What It's Really Like Being Beyoncé's Backup Dancer

Photographed by Graham Walzer.
Ever wondered what it’s like to be in a celebrity’s inner circle? In our series The Plus One, Arianna Davis offers a peek inside the world of assistants, backup dancers, BFFs, and other right hands to the world’s buzziest celebs. Don't miss the first and second instalments.
Whether you're a member of the Beyhive or the most casual fan, odds are that you're aware of what sets Beyoncé apart from the average pop star: Her ability to put on a show. Whether it's at sold-out concerts around the world or award show performances that have been viewed millions of times, the singer's status as one of the greatest entertainers of our time has been cemented by her stage presence; by the way she tells a story through vocals, visuals, and mind-bending choreography; the way she completely and fully slays audiences to the point of hysterical shrieking, crying, gasping, and yes, even fainting.
And since 2007, a Beyoncé show has not been a Beyoncé show without the help of one person: Ashley Everett.
Since first auditioning for Beyoncé a decade ago, Everett is now the longest-standing dancer on Bey's team — and her dance captain, a well-known performer in her own right with a cult following, easily recognisable onstage thanks to her red curls. (Which, by the way, started as a lighter colour in 2009, until Queen Bey admired the look in a rehearsal and asked if she'd consider a slightly brighter shade. The fiery hue has been Everett's signature since.)
As I drive down a palm-tree lined street of Los Angeles's Valley Village one April morning — my rental car windows down, blasting "Freedom" at full volume into the particular kind of crisp blue sky that seems to be saved solely for the city of L.A. — I search for the home Everett shares with her fiancé, John Silver. I scan each street, looking for the sprawling mansion the head backup dancer of the world's most recognisable entertainer must live in. Instead, I pull up outside a charming apartment building; Everett is standing on a lawn of bright green grass in fuzzy black slippers and cobalt workout pants (Ivy Park, of course) with her rescue dog, Future. I can see her bright smile from across the street, so when I approach her for a hug, I'm surprised that she's a bit reserved — timid, almost, returning my embrace with a gentle pat before shyly asking if I'm okay with Future sniffing my calves.
Later, this will all make sense: There's a clear difference between the Ashley Everett who saunters on stage in heels and bodysuits in front of hundreds of thousands of fans, and the Ashley Everett who walks her dog through her quiet neighbourhood on a Thursday morning with little fuss or fanfare.
"What some people don't realise is that when you’re a performer — whether that's a singer or actress or dancer — you’re playing a character," Everett says. "When I'm working, I'm a completely different person. That's Ashley onstage, and she's very different than the person y'all see here, with no makeup, thinking about what she wants to eat for brunch."
It's time to officially get acquainted with the latter.
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As we take Future on a stroll, I realise that Everett isn't shy, exactly. She's more sweet and introspective, quiet only until she gets warmed up. And then she's pleasantly chatty and inquisitive (by the end of the day, we'll feel like old friends). These are all qualities she attributes to being an active child (and youngest of three) in the small but diverse Northern California town of Chico. "My father is white, and my mother is Black, so sometimes I didn't fit in with the Black people, and sometimes I was too dark for the light people," she says. "But I played a lot of sports, which automatically gave me a lot of friends from all backgrounds. I never dealt with any teasing or anything. I had a great childhood, I was really lucky."

Everett's parents got her involved in dancing, gymnastics and soccer when she was just a toddler. It was the dancing that she stuck with, a skill she pursued until she outgrew her peers and teachers. Her parents knew that to dance, New York was the place to be, so when she was 15, they uprooted the family and headed East. "I had to make a decision: Have a stunted growth here and stay with the friends and the school that I knew, or go somewhere else where I can be pushed a little more. In the end, it was my parents who encouraged me to get out of my comfort zone. Then we were off to New York."

Everett enrolled at the Professional Children's School in Manhattan, an arts school well-known for educating child stars (Macaulay Culkin, Ashley Tisdale, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Scarlett Johansson among them). "It was so crazy to me — kids would go missing from school for months at a time because they were on tour!" Everett said.

Back then, she had no idea she would soon be one of them.
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Everett and I head back to her apartment complex so she can feed Future (for the record, her dog is not named after the rapper, but rather because she's a rescue that needed a better future). As they get settled, Everett describes heading to a 2007 open call audition during her senior year to try out for The Beyoncé Experience tour.

