Interview with West End Thriller dancer Ella Redhead
Ella Redhead, 22, is currently a dancer in the West End show Thriller and a Move model. We’re really grateful that she managed to spare an hour to chat to us about her life as a dancer, and how much she’s enjoying being in her first show. Keep reading to get insider dance tips and info.
How old were you when you started dancing?
I started stage school at the weekend when I was 10. We did musical theatre, so that included singing, dancing, and acting.
What styles of dance have you trained in?
I’ve tried quite a few different dance styles since starting out, like ballet, contemporary, jazz, tap, commercial, hip hop, and I also learnt aerial skills. Commercial dancing is definitely my favourite. I had no technical training before starting out professionally. So I didn’t start ballet, jazz or contemporary until age 18 when I started my foundation at the Urdang Academy in London. After I got my foundation, I spent 3 years at LIPA doing my dance degree.
Did you find starting ballet and other dance styles at a later age difficult?
It was definitely hard to be training with people who’ve done ballet for years. You find yourself comparing your dance ability to other people, but I actually advanced in ballet, jazz and contemporary really quickly. I really enjoyed seeing myself improve technically. I always say to people that it’s never too late to start dance and training, as I started at a comparatively late age and I’m on the West End!
How did you prepare for leaving dance school in your final year?
I got an agent halfway through final year. I wanted to give myself as much time as possible to avoid all agents being booked up. I started to prepare myself as a brand with the help of my agent and create a portfolio of images, including headshots.
What shows have you been in?
Thriller is my first job and professional dance show. I actually got my part in Thriller 3 weeks before finishing dance school. I’d already completed my dissertation so I started professionally before I actually finished school.
Why did you audition to be in Thriller?
My brother was a huge MJ fan when I was growing up, so I was always surrounded by MJ music and dance moves. We grew up watching videos of MJ together and trying to learn the moves. I went to see Thriller during my second year at LIPA and I was so inspired. I made it my goal there and then that I wanted to be a Thriller dancer, and now two years later, I’ve actually done it!
How did you find the audition process? Was it difficult to get a part?
The Thriller audition was a closed audition for my part, with 80 other girls of a similar age going up against me. There were lots of recognisable faces in the room, so I definitely knew the kind of talent that was on display that day. We were given choreography to learn that was set to an MJ song, but it was made up of different moves from multiple MJ routines from the show. We performed in groups of three in front of the director, resident director and panelists from 10-2pm without breaks. We were cut down to 11 girls, and I found out the day after that I’d got a part and started rehearsals 2-3 weeks later.
How often do you rehearse?
We rehearse in North West London in private studios owned by the company. As a group we rehearsed for 4 weeks, 6 days a week to learn the show. We also went to see Thriller once a week. I had a longer learning period than everyone else as I am a swing for 5 different tracks. I had the 4 weeks of rehearsals to learn 2 tracks and then learnt the other 3 visually from watching the show. I do small workouts outside of dance rehearsals and freestyle a lot when alone to keep inspired and change things up a bit. It’s definitely difficult keeping up with my social life, but I’m lucky to have supportive family and friends who are proud of me and don’t get upset if I can’t always be there!
What kinds of clothes and shoes do you wear for dance rehearsals?
I like to wear lots of light layers for rehearsals, so I’ll always have a sports bra on, then a light baggy tshirt and a thick warm up jumper over the top. I usually wear leggings or baggy pants, but sometimes wear both to warm up quicker then de-layer.
What do you take in your dance bag to rehearsal?
My life is literally in my dance bag. I carry absolutely everything I could need during rehearsals and shows, particularly recovery stuff like barocca, tiger balm and therabands. I bring a few light layers to swap into as well in case a top gets to sweaty. I always bring my trainers to rehearse in, but also have to bring New Yorkers to change into for tracks like “Heartbreak Hotel”.
How do you warm up and prevent injury after show?
We always have an intense warm up before show and rehearsals. We each have a big dressing gown on backstage to keep warm before dancing. Then I make sure I warm up with loads of layers on, stretch, and then use a small hot water bottle to put on areas that still don’t feel flexible enough after a warm up session. I use a massage ball and a foam roller to stimulate muscle recovery after dancing.
Do you do your own hair and makeup for the shows?
Our hair gets done backstage by a wigs mistress before show, but we do our own makeup.
I’d really recommend illamasqua to any stage performers, I find it’s one of the only brands of makeup that actually stays on under the hot lights. I use Urban Decay eyeshadow palettes, Eyelure fake eyelashes, and MAC lipsticks to complete my stage look.
How often are the shows on?
I perform in Thriller a lot in a week as the show is on 8 times a week with Saturday and Sunday having double shows.
Is it the same cast for every show?
The director casted a few different dancers to play young Michael Jackson, so the kids work on rotation.
Is the choreography for the show similar to the Thriller music video?
The show is described as a musical concert. It revisists all MJ songs throughout his career from the Jackson 5 – up to Bad album. So the show really does immerse you in all things MJ as it tries to put together a timeline of his life, but through music. We reenact the dance routines from his music videos, like “Smooth Criminal” and “Thriller”. We do lots of trademark MJ moves. The show is choreographed and directed by Gary Lloyd, who’s also present during the auditions.
Do you have any tips for dancers trying to get onto popular shows?
Set yourself your goal and focus on it - don’t feel like any dream is too big. I aspired to have this job in 5 years and I managed to get it in 2, so don’t feel like your goal is impossible! You need to really look after your body and prevent injury as much as possible. I always try to feed my body the stuff it needs, like lots of protein. I have a high metabolism as most dancers probably do from the amount of exercise we do, so I limit my going out life and focus on healthy, balanced eating.
Do you think it’s harder to get parts in shows in the UK versus abroad, like US?
I’m really enjoying my time on Thriller. My contract runs well into the New Year so I’m excited to see where this is going to take me. Of course all dancers dream of being on big shows abroad like Broadway, but I do hope to go on tour with a show later in my career.
Thanks Ella, we really enjoyed talking to you and learning more about you. Thriller is definitely a show on our radar, so expect a standing ovation coming your way!