“Hold back, daddy,” says Channing Tatum, who is onstage in a T-shirt, sweatpants and backward cap inside a venue once home to Hard Rock Hotel & Casino’s Body English nightclub. The space has been reimagined as Club Domina, the fictional cabaret at the center of the film Magic Mike XXL. Tatum has just offered those tender words of advice to Ryan Carlson, one of 13 professional male dancers in Magic Mike Live Las Vegas, a semi-scripted dance revue billed with the promise of “women’s empowerment.”
Magic Mike Live is the most recent addition to an empire Tatum has built on his stripper past, and today is the second day of technical rehearsals for the revue. While Carlson already has 13 years of dance experience under his not-present-at-this-moment belt, the acting that will be required of him poses a new challenge he must overcome by the show’s March 30 debut. Luckily, he’s got a pretty good teacher.
Up until February, Carlson, 25, was living in his native Jacksonville, Florida, working as many as three jobs to support his 2-year-old daughter. “A little over two years ago, I heard they were doing a show, but I had just committed to stop dancing at that point because of my daughter,” he says. “A year later, I heard about it again. I was itching to dance, but I just didn’t have the money [to travel to the audition].” Then, New York talent agent Lakey Wolff contacted Carlson before Magic Mike Live’s final auditions in December 2016. “I had never had an agent. I told her, ‘I just can’t afford it.’ She paid for me to come and audition, and I booked it. I’m so thankful.”
“It’s not an in-your-face, guys-ripping-their-shirts-off, crotch-in-your-face [show]. No matter how sexy a girl might think a guy is standing still or in a picture, being in a dance show and not being able to dance is not sexy.” – Ryan Carlson, dancer
After a few weeks of dance rehearsals at Los Angeles Center Studios (“I couldn’t believe how normal it was to see celebrities in L.A.,” he says), Carlson and his fellow castmates arrived in Las Vegas the first week of March, the soonest they could get inside the theater while it was still under construction. It took time for Carlson and the crew to adjust from practicing in a one-level studio to the 360-degree, bi-level Club Domina. The cast has been rehearsing six days a week, 2–11 p.m. each day, with sound, wardrobe and lighting crews buzzing around them. Tatum is on hand to offer direction, as are choreographers Alison Faulk, Teresa Espinosa and Luke Broadlick (who is also in the cast)—all of whom have worked on the Magic Mike film franchise.
During one such rehearsal, Carlson is running through a scene with a castmate that requires him to drop to both knees and slide across the stage. The crew needs to lock in lighting cues, sound effects and the pacing of their delivery, and Carlson is asked to repeat his lines and slide no fewer than 15 times in as many minutes. If it was painful, you couldn’t tell. (He’s getting the hang of this acting thing.) And physical stamina is, of course, required for the role.
“It’s not an in-your-face, guys-ripping-their-shirts-off, crotch-in-your-face [show],” he says. “No matter how sexy a girl might think a guy is standing still or in a picture, being in a dance show and not being able to dance is not sexy,” he laughs. So he exercises five days a week at his local gym—primarily lifting weights, as he gets enough cardio during rehearsals—targeting different muscle groups each day. He’s often joined by his castmates, six of whom, he says, moved into the same apartment complex he did. “I am self-motivated, but there’s nothing like someone pushing you,” he says. “If someone’s lifting more than [me], it’s like, ‘Oh, no, I don’t think so!’”
It’s that competitive spirit that led Carlson to dance in elementary school. “I would see kids battle and I would be like, ‘I gotta do that. I gotta be better than them at that.’” He taught himself hip-hop dance by watching Michael Jackson, Usher and Justin Timberlake music videos. At age 12, a dance teacher convinced him to enroll in classes—first tap, then jazz and contemporary, which led to professional touring gigs in his teens and early 20s. But growing up, dance was also an escape from a difficult home environment. Carlson’s parents and his twin brother struggled with drugs and/or alcohol. “I could have dropped out of school and had no repercussions. I could have gotten into drugs and had no repercussions. Something in me was like, no, stay in school. Dance. Do what you want to do. Thank God.”
Carlson says that not only is Magic Mike Live his first professional dance gig performing hip-hop (the genre he calls his “passion”), it’s the first to offer him stability. “Before, as soon as I got a paycheck, I was paying my bills. Now it’s nice, because I’m able to save and go above and beyond to help out my daughter and have my own place. I’ve never been able to do all of those things at once.”
In the days that remain before opening night, Carlson says he’ll spend most of his time in rehearsals, or sleeping. He’s excited to have recently bought a couch. Next on the shopping list is a bed for his daughter, who’ll visit at the end of this month, then a TV. “I’m a very boring person,” he laughs. “When I’m not doing physical activity or dancing, I just love to sit and watch movies and TV shows.” His favorites? The Office and Breaking Bad. “I would love to meet Bryan Cranston,” he says.
Outside of the still unfinished theater, several of the Hard Rock Hotel’s interior walls have been wrapped with images depicting a few of Carlson’s colleagues, shirtless and larger than lifesize, each straddling and engaging in particularly intimate eye contact with a seated and satisfied-looking lady. To boot, the hotel’s elevator doors and parking garages are covered with the show’s logo. By the time Carlson gets his television, he’ll have his own throng of fans that would love to meet him, too.
See more of Carlson’s backstage moments on Instagram @thereal_rugburnn.