"There were thousands and thousands of people in lines that twisted down the block, around the corner, and down a few more blocks, right in the middle of New York City. Every dancer from every studio I knew was there. But it just so happened that a few weeks before, I had met her choreographer Frank Gatson at Alvin Ailey. He remembered me, so he made sure that I got in and would be seen by B. I can barely remember dancing for her, it was so surreal. I was so nervous, and young, and green to the industry! I just remember being so ready, following whatever instructions I got. 'You want me to stay? Come for a call back? Dance until all hours of the night? No problem!' That was the last open call audition that Beyoncé has had since."
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Less than two months later, Everett was dancing alongside the Grammy winner in front of hundreds of thousands of people in Japan, her first time out of the country. She missed her high school graduation and brought in her 18th birthday overseas. While her fellow dancers were often homesick, Everett was thrilled. "I missed my family, of course," she says. "But I was just so excited. Everyone handles being on tour differently, but I've always tried to just soak it all in as much as possible."

Her two bedroom apartment is currently full of half-packed boxes; the couple is preparing to move into their first house (located, conveniently, right across the street). Though the living room feels lived-in and cozy — complete with a fluffy couch and stacks upon stacks of DVDs — the room that makes Everett light up is her office, a second bedroom that's brimming with memorabilia from her career thus far, like this vibrant piece of mixed media that was made for her by a fan. But, Everett explains, all of the souvenirs and memories in this room could've looked completely different if she had made one decision differently.

"That first tour was supposed to end at the beginning of September, a week before I was headed to my dream school, Juilliard. And then they extended The Beyoncé Experience four more months. I had to make a decision: Go after the lifelong dream that had been on my bucket list my entire life, or stick it out with a legend, with no idea of what would happen next. I took a leap of faith and stayed on the tour. Obviously, it paid off!"
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By 2009, Everett was on living room televisions and computer screens everywhere: That was the year the video for "Single Ladies" was released, a black-and-white visual featuring Beyoncé, Everett, and dancer Ebony Williams sharply and saucily illustrating exactly why he should've put a ring on it. The routine became the millennial generation's "Thriller," choreography even the most novice dancer is familiar with, and one that's mandatory at every wedding.

"That's when people started recognising me," Everett says. "Before that, only the hardcore fans knew me from her first tour. But after 'Single Ladies,' people would point at me on the street, or come up to me and say that they were Ashley Everett fans. When we filmed that video, I was just doing my job and so excited to be a part of it. I had no idea it would blow up like it did. But I was so grateful."

On the heels of "Single Ladies" came the I Am...Sasha Fierce album and I Am... tour. Everett was the only returning female dancer, and although she was 19, was promoted to dance captain. This meant she'd oversee and act as a manager to the entire team — despite being the youngest among them.

"I definitely felt like a lot of the dancers were looking at me like, girl, you're only 19, you don't know what you're talking about," Everett says. "It was tough, because there were a lot of dancers on the team that I looked up to, and I didn't want to be overly bossy. But I was experienced, I knew all of the routines, and I was the most fluent in this Beyoncé language."

That rosary, by the way, is from the 2013 video for "Heaven," which Everett also starred in.
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One of the few women in the world who can evoke the same kind of heart fluttering as Beyoncé is Michelle Obama, so imagine my combination of jealousy and awe when we come across this photo of Everett and the team casually hanging out with the former First Lady and President.

"This was Michelle's birthday party, where we performed," she recalls, wistfully. "And then a few weeks later, we got this photo mailed to us in a very official envelope. Of course we had very strict instructions to not post it on social media, but when the Obamas were leaving office, I asked B's team for permission, and they said I could Instagram it as long as I included that it was an 'official White House photo.'"

This leads to the question I've been wondering all morning: How much freedom does Everett have to talk about her notoriously private boss? The answer is very little. All interview requests must run through Beyonce's team— and specifically to, well, Beyoncé.

Okay, so I won't be getting any piping hot Bey tea today. But as a member of the inner circle of the woman who quite literally "stopped the world" with her surprise self-titled album in 2013, then again last year with her visual album Lemonade, I wonder: Does Everett ever get whiplashed by a major Beyoncé surprise like the rest of us?

