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It was a stretch to think that a high school girl from the ‘burbs of British Columbia could ever make her way into the spotlight beside some of the biggest names in pop music including Prince, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Justin Timberlake, and Pink. However, on the day Kelly Konno graduated from Princess Margaret Senior Secondary, in Surrey, B.C., this teen was turning her dreams into reality.
With a dance scholarship in hand, Konno headed at 17 to a California dance academy where she’d previously trained over summers. “I went to every audition and worked for free to get a foot in the door. I worked hard to get my name out there, right from the start,” explains Konno.
By the time Konno’s agent alerted her to a tryout for Janet Jackson, Konno felt prepared. She got in line with 1000 other dancers, including Beyoncé and Jennifer Lopez.
Says Konno, “In the first round, I thought I was hitting it hard,” she pauses, “But I guess I was being Canadian; -- a bit soft. They wanted me to kick it up a notch -- they wanted a grittiness.” She adds, “So in the call-back, that’s what I gave them.”
It’s easy to see how edginess wouldn’t come naturally for Konno. She hugs instinctively and laughs easily. Though gentle and quiet, Konno dug deep, releasing an alter ego that was more city than suburban. “All my training, all my hard work came down to that moment.”
Maybe it was a stretch that a girl from the BC 'burbs could share the spotlight w/some of pop's biggest names: Prince, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Justin Timberlake, Pink, well guess what Kelly Konno did? #Canada @HelloKellyEnt
Konno went back to her apartment feeling hopeful. –“You never are told you didn’t get it. You just don’t hear back.” The job went to Jennifer Lopez. Konno was devastated, but not for long.
A couple weeks later, Jackson’s choreographer Tina Landon who also worked for Prince, called, offering Konno the chance to tour with Prince. Konno was ecstatic. She packed up and hit the road for for a full U.S. tour. “Prince’s show was about the music, the musicians and him, not the dancers. He was amazing, but I wanted to dance more. I still wanted to dance with Janet.”
Touring with Prince at 17, then turning down his job offer
Konno describes the tour: “Prince regularly performed for two hours straight in concert," and then, “around 2 a.m., he would let a club know that he was coming and then he and his band would show up and play for another two hours.” The musician attracted a stream of famous fans that the Canadian teen watched come and go. “We were allowed to come to the club parties after the show,” says Konno. “I would just sit in the wings and watch him play and I’d see all kinds of stars who were there too. But,” laughs Konno, “I was a good girl.”
Konno also had a chance to go to Prince’s estate, Paisley Park, near Minneapolis. “He had a recording studio there, clubs, a sound stage, it was amazing.”
Konno remembers Prince kept his distance from his three dancers and “treated everyone well,” putting the crew and dancers in five-star hotels while on the road.
“Prince was always very respectful. One day at the end of the tour, his bodyguard told me that Prince wanted to talk to me. I was waiting at a table, trying to think of what he was going to say. Prince didn’t ever speak to us individually,” says Konno.
“I was worried, I didn’t know what to expect. He came and sat across from me, looked at me with those amazing eyes, and in that soft voice said that he really liked what I had been doing on the tour and—and then he asked me if I would like to do the European leg of his tour." Konno said she was electrified. “I was so excited.”
Konno accepted, but then the teen had an unexpected choice to make. Jennifer Lopez, (JLo) was leaving Jackson’s team to pursue acting. Landon invited her to come and dance with the Jackson team, to see if she’d be a fit. Konno raced to the studio and danced her heart out. A couple hours later, says Konno, “I was told to get packed; we were staying at Janet’s place in Malibu that night and flying out to Hawaii in the morning. And that was it... I still can’t believe that at 17, I turned down Prince.“
Konno would end up doing three world tours with Jackson. While working for Jackson, Konno danced on stage on at the Grammy Awards, and on shows with Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres.
She describes Oprah as being very nice to her, and as having a powerful presence; someone she could see running for President one day. She describes Ellen DeGeneres as being “just the way you’d expect. Really nice.”
While hanging out with Jackson in her change room, the dancer met some of Jackson’s fans, including Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, Mohammed Ali, Robert De Niro, and Nelson Mandela’s cellmate.
“He took us on tour, to see where he and Mandela had been in prison. It was an incredible experience. We had some amazing opportunities on tour.”
Janet Jackson evolved from Konno’s employer to friend. From onstage in Vancouver recently, Jackson did a shout out to “one of [her] best friends, Kelly Konno,” who now bursts into laughter at the memory. “I’m so glad there wasn’t a spotlight turned onto my empty seat!” Konno, who was Jackson’s VIP guest, had dashed out early to catch the ferry for Bowen Island.
