Celebrities Who Started Out As Dancers
There are some surprising names on this list.
You may know these celebrities for their acting, athleticism, singing or political. But did you know they all first started out as dancers?
From those well-known figures you could imagine were born with twinkle toes to those that might leave you saying, “Really, he did ballet?” get ready to bust a move on these footloose and famous folks.
You may remember Christopher Walken’s memorable music video number for Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice.” But that wasn’t just a one-off lark for the actor. He’s a trained tap dancer who can also sing.
According to an Entertainment Weekly interview with the actor, “Walken is not an actor who dabbles in dance but rather a dancer who fell into acting.” The story posits that if movie musicals hadn’t fallen out of favor, Walken would have ended up the next Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly.
Audrey Hepburn began ballet training at age 5 and kept up her dancing even during World War II and the Nazi occupation of Holland. But war malnutrition led in part to her not being able to pursue dancing professionally. Instead, she turned to the stage and acting.
Her first noteworthy film role was as an aspiring dancer in 1952’s “Secret People.” That role led to her Oscar-winning breakthrough part in “Roman Holiday.”
Channing Tatum first turned to football and martial arts and then dance to channel his ADHD.
“I learned to appreciate repetition,” he told Esquire in 2014. “That’s why I can dance. It’s how I learned to act. I have a high tolerance for repetition.”
He also was an exotic dancer before earning a roll in “Step Up!” And then there was “Magic Mike” and Tatum’s gateway performance to full-on fame.
“As a former ballerina, Charlize brings all that physicality, and a special awareness and discipline and sense of valuation of her character through gestures,” said the film’s director George Miller.
Rapper Tupac Shakur went to the Baltimore School of the Arts in high school and took ballet classes as part of his schooling.
Later, he was a roadie and dancer with Digital Underground before becoming a full-fledged member of the group.
The Academy Award-winning actor Sam Rockwell is also known for having some smooth dance moves. As a teen, he attended San Francisco’s School of the Arts for part of high school. His middle school friends also got him into break dancing.
“I used to do really bad break dancing, when ‘Thriller’ and ‘Purple Rain’ came out,” Rockwell told the New York Times. “I was into Run-DMC, Grandmaster Flash, Doug E. Fresh, Eric B. & Rakim. Probably my biggest inspiration was James Brown, and watching Tom Cruise in ‘Risky Business.’ I remember practicing that, and watching James Brown do the splits.”
Lopez was a Fly Girl on “In Living Color” and a dancer in a Janet Jackson video — among other dance roles — before she hit it big with a part in “Selena.”
“I always consider myself as a dancer first,” Lopez said at an NBC press conference in 2017. “I became a singer and actress after dancing. For me, it’s so part of who I am.”
“Mad Men” actress Elisabeth Moss trained at the Westside School of Ballet in Santa Monica, California, then the School of American Ballet and also with Balanchine muse Suzanne Farrell. But Moss thought she’d have a longer career with acting.
She did, however, help produce a ballet documentary, “Ballet Now,” for Hulu in 2018, proving that her love for dance remains.
Spanish actress Penelope Cruz wanted to be a dancer growing up and trained in the art through her teens, when she started theater school.
“If I hadn’t had the discipline of all those years in the dance world, it would have been much, much tougher [to get acting parts],” Cruz told 60 Minutes.
Considering one of her first major roles was as a ballet dancer in “Center Stage,” you’re probably not surprised to learn Zoe Saldana grew up learning various forms of dance. She also attributes landing her starring role in “Avatar” to that training.
“I think I would have never booked ‘Avatar’ if it weren’t for my ballet background,” Saldana told The New York Times. “The actress James Cameron wanted was physically able. I thank god for something like ballet, which gave that space for me to be by myself and find peace. Ballet was my meditation, my therapy, my escape, my answer.”
Amy Adams took ballet and musical theater classes as a child but said ballet was “too disciplined and too restrained and I was always told off in the chorus lines.”
The German actress Diane Kruger studied at the Royal Ballet School.
“Looking back, I was a very angry kid,” Kruger told IndieWire. “I had a lot of [anger], because things at home were tough. Unconsciously, dancing and performing was a way of getting those emotions out. And then you’re being rewarded for that by being on stage.”
Like others on this list, an injury ended her professional dancing aspirations. So in her early teens, she became a model and then switched to acting.
Jean-Claude Van Damme
Action star Jean-Claude Van Damme took five years of ballet alongside his martial arts training when he was growing up, and has said that if you can withstand a ballet workout, you can stand anything.
He put that dance work to use in a scene from “Kickboxer.”
Kim Basinger’s parents were a jazz musician and a ballet dancer, so she had music and dancing in her blood. She took dance lessons as a kid to get over her shyness. But soon she was modeling and acting. She also sang.
