Pro Wrestlers With A Background In Dance

Every wrestler has a backstory, and in the modern age of professional wrestling, it is becoming increasingly common to see athletes enter the industry after full-blown careers in other fields. Professional football has long been a popular gateway for those looking to break into the business, but it is far from the only sport to provide a good base for aspiring wrestlers. The world of dance can match wrestling from a physicality standpoint, as it is one of the most physically demanding art forms on the planet.

"Dancer" gimmicks have long been a part of wrestling, particularly in WWE. Independent wrestler Dirty Dango, who portrayed the "Fandango" character in WWE recently told the "Cafe de Rene Podcast" he took up dance in several different forms in order to better acquaint himself with the character. However, many others have come from a career in dance and found other ways to implement their experience into their characters. Some have evolved their characters to the point their dance roots are hardly noticeable. Either way, with WWE executives Paul "Triple H" Levesque and Nick Khan prioritizing the recruitment of legitimate athletes over independent wrestlers, wrestling fans can expect to see more dance-trained characters on their television screens in the not-so-distant future.

Here are 12 wrestlers who brought a dance background with them to pro wrestling.

Carmella

Former WWE "SmackDown" Women's Champion Carmella is arguably the most successful wrestler to come from the world of cheerleading. The daughter of Paul Van Dale, a former mixed martial artist and enhancement talent in pro wrestling, Carmella sought to forge her own path in life through dance. In spite of this, pro wrestling had long been on her mind as she sent in an audition tape ahead of the 2010 season of "Tough Enough," but withdrew from the selection process after successfully auditioning to become a "Laker Girl," a member of the Los Angeles Lakers dance team. She previously worked as a New England Patriots cheerleader while attending the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

A thirst for career success drove Carmella to continue her cheerleading career with her ambition eventually landing her in WWE. "When I finished with the Lakers, I had an itch to keep going," she told Sports Illustrated. "That's the way I've always thought, ever since I grew up in a very small town called Spencer, Massachusetts. There were about 100 kids in my graduating class, and I knew I wanted to do more. I cheered for the Pats for three years, and then people thought I'd settle down. But then I went to LA to keep dancing, and that's when I became a Laker Girl. Then people thought I'd settle down, but no, that's when I got into WWE." Carmella signed with the WWE in June 2013 and made her in-ring debut less than a year later.

Eve Torres

Eve Torres came to the WWE through the now-defunct "Diva Search," a global competition that channeled elements of competition television series such as "American Idol" and "America's Next Top Model" in order to find the next WWE Diva. Like many who competed in each of the three "Diva Search" competitions, Torres had an extensive background in dance. While attending the University of Southern California, Torres co-captained the USC Fly Girls dance squad, handling most of the group's choreography. She parlayed her dance background into a job with The Southern California Summer Pro League, an NBA affiliate, which led to her landing a spot on the Los Angeles Clippers Spirit Dance Team ahead of the 2006–07 season.

Torres coupled her job as a dancer with a modeling career and soon found her way onto the WWE's radar prior to the 2007 "Diva Search." She would be chosen as one of eight finalists from a group of 50 women and went on to win the competition, the last of its kind. Unlike previous "Diva Search" winners, Torres had the benefit of spending time in the company's developmental system before making her in-ring debut. Her athletic background likely lessened her learning curve, however, and she became a three-time Divas champion over a five-year WWE career. These days, she assists her husband, famed Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Rener Gracie at the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy in Torrance, California.

Lana

CJ Perry, who popularized the Lana character in WWE alongside her husband, Miro, (FKA Rusev), trained in ballet before ever considering a career in pro wrestling. Though she merely portrayed a Russian on television, Lana did spend most of her childhood in Latvia, as her father worked there as a Christian missionary until 1991. While overseas, she aspired to follow in her mother's footsteps as a professional ballet dancer. "As a little girl, I would choreograph dances in my living room and make my neighbors perform them," Lana said in an interview with Say What News. "One of the reasons I love dancing the most is because when I dance the world fades away. I feel something when I dance that I can't express [in] words but it moves my soul. I can use dance as an outlet for anything. It is a form of expression and It connects me to my creator."

Lana went on to say how dancing taught her at a young age how to manifest dreams into actions. A rigorous 50-plus hour per week schedule combined with an intensive touring schedule prompted Lana to seek out other opportunities, and she began to make connections in the entertainment industry with the help of friend and former fellow Florida State "cowgirl" Jenn Sterger. She switched up her style of dance and began to perform as a backup dancer for artists such as Keri Hilson, Nelly, Pink, Usher, Akon, and Rich Boy while dabbling in acting. Eventually, Perry signed with WWE in June 2013.

Layla El

Eve Torres is not the only former WWE "Diva Search" winner to have an extensive background in dance. Prior to winning the 2006 "Diva Search," Layla El wowed spectators in several forums as a professional dancer. Born in London, England, El got her start dancing on Carnival cruises before successfully trying out as a dancer for the Miami Heat of the NBA. She danced for the Heat for two years, during which time she received a complimentary championship ring for the Heat's title run in the 2006 postseason. From there, El would branch out into the music industry, performing as a backup dancer for artists such as John Legend, P. Diddy and Kanye West, performing live with the latter two at the MTV Video Music Awards.