Dancing for a "perfectionist" Michael Jackson
Between Janet’s tours, Michael Jackson hired Konno for a two-month tour. She joined Michael Jackson’s entourage, traveling through a sea of his fans in a limo with police escorts. “I was in awe of him,” says.
Konno says that Michael Jackson gave the dancers “tips and pointers,” which she was grateful to receive. She describes him as “really funny,” and that he loved to play jokes on the dancers.
“He was also a perfectionist,” she recalls. It was grueling work to perform up to his standards, but Konno says that dancing with Michael taught her to be completely focused, present and humble.
In between touring, there was necessary recovery time. “I could go to Neverland (Michael Jackson’s famous fairytale-like estate) any time I wanted. I went there for birthdays, to take a break, whatever,” she says, incongruently sipping bubbly water under a forest canopy on Bowen Island, in B.C.. She said her favourite thing to do in Neverland was to go to the theatre, and go through Jackson's collection of videos and watch movies.
After touring with both Jacksons, Konno toured with Justin Timberlake, who she also trained as a dancer. “I was so lucky and grateful to be with artists like Janet and Justin who really cared about their dancers. We hung out. We were all a crew, we partied, laughed, worked out, and performed together.”
Over the years, Konno performed on Jay Leno, Saturday Night Live, and danced for Pink on the American Music Awards. “She is super cool,” says Konno. She also danced for NSYNC. Konno, now is an actor, choreographer and entrepreneur. She reflects on her past hectic life as a dancer. "I got used to the life. There were private jets and all that, but we worke hard," she recalls. "We trained, we performed, we reviewed our performance, we practiced any changes, and then finally had dinner. Then it was back to the hotel to sleep and then do it all again."
Going from city to city, living out of a suitcase, missing friends and family, it wasn’t all glamour and excitement. When she’d miss home, her close friend Maureen Atchison would sometimes fly out from B.C. to keep the dancer company. But eventually, Konno admits, it started to feel like just another job. At the end of the tour with Timberlake, Konno was ready to set down some roots. In the complete antithesis to her life in California, Konno made the leap to a small island on the B.C. coast.
“I love it here,” says Konno of the peace and quiet on Bowen Island. “I love my life.”
Before leaving California, Konno, her sister Dorie Konno Lazaroff and friend Carolina Lancaster Castellino, created “Triple Threat Dance Convention,” a company that brought in dancers and choreographers from the professional world to train kids across western North America. By the time she made the shift back to Canada, and to Bowen Island, she was ready to open another business, starting with dance workouts for adults, where, to the delight of her clients, she incorporates some of her basic dance moves from tours with Michael and Janet Jackson.
Konno eased out of Triple Threat, which, after 18-years, had become the largest dance convention in Canada, with numerous dancers who followed in Konno’s footsteps. Now focusing on her island business, Konno inspires women to develop body confidence and enjoy the freedom of physical expression through dance. Konno also finds time for TV and film acting and doing choreography for ads, videos, TV and movies.
In a coffee shop on the island, someone asks Konno if she “really, actually,” met Michael Jackson. Konno smiles and says yes, without revealing the extent of her work with the legendary performer. She has a humble attitude about her career and has to be coaxed to talk about her experiences, or her expertise as a dancer, actor, dance instructor and choreographer.
In late 2017, Konno had a chance to regroup with Janet Jackson and her dance team for a reunion at the Hollywood Bowl in California. Dancing again to “Rhythm Nation,” Konno reflects that the message in the music and the dance is just as relevant today as 20 years ago.
“It’s about coming together, no borders,” unifying against injustice and divisiveness. “More than ever, Rhythm Nation holds a powerful message.”
In September, Konno will open The Kelly Konno Studio, an ambitious project that will give Konno a chance to share the lessons she’s learned from dance and acting, including the business side of being a professional performer.
Hoping to work with students from far and wide, Konno has reached out to her friends in the industry to join her as guest faculty. Unexpected for her small community, the local kids will have a benefit from Konno’s expertise but also from the likes of Pink’s choreographers and other top level international performers.
While maintaining some recreational element, Konno’s high-level instructors will want their students to bring a high level of commitment to their training. Konno plans for kids “to learn that hard work pays off. You can’t just have talent without hard work.” She adds knowingly, “that can be useful in any career.”
Konno remains as ambitious as she was as girl growing up in Surrey. “I also want to balance my career. I want to start doing bigger, juicier roles where I can use my acting chops…I know I can make it happen.” Konno pauses, takes a sip of water, flashes a smile and concludes, “—And when I’m 80, I want to win an Academy Award.”
Though Konno is laughing, it’s clear that when she makes her mind up, there’s no stopping her.