In our inaugural interview, Dena Kaplan, one of the stars of hit TV series Dance Academy and NBC’s Camp, talks to us about overcoming adversity, sisterhood and her quest for an Olympic body, and spills the beans on who was the best kisser on Dance Academy.
Born in Johannesburg, South Africa but a Melburnian through-and-through, Dena Kaplan’s plethora of talents was evident from the first time Australians glimpsed her on stage. Her stage debut as Louise in Roger & Hammerstein’s Carousel, staged by Australian theatrical stalwart The Production Company, was a role that required young Kaplan to act and dance. She proved more than able to the task in a performance praised by critics.
Dena has since added singing to her repertoire of skills, and audiences were able to see the makings of a triple threat when she was cast as Abigail Armstrong in the hugely popular Dance Academy. Dena turned the brutally competitive Abigail into a deeply complex, compelling, and very, very likeable character, while displaying her excellent training in a wide range of dance genres from ballet to hip hop. She had a chance to show off her singing voice when the show was renewed for a second season.
She was recently introduced to American audiences in NBC’s Camp, wherein she plays Sarah Brennan, a counsellor at summer camp dealing with rejection from the Olympic swim team and some bumpy summer romances. It’s a sweet, warm, funny show – somewhat like Dena herself – and the perfect summer fare. We’re keeping our fingers crossed for that second season!
Let’s start with something fun: what did you have for breakfast?
Egg white omelette with mushrooms and spinach, a tablespoon of plain yoghurt with chia seeds and strawberries, and some green tea.
What did you wish you had for breakfast instead?
Pancakes with Nutella and whipped cream! And some mango.
You have fantastic grounding in classical technique, and it really comes through in your dance scenes in Dance Academy. Do you remember why you started ballet?
I remember being 4 years old and watching my older sister in Ballet class in South Africa, standing at the back with my mum and copying the older girls, eventually the teacher asked me to join in with the older girls because I was so obsessed.
How did you come to love dancing?
I fell in love with dance from the minute I could walk, my mother and grandmother were both ballet dancers, it was in my blood! I just loved movement and I was a born performer! LOVED attention.
When you were young, people indicated that you would not be able to make it as a classical ballet dancer. That sort of thing is never easy to hear. How did you deal with whatever criticism you may have received and come to accept that you were good enough, both as a dancer and a person?
Rejection is always extremely hard and I have definitely received my fair share of it.
But fortunately, time usually heals the pain and if you are ambitious enough you find other ways to fulfill your dreams and achieve your goals.
I knew ballet was not physically possible for me so I looked to contemporary, jazz and theatre. Eventually I fell in love with acting. It was all a journey and all worthwhile despite sometimes being very painful and heart breaking. It takes patience, hard work and absolute persistence.
Credit: Lucia Pang
Was it initially difficult to adapt to other styles of dance during such as jazz and broadway, having been a bunhead for so long?
I was always interested in theatre and other styles of dance, even as a bun head.
I was inspired by Bob Fosse’s technical but stylish dancers. I also knew I wanted to tell stories through dance.
I was always brought up to try as many things as I could, and to not follow the usual mould. Ballet was always great grounding for me and made me work hard but I definitely excelled at jazz and contemporary.
Was being cast in Dance Academy, a TV series about young, talented ballet dancers, any sort of vindication for you?
It was a dream job.
I had just finished training at Alvin Ailey in NYC. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do company work as I was really missing acting and theatre. Then Dance Academy came up. It was a job where I could combine both passions, and I knew I had to have it. I remember reading the script thinking, ‘if I don’t get this job I won’t be able to watch the show because I will be too jealous’.
Was Abby’s journey towards other avenues of dance besides ballet inspired by your own personal journey?
The writers did use our own “talents” to inspire certain story lines, but I think Abigail’s journey is not unusual.
A lot of ballet girls don’t necessarily only have their goals set on a company or don’t “make it” and end up exploring other options. I’m glad we got to show that in Dance Academy.
Dance Academy: the fouettés are strong with this one
We obviously don’t know how the series ends and whether Abby gets that company spot. But it’s fantastic that the series shows that not getting a coveted contract is not a failure, simply an opportunity to explore other options.
How much of a say did you have in that? Did you get much input about your character as the series progressed?
We had no input during series one, but before series 2 and 3 we had meetings with the writers to discuss ideas, story lines and character journeys.
