First They Danced
Years of rigorous training turn dancers’ bodies into exquisite instruments of artistic expression. Yet studying dance also instills a rich array of personal qualities—self-discipline, poise, confidence, coordination, focus—that can be parlayed into careers in all kinds of professions. This map features some of the surprising number of people who began as dancers before switching fields. Although they eventually became Batgirl, Rhoda, Bob Hope and the mayor of Chicago, first they danced.
Consummate entertainer Bob Hope and savvy politician Rahm Emanuel both launched their careers in Chicago, where, you guessed it, they danced: Hope was a vaudeville hoofer in the 1920s, and 50 years later Emanuel was a talented teenage ballet student.
Hope began dancing with a Chicago-based troupe, but he blossomed as a stand-up comic when he emceed stage shows held in the city’s movie theaters. These gigs marked another turning point in his career—in them he was billed for the first time as Bob Hope (as a dancer, he had used his real first name, Les). Hope achieved resounding success in every mass entertainment genre of the 20th century—Broadway, radio, film, television—and in 1968 Fortune magazine estimated he was the richest person in Hollywood.
Emanuel also became rich. He garnered $18 million as a director of the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation, a position he won after making a political name for himself as a fundraiser in Chicago and serving as a Clinton White House advisor. Emanuel became President Obama’s chief of staff in 2008. He later returned to his native Chicago and in 2011 was elected the city’s first Jewish mayor. He was reelected in 2015.
Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel excelled in dance classes as a youth and at 17 won a scholarship to the Joffrey Ballet School. He turned it down to attend Sarah Lawrence College yet continued to study dance while building his political career. Named honorary chairman of the Joffrey Ballet’s board of directors in 2011, Emanuel told The Washington Post that he still loved dance as an art form. “The discipline is great, the stretch, the workout,” he said. Although he chose politics over the performing arts, Emanuel can claim a television presence: As senior advisor to President Clinton, he was the inspiration for the character Josh Lyman, White House deputy chief of staff on the TV drama The West Wing.
When Ron Reagan, President Reagan’s son, was offered a Joffrey scholarship, he accepted it. He had dropped out of Yale (after one semester) to study ballet and eventually became a member of the Joffrey company. Though he never tried to capitalize on his father’s name to pursue a political career, Reagan did play a role in politics. Espousing liberal opinions, as opposed to his conservative father’s, Reagan abandoned dancing and later became a radio talk show host and political analyst.
Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the United States, did not support his son Ron’s decision to quit school and become a ballet dancer. Granted, years later, when his son danced with the Joffrey Ballet at a Metropolitan Opera House gala in New York, the president was in attendance. Yet before that, he had never even seen Ron perform, claiming he had been waiting until his son said he was “ready” for his parents to watch him. But that claim doesn’t ring true; performers usually want to be watched. Was the president more likely embarrassed by his son’s balletic pursuits, as well as the media’s erroneous reports that young Ron was gay?
When 18-year-old Geraldine Chaplin announced she wanted to be a ballet dancer, her renowned father, early film star Charlie Chaplin, banished her from the house. He believed artists are either creators or slaves. As a dancer, his daughter would belong to the slave category, he felt. Nonetheless, after training at the Royal Ballet School in London, Geraldine got a job dancing in Paris, where English director David Lean noticed her. He jump-started her acting career by casting her in a starring role in his 1965 blockbuster Dr. Zhivago.
Charlie Chaplin was Bob Hope’s boyhood idol. Dressed up as the silent comedian’s iconic Tramp character, young Hope would waddle, Chaplin-style, past his neighborhood firehouse, and as a 12-year-old, he won a prize in a Chaplin imitation contest. In 1939, the two met while Hope was filming The Cat and the Canary, in which he starred with Chaplin’s then wife, Paulette Goddard. According to Hope, after watching some rushes, Chaplin said to him, “I want you to know that you are one of the best timers of comedy I’ve ever seen.” Hope was thrilled.
Chaplin also loomed large in the life of film actor Geraldine Chaplin, his first daughter with his fourth wife, Oona O’Neill (the daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill). A strict taskmaster, Charlie advised Geraldine, “Never mind the talent, just work hard.” Realizing she’d never be a great ballerina, however, she forsook dance. Geraldine believed she benefited from the tremendous worldwide admiration her father enjoyed, making her start in films easier than it might otherwise have been. Unlike Charlie’s endearing comedy, Geraldine’s serious, intense and brooding performances won her critical respect. The biopic Chaplin features Geraldine in a lauded portrayal of her mentally ill paternal grandmother.