"We usually know when something's coming, but with the Beyoncé album, I didn't know it was dropping until the night that it dropped. We had just done a show and got on the tour bus and everyone's phones were blowing up, like, 'Why didn't you tell me the album was coming out?' And I was just like, "Whoa, wait. What are you talking about? It came out? We can talk about it now? Great. I'm in eight videos!' So yea, we get surprised, too. Even like when we did the Superbowl and performed 'Formation' — that was a whole new song that no one had heard. And then right after that she announced the Formation tour. And we were like, 'Okay, cool. So there is going to be a tour.' Because we didn't know, for real!"

Everett adds that Lemonade has been the most secret project during her tenure. Out of fear that the songs would be leaked, the dancers filmed many of the videos without any music, moving to beats with no vocals, or a morphed version of a song. Sometimes there was simply no music at all, just direction. "Be serious!" or "Intense and angry!" are two that Everett recalls.

So how does she handle it when she knows a big secret and can't tell a soul?

"People definitely ask questions, and I just look at them and smile. I think that's a big part of the reason why so many of us have stayed around her camp for so long. We don't spill tea and secrets because we're very loyal to her, and I think she sees that."

And then? Everett cracks a smile.
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Any time her job or boss comes up, the tone of Everett's voice deepens a bit and her eyes widen, as if she's bursting with admiration and gratitude. She confirms that no matter how long you've worked with Beyoncé, you never really stop being in awe of her.

"I'm 28, so she's seven years older than I am. I would consider her almost like a big sister. She's been a big sister or mentor, whether she knows it or not. I've learned so much just being around her, just listening. I'm learning all the time from her, because she's so intelligent and she knows so much about this industry."

I ask if the pressure of being closely associated to a legend ever gets to be too much.

"Oh sure, sometimes. I've messed up. I've for sure messed up onstage! Like, on the Formation tour, we added a dance move to the routine last minute — a dab — and I completely missed the move. I was thinking so hard about it, too! And before I knew it, videos of my mistake were all over Instagram. There was a meme, actually, because I made a funny face. People were sending me that like, 'Girl, really?!' So it can be a lot of pressure, especially now with social media, because those fans will catch every error. But they're also so supportive, too, and I think they see the humour in things like that."
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Everett and her fiancé, Silver, also a dancer, met in 2010 while co-starring in Ne-Yo's "One In A Million" video. Everett says that while the couple doesn't remember it, everyone who was on set that day recalls the duo being so into one another, they didn't even notice when the song cut off during rehearsal — they just kept dancing. A few weeks later, at Silver's birthday party in Miami, Ne-Yo flew Everett in (at Silver's request), and they've been together since. In 2016, they got engaged. (Don't worry; I'll get the tea from Silver on how he got Beyoncé to help him propose at one of her concerts later in the afternoon, when we meet him for brunch.)

"I had a great family to look up to. My parents have been married my whole life, and they're still very much in love. They were that couple where people were always like, 'Oh look at your parents kissing!'" Everett says. "I've always wanted that. I want a family, I want a husband. I want that whole thing."

She adds that in their rare time off from work, the couple aren't homebodies — they like to hang out with friends or go to the club.

"I dance, but I'm not a freestyler, showing off all these moves — I'm not that girl!" she says with a laugh. "I dance just for fun, not like I'm getting paid. I'm not about to sweat my edges out! But then people always expect that from me, that I'm going to break out choreography if a Beyoncé song comes on. And I'm like 'Oh no, guys. Don't get excited. This is not a show.'"
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One of the most striking things in Everett's office is this shadow-box framed collection of credentials and passes from both her and Silver's careers that her mom put together. There are dozens more where these came from, which Everett plans to put under the glass of a coffee table in her new house. Many of the passes are for artists other than Mrs. Carter.

"I'm not contracted for life with her, although obviously that would be great," she explains. "But, we're only contracted when we're on tour. And even then, you have different legs of tour. So, we'll go to Europe for two months, and then we'll have a month or a few weeks off before the American portion, and within that time we can do other jobs. But, since we're still on contract, if she calls and wants to shoot a video or we have to go into rehearsals, that's a priority. So, I have done other jobs in between, but usually it's after a big tour ends, or when she's pregnant."

Everett has starred in VH1's TV series Hit the Floor, and she's also worked with everyone from Ne-Yo to Usher, Ciara, and Jennifer Lopez, whom she helped choreograph a number for her Vegas residency, along with Beyoncé choreographer JaQuel Knight.

