Whenever you see a musical, you probably pore over the show program to learn about the cast’s credits. While reading, you might skim over titles like “dance captain,” “swing” or “understudy” without knowing what they mean. But these roles are important parts of keeping a show afloat. To understand what’s beyond the simple titles of “ensemble” and “principal,” read on. You might be up for one of these jobs one day!
Dance captains are the generals that keep a show in top shape. Along with performing nightly, they’re responsible for maintaining the choreographer’s vision, specific style and movement and must know every track (or individual blocking, including the choreography, stage directions and formations) so they can teach new cast members. While this certainly is a lot of work, being chosen as a dance captain is an honor and a compliment to a dancer’s abilities and reputation.
Broadway twins Brooke and Tiffany Engen both know the job well. As dance captain for Hairspray, Brooke performs just six blocks from where her sister Tiffany was assistant dance captain for Legally Blonde.. They explain that to keep everything straight, the dance captain creates a stage bible. “It’s full of transitions and formations from a stage view,” says Brooke. “As formations change when new people join, the dance captains make the updated version.”
And the work doesn’t stop there. “We’re pretty much working every day of the week,” says Tiffany. “When I’m not on, I’m watching the show, taking notes and giving notes to other actors if things are off or need to be cleaned up.” Some dance captains, like Tiffany, are even part of the casting process for new members.
For Wendi Bergamini, dance captain of South Pacific., another part of the job is thinking about the big picture. “For a show like South Pacific, you have to have a good sense of dance and movement, but also dramatic staging,” she says. “You need to know how things are working with blocking. You have to be in tune with the way the director works and how he worked with the choreographer on the musical staging.”
Dance captains also have to be adaptable—they’re the go-to dancer! “You might be working throughout the day and then get a call saying you’re on that night in a track you haven’t done in a couple months,” says Tiffany. “So you finish rehearsal and switch gears. But you can’t get frazzled—you have to maintain composure.”
It’s common for performers to understudy several roles in addition to their regular responsibilities. Typically, understudies learn principal roles and fill in as needed. Brooke, who joined the cast of Hairspray after appearing with Tiffany in the movie version, has understudied two different parts in the show.
Even though it sounds stressful, according to Brooke, it’s actually fun to do something different! Though most shows have weekly understudy rehearsals, it’s still the dancer’s job to stay on top of their various tracks. “You have to be ready in a moment’s notice,” says Brooke.
A stand-by is responsible for only one part, often the lead, and doesn’t usually have another ongoing role alongside this. A stand-by is always in the theater during performances in case something happens but goes on only if the other actor cannot perform. At Hairspray, for instance, there is one stand-by for the character of Tracy Turnblad.
Swings cover ensemble tracks—sometimes as many as eight different parts. To remember each path, a swing makes a track sheet or map of where to go onstage. “Each swing does it a different way,” says Tiffany. “Some use a printout of the stage. Others have index cards.”
To do this, picking up movement easily is essential. “You have to soak up information at a rapid pace,” says Tiffany. “Good swings can watch a particular track and know it after one viewing. Your brain gets in that zone of putting pieces of the puzzle together.”
Harper Watters is a ballet dancer for today's generation. A social media maestro and a charismatic performer, the Houston Ballet soloist is equally at home in front of the camera hosting his hit YouTube series, "The Pre Show"; interacting with fans on his crazy-popular Instagram account; or showing off his beautiful classical technique onstage. It's a multifaceted identity that's proven to be invaluable to his career—and it's taking him to places he never even dreamed of.
Getting corrections from our dance instructors is how we grow, and as students, it's important that we do our best to apply every correction right away. But sometimes—whether it's because we're in physical pain, or have a lot on our minds, or are just not paying attention—those corrections don't sink in. And from a teacher's standpoint, giving the same corrections time and time again gets old very fast. Here are 10 important corrections dance teachers are tired of giving. Take them to heart!
Summer intensive auditions can be nerve-racking. A panel of directors is watching your every move, and you're not even sure if you can be seen among the hundreds of other dancers in the room. We asked five summer intensive directors for their input on how dancers can make a positive impression—and even be remembered next year.
When we think of a dancer who's broken barriers, American Ballet Theatre principal Misty Copeland tends to be the name that comes to mind. And though Copeland has been a crucial advocate for equality in the world of ballet, Raven Wilkinson—a mentor of Copeland's—is considered one of the original pioneers of the movement.
In 1955, Wilkinson became the first African American to dance with the renowned Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Her fortitude in the face of bigotry and hate cemented her legacy. Now, with the release of the new children's book Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson, a new generation of dancers will be inspired by her tale of overcoming obstacles to achieve a dream.
The book details Wilkinson's life, from her experience as a young dancer training in Harlem, to her run-ins with the Ku Klux Klan while on tour with Ballet Russe, to her later ballet career in Europe. "There were times where my heart really hurt because of the situations I had to deal with," she says. "But I always had faith that I was made to be a dancer and that I was gonna dance."
Dance Spirit spoke with Wilkinson to discuss the new book and get her take on racial equality within the ballet world.
Postmodern pioneer Trisha Brown redefined how dance is seen and felt. A founding member of Judson Dance Theater, Brown frequently collaborated with other experimental artists like Yvonne Rainer, Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, and Steve Paxton.
She embraced pedestrian movement, pairing everyday gesture with rhythm and fluidity. "It's liquid," says Wendy Perron, who danced with Brown in the '60s and '70s. "Like a river with many tributaries, water coming out of a faucet, or being on a raft and seeing the water move away in different directions." Brown also pushed beyond stages with choreography in fields, museums—even on the sides of buildings.
There's a common misconception that a dancer's body has to be thin. But the truth is that talent knows no body type, and the number on the scale never determines an artist's capabilities. Here are some extraordinary dancers fighting the stereotype of what a dancer "should" look like.
We always love a good halftime performance. And we LIVE for halftime performances involving talented kids. (Fingers and toes crossed that Justin Timberlake follows Missy Elliott's lead and invites some fabulous littles to share his Super Bowl stage.)
So obviously, our hearts completely melted for 5-year-old Tavaris Jones. Tavaris may have just started kindergarten, but during Monday night's game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, the Detroit native danced with the panache of a veteran pro at halftime.