Catarina Santos: Creating her own reality

Catarina Santos has got that quality that no one can quite put their finger on.

It’s that inexplicable ‘it’ factor, that magic ingredient that you can’t buy, practice, or be taught. As an audience member it’s impossible to ignore, and yet oddly enough, it’s almost impossible to self-assess. If you asked Catarina (or Cat, as she’s known to her friends), I'm sure she would modestly protest the compliment. It’s a marvel to realise after a few minutes talking with the Sydney-born dancer that she’s unaware of how thoroughly captivating she is, something which has the un-orchestrated effect of making her excessively likeable.

Whatever the stigma the ‘showbiz’ industry sometimes attracts, there isn’t a hint of arrogance or vanity about Cat. Not on-stage, not in the dressing room, not anywhere. Nevertheless, there’s no arguing the fact that when Catarina Santos is on stage, it doesn’t matter whether she’s front and centre or standing in the back corner, there’s something about her presence that reels you in like a magnet. Yet despite an evident affinity for performing, Cat’s journey as a professional dancer has by no means been a smooth one. There were challenges right from the get-go, at six years old she was both introduced and - a year later - removed from dance. A decision made by an attentive mother who immediately picked up on “the drama and the cattiness” of dance school culture. Cat was already hooked though, “I was itching to go back. And I would ask her every year ‘Mum, can I go back! Can I go back!’ Circumstances changed though; Cat’s parents divorced, and dance lessons became too great of a financial strain to commit to, so lessons were once more off the table. Finally, at age twelve, opportunity presented itself again, Cat’s older sister heard from her partner about a new dance school opening up and offered to help Cat pay for lessons. “I took a job on Sundays at a café to help pay for it as well” Cat adds – and the rest (as they say) is history. The studio was All Starz Performing Arts Studio, where Cat still teaches to this day.

As dance began to dominate her free time more and more, there were inevitable social repercussions at school. There’s often a distance that opens up when a child unexpectedly finds themselves with a ‘career-plan’ and training commitments, whilst other kids have recreational sports and birthday parties. And as Cat was realising, as rewarding as finding your passion so young can be, it tends to be alienating. “I ended up getting teased because I didn’t go out with my friends every Friday night, so I wasn’t that popular within the group” Cat recalls. “I was always going to dance instead of hanging out or going to the parties. Which did hurt, and I ended up feeling kind of belittled for my passion because I wasn’t interested in doing all the normal stuff kids do as they’re growing up.” So when in year eleven she made the decision to enrol in Newton Highschool of the Performing Arts, things improved dramatically. It felt like she had finally found somewhere her devotion to dance didn’t make her a misfit. “Being surrounded by people who also loved what I did and had passions and a drive for something – who shared that different aspect of their life and had similar focuses and goals really inspired me and made me feel like I belonged finally, whereas I had felt so outcast before. [...] In a way I was actually glad that I experienced the two schools, because it made me appreciate being around friends who loved what I did so much more.”  The longer you speak with Catarina the more evident it becomes that this is a recurring theme – this gratitude for any adversity that comes her way seems to be a defining characteristic of the twenty seven year old.

It appears like she’s always had a brutally honest perspective, on not only the industry but the chances of her own success. Despite an intense desire, it wasn’t until well down the track that she seriously entertained the reality of ‘making it’. Even at twenty-one Cat refused to be blinded by the fantasy side of it all. She stayed grounded; “I still had it in the back of my mind to always have a back-up, because yes, dancing is great as a career, but are you going to fall into that pocket of mainstream dancers in the commercial world who are booked and used all the time – because otherwise if you really want to make a living out of dance you can’t rely solely on that income, you’ve got to teach or do something else as well.” It took a year of full-time, and “getting more work and making friends with more choreographers and getting booked on different shows and jobs” before she allowed herself to think about a proper career, and admitted “I actually have a shot at this.” 

If you want some insight into what kind of person lights up a stage, and who Cat is, then listen to her talk about what she's grateful for; When I asked her what had been her most enjoyable moments so far, I was anticipating some of her many remarkable achievements listed in response; The Dream Dance Company, working on The X Factor, The Voice and Dance Academy, dancing with Ricky Martin, Nick Jonas, Havana Brown, Red Foo, Flo Rida, Cher Lloyd, Timomatic, Ricki-lee, Betty Who, Delta Goodrem, Cody Simpson, or choreographing for Danni Minogue to name a few… but no. Instead her eyes light up and she talks about being on So You Think You Can Dance – or rather, not being on it.