"I really liked working with Ciara, because people got to see a different side of me as far as dancing and my dynamic. We wore sneakers, and we were more grimey, more hip-hop, and people were used to seeing me in heels, flipping my hair. But I don't know if people realize how diverse Beyoncé's routines are, too. She'll be doing contemporary or hip-hop or ratchet or booty shaking or classical — all in heels!"

I imagine that for Everett, picking a favourite project or tour is hard, but she doesn't hesitate before squealing that the On the Run tour, where Beyoncé headlined stadiums around the country alongside her husband Jay Z, was her all-time favourite so far.

"I love all of the tours I've ever been on, and I love dancing to Beyoncé's music. But adding Jay Z to the mix was like an extra cherry on top. It added something new and cool, and I felt like I was at a concert while being in the concert. It was a shorter summer tour, so before we knew it we were all like 'Oh, it's over already? Dang!' And also, seeing Bey and Jay's dynamic onstage was really beautiful. It was just a really special chemistry that summer."
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I'm getting a peek into a rare regular day in Everett's life, but she says a day in the life on tour looks very different.

Usually, the crew is coming from another city, so they'll drive through the night and get to their hotel room around 6 a.m. Then they'll try to get some sleep, though if they're somewhere she's never been, Everett likes to try to squeeze in some sightseeing before sound check around 5 p.m. Then, the team eats at the venue, gets hair and makeup done, and hits the stage around 8:30 or 9. And after?

"Yes, we take group showers!" she laughs. "It's usually a locker room situation, so we're like a football team. And we wash off all our makeup and don't look like the people we were 20 minutes before. And then we do it all over again in the next city."

But there were two locker room moments that were particularly high stakes for Everett and Team Bey: the 2013 and 2016 Superbowls. As keepsakes, Everett has balls from each signed by all of the dancers, which she keeps on a shelf by her office door.

"I was way more nervous for the first one, because it was my first Superbowl ever, and Beyoncé was headlining all by herself so it was a lot more rehearsal and practice. But the second one [alongside Bruno Mars and Coldplay] was still a big deal because we did 'Formation,' and the song wasn't out yet, and we knew that holding up our fists and dressing in black would probably cause a lot of controversy. But that first one? I was freaking out!"
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We drive to the nearby park where Everett likes to do some light cardio and workouts on her days off. Because working rehearsals are so hardcore, she prefers outdoor activities versus going to the gym; she also often hikes area canyons with her dog.

"Obviously a lot of my workouts do consist of rehearsal. A lot of people think that we must not eat, but when you're dancing that much, your body needs fuel. You can't just eat only vegetables! I love sushi, I love Mexican food. I need the carbs for energy, and I need protein. Sometimes I'll do a protein shake if I really feel drained. My number one workout is squats. They will make or break a booty!"

As a fellow mixed curly girl, I also ask how she keeps that red hair healthy through night after night of being stage-ready.

"I use Ouidad and Devacurl products, but I recently started getting into weaves and wigs, so I don't damage my natural hair as much — when I was filming Hit the Floor, it got really damaged because they were using a lot of heat on my hair instead of just letting me rock my natural curls," she says. "When I'm not working, I have only a few go-to hairstyles: one ponytail or braid; two ponytails or braids; two buns; one top knot; half-up, half-down, or just out."
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The dancer has a few tattoos, the most noticeable being the word "Believe" on her right hand, a family tattoo that her mother, father, and nephew all share in the same place. She mentions her parents a lot during our conversations. She is particularly close with her mother, and says she can't wait to be a mother herself. She's been taking notes by watching her boss.

"I've seen Beyoncé grow as a woman, a wife, and a mom. I was there when she got pregnant with Blue, and then had Blue, and it was beautiful. She would breastfeed when we were in rehearsals, because we did a show at Revel just three months after she had the baby. So we were in rehearsals, Blue was right there with us, and Beyoncé had no problem being like okay, 'I gotta take a break, I gotta pump.' It was really cool to see her still working, but also being in mommy mode, too."

Beyoncé's work ethic is also a topic that comes up a lot during our day together, and Everett says it's because she wants to stress that while everyone sees the glamorous side of the pop star's life, they don't quite realise what goes into it.