After her two seasons with the Heat, El's trainer recommended she put feelers out to WWE ahead of the 2006 Diva Search. She went on to win the competition, and her dancing ability became an immediate staple of her character over the first two years of her career. She joined Brooke Tessmacher and Kelly Kelly as part of the Extreme Expose segment on "ECW on SyFy" in early 2007 which led to her becoming more active as an in-ring competitor. Much like fellow "Diva Search" winner Eve Torres, El steadily improved in the ring and later became one half of the succesful "LayCool" team on "SmackDown" alongside tag team partner Michelle McCool.

Mandy Rose

While Mandy Rose, the "Tough Enough" Season 6 runner-up, does not have a professional dance background, the art of dance played a major role in her road to WWE. According to an interview with Lohud, Rose starred as a three-sport athlete in high school, playing basketball, lacrosse and softball, but she eventually quit all three to focus all of her time and attention on dancing. She performed with a dance company all the while, but her flair for competition never dwindled and she eventually found her way into the fields of fitness fashion and bodybuilding competitions. 

Rose took her fitness modeling career to the next level after college, winning the WBFF (World Beauty Fitness & Fashion) world championship despite spending less than a year in the profession. Though dancing is not, and never really became a part of her onscreen persona with WWE, Rose ramped up her activity on TikTok during the pandemic, performing several viral dances. "That's another thing that I've just — it's a lot of fun, it's a little addicting, I feel like," Rose said in an interview with Fox Sports. "I danced my whole life, so I feel like it's just a cool, fun hobby for me, too, to learn these dances. A lot of them are really hard. And I noticed it's the biggest, hottest thing going on right now, TikTok, so I've gotta be involved in it."

Naomi

WWE superstar Naomi's extensive background in dance is extremely prevalent in her onscreen character in more ways than one. She stands out as one of the most athletic female performers on the roster, which is no surprise given the variety of dance types she picked up throughout her youth. She relayed to "Athleisure Magazine" that she started tap dancing at eight years old and went on to study jazz, ballet, lyrical, modern, and hip hop dance techniques throughout high school. She hoped to continue her pursuit of a professional dancing career right out of high school and aspired to attend the Alvin Ailey Dance School. However, apprehension over leaving her hometown of Orlando, Florida caused Naomi to stay put, enroll in community college and land a spot on the Orlando Magic dance team.

"I'm kind of glad now that I didn't go, because I don't think that I ever would have gotten into wrestling and then I would have never met my husband and so on and so forth," Naomi said in the "Athleisure" interview. "It all kind of worked out how it was supposed to." Naomi also served as a backup dancer for rapper Flo Rida before landing in WWE. Per the "Athleisure" interview, she eventually attended a WWE live event at the Amway Center and got hooked on the profession, later making her onscreen debut as a member of the Funkadactyls. Naomi debuted a new gimmick in 2016 that plays on her dance experience, working the WWE faithful into a frenzy before unleashing on opponents with her hyper-athletic, dance-based moveset.

No Way Jose

Levy Valenz, who competed in WWE under the name, No Way Jose, closely mirrored the gimmick of fellow energetic babyface Adam Rose in "NXT." However, unlike Rose, Valenz' character was born out of a his real-life dancing experience. The character drew heavily on Valenz' background in Bachata. Bachata is a romantic form of Dominican dance that is known for its syncopated rhythms, a distinct characteristic of the No Way Jose character in "NXT." As for Valenz himself, he came to wrestling from a competitive ballroom dancing background, but ABC's "Dancing with the Stars" served as some initial inspiration for him.

"I turned on 'Dancing with the Stars,' and Jerry Rice was on it that year," Valenz told WWE.com. "I was watching the routines they did to modern music and I thought it was cool. I found out my school had a ballroom team. It was pretty easy to join, you just paid a couple of dues and you were on the team, but I took to it because I'm a good visual learner and I was just having fun with it. I was pretty decent." Though he no longer goes by "No Way Jose," dancing is still a major component to Valenz' wrestling persona. Since leaving WWE, Valenz had a brief run in Impact Wrestling and is currently wrestling on the indies.

Cassie Lee

Before she moved to Canada and trained at Lance Storm's Storm Wrestling Academy, Cassie Lee (FKA as WWE's Peyton Royce) aspired to become a professional dancer. She dedicated the majority of her formative years to honing her craft on the dance floor, but all the while took an interest in wrestling from the age of nine on. Lee credits her dance background for helping her transition to the squared circle. "Dancing really teaches you to be aware of your body, and that transitioned well into wrestling," Lee told the Miami Herald. "The footwork came easy to me. The rolls came easy to me. The basics made sense quicker to me than maybe someone without that type of background."

