In a surprising move for most contemporary dancers, Portner has also trained in tap.
She first took Michelle Dorrance’s class at
N YC’s Broadway Dance Center in 2013, where
she started, in Portner’s words, “struggling in
the back corner, working my butt off.” She
was a quick study: Portner went on to dance
featured parts in the MacArthur fellow’s choreography and continues to perform with
Dorrance’s company, Dorrance Dance.
As a teen, Portner asked Leeming Danceworks’
director to invite choreographer Matt Luck to
the studio. “We had an instant connection,”
Portner recalls. Luck must have felt it too: He
called Portner just a couple months later and
asked her to collaborate on a dance video.
Portner fans will know that the result,
“Dancing in the Dark,” catapulted Portner
(and Luck) to a new level of visibility. “I never
expected the video to generate the reaction it
did,” Portner says. “Dancing in the Dark” went
viral in 2012, and among its more than 640,000
viewers and fans was hip-hop choreographer
Parris Goebel, who gave them a shout-out in
It wasn’t long before Goebel reached out to
Portner about a huge opportunity: the chance
to collaborate on the music video for Justin
Bieber’s “Life Is Worth Living.”
“At first, I thought Parris was choreo-
graphing the video,” Portner says, “and I was
really nervous because I’m nothing like the
dancers she normally works with.” But
Goebel wanted Portner to choreograph and
had no doubts that she’d also be perfect in the
video: “I wanted different styles for each song
on the album, and I knew Emma would bring
this one to life,” she says.
Goebel gave Portner free range to create
the duet with partner Patrick Cook. “We had
six hours to make a dance,” Portner says. “I
“I spend at least two hours a day exploring in the studio,” Portner
says. “I record everything and then watch the whole thing forward
and in reverse. I give myself tasks to improve my dancing.” Try some
of Portner’s prompts the next time you’re in the studio. She often
uses them to challenge herself as both a choreographer and mover:
Test your extremes. Redefine
your understanding of slow and
fast, in and out of control.
Only move with transition steps.
Channel a dancer you admire.
Partner the floor.
Film an improvisation, and
then quickly learn it. (“This
one is hilarious because I get
a glimpse into what it may be
like to take my own class and
pick up my own material. It’s