From Baltimore to Broadway with Kamille Upshaw of Hamilton: An American Musical
“You’re just as good as the person next to you”
Confession: I've been waking up and going to sleep to the Hamilton soundtrack since it debuted in August and firmly believe everyone else should be doing the same. If you won't take my word for it, I bet you'll take it from the Grammys, who just awarded Hamilton with the Best Musical Theater Album. So when we had the opportunity to talk with Kamille Upshaw, Juilliard graduate, performer, and swing in the highly acclaimed Broadway show, we leapt at the chance.
Kamille began her career in performing arts at a young age, attending Baltimore School for the Arts, a pre-professional arts high school and later studying at The Juilliard School. Right out of college, she landed her first professional role via an open call audition as an ensemble member at the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in New York City. Since then, you've seen her everywhere from dancing with Alicia Keys on the BET awards to the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company. As far as knowing this was the career path she wanted to go down, Kamille says she doesn't just chalk it all up to a single moment: "So it wasn’t a moment—it was a journey to the realization that this was what I was built to do."
Today Kamille is telling us all about that journey, from what it takes to land professional work in her industry to how she deals with the ebbs and flows of working as an artist. But one thing is for certain: Kamille Upshaw is not throwing away her shot.
Name: Kamille Upshaw
Location: New York, NY
Current title/company: Swing/Hamilton: An American Musical
Education: BFA in Dance from The Juilliard School
You attended The Baltimore School for the Arts in high school and The Juilliard School for college and graduated with a BFA in dance in 2011. Tell us what these experiences were like! How did your time in school shape the dancer you've become?
My first year at BSA was quite the culture shock. Even though I came from a competitive performance background that intensified throughout high school, the competiveness I experienced in a performing arts took it to another level. It set the precedent for the focus I would need to make my dream of becoming a professional dancer come true.
Even though I went to a performing arts middle school and had phenomenal dance company instructors, it was high school that began to mold me. There, most, if not all the students, were just like me: driven by their passion to be a great dancer/artist in their own right (and they were all very talented!). It was there that I learned nothing would be handed to me. I hand to stand up, fight for, and earn respect for my talent from my teachers and peers.
I was so crazy about my craft back then that I never left the competition dance world during my high school years, causing me to dance morning, noon, and night for four years while keeping up with my academics—and, oh yeah, eating and sleeping during my 40 mile commute to and from school each day. BSA is where I began to learn ballet and modern dance foundation. It was grueling but necessary to grow and prepare to move to the next level, The Juilliard School.
After countless auditions, they wanted me. "Yay!" At least that’s what I said before realizing what they really wanted from me or, better yet, would extract from me via a world-class artist creation process. I found myself learning my limitations and capability to surpass them in the first year, knowing I had to improve to become better each day at my craft. I also learned how necessary it was to have a blind faith in my will to achieve in order for me to overcome the mental and physical stress and pain as I moved through this accelerated growth period.
All eight years, plus a couple before them, helped create my work ethic and shape me to be the dancer, performer, and artist I am today. I was able to come out of school with a well-formed idea of what I planned to do with my newly fine tuned talent and learned professional skills.
What was your first job out of college and how did you land it?
My first job out of school was dancing in the ensemble for an opera performed at the Metropolitan Opera House at the Lincoln Center in New York City. I heard about an open call audition for the opera, which turned out to be a two-day event. The first day was the initial open call and the second day was for those who had been called back for final selections. I made it through first call and was called back the next day. I was so excited! I left it all on the floor (dancer slang for giving it everything I had). Within hours of completing the call back I was notified that I was chosen to be a part of the opera. And that was the beginning of my professional career.
At what age did you realize dance was what you wanted to do with your life? Was it a slow progression or more a particular moment?
It was more of a slow progression. I always had a big interest in dance, since the age of three. I would say that I became very serious about dance and making it my career choice during my attendance at the Baltimore School for the Arts in high school. Even though I had to put in a lot of work as a student at BSA, I created a new goal for myself: seeing if I loved dance enough to make it my career of choice. It was then that my romance with my craft was solidified and I’ve been in love ever since. So it wasn’t a moment—it was a journey to the realization that this was what I was built to do.
So it wasn’t a moment—it was a journey to the realization that this was what I was built to do.
As a performer, your work is constantly changing and evolving. Have there been times in between jobs you've been worried about landing the next one? How do you deal with the uncertainty?
You are absolutely correct! In the performing arts industry, there are lots of ever-changing dynamics in the business, creating different needs at different times. As a performing artist, we constantly see the foundation of our work change and evolve, which causes us to have to do the same. We have to be chameleons to the greatest extent we are capable of.
There were times during my first year of being an artist when I experienced worry and doubt about my next job. Fortunately I was trained to expect these times and learned to lean on my faith and personal support group to get through. My personal growth and maturity as an artist instilled the ability to encourage myself to keep going and working hard, and to never believe that hard times won’t turn around.
