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Last month, more than 865,000 people tuned in to MTV’s Video Music Awards. In addition to seeing a wild amount of celebrities and A-listers, viewers also got the opportunity to watch as twelve Pace students and recent graduates of the BFA in Commercial Dance program took the stage alongside powerhouse performers like Doja Cat, Shakira, Olivia Rodrigo, and Karol G.
We spoke with Joanne Daquigan '22, Jada Clark '22, and Tiffani Russell '23 who performed with Doja Cat alongside her Pace peers Aaliyah Zolina, Gabby Rembert, and Jada Ballard. Read about their experiences on stage at the VMAs.
For many of the Pace students and alumni performing, this was your first time performing at MTV’s Video Music Awards (VMAs). What did the experience mean to you, and would you consider your 'demons' performance the first of many big gigs to come?
Jada Clark: This experience meant the world to me. Ever since I was a little girl I was dancing in front of the TV when any music video or award show would come on. I have dreamed of being able to perform on a stage as big as the VMAs, so to finally be able to do it felt like I was not only making my younger self proud, but I was doing what I believed I was always meant to.
Tiffani Russell: Being able to dance at the VMAs was truly a dream come true for me. When I was a kid, I was enamored of the dancers on TV. Having the opportunity to be part of such an iconic performance and an annual tradition celebrating both music and dance is an honor beyond measure. There is no doubt in my mind that I made my little self proud. From rehearsals to the performance, the experience was extraordinary. From this experience, I have gained a stronger appreciation for performing for artists and amplifying their stories. The manifestation of much more is therefore on its way.
Joanne Daquigan: In the commercial dance program, we are required to take a Choreography on Camera class during our LA semester where we would analyze different types of on-screen choreography such as film, television, commercials, and more. One of our projects was to study a live award show performance and plan our own. I chose Ariana Grande's “God is a Woman” VMA performance in 2018 and would always think how cool it would be to be a part of something like that.
Jada: It was my first time dancing on national television, first time dancing behind a music artist, let alone one as big as Doja Cat, and apart from theater it was the first commercial dance job I have booked since graduating. Although this was a big first I would definitely consider it the beginning of many opportunities to come. I was able to build so many connections with the choreographer, her assistant, and all of my fellow dancers which makes me certain our paths will cross again.
Joanne: I had "VMAs" on both my list of dream jobs and vision board for this year, right underneath "movie musical or film," which I also got to complete this year when I booked my first job with Mean Girls the Musical coming to theaters in 2024. Getting to cross both of those experiences off those lists was truly an indescribable feeling. I can't wait to continue crossing off that list as my career continues.
With the level of talent in the room, did you feel like you were prepared as performers? Did your education inform your performance?
Joanne: I was most definitely nervous, but I believe that I was very prepared walking into those rehearsal rooms. As previously mentioned, we studied VMA performances during our LA semester and did many exercises that involved dancing in front of the camera in class. It was surreal getting to experience everything behind the scenes that you used to talk about in class. I would be in the middle of dancing and think "Oh, wow—That's the type of camera that our professor taught us about.” It was so interesting getting to apply everything that I learned into real life.
Jada: Although the level of talent in the room was equal parts inspiring and intimidating, I felt fully equipped to handle this experience. My education at Pace has played a significant role in how I navigate professional dance opportunities. Since my training was so diverse I am able to feel comfortable and capable doing almost anything that is asked of me. Another huge takeaway from my time at Pace was the countless number of experiences we had working with guest choreographers and teachers. Having already been exposed to working with industry professionals has made me feel more confident in my ability to take direction and communicate with not only my peers, but those who are leading the room as well.
Tiffani: Our Commercial Dance Lab teaches us how to audition and how to act through rehearsals with both resident choreographers and guest choreographers. Although Pace University provided me with valuable knowledge, it was not the only factor that contributed to my success. It was a pleasure to be surrounded by 29 talented females who contributed to an atmosphere of positivity created by Ebony Williams and Ardyn Flynt, the choreographer and associate choreographer, respectively. Due to the amount of laughs shared, eight-hour rehearsal days did not feel like eight hours. It was fun.
What was it like to perform alongside Doja Cat, a veritable megastar, in such a highly visible way?
Tiffani: Doja Cat—Amala—is an exceptional human being who is both visionary and kind. A true superstar, she is. The creativity she exhibited was inspiring, and I am grateful to have seen it in person.
