational speaker. When I was a kid, my parents would send me to camp, and I remember having a lot of motivational speakers that would come in and talk to us. I always wanted to do that as a kid. So it’s either between that or a sport medicine doctor, because that was the track I was on in college. So if I didn’t figure out food science, I probably would have gone back to sports medicine. But I’m glad I didn’t go down that path, because I think I have one of the coolest and sweetest jobs—pun intended—that exists on planet Earth.

You’ve been hosting Ice Cream Sundays on Instagram Live since May. What inspired this?

At the beginning of quarantine, I was like, "What am I going to do? I can't travel anywhere. What am I going to do with all this extra time?" I was on Instagram, and I started seeing people at the very beginning of this make all this bread. And I was like, "I need to start talking about ice cream more. Ice cream can’t be left out of this conversation."

I started making ice cream and posting here and there, and people would ask me about it, and I would ask them, "Do you have an ice cream maker?" I put a poll up and 70, 80 percent of people who replied did not have ice cream makers. So I was like, "How am I going to make people happy with ice cream if all I do is show photos and they can’t make it?" Then I decided to make a no-churn ice cream. That’s not how you make it in the industry, but it’s how you make it at home if you don’t have an ice cream machine. I think it was around May 3, I decided I was going to do an Instagram Live. I’m going to call it Ice Cream Sundays with Dr. Maya, and I’ll just see where it goes from there.

I did one, and from the beginning, people were so in love with it. Then I thought, "Whoa, I guess I should continue doing this." I’ve made a calendar. People really attend. People make the ice cream. People watch me on Live. I’ve always wanted to have a television show on ice cream. I figured, if I can’t do a show on ice cream right now on a major network, I might as well start a show on Instagram.

What advice do you give to young people interested in becoming ice cream scientists?

My advice is: If you want to do it, do it. Don’t forget to work hard, but have fun along the way. And if ice cream isn’t necessarily the realm for you, make sure whatever you do makes your heart flutter. My heart flutters when I think about ice cream. I am so intrigued with it. So if you find something that makes your heart flutter, no one can ever take away your desire for it. If it is ice cream, we can get down and dirty with it. I can tell them about the science behind it, the biology, the microbiology that goes into ice cream itself. But I just encourage people to follow their heart and have fun with whatever they do.

What’s your favorite ice cream flavor?

If we’re talking just general flavors, I love a good cookies and cream. I’m an Oreo fan. I also make a double butter candy pecan that is my absolute jam.