As a teenager nearing the end of high school, Melena Rounis was required to meet with a guidance counsellor to discuss her future career plans.
When asked what she wanted to do, without hesitation, Rounis said she was going to be a dancer.
“That’s nice, dear,” the counsellor replied. “But what are you really going to do?”
More than a dozen years later, Rounis laughs as she recalls the career-counselling session.
“She told me that dancing was a hobby… I guess she thought I would grow out of it,” Rounis says from her home in North Hollywood, where she’s been living since last fall.
It’s a rare afternoon off for the Coquitlam native, who just returned to Los Angeles after adjudicating a dance competition on Vancouver Island and is preparing to fly to Ontario to judge another competition.
Just a few weeks earlier, Rounis appeared live on American Idol as a back-up dancer, performing with the top four contestants on the popular reality show.
“I guess I had always hoped to be doing this (for a living),” she says, thinking back to the early days of her dancing career.
Though she grew up learning traditional Greek dancing with her family, Rounis didn’t start taking classes in a studio environment until she was 10.
Over the next few years she would explore a variety of genres – jazz, modern, ballet, tap and musical theatre – finally delving into hip hop at the age of 16.
After high school, she attended the dance program at Simon Fraser University’s School for the Contemporary Arts, but before completing the program she booked a dancing gig in Singapore and headed overseas to perform in a high-end nightclub.
“I basically started working and have been working ever since,” she says.
After a month in Singapore, Rounis returned to Vancouver to work in TV and film, followed by a stint in L.A. taking classes, teaching, working and making connections.
In 2007, she returned to Vancouver and teamed up with her best friend to open a dance studio on Commercial Drive in Vancouver.
As luck would have it, just a few months after opening the studio, she got an unexpected, life-changing phone call from the producers of Cirque du Soleil’s Love, a popular stage show at the Mirage in Las Vegas.
“They called me and said, ‘do you remember when you auditioned for us two years ago?’” she recalls of the offer to join the Vegas cast.
Torn between her newly opened business and the opportunity of a lifetime, Rounis’ friend and business partner wouldn’t let her pass up the chance.
“She told me ‘you can’t not go. You will regret it your whole life.”
Rounis spent the next several months working 10 hour days with Cirque, plus spending several hours each week working from home, running the marketing for the dance studio.
“It was no fun in the beginning,” she admits, noting she had no time to socialize or explore her new city.
In 2009, her partner bought out her half of the business and Rounis said life became “so much more enjoyable.”
“It was so nice to finally have the time to get to know my castmates and check out different places in and around Las Vegas,” she said.
“I was able to live my life like a normal person. Well, as normal as you can get in Las Vegas.”
The show itself – which is inspired by and features music from The Beatles – has garnered rave reviews, described by the Los Angeles Times as an “extravagant mash-up of history and hallucinations.”
It often attracts a slew of celebrity audience members, too, who sometimes visit the cast backstage, including Ozzy and Sharon Osborne, Jon Bon Jovi, Steven Tyler and Yoko Ono, to name a few.
“I got to escort Paul McCartney on stage for our five-year anniversary,” Rounis says, adding that she and her castmates didn’t often get star-struck.
“I would always think, ‘they just came here to see us perform – let’s not get crazy.”
After four years and 1,832 shows, Rounis parted ways with Cirque du Soleil last year. In recent months she has been freelancing, choreographing, teaching and doing plenty of travelling – she has flown as far as Mexico and Australia for teaching gigs – and said she is lucky to be in one place for longer than a week.
“It’s ‘catch me if you’ can right now,” she laughs.
Looking back on that conversion with her high school career counsellor, she says she can understand why she was trying to steer Rounis away from a career in dancing, considering the hard work that is involved and the so few who find success.
“I’ve definitely had many people along the way tell me ‘you can’t do that,’” Rounis says.
In an effort to help other young dancers navigate the world of professional dancing outside a studio setting, Rounis was integral in launching Scholarship Dance in 2009, a two-year program that educates dancers not only on the artistic side, but the professional end of the business as well.
“The problem is, when you transition out of high school and out of your dance studio, and you’re not doing competitions anymore, you don’t know what your next step is,” Rounis explains, noting the scholarship program is taught entirely by working professionals in the field.
While she encourages young dancers to dream big – whether she’s teaching a class, adjudicating a competition or performing – she emphasizes the importance of pursuing a profession in dance for the right reasons, knowing that it’s not going to be easy and preparing yourself for a career of hard work.
“The beauty of the program is it helps (students) find what it is about dance that they like,” she said. “It refines their skills in every discipline, and it also gives them entrepreneurial skills, which are so important.
“You are your own business.”