I really wanted to show that sometimes the world of dance can be painfully unfair. It’s not always the hard workers that succeed. But that doesn’t mean you give up. There are always other ways of feeling fulfilled and inspired as a creative artist. It’s just about finding the perfect fit.
‘Fess up – you’ve kissed quite a few of the Dance Academy cast. Who is the best pasher among them?
They are all really great smoochers, by the end of season 2 Tom and I were so comfortable with kissing it was like shaking hands!
Jordan was also a fantastic kisser. Cue girls swooning around the world!
Is there a particular scene or moment in Dance Academy that you’re especially proud of?
I am very proud of the entire cast’s performances in the last two episodes of season 2.
The Sammy situation was a hard one to tackle well. We managed to keep it real, subtle and did not over-dramatise it. We stuck together and truly helped each other. It felt like an ensemble performance. I was very moved by it and grew and learnt a lot as an actor.
Also, we need to talk about YOUR ABS IN CAMP, because holy wow.
NBC’s Camp: Dena Kaplan rocks out her abs of steel
Did you undertake any sort of food or exercise regime, knowing that you would be spending a good deal of scenes in a bikini, or did your good genes and normal fitness routine produce those awesome stomach muscles?
I have to work pretty hard to stay in shape. I am not naturally or genetically blessed !
I always train hard because I love fitness, although I do often have injuries that come from being so flexible.
Leading up to camp I knew I was playing an athlete who was a Olympic hopeful so it was more about looking the role than the fact that I was in a bikini. I did a lot of research into college swimmers and knew they trained hard and all had very fit, toned, physiques.
I wanted to look as authentic as possible. I did more cardio and more weights and I kept a strict diet of fish, grains, vegetables, nuts and salad for about a month. Then after that I just tried to maintain a healthy eating plan with a lot of protein, good fats and lots of veggies!
It was difficult to maintain the plan during filming as we had no time to workout or plan meals, but I did the best I could! I did work hard though, as I wanted Sarah to look like a real swimmer, instead of an actress playing a swimmer.
How hard was it to maintain an American accent during scenes?
I worked really hard with my dialect coach and on set vocal coach, daily!
It got easier as episodes went on, but the beginning it was daunting. Especially since I was surrounded by an Aussie crew members, directors and cast mates.
I think if we were in America the accent would have kicked in faster!
And how did half the cast of Dance Academy end up on Camp? Not that we mind! Did you guys just sneak each other onto set, or talk one another up to the casting guys or something?
It was bizarre, even for us!
We had no idea – we all auditioned individually. The boys were in LA and I was in Australia. The producers actually had no idea that Tim [Pocock], Tom [Green] or myself were all on the same show when they cast us. They had never seen Dance Academy. But once they realised we were from the same show, they watched Dance Academy and loved Issi [Durant] & Jordan [Rodrigues], so they found roles for them too!
It was the best reunion. I was so excited, but some days I forgot I wasn’t on the Dance Academy set! We all had dinner out one night at the start of the shoot and the producer couldn’t believe how close we all were after 2 days of shooting. We had to explain that we had all been working together for the last 3 years!
You and your 2 other sisters are in showbiz. Talk about talent!
Have any of you been up for the same role before?
My sisters are amazing. They are so talented and inspiring.
We have just always been performers, its what we do! None of us had a chance being scientists or mathematicians. We are often up for the same roles, but we honestly don’t have very competitive personalities so we are so happy for whoever one of us books the job!
The Kaplan sisters. Credit: Lucia Pang.
When are you 3 going to get your own all-singing, all-dancing sitcom?
Our TV series is actually being workshopped at the moment. The pilot has been written and our producer is very busy with the script so hopefully you will be seeing the Kaplan sisters in the same TV show very soon!
It’s a great script filled with dancing, singing and lots of family comedy and drama.
What are your plans for the future? Any upcoming projects? We’d love to hear about them!
I am currently at Bali on a health retreat, taking some time off enjoying relaxing, yoga and surfing!
I start shooting a new series where I will be playing a girl from the 1950s. I am looking forward to doing some period work. Then I am off to LA and the sister project is in the pipelines!
An actual Kaplan sister show? Yes please!
Dena was gracious enough to answer a few quickfire questions as well. We’ll be posting them, and her answers, on Monday!
COMING IN OCTOBER: Patricia Zhou of the Staatsballet Berlin!