A Sweet Dancer and Netflix Star

Local dancer Chelsea Cushing Dances as “Candy” on Netflix’s Dance Monsters.

Who knew, as they watched the Netflix hit series Dance Monsters, that one of our local dancers was masquerading before the judges. Chelsea Cushing, a resident of Great Falls, Virginia, was one of the 2022 cast members of the popular show, disguised as the character “Candy.”

“I’d describe Dance Monsters as a dance version of the Masked Singer meets the movie Avatar,” Cushing quipped. The 15 cast members were each given a monster alter ego to dance as, with the help of advanced CGI technology that hid their physical appearance. Outfitted with calibration suits and motion-capture cameras, the dancers danced off camera while their monsters appear before the judges—singer/songwriter Ne-Yo, Internet personality and TikTok dancer Lele Pons, and Ashley Banjo, the UK’s biggest street dancer, choreographer/actor, and the world. The show’s 8 episodes aired in 190 countries and 36 languages, and ran from December 16 through December 30, 2022 with the title of Ultimate Dance Monster and a $250,000 prize up for grabs.

Behind the scenes, viewers got to know the stories and struggles of the dancers, and witnessed them overcoming physical and mental obstacles that were holding them back from dancing professionally. But their identities were not revealed to the audience until they were eliminated from the show.

“We arrived in London, England and were given essentially three months to go to the finale,” Cushing described. “We were given sets of difference challenges, a song and a team of choreographers who gave us moves. I had a really great run…I made it to the quarter finals before becoming eliminated.”

Cushing was recommended to be on Dance Monsters by Queen P, who knew Cushing and was part of the casting team. “I didn’t even know what the show was,” Cushing continued. “They were referring to it as ‘Secret Dancer,’ and telling us it would be on ‘One of the biggest networks in the world.’ We didn’t learn what the show was ourselves until the last minute.”

What was your Dance Monsters experience like?

“Overall, it was like nothing I had experienced in my dance career. The feeling of being there was incredible, but exhausting,” she exclaimed. “I am 37 and was dancing with dancers aged 18-22. Their bodies could bounce back, but I felt it for the first time in my career. I needed a massage therapist to work out the muscle aches and pains. It was a wake-up call that I’m not 20 any more!”

“The beautiful part was that I had already had a career for such a long time that I could approach this at an emotionally mature level. Where the younger dancers stressed, I didn’t feel I needed to. I realized it wasn’t just a dance competition, it was entertainment. The producers were going to produce a story with an entertainment aspect to it.”

“When you are a professional dancer, you are often low on the totem pole. This experience made us stars for the first time. We had our own trailers and runner and could ask for anything. It was a very different experience and everyone gave us our star moment. It was such a cool experience.”

How did you become the character Candy?

“They assigned our avatar based on our personality. I went through a series of interviews prior to being cast where they really got to know us. My character Candy was basically a series of different candies that made up my body…candy cane legs, a wrapped-candy head, and a sweet personality.”

Cushing’s costume limited the types of moves she could make. “I am used to doing a lot of ground work as a dancer, and found I couldn’t do feet-over-head rotations on lie on the ground or the avatar would glitch out on screen.”

What is your background?

“When I turned 18, I wanted to move to New York for an intern affiliate program. I had only done show choir in high school and was a strong athlete, playing basketball my whole life. But I loved dance. I presented the program to my parents who were supportive as long as I had a plan and a timeline and I got my training at the Broadway Dance Center. Six months into it, I got my first professional job as a choreographer for the band “The Roots.” They were touring and I worked with them. I then started working with other artists like Missy Elliott, Ludacris and LL Cool J and touring the world teaching master classes in dance: mainly hip hop and contemporary.”

“In 2018, my life was put on a dramatic pause when I was diagnosed with cancer: Polycythemia Vera JAK2, a rare type of chronic blood cancer with only 50 reported cases in the world. I was on vacation with my now-husband and got extremely sick. They found an exorbitant amount of blog clots in my abdomen and I flatlined and almost lost my life. I was in the UCI for several weeks.”

“Everything in my life stopped and it made me think ‘What am I going to do with the rest of my career? I can’t dance forever.’ I started thinking about my next steps and created AF Talent Management, a modeling and talent agency where I develop models and do a lot of client work locally in the Mid-Atlantic. I still try to dance quite a bit too—it’s a passion I won’t fully step away from.”

Were there any surprises?

“There were constant twists and turns to the competition. We had essentially 2-3 practices to learn the routines but never knew what the final routine would look like. I had to be prepared, as they could throw anything at us, and there was always a last-minute ‘by the way…this has changed.’ But that was the art of the competition: do you have what it takes to make these last-minute changes and deliver the product?”

“One of my biggest shocks was when I learned a whole duet routine using a long table and two chairs as props. When we went to film later that day, the chairs were now 10 feet tall and the table was elevated to 8 feet! I had a panic attack! We had just 30 minutes to adjust our choreography.”

“Dance Monsters was a true dance competition and you had one chance to film your dance routine. If you fell or forgot something, that’s what the audience saw.”

What happened since the show aired?

“I got a surge of social media following and so I set up a fan page on Instagram: Instagram.com/candydancemonsters. The larger benefit was the support for my career. I got to make connections with some of the best artists and creators in the industry, and my affiliation with Netflix helps me to create awareness of different thing I can use my platform for, like my business and cancer awareness.”

“I must also add that I couldn’t have done any of this if it wasn’t for the massive support my husband Kenny Cushing afforded me (they married during COVID). He was by my side throughout my cancer illness and treatments, and continues to support me as I pursue the arts and my passions.”

Dance Monsters Season 1 is available for streaming with a Netflix subscription.

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