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On the Road with Beyonce

Local dancers share stage with superstar. For the two, tour has become a ‘personal growth experience.’

By Nedra Rhone
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

It’s hard not to notice Saidah Fishenden and Kimberly Gipson. The defined biceps, streamlined physiques and the way they seem to float rather than walk —- even in four-inch heels —- have a way of attracting attention.

This year, the two Atlanta dancers are getting some of the best attention possible. All the world is a stage for Fishenden and Gipson, who perform several nights a week as backup dancers on Beyonce’s “I AM…” global tour, which kicked off its U.S. leg last week and hits Philips Arena on Wednesday.

The journey from Atlanta to Zagreb, Croatia (where the tour opened in April) began with auditions late last year, not long after Gipson, a New Jersey native, moved to Atlanta. After three years as a Sixers dancer in Philadelphia and gigs at every casino in Atlantic City, Gipson hoped to find more opportunity in the South.

kimsixersKimberly at the Sixers Dancers Auditions in 2006

“There is so much raw talent here,” said Gipson, 25, of Buckhead, who sat with Fishenden, 22, of Marietta, for a chat during a weeklong break from the tour. “A lot of choreography is based in Atlanta, but I think people don’t know.” She nabbed a McDonald’s commercial and was trying out for videos and ad campaigns when in November she auditioned for Beyonce’s tour.

It took three months for a call back, but soon Gipson was off to New York for a seven-hour tryout that involved learning and performing routines for Beyonce hits, “Naughty Girl” and “Single Ladies.” More than 50 dancers, mostly from New York and Los Angeles, shook, shimmied and strutted as Beyonce, et al, watched every move.

Just as the day was coming to a close, in walked Fishenden. Her Atlanta-based agent, Aris Golemi, had scored a last-minute meeting. Fishenden, who began dancing seriously in college, had studied vocal music and dance at DeKalb School of the Arts, but was planning to begin pursuing a singing career. Golemi urged her not to sacrifice one path for the other, so after taping a dance segment with singer and songwriter Keri Hilson for a popular music show, Fishenden cabbed it to the audition.

“[The choreographer] said, ‘So what can you do for me?’ ” Fishenden recalled. She and another dancer launched into the “Single Ladies” routine.

“We were doing it wrong, but we were doing it,” she said.

“They went for blood,” said Gipson, who watched the action with the others. “It was refreshing to see something different.”

It was different enough for Beyonce to notice and just after midnight, Fishenden and Gipson each got a call to report for a weeklong tryout. The plan was to trim six girls to fit four slots, but after one girl was cut, the five remaining dancers made a pact.

“It wasn’t competitive anymore,” Gipson said. “We would have been affected if one of us had been cut. We really bonded.”

They would learn after weeks of rehearsals and working with Beyonce, that camaraderie was exactly the tone she wanted for the tour —- an atmosphere in which each girl could find her unique place on stage. “It surprised me how much she wanted all of us to stand out,” Fishenden said.

If Beyonce seems superhuman —- in rehearsals she never takes water breaks, she never removes her heels, and every night she watches playback of the show taking notes on what should improve —- it’s not because she’s a control- freak diva.

Her tour has become a big ship of positive girl power with Beyonce and her alter ego, Sasha Fierce, at the helm.

The rocking all-girl band and female background singers —- along with the five female dancers —- are all part of Beyonce’s plan to up the ante on female empowerment.

“She wants you to be the best you can be because overall that’s going to impact the show,” Gipson said.

B’s much documented work ethic pushes everyone to do better, they said. It’s hard to complain when they are backstage catching their breath between dance numbers while Beyonce is still front and center belting out a ballad.

But the stresses of being away from family, foreign travel and a tight performance schedule can cause cracks in even the strongest foundation. And in those moments, Gipson and Fishenden have stretched their minds as much as their muscles. “This isn’t even a career experience,” Fishenden said. “It’s a personal growth experience.”

All that self-discovery has uncovered a desire to share a bit of their good fortune with others, they said. Fishenden already fields questions on Facebook from aspiring dancers and plans to open a recording and dance studio in Atlanta with her boyfriend (also a dancer). Gipson said she wants to launch a mentoring program for teen girls when her dancing days are done.

They know they are in an industry that can be brutal at times, downright “grimy,” said Fishenden, but on B’s stage all seems right with the world —- wherever in the world they happen to be.

Kimberly is not the only dancer with a Philly connection on tour with Beyonce. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that former Eagles Cheerleader (and LA Clippers Spirit Dancer) Ashley Seldon is also peforming as a backup dancer.

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