The Conversation With Professional Dancer Mishay Petronelli

Courtesy Ryan Davis

In this signature espnW column, Allison Glock sits down for a candid Q&A with a remarkable person. The aim is to cover topics high and low, deep and less so, to present a fresh look at folks we think we know and meet some others we wish we'd known all along. Welcome to The Conversation.

Who: Mishay Petronelli, a professional dancer who has choreographed and worked with Beyoncé, Madonna and Kanye West. She's currently dancing with Janet Jackson on the "Unbreakable" world tour, which kicked off last week in Canada.


Allison Glock: You're 28 now. When did first realize you wanted to be a dancer?

Mishay Petronelli: When I was 13 years old and living in Ohio. I would watch my cousins practice at their dance studio and then I would go home and show my mom what they did. I retained it all in my head, and I would reenact it in our living room. Eventually she realized I should probably take lessons, too.

AG: Starting as a teenager is actually late for most professional dancers.

MP: I was playing catch-up. Most girls start at around 3 years old. But from day one, my teachers could sense my devotion and they trained me as hard as they could in every form -- ballet, hip-hop, tap. By 10th grade, I started to do my high school curriculum online so I could dance most of the day. I began to fly to Los Angeles and New York City to see what the scenes were.

AG: So, your teenaged life wasn't exactly keg parties and proms ...

MP: No. I was focused and determined. I always think about what would have happened if I had started as early as everyone else and I've decided it was actually a plus. I know people who started too soon and they burned out. They lost their drive for dance. I had a weird advantage because I was so hungry.

AG: What was your family's response to your pursuing dance professionally at such a young age?

MP: I was lucky. They were 100 percent supportive. They knew I had a passion for it. I was raised with my two older sisters and my mom. She passed away a couple of years ago. She loved watching me dance. Even now I know that she is looking out for me. I can feel her watching over me every time I perform. She was a seamstress. She made all my dance clothes and costumes. But she wasn't a "dance mom" by any means.

AG: You mean she didn't hover and scream and live her dreams through you?

MP: [laughs] There are parents like that. I've seen them. It's crazy. I was so happy my mom never pushed me. She didn't have to. I pushed myself.

AG: What is it about dance that means so much to you?

MP: Everyone has that experience of hearing a song in your car and feeling like you can't sit still. You bob your head. You wiggle your hips. Music takes over your body through dance. You release so much.

AG: Do you see dance as a language?

MP: Completely. You can express so many things. I've taught classes in Italy where no one speaks English, and yet we communicate just fine via dance. You can bring a smile to anyone's face just by dancing.

AG: How did your career evolve from learning moves in your tiny hometown studio to performing with the likes of Kanye West and Madonna?

MP: At 18, I took a leap. I didn't want to get stuck in Ohio. I wanted to move to New York as soon as possible. So I worked as a dancer on a cruise ship for eight months. It was the worst job in my life. It wasn't fulfilling. I wasn't happy. I hated it. But I earned money to get myself to New York. Once I was there, it took me a while. I didn't know anything. I was scared. I didn't understand the trains. I was this itty-bitty thing in this giant world. It took years to get established and make my career happen. I worked for it. There was nothing overnight about my success.

AG: Did you ever want to quit?

MP: Never. I got down on myself, but I used it to push myself harder. I would see other dancers succeed and use that as inspiration. It fueled me.

AG: Who else inspired you?

MP: I have three teachers I grew up with, and one, Amanda, even when I was a girl, she could see the person I was. She saw my passion and she helped me to fulfill my dream of dance. She and my mother taught me that perfection doesn't exist. That trying to be "perfect" is an exercise in torture.

AG: Many women athletes, and women generally, punish themselves for not being "perfect." We are often our own worst critics.

MP: That is definitely true with me. I am unbelievably hard on myself. I've had that problem ever since I was little.

AG: Did you ever have esteem issues around your body?

MP: Every day. That's this business. You are compared to millions of girls in the dance scene. Your hair, your face, your body, you're constantly compared. And then you start to compare yourself at rehearsals. Who is better than me? Who is more appealing?

