When I moved from Los Angeles to London to pursue my Master’s degree, my lifelong affinity for British movies and pop culture pretty much ensured I’d adore the city, but I always expected I’d come back to LA and its commercial dance industry after graduation. What I didn’t expect is that I would enjoy the dance opportunities and community in London so much that I would want to stay! When my student visa ended and I moved back to the States, I continued to travel back and forth between the two countries, building my network, getting an agent, and finally looking into what it would take to go back to the UK on an international artist visa - spoiler alert: it’s complicated.
Since setting out on the all-consuming task of applying for a working visa, I’ve found the best way to figure out how to get a visa is to ask those who’ve successfully done it! So if you’ve been curious about working internationally or are deep in the throes of an application yourself, take notes and some inspiration from the experiences of these three commercial dancers who’ve made the leap to a new country and encountered their greatest opportunities and challenges along the way.
From Canada to the US - Kaela Faloon
If you’ve ever looked into how to get a visa to move to the US, you know that the visa option for artists, known as an O-1, is a daunting application to say the least. According to US Citizenship & Immigration Services, “you must demonstrate extraordinary ability by sustained national or international acclaim,” which can sound intimidating - what would technically be considered extraordinary ability? Because of the subjectivity of these types of visas, it’s best advised to hire a lawyer to help you determine what immigration officers would be most impressed by in your application. Canadian-born Kaela Faloon did just that to help ensure her own successful application. “The visa process is the first challenging step of moving to a new country, especially as a dancer, because we aren't recognized or deemed as essential,” she says, “Therefore, we are required to prove that we are the best of the best, and that we would be an asset to the desired country we wish to move to.”
Faloon, originally from Ottawa, moved to Toronto when she made the Top 100 on So You Think You Can Dance (SYTYCD) Canada and never looked back, racking up industry credits for ten years and founding her own heels dance company, Sensual Heeling. Building up her professional skills as a dancer and entrepreneur over the years in Toronto was essential to her ultimately successful visa application, laying the groundwork of her career, making her connections to American choreographers, and helping her build the mindset she’d need for the move to Los Angeles. “In Toronto I began to understand that I didn't need to fit into a box, I needed to create my own,” she says, “Toronto's dance industry built me as a dancer and pushed me out of my comfort zone. It broke me down, built me up, and gave me the confidence to create my own lane.”
It was in 2019 that she started to reflect on her career, which already included credits such as the iHeart Radio Music Awards, MMVA'S, TIFF, WE Day, Fashion Art Toronto, Luminato Festival, Pan Am Games Opening Ceremony, and music videos for artists including Rihanna, Drake, Snoop Dogg, Nelly Furtado, and Shawn Mendes. “I knew that in order for me to keep elevating in my career, I was going to have to move to a city that didn't have any limitations, a city that could stretch me and expand my knowledge and introduce me to various fields and opportunities within the dance industry that didn't limit me to just a dancer,” she says. She began her visa application process in June 2019 and received approval in February 2020, moving to LA just before the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
“The most difficult part of this process is that the fate of your visa application is determined by one officer, who has the power to approve or decline your visa approval,” she says, “Months of preparation, years of building connections, and creating job opportunities for yourself in a new country, and it only take minutes for one officer to decide your future for you.”
Visas are expensive and very time consuming so you want to make sure you're ticking all the boxes. - Steph Lee
Dealing with this uncertainty and potential for rejection is one reason Faloon emphasizes that during the process, “you need to train your mindset just as much as you train your body.” Even after a successful application, the realities of being an immigrant in a new country were difficult, she says, as well as the added pressure of having to book work consistently as a dancer to continue to live in the country. “Remaining present, grateful, and humble has helped me graciously accept all the ‘no's’ and allowed me to celebrate all my ‘yes's’,” she says, “I've grown to understand the power in ‘whatever is meant for me, will never miss me,’ as long as I continue to show up for myself, and progress each day in being a better version of myself as a woman and as an artist.”
Despite moving to the US during a difficult time where work opportunities for artists were scarce, this mindset has helped propel Faloon’s career in the country in front of the camera, on stage, and behind the scenes. Since moving to LA, she’s toured internationally with singer Mya Harrison, assisted choreographers Mel Charlot on Season 17 of SYTYCD, Rhapsody James on Season 2 of "All American Homecoming", and Laurieann Gibson on Salt n’ Pepa’s "The Mix Tour", casted dancers and performers for Usher's Vegas Residency, and regularly teaches heels classes at top LA studios. Even while in LA, she continues to run her heels company back in Canada, no doubt inspiring the next generation to follow their dance goals wherever they take them.
From Mexico to the US - Lily Ontiveros
Since she decided she wanted to be a dancer at six years old, Lily Ontiveros couldn’t see a path to becoming a professional in her native Mexico. The opportunities there at the time were mainly in ballet, or dance was otherwise seen as purely a hobby or social activity, so moving north of the border to the US became her aim from a young age.