Jada: Performing alongside Doja Cat was such an amazing once in a lifetime experience. She was so kind and appreciative of all of our hard work as dancers to help her put on such a big performance. It was also so inspiring to see how hard she worked and that made me want to push myself just as much in support of her and all of the talented individuals in the room.
Joanne: I love commercial dance because it is so accessible! My family hasn’t seen me dance in about five or six years since I moved to New York for Pace, so getting to book the VMAs gave them the opportunity to watch me through their television screens. I also didn't grow up seeing a lot of professional dancers that looked like me or came from my hometown. Pursuing a career in the performing arts industry was looked at more like a pipe dream to my peers growing up, but this was an opportunity to show them that I did have the capability to make my goals a reality.
Jada: Getting to see the humanity in someone who is regarded as such a superstar by the world was special and is one of the biggest things I will takeaway from that day. As dancers, the music that these artists create drives our careers and is a significant point of inspiration for us, so to create art alongside her was an energy unlike any other.
How did you land the job and how intense were rehearsals? How do you balance life, school, and career?
Joanne: I received this private audition through my agency, MSA. It was about 60 women initially, which later got cut down to about 30. I was fortunate to book the job through that audition and start two weeks later on my birthday.
Tiffani: The rehearsals were intense; my body was so sore. There was a day that I could barely move my neck and back. However, I would not trade it for anything in the world. In order for me to do this job, I had to take off my side job at Body Roll Studio and push back choreography dates. My sole focus for two weeks was rehearsals for this particular gig.
Jada: The work load of rehearsals was intense, but it was such a fun environment which made it all completely worth it. The choreographer, Ebony Williams, and her assistant, Ardyn Flynt, created beautiful yet very physical and challenging movement. That combined with thirty dancers and all of the technical elements that were incorporated into the performance, required a lot of work and focus from everyone.
Joanne: I was actually booked on another dance job at the same time. I was in my second week of rehearsals with Step One Dance Company/RWS Entertainment for the Holland America Cruise Lines. Usually, jobs don't allow you to do double duty like I did, but the team at RWS was so gracious and allowed me to do so. The rehearsals for Doja were long with 12:00 p.m.–8:00 pm. days. Although the choreography was intense, rehearsals did not feel overbearing because the wonderful choreography team (Ebony Williams & Ardyn Flynt) just treated us so well and made the learning process so smooth. Doja Cat, herself, also was incredibly kind to us. Going to work every day that week was the epitome of the phrase "Do what you love, and it will never feel like work." It did get a tad bit difficult, personally, to come from VMAs rehearsal to learn choreography that I missed for the cruise off of video at night, but I made it work because I was so passionate about both jobs.
On the YouTube video of the performance, there's a comment that got 23,000+ upvotes. The comment is "The backup dancers deserve a raise cuz… WTF 😭 ." What's your first response to that?
Jada: FACTS! I am very happy to see comments like this one because it shows that other people can see not only our hard work, but the value in what we do. Often times dancers get overlooked in terms of fair pay and treatment on sets, when we are asked to do more work and take significant safety risks. Fortunately the room was lead by a fellow dancer who was able to look out for us in this regard, but a lot of people don’t realize how physically taxing dance can be. A lot of hours of strenuous work goes into creating a performance of that magnitude. It only lasts minutes for the audience and there are lots of things that don’t even get seen on television. I love what I do and all of the hard work that comes with it and I don’t do it for the recognition, but it feels amazing to be appreciated and seen as more than just something in the background. The dancers were a significant part of that performance and I am truly honored to have been apart of it.
Tiffani: The incredibly high speed wind, paper flying, hours of getting painted red, and wig installation were amazing features that added to the vision that was created for this performance. The comment is really funny; I think I saw it when I watched it back on YouTube the following day. We were well-compensated for our time and abilities. I am just very grateful to be on the stage.
Joanne: I thought the comment was hilarious. We all saw it on the bus on the way back and just laughed, but honestly, we do deserve a raise and not just for this job. I believe that dancers should be recognized and paid more for all types of commercial jobs. It is the job of dancers to highlight the artist, make them stand out, and be a reason why a viewer decides to keep watching. The most popular award show performances on TikTok or YouTube are the ones with phenomenal visuals or choreography. Aside from award shows, dance is everywhere—commercials, billboards, or even movement direction for actors. Many don't realize how vital dancers are for entertainment.