Lee went on to tell the Herald that while her background in ballet has largely been a blessing to her wrestling career, she has had to work hard to ramp up the physicality as a wrestler, describing the want to look more "vicious and mean." She also told Chris Van Vliet she danced for 15 years prior to becoming a wrestler while attending Westfields Sports High School, a government-funded secondary school geared primarily towards those with a focus on athletics. Tag team partner Jessica McKay (WWE's former Billie Kay) also attended Westfields Sports, though the two did not become acquainted with one another until they began their respective wrestling careers.

Ricki Starr

Perhaps the originator of dancers turned pro wrestlers, Ricki Starr had a 25-year career in wrestling, delegating his time between the territory system of the United States as well as the United Kingdom. The St. Louis native actually intended on becoming a professional boxer, and had legitimate amateur wrestling credentials. Given the rapid rise of mixed martial arts in the 21st century, perhaps Starr was ahead of his time. However, his small stature initially deterred him from a career in combat sports and he instead turned to ballet in 1951. Starr trained in ballet at the Lalla Bauman School of Dance in St. Louis with Don Emmons and Buddy Goldstein, the latter of which believes Starr consciously used ballet to prepare himself for a career in pro wrestling.

"[Ricky] was not very big but he was strong and he was agile and using the techniques he learned in dancing, to use in his act," Goldstein told Slam Wrestling. "If it was a real fight, with some of those guys as big as he was fighting, I'm not sure it would have worked." Starr made his debut in 1952 and immediately stood out in a pre-sports entertainment era. He later ventured over to the United Kingdom in the '60s, popularizing his finishing move, the Airplane Spin, which relied heavily on the balance he accrued while dancing ballet. Starr retired from wrestling in 1972 and spent the remaining 42 years of his life living reclusively in London.

Samoa Joe

Samoa Joe is one name many would be surprised to find on this list, but Joe's athletic origins can be traced back to his youth when he danced alongside his family in a Polynesian dance troupe. Joe's dancing career started at the tender age of five as a member of his family's troupe, Tiare Productions. Based out of Joe's hometown of Huntington Beach, California, the troupe performed at the 1984 Summer Olympic Games held in Los Angeles. Joe's parents, Pete and Portia Seanoa, founded Tiare Productions in 1965. The company's dancers are heralded in the field and have also performed at sporting events, restaurants, concerts, and other charitable events.

As for Joe, his performance dance background is not at all prevalent in his wrestling character, though it may have something to do with his level of comfort in front of large audiences dating back to his days on the independents. However, he did enlist the help of Polynesian dancers on his way to the ring for his match at the inaugural Bound For Glory in 2005 against Jushin "Thunder" Liger. Joe even got involved with the dance himself, perhaps giving the fans a glimpse into the past of the five-year-old who once performed on a world's stage before he ever dreamed of becoming a pro wrestler.

Sonny Kiss

AEW talent Sonny Kiss has been wrestling since her high school years, but her time studying professional dance techniques predates her wrestling career. The Jersey City-native told the AEW Unrestricted Podcast she attended a performing arts high school where she first became acquainted with dance. She took her dancing aspirations to the next level when she attended the modern dance program at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center's Summer Youth Performance Workshop. From there, she took first place in Dance at the Hudson County Teen Arts Festival and went on to follow in the footsteps of many eventual wrestlers when she auditioned for the New York Jets' dance team, the "NY Jets Flight Crew" in 2014.

By this point, Kiss was already on the path to becoming a pro wrestler. She wrestled on the independents for five years before landing a spot on Lucha Underground as XO Lishus. Like many of her predecessors, Kiss' time studying dance better prepared her for a career in the ring, though she has a different take on it than most. "[Wrestling] is honestly like choreography, you learn when to do what," Kiss told the Asbury Park Press. "It's like you're putting on a play but in a very intense, aggressive nature. I was able to apply my dance background with the flexibility and the athleticism and the art and all that stuff and basically just be me. Because with dancing it was like I really got to express myself, so now I'm expressing myself as a character coming from that dance background."

Stacy Keibler

A fan favorite during the Ruthless Aggression Era, Stacy Keibler's pre-WWE dance background is similar to that of Naomi's due to her versatility. The Maryland native began practicing dance at the age of three. She took ballet, jazz, and tap dancing classes under one roof at the Jean Kettell Studio of Dance in Dundalk, Maryland. Keibler then used her dance skills at an early age to win beauty pageants, beginning with the Miss Maryland Pre-Teen competition. She went on to win the National Miss Pre-Teen Crown and became a Baltimore Ravens cheerleader when she turned 18.

Keibler cheered for the Ravens for three years, even after she got the call from World Championship Wrestling. Her boyfriend at the time got her into wrestling, specifically WCW as she can be seen in the crowd at a small handful of shows before she became apart of the company. In September 1999 Keibler entered a nationwide contest to find the newest member of the Nitro Girls dance troupe, a fixture on WCW broadcasts. Initially one of 300 entrants, Keibler found her way into the finals, which consisted of the eight best dancers. More than 4.4 million people watched her winning routine, and she subsequently won the fan vote as well as $10,000 and the right to call herself an official Nitro Girl. The competition gave Keibler the foot in the door she needed, as WCW soon rebranded her as Miss Hancock, making her an official character on the show.

Comments