How did you start dancing?
I started when I was three. My mom put me in class. She said that I would memorize the movement before anyone else did in the class. I am a visual learner. If somebody did something, I would just mock it and have it memorized.
My mom was in theatre. She was doing The Sound of Music at the Naples Players, which is where I am from. She took me to a musical theatre audition for Naples Players that year for The Sound of Music and I got cast as Gretel. So the bug bit really early on. I liked memorizing things, so I knew my lines right away. That’s also when I started to sing. Dancing, acting, singing all at once.
My whole family has always loved music and dance. My mom definitely started the bug and created the monster by taking me all the time. We literally listened to so many tracks in the car. We listened to really old musicals all the way to rehearsal.
What happened from there?
A lot of really successful dancers have that competition phase. Dance competitions were always good, and I always enjoyed that. I always found dance way more enjoyable in a musical. I loved dancing and I loved competing, and I knew that was my strength—that’s what I was best at and most trained in—but it all made way more sense when I was singing and dancing in the ensemble. In middle school, I got cast as the lead of a musical and that’s when I started realizing maybe I am better at musical theatre as a whole. It’s what I enjoyed the most.
When I was younger, my parents would take me every single year to see Broadway shows and the Radio City Rockettes. I have a massive collection of Playbills now. After going up to New York so often, I knew it was where I needed to be. Also, in middle school, I shot up to 5 foot 10, so everyone would always say things like, “You’re going to be a Rockette, Stevens, with those dancer legs.”
How was your move to New York?
My dad helped me move up. He was amazing. Set me up on Upper East Side. This kinda happens to a lot of people, but my very, very, very first audition day, I went to a Wicked open call, and they turned down the non-equity dancers. Right down the hall, there was an audition for Busch Gardens. At the end of the day, I got a job offer from Busch Gardens. The casting director literally sat me down and said, “We’d like to offer you a Halloween show at Busch Gardens.”
So I had to leave my apartment right away. I sublet it. And so began my first professional contract. While working for Busch Gardens WIlliamsburg, we would take 7 hour bus rides back to the city and audition on weekdays between working 18 hour weekends.
During one of those trips to the city, I got offered a job dancing on Holland America Cruise Line, which is something I always wanted to do. My contract ran for 8 months in Brazil, Canada, New England and the Caribbean. And then it was like, “Well, there goes my apartment.” My whole year of lease. Sea life was a wonderful experience, though. Holland America was a super educational and eye opening experience for me. Not only did I get to see so many parts of the world, but I learned so much from being on a ship with my co-workers in such tight quarters. You learn a lot about yourself. When something happens at home—my grandfather passed away while I was at sea working—you can’t just jet off and come right back. I was able to come home for a little bit, but it definitely made me appreciate doing one show a night (versus 2) and being in the same country as your family.
What was your initial expectation when you first moved to the city?
I remember being in the audition room and being really scared that everybody was going to be in their own zone all the time and constantly focusing on themselves. I expected there not to be this camaraderie. But the second I went to the audition, sat down and talked to girls, I felt less nervous. I felt there was a sense of community. It’s not as scary. I used to get really, really nervous with singing. Not as much anymore. But when I first got to the city, I would choke on my words when I sang in front of people. But I expected it to be harsh. I expected the girls to be mean in the audition room, stretching in their zone. But if you sit down, open your mouth and talk to someone, you can make a new friend by the end of the day, and it’s not scary. You all want a job, and you all love what you do. And we’re all the minority who are trying to pursue our dreams and make money off of what we actually love. So it’s not as daunting, for sure.
What are you up to now?
I am finishing up my recovery from my knee injury. After I finished working on the cruise ship, I came back to New York, auditioned my butt off and took so many dance classes. I was in the best dance shape of my life. Every dance audition I felt confident walking into. That’s when A Chorus Line audition came out for a theatre in Florida. I ended up getting asked to read for Cassie, and it was like, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe this is happening.” I couldn’t even believe that I got to read as Cassie.
Two weeks later, I got an email saying that I was cast as Cassie in A Chorus Line down in Coral Springs. Tears ensue. Crying phone calls to mom. So I went down to Florida, rehearsals started,and I played Cassie in A Chorus Line. I had six shows.
There’s this 11-minute dance solo that Cassie has. Just constant singing, dancing, singing, dancing, panting. Jessica Patty a Broadway vet, taught me the original choreography from the show because I really wanted to know the original Broadway choreography. She looked at me and said, “I want you to know that this is really hard on your body. You really have to take care of your body when you do this role. A lot of dancers have injured themselves or had problems after doing the show this many times.” It’s not only Cassie. It’s the show in general. If you’re doing A Chorus Line, you’re signing yourself up for really, really hardcore dancing. So she warned me of that and taught me the original choreography.
I went home to teach a class in Naples, and I wanted to show them the opening number. We probably did the opening number fifty times full out in heels. My students asked me if I could do my solo at the end of class. I had already been dancing for an hour and a half. My body was spent. I start the solo, and six counts of eight in, I was doing a high kick in plie and I heard a really big popping, ripping noise and I was on the floor immediately. It didn’t hurt that much. There was no bruising or swelling. But when I got up, I knew something was wrong. It felt like my knee was going to give out. I just remember the whole room went silent. My dancers were asking me if I was okay. And I was like, “Yeah, we have a show tomorrow. I am going on. Absolutely going on.” I called my mom and dad, some doctors in Naples, and then called my director, and I was like, “We need to find a way to get an MRI so that we can know if it’s a mild sprain or what to do for the show the next day—we didn’t know what to do. The next day, I got an MRI, and the doctor said it was a clean cut ACL tear. I sobbed into my dad’s arms in complete disbelief. I broke the news to my cast. My director didn’t even let me apologize or worry, but rather said this . “Kayley, you get better. Don’t worry about us. We’ll be fine. Go get better so that you can finish your career because you have a long career ahead of you.”
