Twenty thousand hysterical fans cry out in a star-struck ecstasy. With Nicki Minaj offstage, UCLA business economics alumna Karen Chuang said she never thought she would hear the crowd screaming her name during her solo moment onstage.
“To hear the crowd and hear them cheer, I felt like they were there to watch me,” Chuang said. “I completely let go and it felt amazing.”
Beginning in October 2012 and lasting through December, Chuang toured as a backup dancer for Nicki Minaj’s “Pink Friday: RELOADED” tour, a larger-scale arena tour of her “Pink Friday” tour that began in May of last year. Unlike Chuang’s previous jobs in the industry – where she is often typecast into younger roles – she said that working for Minaj validated her strength and maturity as a dancer, despite her petite figure and young appearance.
Before the “Pink Friday: RELOADED” tour, several of Chuang’s jobs were marketed toward a young demographic, like Nickelodeon’s “Dance on Sunset” and Disney 365’s “Shake It Up.” Since the 22-year-old is about 10 years older than the target market, Chuang said she had to internally rally the bright-eyed girl she was during adolescence.
“Because of the audience, Disney choreography is particularly simple and easy,” Chuang said. “But for me, there’s more credibility booking a job for a mature, older pop star than a tween star because the choreography is more difficult and stylized.”
When the opportunity to dance for an established rap icon arose, Chuang said she was lucky that she had already formed relationships with the tour’s choreographers. Chuang said that years earlier she assisted Laurie Ann Gibson and Gil Duldulao at the dance convention The Pulse. This connection helped Chuang get an invitation to Minaj’s small, private audition.
Chuang’s talent agent, Shayna Brouillard, said one of Chuang’s major goals was to book a touring job, but Brouillard was also concerned that Chuang’s height, 5 feet 2 inches, would be an issue at the audition.
“We wanted her to succeed, but we (always have) to be realistic about it,” Brouillardsaid. “So when she booked this job it was way more rewarding.”
Chuang said the intimacy of the audition was nerve-wracking, but more significance was placed on her talent as a dancer and less on her appearance since Gibson and Duldulao already knew her work ethic.
Marissa Osato, director of ENTITY Dance Company, has taught Chuang during her time in Los Angeles and said Chuang’s strong reputation brings her success in booking major jobs within the industry.
“Obviously her talent speaks for itself,” Osato said, “but her positive attitude, respect and professionalism make her the whole package.”
Chuang’s work ethic helped her achieve her touring goal, but she said her technical training landed her a contemporary solo during one of Minaj’s quick changes. While other dancers shot T-shirts to the crowd, Gibson chose Chuang to entice the audience with a solo during the musical interlude.
Since her solo choreography contrasted with the rap movement aesthetic, Chuang said she was worried the crowd would not understand the change from a hard to a more fluid dynamic. Chuang said she finally felt empowered when the tour reached The O2 arena in London.
“It was insane. It was the biggest audience we had the entire tour,” Chuang said. “I felt like I was performing directly for (the fans).”
Although Chuang experienced the adrenaline rush onstage, she said the tour also had its low points. Chuang missed the challenge of mastering new choreography every day in class, but during the tour she said she focused her energy on delving into the movement’s rap aesthetic which she was less familiar with.
Chuang said that for the past six years her style has culminated into a fusion of hip-hop and contemporary influences. Even though she has strong roots in hip-hop, she said she focused on emulating the hyped and hard-hitting movements that the “Pink Friday: RELOADED” tour choreography demanded.
Unlike “Dance on Sunset” and “Shake It Up,” she said the tour choreography challenged her to take on a much older, aggressive character.
“I can always see her wheels turning as she’s trying to nail the choreography. She really tries to mold herself into the visual aesthetic that the directors see,” Osato said.