There are a stunning number of Hollywood ladies who, before they ever turned to acting, were first dancers. And not just any kind of dancers, but ballerinas. They began their careers- and for many of them, their lives- learning the poise, discipline, and art of ballet. Sadly, many of these women had to give it up at some point due to injury, and moved onto their second choice, drama. For others, they simply had a change of heart about what they really wanted in life, and for others still, they made the difficult decision to pursue acting even if it was not their first passion, because they knew it would be more lucrative and promising in the end.
Whatever their reason, at some point each one of these actresses had to make the difficult decision to forego the dance academy for a chance at an Academy Award. It would be hard to argue that they made the right choice, as every one of these actresses is now a household name and, yes, some of them have even lifted that coveted Oscar.
Now there are some of these famous women most people know were once ballerinas too, like those who have appeared in dance flicks over the years. Zoe Saldana and Natalie Portman, come to mind, to name a just a few. Then there are others who are just as famous in the Hollywood circuit, but who you probably never knew started out on the stage as a ballerina, such as the lovely Penelope Cruz. So without further ado, here are 20 beautiful ballerinas who you now know as leading ladies on the big screen.
20. Natalie Portman
Though it is definitely not her most famous film, Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 film Black Swan featured her as a prima ballerina. Alongside Mila Kunis, Natalie played the leading role of the dark but committed dancer Nina, and the Swan Queen. She has trained in ballet, tap, and jazz since the age of 4, and still takes classes to this day. A true ballerina, it seems as if the Jerusalem-born actress (whose real name is Natalie Hershlag) knows there is always more to learn in her art form. David Letterman, Harper’s, and Queen magazines have all said that she is the new Audrey Hepburn, who was also a ballerina.
Her trademarks are her sweet voice, brown eyes, petite figure, and the fact that she often plays characters who are mature for their age. Some interesting things to know about Natalie are that she is fluent in both Hebrew (her native language) and English, but can also hold a conversation in 4 additional languages- French, German, Japanese, and Spanish! It is no wonder she is good at memorizing lines for scripts with a capacity to learn language like that! However, this prima ballerina has said she would never be in a horror film or any other “Jennifer Love Hewitt” type movie.
19. Summer Glau
The geeks of The Big Bang Theory are obsessed with her (remember that episode on the train?), and for good reason. Sheldon, Leonard, Raj, and Howard love the actress so much because of her part in the short-lived sci-fi show Firefly, but before she was an actress, she was a ballerina for most of her life. Actually, even now her Hollywood resume is limited to television (though she has had many recurring roles on several shows, including The 4400, Arrow, Alphas, Dollhouse- the list goes on). She only turned to Hollywood after breaking her toe in 2012 and being unable to continue on her path to professional dancing. Also trained in flamenco and tango, she was home-schooled from the age of 3 to 12 to accommodate her intense ballet training program.
Summer’s trademark is that she often works her dance skills into her roles, and that she also often portrays characters who are mentally disturbed. Often going barefoot (another of the things people know her by, showing she is a true dancer, I suppose!), Ms. Glau has surprisingly appeared in 4 canceled shows! These are: Firefly, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Dollhouse, and The Cape. Well, we know she is talented, so let’s just hope she is not also bad luck for whichever next projects come her way!
18. Emilie de Ravin
Baby-faced Aussie Emilie de Ravin was accepted into her native country’s highly selective Australian Ballet School, where she performed in productions and trained. She had been practicing ballet since the age of 9, which, relatively, is quite old to begin learning. But she was quite good, thus she earned a spot at the coveted school. However, she then quit after a year to pursue her true dream of acting. It came true! She has appeared in several television shows and movies, and interestingly enough, she has portrayed a pregnant girl three different times!
But though acting was her first love and ballet only her second, Emilie loves Audrey Hepburn (who doesn’t?), who, as we all know, was also a ballerina. She says of her idol, “I’ve always loved Audrey Hepburn. She’s such an icon and an amazing lady. She’s so beautiful. Who wouldn’t want to be in Breakfast at Tiffany’s?” Clearly dance is in her heart, but drama will always take center stage. Emilie says of acting that, “I want to pursue as much of a serious acting career as I can; not just a flimsy overnight career. I take it very seriously and I really want to pursue it for the rest of my life.” Well, considering LOST ran for 6 seasons and she has had plenty of work both before and after that successful role, I think she is doing ok.
