Two dancers dancing on stage
Two dancers dancing on stage

From Small Towns to the Great White Way: How Young Dancers Break into Broadway

As Newsies Fan Week kicks off on September 15th, with the well-choreographed cast releasing daily videos, young dancers around the nation may wonder what it really takes to break into Broadway.

It can be difficult to parse out the best path towards a successful dance career, particularly when the Great White Way seems so very far away. Shows like “Dance Moms” have raised the awareness around dance competitions, but is that the right way to move towards theatre?

Ryan Steele, best known for playing Specs in Disney’s Newsiesand currently working in Matilda, initially trained at a local dance studio in in Walled Lake, Michigan, called The Dance Dynamics Performing Arts Center.  Mr. Steele speaks of his dancing skills as a double-edged sword early on in his career. “Because my acting and singing experience was sub-par, I was forced to learn quickly. With that said, my ballet training is proving to be a necessity. My first three shows on Broadway really utilized that training.”

Dori Matkowski, Mr. Steele’s dance instructor and owner of his local studio, has spent over thirty years training Broadway-bound dancers. Her former students, in addition to Mr. Steele, includes Newsies cast member Iain Young.

Ms. Matkowski advises, “Training full time in your hometown is most important because your daily teachers will help you grow consistently, but having some exposure in those large entertainment cities (New York and Los Angeles) is important along the way.” She adds, “I love taking my students to programs in other big cities to expand their training. I think it helps them to be aware of different styles, types of people and it enhances their networking abilities. This can be done through a weekend trip or a hosted workshop.”

Mr. Steele got his first Broadway opportunity while he was on one of those weekend trips.

“I was in New York City taking classes, and a mentor of mine called and told me about the open call for West Side Story. It was the day I was scheduled to fly back home to Michigan, so I made a pit stop at Chelsea Studios on my way to the airport. It was a mad house. So many dancers, and I only knew one or two faces.”

Over the next two months, Mr. Steele had a handful of callbacks requiring him to dance, sing, and act at each one. He adds, “It was pretty tough (and scary), but obviously so worth it. I joke that I got my BFA at the Palace Theatre.

Ms. Matkowski adds, “The question I ask my students is ‘what makes you stand out?’ Being a ‘triple threat’ helps expand your marketability. Preparing for competition is much different than preparing a full dancer. It takes different skills to win at competition and most of those do not necessarily apply to making a great dancer.”

For dancers who are looking to stretch their skills, attending a workshop or intensive is often the answer.  However, finding good workshops can be an imposing task in itself.

For those looking for longer programs focusing on the dance aspect only, Broadway Dance Center offers four week intensives for children and teens.

For those looking for a safe environment to add acting and singing onto their existing dance repertoire, Camp Broadway Dance provides a 3-day musical theatre intensive for dancers ages 14-18.

Or, alternatively, for those who are looking to do more than supplement their hometown dance training, Steps on Broadway offers an audition-based, pre-professional program for dancers ages 7-18.

Regardless of which program is the right fit, Mr. Steele offers some words of advice to young dancers. “Be yourself! Don’t try to copy anyone else. Really get to know yourself as a performer and ‘product.’ You are your business and you need to have a clear idea of what you bring to the table.” Mr. Steele adds, “Also, don’t be afraid to look silly.”