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Britney Spears lookin damn good on that stage
Pam Chu went from working in an office to dancing on Scrubs and on pop stars' tours.
By Heather Wood Rudulph
Pam Chu practically grew up in a dance studio, training from the age of 3. After graduating from a performing arts college, she moved sight unseen to L.A. and ended up sidetracked for five years. But still, she trained. A chance online encounter led Chu to sign with an agency that got her jobs on TV shows such as Scrubs, American Idol, and Dancing With the Stars. She performed with Cirque du Soleil, toured with Demi Lovato, and danced with the Rockettes. Chu is currently performing alongside Britney Spears in her Las Vegas residency show, "Britney: Piece of Me" at The AXIS at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino.Chu, 37, shares her story about realizing her dream career through hard work and a little luck.
My mom put me in dance classes when I was young to help contain my energy, and I kind of never looked back. When I was 9, I spent so much time at the dance studio that my mom [eventually] took a job as a receptionist. Most of my friends who danced didn't go to my high school [in Wisconsin], so I wasn't a part of the high school things. So much of my time was being pulled away for dance — and I was actually good at it. I thought, This could be something I could do.
After high school, I went to Point Park College in Pittsburgh. At the time it was a very small conservatory of dance. My concentration was jazz dance, but I studied everything. I was exposed to a lot of different choreographers because the college would bring in dance companies to [teach] us. For me, there was really no other option [than dance].
My first professional job was working for Universal Dance Association (UDA), who hosts a national cheerleading competition for college teams. They also have dancers. I taught jazz and technique on their tour the summer after my freshman year. The next summer I got hired at Walt Disney World and danced for three months in Tomorrowland.
At Point Park, you are groomed to be a concert dancer, which is supposed to lead to joining a dance company and performing in theaters on stages. I was not interested in dancing in a dance company. I was interested in commercial dance — TV, film, and live stage shows. I didn't want to move to Chicago because I'm from Wisconsin and it felt too close. I didn't want to move to New York because most of the work was for Broadway dancers. So after I graduated, I moved to L.A. in late 2000. I knew nothing about L.A. I just had some friends who graduated with me who had the same idea, so we moved out there together.
There weren't many technical auditions for jazz dancers. They were mostly for hip-hop or dancing for a pop artist, and I didn't really know what it meant to dance for a pop artist. I didn't even know how to dress for these auditions. So I had to get a job.
I started teaching at a dance studio called Dance Precisions, which was incredible, but sort of my demise because I put all my time into that dance studio and didn't go to any auditions. After about two years, I started working in the fashion industry as an office manager in a downtown showroom. The problem with me is I want to be really good at whatever I do. It was supposed to be a part-time job, but I ended up working 9 to 6 for about two years. I was still taking dance classes in my time off, but not paying my bills as a dancer.
I wanted to get back into the dance world and at least have my presence be known. So I became the nighttime manager for Millennium Dance Complex in North Hollywood, which is a very well-known dance studio. I just wanted to be around dancers again. But working in the office, I didn't get an opportunity to dance with them. I was cutting the paychecks to all these incredible teachers who didn't know that I wanted to be a professional dancer too.
In 2006, everything changed. A woman named Anastasia Miller, who worked at UDA with me when I was a freshman in college, reached out to me after seeing my headshots online. She asked, "Are you in L.A.?" When I said, yes, she said, "Well, how come you're not working for this choreographer, and that choreographer?" Turns out she was the dance agent for Bloc Agency [a talent agency], and she wanted to sign me. I knew I had to focus and work extra hard. I was already older than many of the dancers who were booking the commercial dance jobs I was going for.
I made a list of what I wanted to accomplish in three, six and 12 months. And I accomplished everything in the first three months. I booked a role on the TV show Scrubs for their musical episode. It was a weeklong shoot and I was one of the six main dancers. After that, I landed a national commercial with Quiznos, shot a music video for a Disney movie, and booked appearances on American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance, and Dancing With the Stars. I just went for it, and with the help of Bloc, it worked. I've been able to support myself solely on dancing ever since.