“Sometimes it’s the moments that may seem like let-downs that now looking back, can be the best thing that ever happen to you."

In 2013, after a four year hiatus, So You Think You Can Dance Australia announced a return to TV for it’s fourth Season in 2014, holding nationwide auditions during September and October. The reality show was a rare opportunity for commercial dancers to showcase their talent and versatility to a broader audience – Australia’s current dance industry rarely spotlights genres outside of the classical and contemporary realms, something that is gradually changing, but SYTYCD allowed dancers with their own unique style to take centre stage. Naturally, Cat leapt at the opportunity. After intense auditions, she found herself in the Top 40, and there, on the verge of success – she was ousted. 

“At the time it was like the most heartbreaking thing that ever happened to me, it shattered me. I thought that was it, and that I should give up.  All of my friends got in -  there was eighteen of them and every single one got in.  I was so gutted. I had put this stuff into the universe ‘I see myself there each week’, ‘I see myself on stage dancing the Top 20 routine’, ‘I see myself in the Top 4’ – you know? Putting this stuff out into the universe to attract it…But now when I look back a year and a half later, it was actually the best thing that could have happened to me. And that’s what I want to express to every dancer; sometimes something that looks like a curse is actually a blessing in disguise and you don’t find that out until later on. So if you give up you’re never going to know it. Push through, because as crazy as it seems, not getting in was honestly one of the greatest things that ever happened to me and at the time I thought it was the end of the world.

…And it’s funny because at the end of the day, I got to do it all. Just not the way I expected to - because all my friends got in, I ended up being the submission girl (before a piece gets approved the choreographer has to submit the routine to get a yes or a no). So I was the submission girl for all the choreographers, and when their routine did get in – I ended up assisting a lot of them: Stephen Tannos, Mitchell Woodcock, Charlie Bartley, Matt Lee and Marko Panzic as well, and when it came time for the Top 4 routine I assisted Square Division too. I ended up being there every week, I got to stand in for the dancers onstage and in the Top 4 routine and experience the whole Grand Final week, and I got to go to the after party! So I really did get to do everything, but in the strangest way… and I think that’s what a lot of dancers don’t know. They see all the good stuff, because that’s the way social media is, and they think ‘Oh they’re set. They’re fine.’ They don’t see how people have dealt with the ‘bad stuff’ too, and how that has actually made them who they are."

It becomes apparent over the course of our conversation that Cat's mentality gives her the ability to find the silver lining in any situation life throws her way. I ask her if she ever struggles with motivation, or the day-to-day challenges and her answer is candidly reassuring- "Every day. I think dance is a constant roller coaster, you’re up and down and sometimes it’s not even about what happened during the day, you just woke up feeling like pooh. " This never lasts though, her friends and fellow dancers will tell you Cat has a tenacious work ethic and self-discipline to boot.  Her solution to the challenging days are reminding herself of the journey she's taken by looking at old videos - "That motivates me, because it makes me remember where I started and how far I’ve come even from a year ago, so that makes me go 'wow, okay. I’m going to apply myself.' But it’s inevitable there’s always going to be rainy days."  

In 2015, after being selected as one of seventeen diversely talented dancers to launch the premiere season of Director Marko Panzic's groundbreaking new commercial company - The Dream Dance Company - Cat suffered the kind of injury that can make life feel like one never-ending rainstorm.  "During rehearsals for the Dream Dance Company I hurt my lumbar spine, a disk slipped ...and that really killed. It was while we were learning the show as well, so that was really hard because I couldn’t dance. It was torture.  I was worried because I didn’t know how I was going to get through the season."

Cat Santos in a shot for 'GENESIS' by the Dream Dance Company

Cat Santos in a shot for 'GENESIS' by the Dream Dance Company

The Dream Dance Company receiving a thunderous standing ovation during Genesis - Image: DDC

The Dream Dance Company receiving a thunderous standing ovation during Genesis - Image: DDC