17. Charlize Theron
Hailing from Johannesburg, South Africa, the lovely Charlize Theron is a classically trained ballerina. There was not much to do in Jo’Burg for a dancer, however, so she traveled to the U.S. and Europe to further her acting, modeling, and dancing career. As it happened, she landed a job in the renowned Joffrey Ballet, and before that danced in Swan Lake and The Nutcracker. Now she has risen to the top of the Hollywood world, and has been lead-cast in numerous works, including Monster, The Italian Job, North Country, and A Million Ways to Die in the West, among many, many others.
It seems so fitting that Charlize is a ballet dancer, simply because she exudes class, an aura of regality, if you will. She just has that “thing” that lends itself to an art form so elegant as ballet. And this air of grace she so naturally exhibits is not only physical. Perhaps her hard life in South Africa has something to do with the hard work and dedication she has given to dance and drama; as a young girl, her mother shot and killed her father while he was in a drunken rage (it was self-defense, and she was not charged). Of this incident, Charlize (who was named after her father, Charles), has this to say: “I was always a Mama’s girl, and I always felt like her protector.” Seems to me as if her mother did a pretty fantastic job raising Charlize alone, especially after such a traumatizing event.
16. Elisabeth Moss
Elisabeth Moss of Mad Men fame (and much other fame) began her ballet training when she was 5 years old. As a teenager, she attended the School of American Ballet in New York, as well as learning under the tutelage of Suzanne Farrell at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. At 15, though, she realized she could have a longer career as an actress than as a ballerina, an impressive foresight for someone so young. But she was, nevertheless, correct, and continues to prove it to this day in Hollywood. She has been in everything from Girl, Interrupted to The West Wing to Mad Men, where she plays Peggy Olson and it has been said that in the role, one can see the influence of the years she spent with Balanchine’s ballerinas in Peggy’s “unflinching tenacity”.
Alike as she and her character may be, Elisabeth does not necessarily agree: “Obviously, my life and my job in 2010 is very different from Peggy’s experience in the 1960s. I exist in a world that enjoys more equality between men and women. But I don’t take any of that into my performance. I just want to play the character as who she is as an individual – scene to scene.”
15. Penelope Cruz
Spanish enchantress Penelope Cruz is most well known for her Hollywood roles in movies like Vanilla Sky, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Before all that, though, she studied ballet for 9 years at Spain’s National Conservatory, where she later beat 300 other girls at a talent agency competition. She also took 3 years of Spanish ballet and 4 years of theater. In the end, it was her love of acting that gave her the drive to make it to the big times, which she obviously did. There was a time in her early career where she was wanted for projects on two continents- Europe and North America! Now she is happily married to fellow Hollywood fave and Spaniard, Javier Bardem.
Like her fellow dancer on this list Charlize Theron, Penelope is another woman who is generally thought of as graceful, and for good reason. Her seductive, deep voice and all-around sultriness (in a movie or in real life) only add to this image. To see her dance in a ballet would be a real treat, I am sure. Quite a contradictory image to the one I just illustrated, is that this smoking hot, elegant woman who has been voted one of the world’s sexiest many times over, also likes to keep stray cats. Doesn’t really scream sexy, but it is nice to be versatile, so all the power to Penelope and her stray cats!
14. Diane Kruger
An injury is what led Diane Kruger to end her dance career at age 18, but before it did, she had studied at the Royal Ballet in London. Afterward, she returned to her native Germany where she became a top fashion model. Later she moved to Paris to pursue acting, which as we know was a good decision. Performing in any capacity seemed like her forte, and also made her happy, as she was successful in so many aspects of performance. Now she and her partner Joshua Jackson (who have been dating for 10 years but do not want to marry because they are not religious and feel no need to) live between Vancouver, Paris, and Los Angeles.
And as much as she loved ballet, once her “sudden success” took place with acting, Diane took it very seriously. In fact, I would argue that she is just as dedicated to her work on the big screen as she was on the stage. For example, to shoot the 2005 movie Frankie, she lived for 3 weeks in a mental hospital, and was the only “real” actress in the whole production; everyone else were mental patients! Creepy- I don’t think I could be so brave!
