People Who Make NY Special

On Pointe With James Whiteside

Seasoned dancer. Pop singer. Drag queen. What can’t this American Ballet Theatre vet do?

Misty Copeland and James Whiteside in Symphonic Variations; photo courtesy of Marty Sohl.

James Whiteside is a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre, which means he’s one of the best ballet dancers in the world. The man doesn’t really need a side gig, but he has a few of them. When he’s not performing in Swan Lake or Giselle, he becomes his alter ego, JbDubs, and creates his own pop tunes and music videos, which become viral hits. (“I Hate My Job” has more than 3 million views on YouTube alone.) He’s also part of a drag troupe, The Dairy Queens, that performs in clubs throughout New York City. His drag name is Uhu Betch, a play on his favorite childhood drink, Yoo-hoo.

Whiteside has always been out, and he takes great pride in being a role model for young gay ballet dancers. “Let your imaginations run free and leave social norms to the normal,” he proclaims on his website. This fall, he will be honored with a special award at ABT’s glittery Junior Council Turnout benefit on September 14—both for his dancing and for his commitment to diversity and inclusion.

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Stella Abrera and James Whiteside in Her Notes. Photo courtesy of Rosalie O’Connor.

We chatted with Whiteside about his many loves: ballet, pop music, Broadway, and (of course) food.

What Should We Do?!: How do you manage being a principal dancer at ABT with your side projects?
James Whiteside: My regular ABT contract has me in New York working full-time between 37 and 42 weeks a year. The rest of the time [I spend] traveling to galas and festivals and such around the world. I actually have a lot of time that I can dedicate to other endeavors: If you want to do something badly enough, you make time for it.

My interests range far and wide; I love ballet, but I also love Broadway and Britney Spears. I think I’d go mad if I didn’t have these other creative outlets. I have an alternative soul, and I need to get those other parts of me out there.

WSWD: You’ve always been vocal about being out and not conforming to some traditional ballet dancer persona—sharing all of your interests on Instagram, for instance, despite the fact that some older ballet fans may be put off by drag shows and such. Do you think the world of ballet is changing?

Whiteside: I do think the ballet world is changing, and it has become somewhat more diverse and accepting of all kinds of people—partly because that’s expected nowadays. It’s catching up, I think. And I feel that I need to do my part to assist in this change. I hope that I’m leading by example and displaying courage and verve when it comes to making art and also being myself. A lot of people have fought very hard so that I can be myself and be unapologetic. I’m not going to squander their efforts by being ashamed of who I am. And, honestly, I really don’t care what other people think!

WSWD: You grew up in Fairfield, Connecticut. Did you come to the city as a kid, and if so, what were your favorite sights or things to do?
Whiteside: No surprise, I loved taking dance classes! From the time I was 11 or 12 through my teen years, my dance teacher would bring my class to the Broadway Dance Center to take ballet, tap, jazz, acrobatics, African dance, hip hop, and lyrical. Jazz was my favorite, because it used the music of the time: Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson, ’N Sync—all the stuff I loved on the radio. It was just pure fun.

WSWD: I know you love Broadway musicals. What was the first one you saw as a kid?
Whiteside: It was Cats, and I was not a fan! But then I saw Beauty and the Beast, and I was just blown away by the sheer sex appeal of it. And then when I was older, I saw Rent, and that was one of the first works of art I ever saw that represented the LGBT community onstage. So I really identified with it.

WSWD: And I assume you saw American Ballet Theatre perform when you were young.
Whiteside: Yes, I remember seeing a gala performance of excerpts from many different works—basically, the greatest hits of ballet. And that’s when I really began to understand what ballet could be, that it could be done at this exquisitely high level.

WSWD: As a kid, did you dream about living in New York City?
Whiteside: Oh, without a doubt. When you’re a kid and you come to New York, it’s almost universal to think: I want to live here someday. And especially when you grow up nearby, it’s almost just logical. I loved New York City as a kid, and I still love it!

WSWD: What do you love most about New York?
Whiteside: I love that you can get any type of food at any time of day! Also, the diversity of the city is beautiful and important.

WSWD: When did you know you were going to become a professional ballet dancer?
Whiteside: I was about 12, and I realized I could be really good at it.