I'll find myself wondering, Do I look like too masculine? When that happens, I just tell myself I was born this way. And when I'm meant to do a job, then it will happen. I remind myself that if someone doesn't want to hire me because my arms are too muscular then I probably don't want to work with that person, anyway.
Mishay Petronelli

AG: How do you keep that internal and external criticism from taking over?

MP: I try and grow from it. To have it make me stronger. We all go through times when we feel terrible. I have this natural muscularity that I'm self conscious about. I'll find myself wondering, Do I look like too masculine? When that happens, I just tell myself I was born this way. And when I'm meant to do a job, then it will happen. I remind myself that if someone doesn't want to hire me because my arms are too muscular then I probably don't want to work with that person anyway.

AG: When do you feel most powerful?

MP: When I wake up and go to work, only it doesn't feel like working because I'm doing what I love and what my body was designed for.

AG: What are you proudest of in terms of what your body can do?

MP: That I can still tumble. It's getting harder as I get older, [laughs] but I still got it. And keeping up with my technical ability. I'm proud of that because you can lose that very easily. It's work. A lot of dancers give up on technique because you don't really need it in most commercial or video jobs. But it matters to me.

AG: With all of your high-profile gigs, do you feel like you've made it?

MP: I hate that very idea. There is still so much I want to do, to learn. I want to master everything. One day when I'm older, I want to do Broadway. I'd love to do my own show. I could list on and on. I'm proud of what I've done, but I want to keep striving to do better. I notice at a certain level a lot of people get comfortable. And I want to avoid that. That said, my Madonna and Beyoncé moments -- oh my gosh -- those were highlights.

AG: What did you do for them exactly?

MP: I was in Madonna's "Gimme All Your Luvin'" music video. For Kayne West I performed with him on "SNL." With Beyoncé I was the assistant choreographer for The Mrs. Carter Show World Tour. I taught movement to her dancers and to her, and I was Beyoncé's stand-in throughout rehearsals as well as for her "Drunk in Love" Grammy performance. I also danced in the "Haunted" music video, which I helped choreograph as well.

AG: I'm pretty sure every woman in the world would love to say they worked as Beyoncé's stand in. Were you nervous showing your moves to Queen Bey?

MP: I was blown away by her, and I felt empowered in her presence, but none of these artists ever made me feel nervous. In order to do my job and give the work what it deserves, you have to get past the nerves immediately. Huge talents each give attention to different details that set them apart. I learned so much just from observing them.

AG: You're like the diva dance whisperer. How fun is your life?

MP: Honestly, my current job with Janet Jackson is every dancer's dream. I grew up with her music and it has always been so inspiring. And her dancing -- it's challenging. She pushed the envelope with movement. Janet has forever been the one artist who treats her dancers like gold. She doesn't separate, like, "I'm the star and you're back there." With Janet, it's one team. She honestly cares about each of us, she wants us all to succeed. And she doesn't pick you based on looks. She chooses you because of how you dance. That's really special.

AG: Who is the best dancer among the many performers you've choreographed for?

MP: Janet for sure, because she's a natural. She shines. She gets on the stage and you are like, yes. She actually loves dancing and it shows. You can tell when an artist doesn't want to do it. You can even tell when they are solid dancers but don't feel the choreography. I think even people in the audience can sense when an artist has a reluctance to dance.

AG: Speaking of dubious moves, do you watch "Dancing with the Stars"?

MP: Never.

AG: How about "So You Think You Can Dance"?

MP: No. I stay away from dancing shows. It's just not real to me. Some of my good friends have been on them, and I've been encouraged to do them. But I can't bring myself to consider it. They're only showing a small part of what dance really is. Because it's "reality television," they want the story, not the dancing. I don't have to tell you my story to dance for you. I care too much about the art of dance. I don't want to compromise that.

AG: For a lot of young people, "SYTYCD" is their only exposure to dance. Isn't something better than nothing?

MP: I go back and forth. The problem I'm seeing is that now when I teach a young student, I hear them say, "I want to be on 'So You Think You Can Dance'! " And I'm like, "And then what?" A TV show can't be your goal. Because when it's done, you're going to need a next move.

AG: Can anyone really learn to dance?

MP: Absolutely. No doubt.

AG: Even Taylor Swift?