13. Zoe Saldana
It was while living in the Dominican Republic (she was born in the States but lived on the Caribbean island from age 10 to 17) that Zoe Saldana discovered her love of dance. So she began training at the prestigious ECOS Espacio de Danza Dance Academy there, and also studied theater. When she returned to America, she got her first acting role, one that would lead to many others. It was in the dance flick Center Stage, and she played bitchy ballerina Eva Rodriguez. After that, things skyrocketed for Zoe, and her impressive repertoire is made up of Hollywood blockbusters like Guardians of the Galaxy, Colombiana, and Avatar (she will also star in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th installments of that movie, due out over the next 6 years).
While she can pull off a beautiful, regal ballet routine in a tutu and pointe shoes, Zoe is known more for playing headstrong characters, which she prefers. She also calls herself a sci-fi geek who just happens to dress nice. Well, as I said before, versatility is a good thing, right? But as far as her not-so-versatile face goes, Zoe is often mistaken for the actress Thandie Newton, and in fact, once her own mother mixed them up! Now that is quite the doppelganger.
12. Sarah Jessica Parker
Sex and the City star SJP was a ballerina before Carrie Bradshaw was ever a thought in her mind. She had studied at the American Ballet School, Children’s Professional School, School for the Creative and Performing Arts, and Dwight Morrow High School. Already a professional dancer and singer, after being cast in the Broadway production of The Innocents, her family relocated to New Jersey. She and 4 of her 7 siblings were later cast in The Sound of Music, and then SJP was cast as the lead role in Broadway’s Annie. From there, the rest was history! Few people know that the uber-famous actress from Ohio (and wife to actor Matthew Broderick, with whom she has a son and twin daughters) was a ballerina before anything else!
And before anything else, her true personality and core values were with her. By this I mean, while she has been accused of being “prudish” (even she admits to it!), she has stuck to her guns throughout her life in terms of said prudishness. She was the only one of the 4 main women on Sex and the City with a strict no-nudity clause, and never has she posed nude. She admits she is also prudish about cleaning, and even as a teenager she never rebelled. She was hesitant about even partaking in Sex and the City, but obviously it all worked out for this straight-laced dancer-turned-star.
11. Amy Adams
Amy Lou Adams sounds very American, but the pretty ginger was actually born in Italy! Her Mormon family eventually moved back to America, where Amy was an apprentice dancer at the local dance company, dreaming of becoming a ballerina. She finally found work as a dancer at Boulder’s Dinner Theater and Country Dinner Playhouse, but only after busting her butt working at Gap and Hooters. She was discovered there, and though she appeared in such films as Cruel Intentions and Catch Me if You Can (opposite Leonardo DiCaprio), it was not until the low-budget indie film Junebug in 2005 that she got real recognition, and even an Academy Award nomination.
Because of her wide blue eyes and bright smile, Amy is often known for playing naïve characters with cheery dispositions, and she is pretty good at it! This is probably because the little girl (one of 7 children) who once dreamed of becoming a “singing nurse” when she grew up, is like this in real life, as well. She says, “I think that I’ve always been attracted to characters who are positive and come from a very innocent place. I think there’s a lot of room for discovery in these characters and that’s something I always have fun playing.”
10. Jessica Brown-Findlay
English actress Jessica Brown-Findlay is famous for portraying Lady Sybil Crawley in Downton Abbey, among other works. But first she was a dancer! She started with the National Youth Ballet and Associates of the Royal Ballet, and she was even invited to dance with the Kirov Ballet at the Royal Opera House at the age of 15. She studied the art until she was 18, and even though an ankle surgery gone awry ended her ballet career, she still hopes to someday play a character that allows her to dance again. Not on a professional level, of course, but on some level. Her style icon is Brigitte Bardot, also a dancer and actress.
Jessica idolizes old Hollywood actress such as Brigitte because they “who always look so stunning, cool and chic. I like classic and timeless looks.” Obviously into fashion, Jessica also values the differences she gets to experience by portraying other people as an actress. She reveals, “The thing I adore about acting is that it’s not me: you get to experience all these emotions, but essentially it’s not you.” She also she loves to play strong women simply because sometimes they can be “shocking”, and she loves to give everyone a shock- including herself!
