Are you a dancer who sings well? Maybe you've spent your career performing in Broadway ensembles or as a backup dancer for recording artists on concert tours or in music videos. Perhaps you're now beginning to feel that it's time for you to step out into the limelight and take on the role of solo singer. If you have the voice, there's no reason you shouldn't pursue a career as a singer rather than remain relegated to life as a background terp.
But how do you negotiate that tricky transition from dancer to singer? I recently spoke with two performers who are doing just that: Los Angeles–based Sandra Colton (who as a singer is now known simply as Sandra) and Francesca Maria Gambelli (whose "singer name" is Francesca Maria). Both offered valuable advice.
"Never let anybody tell you no," advises Sandra. "There are lots of people in this industry who think they have the inside knowledge to tell you what you should or shouldn't be doing, but if you have a passion for something, you have to go after it, despite what other people might say. And the other thing is to be ready when it happens. There is nothing worse than for an opportunity to present itself and you not be prepared for it. For example, just the other day I was asked if I could do a job as a backup singer for Paulina Rubio on the Jay Leno show. Of course I said yes. Then they asked me if I could sing in Spanish, and I told them, 'No, but I will be able to by tomorrow.' "
Sandra's recent appearance with Rubio on The Tonight Show was her first job as a backup singer. Prior to that, she worked extensively as a professional dancer. She began her career as a child in a vaudeville-style song-and-tap-dance act with her sister. Known as Colton & Colton, they were the teen dance winners of television's Star Search in 1992. Sandra has also been a Laker Girl and was one of the top 16 finalists on the first season of So You Think You Can Dance. Her dance career has included appearances on an HBO special with Cedric the Entertainer, a national Fruit of the Loom commercial, and at this year's Nobel Peace Prize concert in Norway.
"But right now, even though I'm still doing dance jobs, I'm mainly working on my album, which is scheduled to come out in January," Sandra says. "My transition into a singing career involves a lot of intermixing of time. In between doing dance jobs for other people, I'm in the studio working on my songs, then back to dance work, then back into the studio again. I go out and do a dance job to make some money, then pour all the money back into building my singing career."
Sandra, who describes her singing style as "urban pop," has been juggling her schedule in this fashion since March 2006, when she made the decision to launch herself as a musical artist in Los Angeles. "I began by doing my own show at the Viper Room," she explains. "I hired backup dancers and the choreographers Brian Friedman and Marty Kudelka, and I debuted some songs that will be on my album." She then embarked on a Hollywood club tour, presenting her show at the Cabana Room, White Lotus, the Keyclub, and the Highlands. "It's about showing audiences the kind of artist I am. It's a hard transition to make, because people still think of me as a dancer. They don't know that I sing and that I also write my own songs."
One of the most difficult aspects of the dancer-to-singer transition, Sandra has discovered, involves learning how to move while you sing. "As a dancer you're used to focusing only on moving, but as a singer you have to pace your movement energy so that you have enough air to get through a song. I practice by running on a treadmill and singing at the same time in order to build the breathing stamina I need."
Other difficult changes, Sandra notes, are having to be more conscious of what you say and do in public and putting together your team, something she never needed as a dancer. "As a backup performer, you're never really the focus, but now I'm the center of attention. I've had to hire a whole team of people to work for me: a hairstylist, a makeup artist, a publicist, etc. You have to be much more detailed about your career when you're the solo artist. It's about selling an entire package."
During her time as a backup dancer, Sandra acquired a lot of information that she is now finding extremely useful. "Fortunately, I was the kind of dancer who wasn't just interested in what I had to do, but I was always trying to take in everything around me. Many dancers don't realize that they can get more out of a job than just the dancing experience. If you're dealing with a road manager or sound people or lighting technicians, you can ask them, 'What does this do?' or 'How does that work?' You can accumulate a lot of information, which you'll be able to use in putting together your own act."
While Sandra is introducing herself as a singer via live shows on the L.A. club circuit, Francesca Maria has found the Internet to be the miracle tool in establishing her singing career. Born and raised in Italy, she moved to New York after graduating from high school and instantly got hired to dance on a Mariah Carey tour. For the next six years, she enjoyed a successful career as a backup dancer for such artists as Whitney Houston, George Michael, and Ricky Martin. She also worked as an assistant choreographer on various industrials and the MTV Europe Music Awards. But it was during her most unusual dance job—working for six months in 2002 as the private dance instructor for Princess Lalla Salma of Morocco—that Francesca Maria took her first step toward a career as a solo singer.
Perhaps inspired by her employer's historic "emergence" (the princess is the first wife of a Moroccan ruler to be publicly acknowledged and to establish a personal identity separate from her husband's), while in Morocco, Francesca Maria went into a studio with a musician she had met, and recorded a cover song. When she returned to the United States, her manager shared her recording with the president of Ether Entertainment. "And then I got that phone call telling me that they'd like to work with me," she says. "They put me in a studio with a team of their producers, writers, sound engineers, etc., and that's when it all really started. But it was very difficult, because I wasn't really sure of what my singing style was. It took quite a while to find what would work for me musically. We started with pure pop and then tried R&B. Eventually we discovered that my sound was really in the mixture of the two."
Francesca Maria then posted her best tracks on a MySpace page: "It took off so quickly! People from all over the world heard my songs and suddenly started writing me and asking where they could buy an album. I wound up building a huge fan base. So we just kept working on my material, making it better and better, and now I'm in the process of shopping a demo around to different record labels. Because I already have such a large following, I expect that by early 2007 I will be able to lock down a deal with one of the labels and officially start my recording career."
Overwhelmed by the monumental popularity she established through the Internet, Francesca Maria advises aspiring singers to create a MySpace page: "Anybody can do it—and it's free! On my page I have four songs, a downloadable track, photos, a bio, and video snippets of my dance performances. It's really the best way to introduce yourself to the world."