What it's like to dance with Rihanna and K-pop sensations Blackpink

Imagine the pressure of knowing 170 million people will be watching you dance on YouTube. 

Now imagine the even greater pressure of the person next to you being megastar Rihanna.

For many, that would be enough to bring on a meltdown - but for 22-year-old Maddison Barnett, that was reality in February this year when the 'Umbrella' singer set the world alight with a fierce performance and a pregnancy reveal at the Super Bowl halftime show.

Barnett was one of the dancers on the floating podiums keeping time with both Rihanna and intensive choreography by New Zealand's very own Parris Goebel.

But she told Newshub one of the biggest gigs of her life nearly didn't happen.

"It was insane. I'd been rehearsing for a while and then like a week before the show, I tested positive for COVID. So they basically told me I can't do the Super Bowl days before the performance. 

"I was gutted, I worked so hard for that performance. And then I ended up testing negative like five times the Thursday before the Super Bowl and on the Sunday, I had no symptoms the whole time. So I was so confused. I was like, I probably don't have COVID. So I tested negative on like several different tests and one girl ended up testing positive again. 

"So we swapped out because another girl was put in where I was placed and I was on the moving platforms that were like 70 feet high, so I got thrown back into the performance like the night before the show. When I did the Super Bowl, that was my first time doing it in costume properly."

Despite it being potentially one of her biggest shows with one of the world's biggest singers, she said there was no time to go gaga around the 'Diamonds' hitmaker.

"The thing is, when you're a backup professional backup dancer, you can't fangirl. Like, that's not etiquette, that's super unprofessional. And it's a little bit cringey. I definitely had my freak-out moments when I got home, but even then, now I'm kind of just like, 'It's work and it's cool'.

Maddison Barnett dancing with Rihanna at the Superbowl.
Maddison Barnett dancing with Rihanna at the Superbowl. Photo credit: Instagram - Maddison Barnett

"But obviously, working for Rihanna, she's incredible. She's the nicest woman. She came in, watched it, loved it - A$AP (Rocky, her partner) would come in sometimes with her and I was just like, 'Wow, she's here'. She's probably actually the first artist I've worked with that has got so much star quality about her presence, [you're left] a little bit breathless, to be honest."

When Newshub talked to Barnett she was in Wuhan, China, about to perform a string of dates with Taiwanese singer Jolin Tsai.

It's a far cry from her earlier days, and she told Newshub leaving Aotearoa was necessary to help take her career to the next level. Despite having had success at home, being a former member of Parris Goebel’s dance groups Sorority and The Royal Family, Barnett knew it was the right thing to do.

Having won several world titles and medals at the World Hip Hop Championships, the chances abroad came in the form of performing in Justin Bieber's 'Sorry' music video and alongside K-Pop sensation PSY for his song 'Love'. 

But in 2020, she decided the time had come to head to America.

"I did some pretty incredible things at quite a young age and with the entertainment industry in New Zealand being as small as it is, you grow up and you see all these pop stars and you're like, 'I want to dance for Rihanna, I want to dance for these people'.

Maddison Barnett backstage at Coachella ahead of performing with Blackpink.
Maddison Barnett backstage at Coachella ahead of performing with Blackpink. Photo credit: Instagram - Maddison Barnett

"But unfortunately, in New Zealand, you can't really do that. But when I did this job for Jolin, I was in a class full of Americans, and I think it was in 2020, actually, during COVID-19, this job came up and I got to leave the country and do that.

"I think dancing with the Americans really opened my eyes and made me think, 'I can do this'. I can go over to America. I'm good enough. I can pursue my dreams and push myself to try and be in a really big industry with more experienced dancers."

Barnett has been obsessed with hip-hop dancing from an early age, so her progression into the genre and onto the stage was always on the cards. 

"I like the freedom of movement more than your classical ballet, where you learn more terminology and positions and it's a little more strict and a little more upright. Hip-hop is more free. You have more space to move and there's more fluidity. And I liked that about it. It's strong. It's hard-hitting. I'm more of a strong dancer. I'm not really as elegant, and I just could not point my feet like a dancer should - I was always in trouble for that!" she laughed. 

"Hip-hop, you know, you can wear chunky shoes. It's just a little more self-expressive, it really called to me."

Barnett's worked with New Zealand choreography legend Kiel Tutin, ("He's like a brother to me, and we've been able to do some really cool opportunities together") who is one of the brains behind K-pop group BlackPink's dance moves.

That led to playing major American music festival Coachella this year with the K-pop sensations headlining. It's not the first time she's danced with them, and it's led to a gradual bond.

"I think we had more of a personal connection with Blackpink. They are so much more personable. I really love working with them because they, you know, they'll take us out, they'll talk to us. I don't feel like they're famous at all. That's how they make you feel when you talk to them - like they're just a normal person. 

"We started rehearsals in Korea straight after I finished the Super Bowl. I got on a plane to Korea. We rehearsed there for two weeks, then came back to the US, had production rehearsals and then Vegas for ten days. And then Coachella started. 

"That experience was incredible - we had a big group of New Zealand dancers [at the show] and to be in a crowd of 70,000 people plus 250 million views on YouTube for the livestream, it was just very surreal. I don't think you can quite comprehend how big of a crowd that is until you're like on stage."

While many could crumble with the constant pressure from high-level performances on the world stage, Barnett's found having over a decade's worth of experience under her belt has helped allay any fears of being overcome with anxiety.

"I've been in high levels of stressful situations since I was very young, since I was 12. In terms of performances, I've been doing a lot of big things, so you can get anxiety but I just make a conscious effort to make sure I'm going to have fun. I think I've been doing this for so long that I'm so confident in my experience and my talents and what I'm good at working with artists. 

"I know my dancing. I know the choreography. I'm so confident within myself that I don't give into that doubt or moments of anxiety. I deal with the pressure really well. I think I thrive on it, to be honest."

For now, Barnett's looking to the future, and despite already dancing with some of the biggest names in music, she still has a bucket list of stars she wants to work with.

"Obviously, Ariana Grande would be incredible. Just because we saw her other tours, and she's amazing. Chris Brown - I think he's just a great dancer, great singer, so I'd love to work with him on a dancer level. I feel like I really want to work with Jack Harlow because I just love his voice and I think he would be like the nicest, down to earth artist to work for. But those are my three currently."

As for what's immediately next, Barnett is back out on the road after our chat, with more tour dates coming up for an as-yet-unannounced series of shows. 

With all the touring and travelling, you'd think there wasn't time to miss any home comforts from Aotearoa. But she's quick to reply: "Pies, simple yet effective. Like in America, they only have sweet pies and they don't have the pastry.

"My boyfriend actually started making his own pies. He had at least 10 pies in five days in New Zealand [when we visited for the first time]. So then he was like, 'Nah, I'm going to make them'.

"We miss the pies and I miss the dairy!"