MP: [laughs] ...

AG: Why do you think people are afraid to dance in public?

I'm pretty fearless with dance itself. I've jumped off a balcony and trusted three guys to catch me. I'm down to try everything when it comes to the physical aspects of my job.
Mishay Petronelli

MP: People get shy. They don't want to look at themselves in the mirror. That's a big part of it. Worrying about what other people think. That's our culture now. Sometimes when I teach, I turn students around so they can't watch themselves and their classmates, and it's easier. I try to explain that how you feel music and manifest dance is never going to look like another person. It's individual by nature.

AG: Like snowflakes. Did you ever have fear around dancing?

MP: I have fears in auditions. I even have fears on a job. I never feel secure. I want to be the best I can be, the person they want in the room with them. But I'm pretty fearless with dance itself. I've jumped off a balcony and trusted three guys to catch me. I'm down to try everything when it comes to the physical aspects of my job.

AG: Tell me about your training.

MP: I try to make myself run, but it's so hard to get to the gym. With Janet, we rehearse 8 to 9 hours a day. When I'm not in a show or on a tour, I teach eight classes a week, and I take extra classes on top of that. So that's around 6 to 8 hours a day.

AG: I don't think you need to go to the gym. How much does diet factor in to your fitness?

MP: I'm the worst person to ask. I don't really watch my diet. Whatever my body is craving, I eat. My weakness is Reese's cups. If I'm longing for a burger, I eat a burger.

AG: I assume you've had injuries.

MP: Small things, knock wood. A knee cyst that comes and goes from overuse. Nothing too serious. I work a lot in stiletto heels. And I teach a stiletto class. That can strain my knee.

AG: A stiletto class?

MP: For many of the video jobs, and those in the commercial scene, women have to wear heels. You have to be in relevé [on the tips of the toes] the whole time. So I teach my students how to match their shoulders and hips. Mostly we work on walking and placement. A lot of it comes from ballet. It's hard to even walk in heels, let alone dance in them. My class isn't about being sexy, so much as about being strong.

AG: So, no pole then.

MP: [laughs] No pole. Not that kind of class.

AG: Do you consider yourself a pro athlete?

MP: I do. And I wish dance were considered a sport. Our bodies go through it as much as any athlete. I believe if we were seen as pro athletes, we would be compensated better.

AG: What's the hardest part of dancing for a living?

MP: Getting older. I have to remind myself to take care of my body. I force myself to rest. I am used to going and going and going. I never stop to take a breath. As a rule, dancers don't take care of our bodies enough. We barely go to the doctor.

AG: You are all trained to push through pain and injury.

MP: We are. And you don't want to miss out on a job, so you tend to ignore any issues. I hope my body can go until I'm 80. I intend to dance as long as I possibly can. Even if all I can do is move is my feet, I'll just tap dance.

There are times when I'm performing and I've felt so much I'm in tears. Or you almost black out during a performance. You get so into it. You bring every bit of yourself to these experiences as you share it.
Mishay Petronelli

AG: What's the most common misconception about your career?

MP: People think it's easy. That we just throw our hair back and shimmy our hips. It's not like that at all. It's exhausting. You have to be strong. Without stamina you can't get through a performance. When I tell people I'm a dancer I can feel what they are thinking. They don't take it as seriously as I'd hope.

AG: The pole again.

MP: [laughs] Yeah. Or people think it's a hobby, not a career. When in reality, there are times when I'm performing and I've felt so much I'm in tears. Or you almost black out during a performance. You get so into it. You bring every bit of yourself to these experiences as you share it.

AG: You have to marry extreme athleticism with emotion. As a former basketball player, I can say that seems a lot harder than simply sinking a ball into a net.

MP: Yeah, but the flip side of that is that dancing can get you out of any bad mood life throws at you. You will never not feel better after dancing. No matter how terrible your day is, or how crappy you think your life is going, dance is the cure.

AG: I thought tequila was the cure.

MP: That's for after.

From first-time yogis to veteran triathletes, each body in motion is a successful one. We created the My Body Can movement to celebrate that notion, and now we want to hear from you. Tag a photo or video with #MyBodyCan, and share with the espnW community what amazing things can your body do!

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