Jenna Dewan on the Life-Changing Impact of Working With Janet Jackson: 'Once a Janet Dancer, Always a Janet Dancer'

Actress and dancer Jenna Dewan may be best known now for her roles onscreen, from the original Step Up (with her former husband Channing Tatum) to TV shows like American Horror Story, Supergirl, and Jennifer Lopez’s competition show World of Dance, which she hosts. But when she first came to LA as a teenager, Dewan’s first major job was as a dancer for Janet Jackson.

Before Janet receives the Icon Award at the Billboard Music Awards this Sunday (May 20) -- where Dewan will also be a presenter -- the dancer/actress spoke to Billboard about her early days dancing with Jackson in videos and on tour, and why few artists measure up to the “mama bear” she still fiercely loves.

Where were you at in your life as a dancer when your first Janet opportunity came along?  

I basically became obsessed with Janet and wanting to dance with her when I was in high school. Her Velvet Rope Tour was on HBO, and I watched it in my living room 2 inches from the TV. I was just mesmerized by her but also her dancers. I wanted to be one; that was my ultimate goal. I learned a lot of the moves by watching that.

When I got to LA, I auditioned for her “Doesn’t Really Matter” video. They were looking for just one spot, and I somehow got it. I was 19 I think. We shot the video and did a few performances, and one day after rehearsal she asked me to stay late. I was like, “Ahhh, am I getting fired?” And then Janet in her sweet little voice was like, “Would you wanna go on tour with me?” I just started screaming and jumping up and down. From there, I was one of her tour dancers for the All for You Tour, and danced for her for two years straight. I was a full Janet dancer.

What are your favorite memories of what it was like working with her day to day?

She does amazing things. She loves Anguilla, and one day in the middle of rehearsal just walked in and goes, “Pack your bags, we’re gonna rehearse in Anguilla.” So we went there for two weeks. It was surreal! We’re flying to Anguilla with Janet.

She’s so silly on tour. We would have sleepovers in her hotel room, play music and laugh and drink champagne and have like, girly sleepovers. Or she’d take us to the spa one day. She was sneaking me into clubs, cause I was underage the entire tour! She just always wanted her dancers around. I think it is what makes her the most comfortable. She knows we love her, that we look out for her, and I  think that’s why she’s careful who she picks.

Speaking of which, did she ever give you a sense of what she saw in you that made her choose you as a dancer?

I think Gil [Duldulao, Jackson’s creative director, who toured with Dewan] told me later on -- there’s a certain quality of dancer she really likes, unique to yourself, someone who is who they are, and has a very clean, sharp, funky [approach]. You can’t be a sloppy dancer with Janet. Gil had noticed that in me. And when you’re on tour, there’s a lot of personality that goes into this. These are people who become your family, you’re around them a lot. Janet is so lovely and shy, it would never come from her, but I heard from Gil -- it was a combo of who I was as a dancer, and that I had a personality that would be somewhat easy to be around on tour. [Laughs.] I was the baby, a bit wide-eyed and naive, but I learned fast.

It’s always struck me that Janet’s dancers are individuals -- they don’t have a uniform look, and they’re not all textbook-perfect dancer-dancers.

She likes personalities, you know? When you watch her tours, her dancers all stand out. A lot of times, with artists, it’s the opposite; they want the dancers to blend in, they’re just sort of stage filler to make the singer look better. Janet is the opposite. She wants unique personalities who become stars on their own, who are not just in the background -- she’s very clear about that. In “All for You” on tour, there were 2 sections where I came out and started all by myself and it was all acting, all personality. She wants people to be invested in the dancers, to see them shine. I can’t say I’ve ever met another artist that feels the same way.

The two videos you did with Janet, “Doesn’t Really Matter” and “All for You,” feel pretty different choreographically -- were they very different experiences for you as a dancer?  

“Doesn’t Really Matter” was my very first big music video I’d ever done. It had this Japanese anime vibe, and we had this moving stage, and the moves were choreographed to that. We were harnessed, so we’d be dancing on an actual moving stage with these bungee cords holding us. This was before all those crazy effects were happening. At the time it was this really wild idea.

And then “All for You” was much more relaxed, we’re in those Levis, dancing barefoot, the dance was much more free, and the breakdown of that is still one of the hardest breakdowns I’ve ever done. We must have filmed it 400 times. My arms were so tired, but I couldn’t stop -- I was aware it was still my dream job.

And I’d imagine even that is a whole different ballgame from doing a Janet tour. Is doing a Janet tour like, the most exhausting thing possible for a dancer?

Absolutely, it was exhausting. But I was so young and so happy and completely in awe, so to me there was not a single part of it that was a problem. We had something like 23 numbers we did, 14 costume changes, masks -- it was very theatrical. I really felt like I got the full Janet tour experience. 

And then performing “Alright,” “Miss You Much,” “Rhythm Nation,” “Nasty” -- all those incredible Janet songs, I knew about them and I mean, everyone knows the Janet videos, I grew up on them! So getting to perform those was never lost on me, even when I was very tired and you’ve done “If” a million times… still to this day, if “If” or “Rhythm Nation” comes on in the club, I can’t help myself, I somehow end up doing the entire choreography on the dance floor.

This past October, you were one of the veteran Janet dancers she reunited for a performance of “Rhythm Nation” at the Hollywood Bowl on her State of the World tour. That must have been an incredible experience.

It was so moving. We actually all kinda cried a little bit afterwards. When do you get a full-circle moment in life like that, where you get to go recreate one of the best moments in your life again? And with all the other legacy dancers. We laughed about it: Only Janet Jackson would be able to call every one of her dancers, and every one of us dropped everything we were doing to be at the Hollywood Bowl. That’s how much she changed all of our lives. And the fact that she remembered all of us, knows our stories? After that she was going to Vegas, and I texted her and got her to go see Magic Mike Live, and she loved it. [Laughs.]

After Janet, I danced right away with ‘NSync and Justin Timberlake, P. Diddy, Celine Dion, Ricky Martin. It was hard though, after Janet. She’s the pinnacle. When you try touring with other people, it never really feels the same. So I was very grateful that acting came around and sort of became a whole new career for me. But that’s how amazing Janet is. She really changed the game for being a dancer with an artist. There’s a certain respect and just like, title that she gives you; she’s the mama bear to all of us. Once a Janet dancer, always a Janet dancer.

Billboard Music Awards 2018