But with patience, proper treatment (and a bit of luck) Cat recovered enough to perform, and captivate audiences at every show that season, and at the end of the day, the experience was just another lesson to grow from - "you’ve just got to know when to stop pushing and take a rest so that your body has time to re-cooperate [...]. Injuries happen, no matter how careful you are; what we do is so physical that you can’t avoid it." She also credits a lot of different influences with constantly keeping her inspired; "photos, old movies, music, emotion – [and] life situations that you deal with inspire me, because you go ‘I can really connect with an audience because I think everyone has felt this feeling in particular’." And when many performers groan at the thought of the audition process, Cat embraces the experience, nerves and all, "[It's] a scary thing, and I don’t think it gets easier as you get older or more experienced. Because I find the more experienced you are the more you have to prove. No matter how much work you’ve done there is always going to be someone younger than you, fresher, who’s been training hard and wants it just as badly as you did at that age.  When you go into an audition no matter what stage you’re at I think you always have that nervous aspect to it; but I never dread it. I enjoy it. It actually inspires me to work harder.  For instance recently we had X Factor and the Voice auditions and even though I had worked on the prior seasons I was really happy to still go to the auditions, because then I can see what’s up and coming and go ‘Wow, maybe I need to pull my game up and maybe I need to think about dancing like that’ because dance is constantly evolving, so I love it, auditions really inspire me."

This outlook, coupled with the prerequisite abundance of talent and hard work has made Cat into a director and choreographer's dream.  So it's no surprise that this year Cat was re-selected as a part of the Dream Dance Company's second season, The Secret Society. This time around the company welcomed American Choreographer Candace Brown (after a providential chance meeting with Marko during a dance convention a few years prior) and the Dream Dance Company's dancers got to stretch their repertoire from the more contemporary-based choreography of Genesis, to Candace's trademark urban style, which is sharp, exhilarating, and unfailingly bold. "It's been so much fun" Cat enthuses - "but so much choreography! And I think Australians aren't really used to this style of choreography; it's very hip hop, it's very intricate. [...] So getting used to that, feeling confident in it, and then bringing the emotion to it has been a really awesome process." 

Cat on-stage rehearsing The Secret Society in Sydney with David McLean and fellow Dream Dance Company dancers

Cat on-stage rehearsing The Secret Society in Sydney with David McLean and fellow Dream Dance Company dancers

The danger of the performance industry is that it often creates somewhat paradoxical temperaments amongst performers; inflated egos and low self esteem are common traits of show business veterans. Yet despite her humility, Cat's also managed to avoid the pitfall of excess insecurities that accompany the job. I ask her how she managed the balance, and doesn't let criticism or rejection get her down and she pauses for a second - "Loving myself.  [...] I think that a lot of human kind is only now ‘learning to love themselves’  - and I think it’s so bizarre that we don’t, and that at some point it became a bad thing to love ourselves. I don’t understand that, and it really boggles my mind.  It’s so important for dealing with failure, because at the end of the day you can take it on the chin and say ‘I don’t need anybody else to define who I am, I define who I am’. Someone can say to me ‘You’re not the dancer for us’ and I can say ‘No, but I am a great dancer no matter what.’  And I can completely appreciate their decision, and I totally agree because if you don’t think I’m the dancer for you then you’re totally correct.  Because you know what you want and I’m not it.  So that’s ok. Respecting other’s decisions is another big thing, a lot of people get really angry about it. But it’s ok, you’re allowed to not be ‘the one’ sometimes, you’re allowed to not be a choice, and I think you can only do that if you’re not insecure. So you need to find away to love yourself enough that you can go ‘It’s ok, there’s something else along the way for me.’  And that’s what gets me through. "

Outside of performing, Cat has an equally profound love of teaching, something which she's been doing since she was fifteen, and cites as one of her greatest joys as a dancer. With such a robust outlook on dance, she's exactly the kind of mentor that younger students need - someone who's unapologetically herself, both on and off the stage.  Luckily for us, Cat's more than found her stride with The Dream Dance Company, and there's no doubt we can expect to be seeing a lot more of her both on-stage and in classrooms. Hopefully we'll also start seeing more performers with Cat's resilience, positivity, and firm but quiet self-assurance. As for those other characteristics though; that elusive 'it' factor and her unmistakable magnetism... well, that tops off a combination of qualities that guarantee Cat Santos will always be one of a kind - in the very best way possible. Before we part ways I ask Cat if she has any final words of advice to aspiring dancers and performers, however her response is something that can be taken as guidance for anyone, no matter their aspirations.

"...This might sound silly (it’s from Cinderella) - but have courage and be kind. Because it’s so true, if you have courage you can get through anything. And as human beings, being kind is just how we all need to be. Being kind and mindful of other people and the fact that everyone is going through things is so important. You will come across mean people in your life but something made them that way. Just let it be. And have courage above all in this industry; because it’s the sort of industry that can lift you up or it can tear you down."


For more on Cat Santos check out her website here, and keep up to date with exciting news on our Ambassador's page as well as here on the blog.

Catch the final leg of the tour for the Dream Dance Company's The Secret Society, in Perth from September 1st.  More details here.

Article by Elly Ford.