“The goal was always to be a dancer in LA and pursue it as a career, as I always thought the best environment for me to grow and be the best I could be would be in LA, based on the competitiveness,” Ontiveros says, “I always knew it was going to be hard but I never thought about going anywhere else.” That drive to be in California led her to the undergraduate dance program at Chapman University, a stone’s throw from LA, and gave her a base of high quality training in a range of styles that she feels she wouldn’t have been able to get back home, plus having a degree in dance from a US university was a great addition to her eventual O-1 visa application.
Even while in college, she knew she would have to prepare for how to stay once her student visa (and its one year grace period after graduation) ran out. “Once I became an upperclassman in college I started doing as much research as I could, asking other people what I would need, talking to lawyers and other Chapman alumni who’d gone through the whole process,” she says.
In the year after graduating, she decided that doing an internship with a dance company that would eventually hire her as a dancer in the long run and help support her application was the best path for her to take. Still, she learned that challenges may arise that you have no control over, such as ever-changing immigration laws and even unstable political climates which could affect an application’s outcome. Like Faloon, the subjectivity of the process was difficult, as she says that “obtaining all the credits and proving that you’re an artist worthy of being here strictly through a paper trail are really hard, especially when the people judging you on this are not even dancers.” For that reason, she suggests keeping programs, flyers, event listings, and any other pieces of evidence you can of performances or jobs you’ve done, no matter how small. Having all of that ready to go, especially to hand over to a lawyer, will help tremendously for them to be able to craft the best application for you.
As Ontiveros is finding now, with the entertainment industry expanding filming for films, TV shows, and music videos greatly beyond the US, there are many options to start to build your credits in your home country if you can’t move for school or visit the country you want to move to very often. She suggests focusing on work that you can show you made substantial income from, or where you held a leadership role such as an assistant or dance captain, even if it is in your home country. One of her proudest accomplishments is actually taking the chance to go back to Mexico City to audition for an unreleased Charm La’Donna project that she ended up booking. Now with the freedom of her successful O-1 visa, she can be open to opportunities to work both in the US and back home.
From New Zealand to the UK - Steph Lee
The US isn’t the only country with a booming dance industry, and no one can tell you that better than New Zealand-born Steph Lee. Growing up in the Hip Hop International scene, she was exposed to talent from other countries early on, which sparked her interest in leaving home to pursue a career. “The commercial scene in New Zealand was very small at the time and is now continuing to grow, but the kinds of opportunities I was after were only available on the other side of the world,” Lee says, ‘There aren't many dancers that had gone to pursue dance commercially from New Zealand, and those that have mostly went to LA. I didn't personally know anyone that had done the London commercial dance scene and wanted to try it and see what was possible. I wanted to also create my own path and show all my students back home that if I could go and make my dreams come true, they could too.”
Lee took advantage of a UK immigration option called the Youth Mobility Visa, which allows citizens aged 18-30 from certain countries like New Zealand to move to the UK for up to two years. Still, Lee knew that once the two years were up, she’d need to transfer to another visa or move home. “When I came across to the UK, I learned about a visa called the Tier 1 Talent Visa, now known as the Global Talent Visa,” Lee says, “I knew to keep that in the back of my mind, so that during every job in the UK I would usually thank the choreographer for being able to work with them and ask if they would be willing to be a reference for me when it came time to applying for my visa.” Being prepared so early on for her next steps helped Lee have everything she needed ready to go when it came time to apply for her next working visa.
Since making the move, Lee has been able to accomplish her ultimate goal of performing for large scale events and artists, including at The Queens Jubilee with multiple iconic musicians, The Brit Awards with Ed Sheeran, Tomorrowland with Bebe Rexha, with Nicole Scherzinger in the crater of a Volcano in the Azores Island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and as the Chinese Princess in the 2021 Cinderella feature film starring Camilla Cabello, Idina Menzel and Billy Porter.
Lee didn’t use a lawyer to complete her visa, but her successful application did take years of networking, preparation, and seeking help from other successful applicants. Her biggest advice is to, “Do your homework and be thorough with reading the criteria of the visa. Look into all the information you can find for applying for the visa, what you need and any examples of successful applications you can find. Visas are expensive and very time consuming so you want to make sure you're ticking all the boxes.”
You need to train your mindset just as much as you train your body. - Kaela Faloon
As these three dancers’ experiences show, getting a working visa to dance in another country can be a rigorous process, but also offer you international work opportunities and experiences you might not have had at home. It’s clear from their stories that pursuing a career in another country takes organization, preparation, research, and support from many sources, including lawyers and those who have been through the process before. Still, as Ontiveros says, “As much research as you do, everyone’s path is different, and the way you’re going to obtain your visa could be very different depending on the people you end up meeting or jobs you end up taking.”
So let yourself be open to the many different paths you could take to dance internationally, whether moving to a new country first on a student visa as Ontiveros did, taking time to build up your credits in your home country like Faloon, making the leap right away like Lee, or even taking a page out of my book, going back and forth between two countries to build up your network before applying. At the core of it all, dancing in another country takes determination and belief in what you have to offer as an artist, so start cultivating that and let it be the driving force that will take you anywhere you want to go.