In 2008, I auditioned for Cirque du Soleil because Wade Robson was the choreographer. [Robson rose to fame in the early '90s as the primary choreographer for artists such as Britney Spears and *NSYNC.] It was for the Criss Angel Believe show in Las Vegas. I became part of the original cast. The dancers were sent to Montreal for two to three months to work with Wade, the director, and our stage manager. We had the time of our lives, learning to fly on bungees and harnesses.
When we got to Las Vegas and they started integrating Criss Angel into the show, things started to change a little bit. Some things worked. A lot of things didn't. Because we were working with illusion, when something didn't go right, the dancers got cut or pieces got moved around. I finished my two-year contract and didn't resign.
The next thing I did was audition for the Radio City Rockettes. I got accepted and spent a season in New York City performing at the Radio City Music Hall with the Rockettes. It was one of my favorite jobs, and one of the most challenging. We worked six days a week, and one day a week, we worked six shows a day.
Then I got a phone call from Wade to go on tour with Demi Lovato. He was the director of her "Unbroken" tour. This was before The X-Factor, before she had a no. 1 single. I had never been on tour before and I was so nervous, but this is what dancers do — throw us into something new and we'll learn really quickly.
In September 2013, I got an audition notice from Bloc that said, "Audition for Britney Spears resident show in Las Vegas." I wasn't going to go. I didn't know the choreographers and they didn't know me. They had their Asian girl already — and she was amazing. In this industry, you kind of know where you fit in. Since everyone is trying to cast diverse, in auditions, they end up putting us in little groups of like-cultured people — the Asian girls, the redheads, the ethnic girls, the tall girls.
At the end, there's usually only one Asian. But my friend Deirdre called me the night before the audition and said, "Pam, I think you've got this. You should go." And that's the only reason I went.At the audition, I remember having a feeling like, I want to get this. You have to psych yourself up and you have to believe you can get it. You have to have that confidence without being arrogant.
From the way the choreographers were teaching, I knew they wanted people who had technique, style, and would dance full out all the time. I knew not to sit down in the audition — ever. We were there for nine hours. They didn't tell us how many people they were hiring. They told me, "You have a callback, but it's not for three weeks."The day we were scheduled for the callback, I was supposed to be in Kalamazoo, Michigan, doing a residency for chuthis., a nonprofit dance company run by my dear friend Peter Chu [no relation]. I asked, "Guys, I don't think I can come to the callback, how important is it?" And the assistant choreographer said, "You have to come. Britney will be here and she needs to see everybody." I said, "Done, I'll make it happen."
The day before the audition, I had to teach all day with chuthis., then take a Greyhound bus from Kalamazoo to Chicago, to take the last red-eye flight to L.A. The Greyhound bus was late and then made a stop for dinner. I called my friend from high school who lives in Chicago and who I hadn't seen in three years. She came to pick me up. I made it to my gate just in time.
[At the audition,] we all danced for Britney, and then she said, "OK," and got up and left. As dancers, you're used to working with stars. But we all were like, That is BRITNEY SPEARS! She is an icon. There were seven girls in the room and 10 men. Nobody knew what was happening. They started measuring us. Finally the choreographers came up and officially offered us the contract. I'd never cried at an audition before then.
This is definitely the most exciting part of my career and something I still cannot believe I get to do. Working on a residency show is the most incredible schedule. The next two years, we will work a month on and a month off. All of the dancers live in L.A. and just rent when we have to be in Vegas. When we are on, we have three shows a week. Honestly, that's all I could do because the show is so demanding.
Britney is so sweet. She's very quiet and reserved, and she's also very goofy. I don't feel like she's my boss even though I know she is. She's had a lot of input in the revamp of the show. We have an all-girls number now that is so sexy because Britney wanted it. I think it's hard for artists to get close with their dancers sometimes — or with anyone — because it's such a solitary life. You're working so hard and you don't know who you can trust. But I really feel like Britney trusts us.
In my off time, I dance with chuthis., and I am on the board. I also teach with Adrenaline Dance Convention, where I travel around the U.S. working with kids and teachers. I want to dance as long as I have the same integrity that I did when I started. My passion has grown as I've gotten older. I feel like I'm at the top of my game because I have put so much time into it. I feel so lucky for everything I've accomplished, but I also know I've earned it.
Get That Life is a weekly series that reveals how successful, talented, creative women got to where they are now. Check back each Monday for the latest interview.