Role Reversal

The golden rule of any audition is to impress the choreographer. But did you know there is another set of eyes behind the scenes making major decisions about your professional fate? Meet the casting director. These Hollywood insiders work closely with the director, production company and choreographer to figure out which dancers can make characters come to life.

So how do casting directors fit into the big picture? Essentially, their job is to find performers with the looks, skills and charisma required for specific roles and to put their picks in front of the choreographers for auditions. Casting directors start by compiling a “breakdown” that details each available part (whether it’s a blissed-out yogi or hard-hitting B-boy) and sending it out to agents, managers and websites like Actors’ Access and Now Casting. Some projects require serious pavement pounding—for Center Stage: Turn It Up, casting director Karen Meisels had just three weeks to find talent. “I went to every dance studio in town on my lunch breaks and after work to hang fliers and observe classes,” Karen recalls. “I also researched schools and ballet academies everywhere, as we had to find dancers who could cross over between ballet and hip hop and go on pointe—there was no faking it!”

Once the casting director has a sufficient group of dancers rounded up, auditions begin. Though not every project follows the same pattern, typically the process kicks off with pre-screening, during which choreographers’ assistants run a preliminary audition or open call. For High School Musical 3, dancers flocked from as far as Australia and Europe for their shot at stardom—and that coveted callback. Casting directors and the rest of the artistic team watch for dancers who fit the bill in terms of age, looks and ability. “We spent a week or two seeing tons of dancers; Director Kenny Ortega liked to sit in and have a lot of say,” says casting director Jeff Johnson, who worked on all three HSM installments. “After that, we got into callback sessions with more complicated choreography and freestyling. We really put them through the paces to see how they would react to rehearsals.”

When projects require “double threats” for dancing and acting, casting directors will bring in selected dancers to read a scene and perform a dance piece they’ve prepared themselves. On Center Stage: Turn It Up, female finalists ran lines and danced duets with lead Kenny Wormald and other male dancers in the ensemble. “We wanted to test their chemistry and physical connection, so it was important to mix and match different couples to see who fit,” says Karen. “It was also our time to see which dancers understood the characters most; the key factor was believability.”

The degree to which casting directors impact the final casting decision varies from gig to gig. For the High School Musical trilogy, Kenny and his crew did “99 percent of the decision-making; I was just there to make sure they had the particular ethnic mix they needed, since the film is about a very diverse high school,” says Jeff of the 70 principal dancers and hundreds of background dancers ultimately chosen. Yet, in many instances, casting directors have a great deal of input on final casting choices. Once performers are selected, casting directors then make offers, do the hiring and deal with agents and managers to seal the deal.

Though the job calls for long hours and lots of legwork, many casting directors love what they do. After all, at the end of the day (or year), their visions come to life on the screen.

Do’s and Don’ts

Want to make the cut? Follow these trusty tips from our experts:

  • Avoid gimmicks or props. “Stay away from props unless they are stated or specific to the character,” says Karen. “Props take away from the rawness of what you have to give.” Also, don’t deviate too much from the script or the choreography—casting directors want to see if you can stay on the page.

  • Keep a healthy perspective. You can be the best dancer on the planet, but for some projects, if your age or height isn’t appropriate, the call will never come. “The best thing dancers can do is acknowledge that there is no way of controlling it and just accept the fact that it can happen,” says Jeff.

    Leave it all on the floor. “Give me everything you have rather than holding back; don’t save your best moves for later,” says Karen. “I can always tone you down, but I won’t know if you’re capable of more.”

Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB

Mark your calendars, bunheads! On Monday, January 29th, at 2:45 PM (EST)/11:45 AM (PST), Pacific Northwest Ballet will be streaming a live rehearsal of Act II of Kent Stowell's Swan Lake.

Keep reading... Show less

Leap! National Dance Competition offers dancers of all skill levels an opportunity to showcase their talents in an event where the focus is on fun and competing is just a bonus!

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer

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!

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer
The School at Jacob's Pillow's contemporary program auditions (photo by Karli Cadel, courtesy Jacob's Pillow)

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.

Keep reading... Show less
Tavaris Jones dancing with the Cleveland Cavaliers' Scream Team hip-hop crew

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.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer
Photo by Joe Toreno

The coolest place she's ever performed:

I'd have to say the Super Bowl. The field was so cool, and Katy Perry was right there. And there were so many eyes—definitely the most eyes I've ever performed for!

Something she's constantly working on:

My feet. I'm flat-footed, so I'm always hearing, 'Point your toes!' And I'm like, 'I am!'

Signature look:

My hair! That, and a pair of leggings with a T-shirt or tank top.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer
Photo by Travis Kelley, courtesy Kathryn Morgan

In our "Dear Katie" series, former NYCB soloist Kathryn Morgan answers your pressing dance questions. Have something you want to ask Katie? Email for a chance to be featured!

Dear Katie,

For a long time, I was the strongest dancer at my studio. But this year there's a new girl in my class who's very talented, and my teacher's attention has definitely shifted to her. I'm trying not to feel jealous or discouraged, but it seems like my whole dance world has changed. Help!


Keep reading... Show less
Screenshot via YouTube

*suddenly feels the overpowering urge to purchase a million bottles of Pocari Sweat*

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Mandy Moore (photo by Lee Cherry, courtesy Bloc Agency)

In the dance world, Mandy Moore has long been a go-to name, but in 2017, the success of her choreography for La La Land made the rest of the world stop and take notice. After whirlwind seasons as choreographer and producer on both "Dancing with the Stars" and "So You Think You Can Dance," she capped off the year with two Emmy Award nominations—and her first win. Dance Magazine caught up with her to find out how she's balancing all of her dance projects.

Read more at!

Dancer to Dancer
Martha Graham Dance Company member, Marzia Memoli (photo by Sean Martin, courtesy Martin)

Marzia Memoli may be the Martha Graham Dance Company's newest dancer, but her classical lines and easy grace are already turning heads. Originally from Palermo, Italy, Memoli started studying at age 16 at the Academy of Teatro Carcano in Milan. Later, she attended the Rudra Béjart School in Lausanne, Switzerland, before heading to NYC in 2016 to join MGDC. This month, she'll perform The Rite of Spring in the Martha Graham Studio Series in NYC, and tour with the company in Florida. Read on for the dirt.

Keep reading... Show less


Want to Be on Our Cover?





Get Dance Spirit in your inbox