There is always something to do or work on during the wait. This mindset has allowed me to stay stress free and really enjoy my career. It takes a lot of patience, hard work, and did I mention patience? It's a virtue that I am continuously working on.
I have grown the most in environments where I am not the best and I am continuously pushed to be better
What qualities do you think are required to be in this industry?
Versatility, top-notch work ethic, humility, confidence, vulnerability, patience
You've worked everywhere from Flashdance the Musical to the Metropolitan Opera to Lar Lubovitch Dance Company, alongside other incredibly talented performers. When you were first starting out, did you find it challenging or intimidating at times to work with other highly skilled professionals? How do you find the confidence to push through?
This is where I really live. I ALWAYS want the best of the best working next to me. It’s how I grow and how I show I have what it takes to be a key part of the performance I have the opportunity to be a part of.
I have grown the most in environments where I am not the best and I am continuously pushed to be better—to become the best! Beyoncé has "Sasha Fierce" and at an early age in my dance career my alter ego developed and comes out to say hi, but I haven’t named her yet! She’s the type who loves to be challenged, never intimidated.
“You’re just as good as the person next to you,” are the words I repeat to myself. I find it a blessing to be surrounded by greatness. I love to be in those situations and I’m always humble, yet up for the challenge to be the best of the best.
'You’re just as good as the person next to you,' are the words I repeat to myself.
These days we can find you in the Broadway show that no one can stop talking about: Hamilton. Tell us about the process of being cast in the show and what your role entails!
Hamilton has been a dream come true for me! I was cast in the show after many auditions. The first time I auditioned I was not cast, but got very close. Within about two months I received a call back when a swing spot opened up. It was a private audition held with a few other girls and usually it entails learning a few dance phrases and singing. After that, it was all about the wait.
I found out I had landed the job as the female vacation swing a few days later. Being a swing entails learning all five ensemble women parts and being able to go on for any given show with only a moment's notice. I was recently offered a permanent swing position with the show, which I quickly accepted, and am loving every second of my job—with all of its responsibilities!
What does a typical workday look like for you?
A typical workday can vary from being home most of the morning, resting, sometimes studying the different tracks I have to memorize until around 5 p.m., which is when I head to the theatre to prep for the show. I rehearse for four hours prior to an evening show or prepare myself to perform one of the tracks in the show that has been turned over to me to perform. It’s all over around 11 p.m. I take my butt home and rest to do it all again the next day, except Mondays, our one day off in the week.
What new and specific obstacles, if any, has this role brought you?
Being a swing has allowed me to put my memory skills to the test. I grew up in a competition studio learning 15 dances and performing them every weekend. I have trained my brain to compartmentalize everything at a young age. This is the first time I have put this skill to the test at the professional level.
What do you believe is the biggest misconception about performers and dancers?
The biggest misconception about performers and dancers is that it’s impossible to live stress free, financially. I have definitely encountered obstacles but have learned that if you save money as if the job you have is your last, you will be able to be financially stable.
if you save money as if the job you have is your last, you will be able to be financially stable.
With rehearsal, performances, travel, and more, how do you strike a balance between your personal and professional life?
Easy answer: Keep them separate. It was difficult, but I’ve found a happy balance between the two! Being in NYC, I try to see my family as often as my job allows, and they are very supportive and understanding—there's no real pressure there. I have fun with my friends and acquaintances but have learned not to mix business with personal.
I did a tremendous amount of traveling early in my career, so I don't feel pressure to travel now. I’ve become quite the homebody and enjoy it.
Best moment of your career so far?
The best moment of my career so far is a tie! Dancing with Alicia Keys at the BET Honors 2013 and Lin Manuel Miranda introducing me on the Hamilton stage and encouraging the entire audience to give me a round of applause during the final bows, on the night of my Broadway debut!
What advice would you give to your 23-year-old self?
This is a question I’ve never been asked! If I could give any advice to my 23-year-old self, I would remind her that patience is a virtue. Never give up on yourself. YOU CAN!
Kamille Upshaw is The Everygirl...
Fashion and interior decorating! I love it!
Who would play you in a movie?
Younger me: Amandla Stenberg
Older me: Zoe Saldana or Beyoncé
Favorite part of living in New York?
My favorite part of living in NYC is that there is ALWAYS something new to experience! It's such an inspirational town.
My morning routine consists of waking up and watching Wendy Williams followed by The Real. Before I get out of bed I roll my ankles then wash my face, shower, brush my teeth, and prepare breakfast! And then I run 10 miles, take ballet, and study for my MBA…just kidding!
If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and why?
I would definitely have lunch with Beyoncé and our First Lady, Michelle Obama! They are both so inspiring and full of positive energy. I’d definitely be “in the room where it happens.”