WSWD: What do you do before you go onstage? Do you have any idiosyncratic habits, any lucky charms?
Whiteside: Lucky charms? Oh, yes, I eat a whole bowl of them…just kidding! Really, I love the time right before a show when I’m getting in the zone. I put on music in my dressing room, and I have a cup of coffee and a cookie while I’m doing makeup.

WSWD: What kind of music do you listen to in your dressing room?
Whiteside: All kinds. I have a million different playlists. Could be jazz, classical, even country. Could be up-tempo or down-tempo. The only type of music I don’t really seek out is heavy metal. I don’t choose the music based on the ballet I’m performing, although sometimes I’ll listen to something melodramatic for somber ballets.

WSWD: What are you thinking right before you go onstage?
Whiteside: Honestly, the prevailing thought is always: Don’t screw up, don’t screw up, don’t screw up. But other than that, I’m really in the moment. I try to get lost in the character and in the steps so the audience can be transported.

WSWD: But sometimes there is a fall or missed step. What’s that like for you?
Whiteside: I’ve never done a perfect show. That’s not a thing. Every performance there are minor to major mishaps. That’s just a fact of live performance. One time in Don Quixote, I was supposed to land this turning jump and go directly into another. I landed on a very slippery spot on the stage, and both of my feet went out from under me, kind of like Bambi on the ice. I got up, I tried again, and the same thing happened. So then I walked to a different spot. It’s not fun. You don’t want to fall onstage. You’re thinking, well, words that are not appropriate to say! But the audience goes nuts. It shows we’re human. This is all what makes ballet constantly challenging and exciting; there’s no such thing as perfect art.

WSWD: I bet that cookie you eat in your dressing room doesn’t go very far when it comes to sustaining you through all of your jumps and such. Are you starving by the end of the show?
Whiteside: Yes! I’m ready for a drink and some food. Postshow, I’ll head to The Smith for a cheeseburger or Cafe Fiorello for some pasta.

WSWD: What’s your favorite ballet to dance?
Whiteside: My favorite ballet is Giselle, which is a masterpiece and the oldest continually performed ballet. It’s intensely dramatic, and there’s a lot of depth and story to Prince Albrecht as a character. The title character falls in love with him, and she dies tragically of a broken heart at the end of the first act when she learns he’s engaged to someone else. The second act is my favorite because the music is so tragic. He’s in the graveyard being haunted by spirits. He and Giselle dance together, but she disappears and he’s left weeping at her grave by daybreak.

WSWD: Where do you see your career going in the future?
Whiteside: I always thought that I’d make a name for myself in ballet and then later on maybe perform on Broadway. While I dearly love ballet, I’d love to eventually do some different things—different styles of dance or theater.

WSWD: If we planned your perfect day in the city, what would that include?
Whiteside: It would start with a bacon, egg, and cheese at Daily Provisions, followed by a movie. Then lunch at Curry-Ya, this Japanese curry place I love. Seriously, it’s my death row meal! Then I’d get an iced coffee at Abraço and take the train to Coney Island, where I’d watch the sunset, ride the Ferris wheel, and end the day with a hot dog.

RAPID ROUND!
James Whiteside’s Faves … in a NY Minute

Albums on your Spotify right now?
The new Lana Del Rey album, Lust for Life. I love the California vibe of her work, and it’s so sweeping and melodic. Also Bop City 2 by Terror Junior. It’s really fun, but the lyrics are quite sensitive and intricate for a pop group.

Burger?
My favorite place for a cheeseburger is Ruby’s, this Australian place in Murray Hill. It’s served on a ciabatta roll with some kind of magical sauce, along with yummy fries.

Gym?
TMPL; it’s fancy without being pretentious.

Show on Broadway?
Kinky Boots. Of course, I love it because it’s about drag queens!

We’ve partnered with the American Ballet Theater to support young artists at their 2017 Junior Council Turnout event Thursday, September 14, 2017 at The Bowery Hotel.  The evening will feature food, fun, drinks — and an opportunity to dance alongside some of ballet’s brightest young stars, including event honoree, Principal Dancer James Whiteside. You and a friend could win a chance attend the big bash and meet James Whiteside, find out how here.