BWW Interview: Jenny Winton on Transition from Ballet Dancing to DIRTY DANCING

Though there are obvious similarities, the life of a professional ballet dancer and the life of a musical theatre actor are quite different. From the physical demands to the number of performances, transitioning from one to the other is no small feat.

Just ask Jenny Winton, who plays Johnny Castle's original dance partner, Penny Johnson, in the DIRTY DANCING musical that opens its week-long run at Orlando's Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts tonight.

Winton began her professional career as a ballerina, including five years at Chicago's revered Joffrey Ballet, before attending an audition for the DIRTY DANCING tour on little more than a whim. With little to no actual acting experience, her journey wasn't over once she booked the job. Winton has played Penny since the tour launched in September 2014.

Recently, I spoke with Winton about the transition, what it means for her future, and what it's been like to be a part of a show as beloved as DIRTY DANCING.

BWW: Obviously the training and rigors of performing as a ballet dancer are pretty intense, but so is performing eight times a week, living in hotels, and traveling, so what has been the biggest physical transition for you going from one type of performance to another?

Winton: I grew up as a ballerina, and I danced professionally as a ballerina for five years with the Joffrey Ballet, and it's important for me to do daily class, daily bar warm-ups, so I maintain that kind of warm-up on a daily basis.

This dancing is a lot more jazz and Latin based, and looser, so I've definitely acquired a different understanding of movement as well. So, I implemented some more jazzy warm-ups, something to get me really going.

The ballet world is so structured and rigorous, what was the transition like going from that performance style to being in a musical, even one in which you dance a lot?

Jenny Winton and Christopher Tierney
Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy

It was really exciting and challenging. I did come from a ballet background, and in the Joffrey Ballet, it was classical ballet, but we danced some contemporary works; so I was familiar with some more neo-classical movements.

I just had to jump in, because that's the best way to approach a learning experience.

I studied the character of Penny, I watched the movie several times obviously, I took a few Latin dance classes, and just really learned everything on the go. We had three-and-a-half weeks of rehearsal in New York, and I just dove into that.

You grew up as a dancer, and started your professional career in dance, but now that you've been in this show for a year and a half, has that changed how you view yourself as a performer, or the direction of your career path?

I think I've just expanded what I am as an artist. I will always see myself primarily as a ballet dancer, because that's my core, that's my base, but I definitely will say that I am a musical theatre actress and dancer... I just think this show has expanded my skill set.

I just want to continue trying new things. I know that there are more doors open for me now after this show, just because of the exposure that I've gotten. I don't want to leave ballet behind, because it is who I am, but I definitely want to act more. I would love to be on Broadway.

I would imagine that most people that come and see the show know the movie pretty well; how does the experience of seeing the musical differ from watching the movie?

It really brings the audience in, because it is live singing, live dancing. It's the storyline that everyone will be able to follow, everybody who loves DIRTY DANCING will know it; we've got all of the iconic lines and scenes, but it just pulls you in a little more because of the live singing and dancing.

How familiar were you with the movie before you auditioned?

I'd seen the movie, of course, because it's such a classic, but it wasn't anything that I was really around that much, because it was a little bit before my time.

After years as a professional ballerina, why made you decide to try acting?

I had always loved acting. Being a character on stage and performing is kind of what drew me to dance in the first place. I never really dove into acting, but I knew that it was something that I loved and I was good at, so this was the perfect opportunity.

Christopher Tierney, Rachel Boone, and Jenny Winton
Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy

Ok, so you've always had the acting bug, and we know you can dance, but what about the singing?

I don't sing a lot in the show, so that wasn't a main focus for me at first. But, I had never actually spoken on stage, so I had to learn how to project my voice speaking first, and then I started to learn how to use my voice singing. I had never thought that I could sing at all, but it's amazing what you can learn if you have the right guidance and are surrounded by people who do sing a lot.

As we wrap up, since you've been a part of this tour since the beginning, what has been the general reaction from audiences who come and see DIRTY DANCING?

They always leave the show on Cloud Nine; just really excited, because they did have the time of their lives (giggles). It sounds cheesy, but it's true. That's what people come for, and that's usually what they get.

Which song from DIRTY DANCING's iconic soundtrack are you looking forward to seeing on stage the most? Let me know what you thought in the comments below, or by "Liking" and following BWW Orlando on Facebook and Twitter by using the buttons below. You can also chat with me about the show on Twitter @BWWMatt.

Banner Image: Christopher Tierney, Jenny Winton, and the DIRTY DANCING company. Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy

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From This Author Matt Tamanini