Bob Hope spent more than 50 years entertaining U.S. troops overseas, and he was itching to perform in China after President Nixon’s historic 1972 visit there. In 1979, when the two countries established diplomatic relations, Hope got his chance to travel to China and brought an entertainment troupe including ballet superstar Mikhail Baryshnikov. Also that year, a reverse cultural exchange initiative sent Chinese dancer Li Cunxin to the U.S. to work with the Houston Ballet. As a student in Beijing, Li had been inspired by footage of Russian defector Baryshnikov.
Hope’s trip, a diplomatic triumph, resulted in a three-hour television special, while Li’s journey led to his own defection and marriage to American ballet dancer Elizabeth Mackey. When Li’s best-selling memoir, Mao’s Last Dancer, was adapted into an eponymous biopic, Mackey was played by Amanda Schull, a former San Francisco Ballet dancer. Schull’s dance training has helped fuel her acting career. A star of the Syfy series 12 Monkeys, Schull told Dance Spirit magazine, “When you’re creating a character, embodying his or her physicality is something we, as dancers, grasp much better than non-dancers. Dancers also understand timing and landing on their marks—that’s extremely helpful in acting, too.”
Though she had formerly danced with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Yvonne Craig was best known for playing Batgirl in the campy late-1960s television series Batman. Created to increase the show’s viewership among prepubescent girls (and men over 40), the Batgirl character, Barbara Gordon, was a wholesome librarian, the daughter of the police commissioner—that is, when she wasn’t donning a skintight purple unitard to race around on her Batcycle and help Batman fight crime. Drawing heavily on Craig’s ballet training, Batgirl’s fighting style involved thrashing villains with very high kicks or being lifted by the Dynamic Duo so she could use two legs to whack opponents, sometimes deploying movements straight out of the classical ballet lexicon.
Recognized for recurring roles on Suits, Pretty Little Liars and One Tree Hill, Amanda Schull also started as a professional ballerina and, like Craig, broke into acting playing a tween girl’s dream character: Jody Sawyer in the 2000 film Center Stage. In its clichéd backstage story line, small-town girl Sawyer lands the lead in a trendy new ballet in which she gets to dance sexily—and race around with the film’s bad boy on the back of his motorcycle.
Yvonne Craig did her part for women’s rights. Just a few years after the cancellation of TV’s Batman, on which she had played Batgirl, Craig appeared in a public service announcement to support equitable pay for women. Produced by the U.S. Department of Labor in 1972, the commercial featured Craig, in character, scolding Batman for paying Batgirl less than his male sidekick, Robin. Craig gave up acting in the 1970s, claiming she no longer wanted to do the “bubblehead in the bikini” roles she was consistently offered.
Valerie Harper also advocated for women in the 1970s, when she fought alongside feminists Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug as an early proponent of the Equal Rights Amendment. Though renowned for her four-time Emmy-winning depiction of sassy New Yorker Rhoda Morgenstern on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its spin-off series Rhoda, Harper, like Craig, began her career as a dancer. She performed in the ensembles of several Broadway musicals, including Take Me Along and Wildcat, and in both the stage and film versions of L’il Abner, choreographed by legendary dance maker Michael Kidd.
Though she will always be identified as Charlie Chaplin’s daughter, Geraldine Chaplin won acclaim as an international film star in her own right. A three-time Golden Globe nominee, she has appeared in more than 100 movies, including Nashville and The Age of Innocence. She made her screen debut in her father’s Limelight (1952), along with her half brother Sydney Chaplin. Sydney had a lackluster film career but enjoyed success in Broadway musicals, winning a Tony Award for Bells Are Ringing and a Tony nomination for Funny Girl, which costarred Barbra Streisand.
In 1961, Sydney starred in Subways Are for Sleeping, one of several Broadway shows Valerie Harper danced in before becoming a household name in TV’s Rhoda. But when offered yet another dance job in a new 1963 musical, Here’s Love, Harper agonized over whether to accept it. She had grown to love acting and knew that continuing to do chorus work would prevent her from being taken seriously as an actor. “I sensed that now was a moment to take a chance,” Harper writes in her memoir, I, Rhoda. “So I turned down the show, which was one of the toughest decisions I ever made.”