9. Jennifer Garner
If you ask Jennifer Garner about her early life as a dancer, she will tell you that those years were characterized by determination and not talent. She pushed on because of her love of the stage, and studied ballet for 9 years of her childhood. She entered college as a chemistry major, but left it to perform. Then she was enrolled at Yale for drama, but left that too when she got an acting job in New York City (she did, however, graduate from Denison University in Ohio with a theater degree). Ultimately, her passion for acting even won out over her first love, ballet. Fun fact: chemist, dancer, actress, or whatever; anything is better than one summer job she had- cleaning toilets! Ah, it was probably good prep for motherhood (she has 3 children with soon-to-be ex husband, Ben Affleck).
Other little-known but interesting facts about this beloved actress are that she used to play the saxophone in high school, and she named her “Sally the Sexy Saxophone”. She also has a thing for Scotch tape, and says, “You can do a lot with Scotch tape. Almost anything! I love that you can hem a dress, and it’s an instant remedy in a fashion crisis.” I love a woman with quirks!
8. Mia Wasikowska
Mia Wasikowska is another Australian actress who started out as a ballet dancer. She is also yet another actress who had to quit ballet and turn to her second passion, acting, after an injury prevented further dancing. So she put her best foot forward, so to speak, and her breakout role came in the form of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland in 2010. She reprised her role as Alice in the 2016 film Alice Through the Looking Glass with Johnny Depp, Anne Hathaway, and all the other major characters from the first Alice film. She has many films under her belt, but a few others are: Jane Eyre, The Kids Are Alright, and Crimson Peak.
She has very specific feelings about the very different worlds of dancing and acting, saying this of those two worlds: “I just wanted to try a different type of performance – ballet is more an image of perfection, and film can show a grittier side. Sometimes it’s the more realistic topic of real life that really intrigues me.” She seems to view the world of ballet as abstract, and the world of acting as truer to real life.
7. Megan Mullally
Megan Mullaly is well known for being on Will and Grace, in which she played Grace’s alcoholic, socialite secretary, Karen. But completely contrary to this goofy television series, Megan grew up practicing the elegant ballet dance style. She was a soloist for the Oklahoma City Ballet and studied at George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet. She studied English literature at Northwestern and performed in campus musicals. This got her attention from producers, and she eventually dropped out of school and moved to Los Angeles. Besides her television success, Megan has also appeared in several Broadway productions.
Megan has not had much success outside of Will and Grace in the film and television industry, but that one show was a great success, in itself. Megan says, “I didn’t get Will and Grace until I was almost 40. Had I listened to everybody else who kept saying, ‘Oh, there’s too much competition, you’ll never get an agent, you’ll never get a part, 90 percent of actors are out of work,’ if I’d listened to that, if everybody listened to that, then nobody would leave the house and the world would come to a crashing halt.” Sounds like she has that headstrong, can-do attitude that harsh Hollywood needs!
6. Neve Campbell
The Scream Queen who was once labeled television’s most believable teenager for her role as older sister Julia Salinger in the ’90’s drama series Party of Five is a former ballerina, as well. A native of Toronto, she joined the National Ballet School of Canada when she was 9, and was a ballerina in the Broadway production of The Phantom of the Opera, becoming the youngest person ever (at the time) to be cast in it. She was in over 800 of the musical’s performances.
But it was The Nutcracker that originally inspired her to begin taking dance classes at the age of 6. Much later on, Neve turned down the lead roles in both Center Stage and Save the Last Dance in favor of making her own dance movie, The Company. And, just for fun, since like so many people I was curious about her name, it means “snow” in Italian and Italian, and was her mother’s maiden name. You’re welcome.
Oh, and she considers pointe ballet “masochism”, and her family was the “spokes family” for the Tourette Syndrome Foundation of Canada. Now that is interesting, eh?
5. Jenna Elfman
Jenna Elfman, who you probably know best as hippie Dharma from the sitcom Dharma and Greg, is a classically-trained ballet dancer. The images of poised ballerina and goofy hippie kind of compete with each other, but she makes it work! She began her classical ballet training when she was 5, and had to give it up at 16 after suffering an ankle injury at 9, and the tendon coming off the bone at 12. It was no doubt painful, and that she persevered through that pain for 4 more years is admirable. She must have truly loved ballet to do that. But at least she still got to perform, albeit in another capacity. However, even after the injury, she still managed to incorporate dance into her career when she appeared in various music videos, and even toured with ZZ top as a “Legs Girl.” Jenna is a member of the Church of Scientology (no, not relevant, but interesting!).
