The first time Joy Spears stepped onto a stage she didn’t want to get off.
She was 3 years old, her dance number at the Christmas show had finished, and although all the other kids had filed off at the end of the song, she remained standing in front of her audience in a little green tutu.
“I just wasn’t ready to leave,” Spears recalled.
And from 3 years old to 30, not much has changed. Now, the 2011 UA graduate performs almost constantly—dancing on stage and in music videos with Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, Pink, Christina Aguilera, DJ Havana Brown, Paula Abdul, Pharrell, Kenny Chesney, and the list goes on and on.
“I’ve lived out a lot of jobs that far exceeded my dreams,” Spears said. “But it is definitely a career that you have to love. You sacrifice a lot. There’s rejection, and you don’t start off with the top job you always dreamt of.”
Spears entered the professional world at an early age. From the time she was 15, she toured across the country training younger dancers as an assistant in one of the industry’s top dance conventions, and by the time she graduated high school she’d already debuted on TV in the second season of FOX’s “So You Think You Can Dance.”
Spears was one of the youngest contestants on the show, but she soared through her initial auditions, made it to Vegas week, which she says was one of the hardest weeks of her life, and then was put in the top 20.
Though she was eliminated from the show in the second week, after performing a hip-hop number and the samba with her partner, she immediately picked herself back up, not willing to give up on professional dancing.
“I knew I needed to go out and be in the faces of choreographers again,” Spears said. “I actually booked my first job the day after the finale of the show.”
Her first professional gig was with Swarovski Crystal, which hires dancers to showcase company products to big investors at large-scale dance performances.
Spears enjoyed the work, and it paid well too. But after a year and a half of living and dancing in Los Angeles, she decided to leave the big city to honor a promise that she’d made to her mother years earlier—by getting a college education.
“When I was younger my mother was my biggest supporter,” Spears said, “but I didn’t get my moves from her. My dad was the one with rhythm, and he used to dance around with me to Elvis Presley when I was a baby.”
Her father, however, died when she was only 13 years old, and in the aftermath Spears became her mother’s world. The two traveled all around the country together, often settling down in extended-stay homes, while Spears would train in various cities far from home.
“She always wanted me to be the happiest I could be,” Spears said, “but she also never wanted me to get wrapped up in the dance world and then look back and regret it—especially since I had a full scholarship to UA.
“For me, college was a good reset button; it helped to open and expand my mind.”
To the professional world, however, Spears’ decision to return to school didn’t make a lot of sense. After all, she’d already “made it.”
“People always say, if you want to be a professional dancer, you don’t have to go to school—and that’s true,” Spears said. “But I think that anyone who has the means and the opportunity to do so, even if it’s just a year, should go to a university to better prepare themselves professionally.”
Despite her success prior to UA and after, Spears says her time at UA was one of the most influential periods of her life. A lot of that, she says, was simply “growing up” and learning to live on her own while being away from family, but she also said the Department of Theatre and Dance provided and continues to provide incredible opportunities for its students.
“For instance, the dance program just had auditions for the Rockettes, and choreographers from Broadway Dance Center also come to UA to audition students for scholarships,” Spears said. “If you go to a big city for those auditions, you’re competing against hundreds of people, but here, you get to be seen.”
Spears also learned more about the backstage aspect of dance—from staging and lighting to putting on her own showcases. And none of it halted her professional career.
In fact, at the 2010 Dance Alabama banquet, she was given “The Sabbatical Award,” which recognized her as the dancer most likely to spend more time out of the state of Alabama than in it. Ironically, she was late to the banquet because she was traveling home from New York City after a job.
By the time she graduated in 2011, she had already worked with Britney Spears on her music video “Piece of Me,” had performed in the 2009 blockbuster State of Play with Russell Crowe and Ben Afleck, and was working on the Lifetime Network television series Drop Dead Diva—among other things.
“When I got the job with Britney Spears, I was shocked,” she said. “I was home for Thanksgiving when I got a call from this older dancer who I’d always looked up to but didn’t know that well. She was dancing for Britney at the time, and she said ‘We love your look. How would you like to work with us?’
“I remember thinking ‘Is this really how this works?’ One day you’re home visiting family and the next day you’re on your way to dance for Britney Spears? That’s the way my life’s been since.”
Of all the jobs Spears has done since graduation, her favorites are the ones where she really gets to use her technical training. Often, she says, those are the award shows like the Country Music Association Awards or the Country Music Television Awards.
“There are so many jobs that are just easy,” Spears said. “But it’s the ones that really make you work hard that get you coming off the stage thinking ‘I killed it.’”
Most recently, Spears has been working with Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence for the film Passengers, performing on stage for various music award shows, and dancing in the ABC hit Nashville, the city she now calls home.
To keep up with her technical skills, Spears trains other dancers at various dance conventions around the country.
“My favorite part about doing it is giving back,” Spears said. “I credit so much to my mentors and teachers, so to be able to be in that position now is incredible.
“Ultimately, I would love to get my master’s degree and wind up teaching at a university—preferably UA—because I know how much it changed my life.”