She put her dancing skills onscreen in the Bond film “Never Say Never Again.”
Before she was one of the world’s most famous models, Naomi Campbell took ballet lessons as a child, following in the footsteps of her mother, who was also a dancer. But Campbell was apparently too tall to become a professional dancer.
Still, on an episode of Oprah in 2010, she had the chance to take a class with the Bolshoi Ballet.
“Will and Grace” actress Megan Mullally was part of the Oklahoma City Ballet growing up and danced both lyrical and classical ballet. She also did some training at the School of American Ballet in New York City.
“Between Casady [School], which was a very strict world, and being in the Oklahoma City Ballet, which was also very strict and extremely disciplined, I feel that’s what gave me the work ethic I have now,” she said.
“I wanted to dance, but I wanted to do it my way,” she told MTV in 2004. “I started skipping all these classes, and I was deemed the bad, lazy dancer, the bad girl.”
Luckily, music worked out well for her.
Colin Farrell often comes across as a serious, tough-guy actor. But it turns out that at one point, he was a professional country line dancer. He also took traditional Irish dancing for a few years growing up in Ireland.
“I did get paid to do something that resembled some form of dance possibly for a while,” he told Conan O’Brien of his CMT country line dancing at age 19.
In order to receive intense ballet training, Summer Glau was homeschooled from third grade on. She reached soloist status with the Ballet San Antonio Company before foot and leg injuries ended her professional ballet aspirations at age 19.
Instead, Glau headed to Los Angeles and eventually landed a guest part on “Angel” as a ballerina. She’s most notably appeared in “Firefly,” “Serenity” and “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.”
As a child, Chris Messina competed for Mr. Dance of the United States with modern dance.
Who can forget Alfonso Ribeiro’s classic Carlton move on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”? He used it to help him win his season of “Dancing with the Stars.”
But did you know he was a tap dancer as a child? He even starred in Broadway’s “Tap Dance Kid” and in a Pepsi commercial with Michael Jackson.
Before injuries ended her professional ballet aspirations as a teen, Neve Campbell studied at the National Ballet School of Canada. The “Party of Five” and “Scream” actress also made “The Company,” a movie that required her to go back to her dance roots.
You may think Chicago mayor and former chief of staff to President Barack Obama Rahm Emanuel is all tough-talking politician. But he actually went to the Evanston School of Ballet and earned a scholarship to study with the Joffrey Ballet. He instead went to Sarah Lawrence, which also has a dance program.
From childhood through the late 1970s and early ’80s, Madonna Ciccone aspired to be a dancer.
“I was more of a dancing kid than a singing kid,” she said as a guest on Larry King Live in 1999. “I mean, I sang in school choirs and I sang in school musicals, but I was much more interested in dancing than singing.”
Madonna even won a dance scholarship to the University of Michigan, but left college to pursue life as a professional dancer in New York City in 1978. She did mostly modern dance and then began to audition for off-Broadway and Broadway roles that included dancing and singing. People told her she had a good voice, and the rest is history.
“I’m glad that it turned out this way, because as a singer I can use all of my dance training,” she said. “And I think that singing is much more of an emotional expression.”
Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen took gymnastics and ballet growing up.
“It was kind of a ‘Billy Elliot’ story — I was from a working-class background and I couldn’t tell my friends I was a dancer,” the “Casino Royale” actor said in a 2019 interview.
He apparently danced for close to 10 years before deciding to focus on acting.
Sarah Jessica Parker
Sarah Jessica Parker is a fairly prominent supporter of ballet and is on New York City Ballet’s board. She’s even done the introduction to the NYCB workout DVD and has been involved with a documentary on the company.
But did you know that Parker took dance lessons alongside her acting training when she was growing up?
French bombshell actress Brigitte Bardot studied at the Conservatoire de Paris when she was growing up. She switched to modeling and acting, but her dance training served her well in future roles. Bardot even helped popularize ballet flats as everyday footwear outside of the dance studio.
Actress Jenna Elfman trained at the Westside School of Ballet in Santa Monica growing up.
“I didn’t hang out with my peers in high school because I was in ballet class six days a week for three to four hours a day,” she told Untitled magazine. “So I mastered a fine art at a very young age, which was very good self-discipline as an artist. That was my first introduction to art as far as creativity. It’s my home base.”
Actress Deborah Kerr of “From Here to Eternity” and “The King and I” fame originally started out as a dancer. She trained with the Sadler’s Wells ballet school in England, and at 17 made her stage debut with the school’s company. At the same time, she started taking theater roles and eventually focused on acting.
“Newsies” and “Swing Kids” may have tipped you off to Christian Bale’s natural dancing ability, but did you know that he trained at the Royal Ballet School as a young child before focusing on acting? His dance roots and natural dancing ability helped him in a creepy “American Pscyho” “dance” scene, too.