But of her most famous character Dharma, these are Jenna’s feelings: “It was the most pleasurable thing I’ve ever done, playing this character, and I just remember feeling so at home and so – I don’t know, I was just happy – and it just wasn’t ever work! It was like a sandbox for me, and I would crack myself up rehearsing.” However, the dancer/actress/comedian loves comedy the best.
4. Michelle Yeoh
Michelle Yeoh relies on her dance background and the discipline she gained from ballet to prepare her for her many martial arts scenes in action movies like the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Impressively, she does all her own stunts (and is one of the only females that Jackie Chan lets do her own stunts). A ballerina since age 4, her family moved from their mining town in Malaysia to London for her to perfect the art of dance. There, she later earned her Bachelor’s in Dance from the Royal Academy of Dance. A spinal injury ultimately led her to choreography and acting since she could no longer be a ballerina. She also won Miss Malaysia in 1983, and represented her home country at the Miss World pageant the same year.
She is now one of the highest-paid Chinese language actresses in the world, and was (at the time imdb.com published this information, at least) the highest-paid actress in all of Asia. Impressive! She says of being an Asian actress that, “In Asia, we constantly play Koreans, Malay, Chinese. We do not question that, as you do not question an Englishman playing an American or a German.” Makes sense to me!
3. Amanda Schull
Her face is widely recognized as that of Jody Sawyer, the wide-eyed and innocent ballerina and protagonist of Center Stage, one of the all-time classic dance movies of our time. It was her first role, and also her biggest. Since her 2000 portrayal of Jody, Amanda has continued to act in numerous TV shows like Pretty Little Liars, 12 Monkeys, and One Tree Hill. Born in Honolulu, Hawaii, she performed with the Hawaii State Ballet and Ballet Hawaii. She was a member of the corps de ballet with the San Francisco Ballet, and actually filmed Center Stage while an apprentice there.
In this red-hot picture of Amanda above, she is performing in Center Stage’s most famous scene, and thus probably her most famous scene. Amanda showed how grateful she was for that opportunity back in 2000 when she said, “Last year was certainly a year of record for me. Not long after being offered a place in San Francisco Ballet, which had to be one of the most exciting moments in my life, I was offered a leading role in a movie. It was amazing. In my wildest dreams, I never thought I’d be starring in a movie.”
2. Kiernan Shipka
In addition to being a ballet dancer, actress Kiernan Shipka, 16, has taken ballroom dancing classes since she was 5 (she is a tae-kwon-do pro, as well). She actually played a teen ballerina (what a stretch of the imagination!) in the creepy cult movie Flowers in the Attic. Kiernan says of ballet, “I love ballet. Ballet is its own being. It has its own vocabulary. I feel as if I’m in a different world when I’m in the ballet studio.”
Through other numerous noted quotes of hers, we learn much more about the young starlet, such as that she is also a fashionista, a piano-player, a theater geek, she designs some of her own clothes, isn’t a music snob, reads at night to get her tired, texts all the time, and she thinks there is nothing wrong with a lisp. Good to know- I was definitely wondering her opinion on that last tidbit. Kiernan’s parents are a real-estate developer and a one-time queen of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Chicago (more randomness for ya, there) and their daughter won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series in 2008 and 2009, for Mad Men.
1. Nina Dobrev
This Bulgarian-Canadian actress started dancing at the J.B. Tyrell Sr. Public School, and later attended Wexford Collegiate School for the Arts in Ontario. She was a competitive rhythmic gymnast as well, for Team Canada, which she says was very physically demanding (duh), and she has this to say of the physical impact of ballet: “I definitely have dancer’s feet from ballet.” But she also has a strong, toned bod, which is probably worth the “ugly” feet. She is most well known for her portrayal of Elena on The Vampire Diaries.
Clearly, it has played an important role in her life: “I always knew I wanted Elena’s story to be a six season adventure, and within those six years I got the journey of a lifetime. I was a human, a vampire, a doppelganger, a crazy immortal, a doppelganger pretending to be human, a human pretending to be a doppelganger. I got kidnapped, killed, resurrected, tortured, cursed, body-snatched, was dead and undead, and there’s still so much more to come before the season finale in May. Elena fell in love not once, but twice, with two epic soulmates, and I myself made some of the best friends I’ll ever know and built an extended family I will love forever.” What an amazing way to look at her experience on the show.