"I know that everyone knows she's a hard worker, but I don't think people understand how hard she and her whole team really do work. People on the team will go days without sleeping. Dancers, too. But she's not sleeping, either. Everybody is working so hard. That Beyoncé album, when we shot all those videos secretly, we were on tour when we shot those videos. So on days off, we would fly from South America to Houston, shoot a video, fly back, do a show. No sleep. No rest. Days are just going into one another.

"Then you gotta think about all the people who are behind the scenes: The creative team, video people, branding and management. They're not sleeping, either. They're all working. People think it's glitz and glamour and private jets. We have moments like that, yes, but a lot of the time we're over here looking like death, just trying to survive. She be working hard, we all do! But it's because we are dedicated to our craft. I've sacrificed a lot to be where I am today, and when you're in this camp, you have to work hard or you won't last. But we do it because we love it, because we believe in it, in her."
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Next we head to Jinky's Studio Cafe, a neighbourhood restaurant where Everett and Silver often meet up for brunch. When Silver walks up, he's loud, outgoing, and full of laughter, the yin to Everett's yang. I waste no time asking the dancer, who's worked alongside the likes of Chris Brown, Omarion and Ne-Yo, how, exactly, he ended up onstage with Beyoncé at the St. Louis Formation tour stop, proposing to his future wife.

"Ashley has this thing where she likes to say I don’t show her love and affection publicly, so I decided to propose to her in the most public way possible," he says. "I called Beyoncé's choreographers and told them I was envisioning coming out to Single Ladies. Of course, we’re all creative directors, so it turned into a whole thing. But they were so busy with the tour and the show was always changing, that when I bought the ring in May, they weren't ready at all. So I held on to it — which wasn't easy, because it's hard keeping a secret from Ms. Nosey over there! — until they called and asked if I'd want to do it in St. Louis, which was perfect because that's my hometown."

Of course, the team had to run the idea by the Queen Bey (er, Bee), who was thrilled about it. Suddenly Everett and the dancers found themselves at their St. Louis venue rehearsing "Single Ladies," which was odd since it wasn't a part of the Formation show.

"But with our tours, things are always changing, so I didn't think much of it," Everett says. Usually when Single Ladies is performed, a random audience member will be brought to the stage. But this time she was shocked to see that the man on stage was Silver. It was his first up close encounter ever with Beyonce.

"The first time I met Beyoncé, she was passing me the microphone!" Silver says. "Meanwhile, it’s proposal speech time, my heart is beating a mile a minute in front of a few hundred thousand people and my girlfriend, and Beyoncé is over there looking at me like 'Don’t mess this up on my mic!'"

For Everett, everything was moving in slow motion. "It was like my personal life collided with my professional life, so I felt really vulnerable," she says. "Everyone asked how I was able to start dancing again right after that, but that was the easy part! It was such an amazing moment."

It was also the proposal heard around the world: Various fan-shot videos of the proposal have nearly a million views on YouTube collectively, and the news was reported everywhere from CNN and Fox to the Japan World News.

"Even rappers were telling me I made marriage look cool!" Silver says. "Lil' Wayne hit me up on Facebook like, 'man, love is real!'"

As evidenced by the stack of bridal magazines Silver brought over in a tote for his fiancée, the couple (who laugh a lot and often finish one another's sentences) is in full-on planning mode, currently looking for a venue for their Fall 2018 nuptials in L.A.
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A quiet morning with her dog before a leisurely brunch is a far cry from her typical days jet setting around Europe with the Knowles-Carter clan, but thanks to the impending arrival of their twins, Everett now has some much-needed time off until the next big Beyoncé spectacle, which she admits she's grateful for. In addition to wedding planning, she plans to take some time to focus on herself — including what might be next for her career.

"It's really cool to have the freedom to do passion projects and focus on me a little more. Beyoncé's world can be consuming. It can be a whole world, her world. It's amazing and awesome, and I love it. But yes, it can be a lot."

She's considering more television projects, and hopes one day to be able to be in a long-standing movie franchise, like The Fast and the Furious.

"I'm so grateful for the Beyoncé platform that I've had the opportunity to be on. Now, because of the way she's inspired me, I want to really push 'Ashley Everett,' and not just be the red-headed dancer next to her. I want to explore more acting, fashion, brands. I want to really build something in the next 10, 15, 20 years."

There's a "but" in there, though.

"Don't get it twisted. Even if I'm 50, if Beyoncé calls and says, 'Girl, wanna do 'Single Ladies' again?' I am so there!"

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