The World Wasn't Ready For 'Prom' Star Ariana DeBose When She Did 'So You Think You Can Dance'

Kristyn Burtt

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Jo Ellen Pellman and Ariana DeBose in Netflix's 'The Prom.'

Photo credit: Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix.

The Broadway community has been clued into the talents of Ariana DeBose for a long time, and "So You Think You Can Dance" viewers knew how talented she was — now the rest of the world is catching up. Her triple-threat skills are currently on display in the Ryan Murphy-directed film adaptation of "The Prom" on Netflix.

DeBose plays Alyssa Greene, the high school senior and not-yet-out-of-the-closet teen, who is caught between her mother's homophobic rules as the head of the PTA and the desire to go to the prom with her girlfriend, Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Pellman). The couple gets their dream prom night, thanks to the Broadway stars who travel to their small Indiana town to make it happen.

Hollywood might make it look like they've created a star overnight in DeBose — especially since she has an even bigger star-making role ahead as Anita in Stephen Spielberg's "West Side Story" next year, but she's been in the trenches ever since she hit the "So You Think You Can Dance" stage. She's put in the hard work and has more than earned her turn in the spotlight.

What people still find hard to believe is the fact that DeBose was voted off first in season 6 on "So You Think You Can Dance." In an interview with BUILD, she shared that she found her time on the show "overwhelming" and thinks that if she had "waited a few years" she might have been better prepared "mentally" because it all happened "so fast."

That outcome might discourage another young performer, but the experience only fueled her drive even more in the entertainment industry. "I do credit 'So You Think" with preparing for the audition world." she praised the FOX show. "I will always say if you can get through Vegas week of 'So You Think You Can Dance,' then you can do just about anything in New York City."

DeBose felt that she walked away with a strong lesson in the entertainment industry after leaving "So You Think You Can Dance" earlier than expected. "I didn't understand that show business was a business at the time," she explained. "The greatest lesson that I took away from that was that it's not personal, it's business. It's going to hurt sometimes, but it's almost never personal. You gotta do a little growing up. That would be my one takeaway that I wish I understood that at 18."

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Ariana DeBose as Anita in 2021's 'West Side Story.'

Photo credit Amblin Entertainment.

What she did understand at 18 was that she was headed to Broadway. Even in her exit interview from season 6 on "So You Think You Can Dance," that goal was clear — she was "more focused on New York." DeBose talked about her Broadway ambitions confidently with SheKnows in 2009, "I want to dance on Broadway. I was singing and acting and dancing and all that stuff before I even auditioned for the show. ["So You Think You Can Dance"] is just really another path for me. It just showed me another career pathway." And that's exactly what she did — head to New York to "just see what happens."

After "So You Think You Can Dance," she took a short detour to Western Carolina University's musical theater program, which only lasted three months because she wasn't "quite fitting in at school." It's a great reminder that college isn't always the right — or wrong— path to a performing arts career. Her mentor, Broadway star Charlotte D'Amboise, helped her navigate through the sometimes treacherous waters of New York City.

"Charlotte helped me believe in my abilities as a dancer," DeBose told Dance Spirit. "She told me I didn't need to go to college if I didn't want to."

Of course, that's when we always want the heroine of our story to become an overnight sensation, but theater performers always toil away in dance classes, singing lessons and the rigors of the audition process. Her Broadway debut came at 22 in the world premiere of "Bring It On The Musical," directed and choreographed by Andy Blakenbuehler. After joining the casts of "Motown: The Musical" and the revival of "Pippin," she took on a game-changing show that changed the trajectory of her career — "Hamilton."

She was reunited with Blakenbuehler and described doing the show as "a tidal wave of awesome," but also one that challenged her thoughts on continuing to accept ensemble roles. "I had reached a place where I felt like my body was betraying me," she told Dance Spirit about the toll her body took after dancing so many Broadway shows in the ensemble. "It wasn't moving the way it used to, and that was a really hard thing for me to accept."

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Ariana DeBose and Jo Ellen Pellman in Netflix's 'The Prom.'

Photo credit: Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix.

By taking a left turn in her career and working on leveling up to featured and lead roles, she took ownership of her journey. Her critics told her she was "wrong" to turn down ensemble roles, but she stuck to her instincts because she knew she had "the skills to be successful." She confidently said, "I have an undying belief in myself."

Once she had invested in herself, she took her career to incomparable heights with roles in "A Bronx Tale" and her Best Featured Actress Tony-nominated performance as Disco Donna in "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical" in 2018. The risk she took in saying "no" to ensemble roles allowed room for directors and choreographers to see her as more than an ensemble dancer — and it's a risk that she directly links back to "Hamilton."

"To be terribly honest, had I not done 'Hamilton,' I don't think the last few years would have happened," she shared. "Or they definitely wouldn't have happened so fast."

With "The Prom" now available on Netflix and Stephen Spielberg's "West Side Story" landing in theaters Dec. 10, 2021, new fans of DeBose will see what "So You Think You Can Dance" viewers and DeBose knew all along — she was destined for big things in her career. At 18, that inner strength was always there, "Honestly, I always have confidence in my dancing," she told SheKnows in 2009. "I trust myself as a dancer."

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Kristyn Burtt is a commercial dance journalist, TV host and producer. She was the West Coast correspondent and host of "To the Pointe" on Dance Network for five years. Her coverage of "So You Think You Can Dance," "Dancing With the Stars" and "World of Dance" is popular with dance fans across the globe. Kristyn's love of dance began early in her life. She trained at the Boston Ballet School, danced with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in "The Nutcracker" and won a dance scholarship to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts. She currently serves on the American Dance Movement’s Marketing & PR Committee and is a member of the Television Academy and SAG-AFTRA.

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