I would say the first week is the hardest because you just have to accept that you’re not going to dance for the next 8-12 months. A lot of people were like, it’s going to be okay, you’ll be back dancing in no time! But people closest to me were like, “You have every right to be upset and pissed and angry. Be upset and then move on once you’re ready to move on.” My mom and dad were super heroes throughout the whole process.I have two little twin siblings who are four. They would come in my room after my ACL reconstruction surgery, and my big knee brace would be on and they’d knock on the door and ask how my knee was or if I needed ice. It was the best cure, being around family. My friends and cast showered me with love and support too. Cards, flowers, treats, and books were sent my way to keep my spirits up. I was in rehab all summer long. My whole support system just distracted me in the best way.
I taught dance a little bit this summer. That filled me up a lot, happiness wise. Right around that time when I was teaching, I noticed that I could do barre. I could slowly but surely start dancing a little bit. In rehab, my therapist and I started building and building from ballet barre exercises, and she said that I was rapidly healing and my muscles were growing really fast and performing so well. I also did a lot of ankle weight training and exercises on my own all summer to make sure I retained muscle around the ligament. There’s no way I thought I’d be dancing by now at all. I am about 4 months in. Most people do not get this far until month 6. I am dancing really early right now. I still can’t believe my body has healed this fast.
Last week I took my first ballet class at Steps for the first time since February and I made it all the way through the class without pain. I cried afterwards of gratitude and happiness. I took advanced beginner theatre the next day. It was a really fast combination, so I got really nervous. I had my knee brace on. The teacher kept changing direction really quickly, and that’s what your ACL is for—it’s for pivoting side to side, and controlling tibial displacement in extension of the knee. But once again, my knee held strong and I was fine. I did the entire combination to Billy Joel’s “Keeping the Faith.” I am a pretty spiritual person, so I was like, “Really? Billy Joel’s ‘Keeping the Faith’ is the first dance class at Steps.” Keeping the faith was my motto all summer. Those first two classes back in NYC were a sign that I really was returning to dance, that I was on my way back.
I am on my way back slowly but surely. Just got new headshots yesterday. Also, right after A Chorus Line, I signed with an agent and then had to call him and asked if he’d still want to represent me. The agency said of course they do and just tell us when you’re healthy again. I haven’t even begun that relationship with my agent yet.
I am trying not to let myself feel like I am behind but when all of your friends who are in the audition room with you—a lot of my best friends booked tours this year—and that’s where I thought I was going this year. But then the second you start to compare, I realized, like Anna Terese Stone said, that this is my journey, and I am going to be a stronger dancer because of this and hopefully build my way back up with no re-injury.
In a way, I think your story is a perfect example of what most of life is like. It’s the story of expectations vs. reality.
That’s the entire summary. My dad always says, “Man plans, God laughs.” You make all these plans like, I am going to book A Chorus Line, then I am going to do a tour, and this is what I want to do. Then lightning strikes. I think the injury was a blessing in disguise. People look at me like I am crazy when I say that, but I thought I was indestructible before the injury. In no way or shape or form did I ever think my knee was going to go. My knee never had any pain. So you think nothing is going to happen but it does. And I got what I always wanted—I always wanted to be with my family. They helped me heal.
What are your plans now?
Actually, the director from A Chorus Line contacted me and asked if I would like to do Promises, Promises. Another Donna McKechnie role. It’s in September and October. It’s really soon, and I am not “cleared” on paper until October 9th, which is six weeks away. He said, “I know it’s early, but since you are progressing so fast, would you like to do this with me?” It’s like, how can I pass on? You’re returning to the same theatre, the same town, the same choreographer, some of the same cast members. I called my surgeon and asked, he said yes. So that’s my next job coming up.
What would be your number one advice?
Yes, this entertainment world is amazing, and Broadway and what we do is incredible, but it’s super important to remember that there’s life going on outside of work, whether you are a dancer or not. I can’t stress enough the importance of feeding your soul with surrounding yourself with good people or by finding ways to see the world. Staying grounded and remembering that there’s life outside of dance. When you don’t get that job or have a bad class—I had to walk out of a tap class before which was really embarrassing but it was too hard—when your friend gets a show and you don’t, it might not be your journey but remember you’re still blessed just to be here. If you made it to New York--subletting or couch hopping, going to class, trying to get better, going to voice class, going to auditions, making moves at all--you’re already a working dancer.
I think we often stay in a very narrow-minded frame in the entertainment world. It’s all about us and if we don’t get this job, we think, “Why didn’t we get this job?” or “I don’t have a job and my friends do,” or “Her technique is better than mine.” There are so many shallow things we could look at and so many comparisons we can make but if we can just remember that we’re blessed to be here at all. A lot of people don’t leave their hometown and take chances on things like that.
Any last thing you want to share?
I think what you’re doing is really, really fantastic. I can see it already creating movement among us, among other people--even non-performers. I think it’s really cool. I think, in a way, you’re doing what we’re doing. You’re finding ways to make the world a better place by reaching other people’s souls, and I think it’s really cool.