Why Swings Are the Superheroes of Broadway

Brinkhoff-Mogenburg, courtesy The Walt Disney Company

You may never have heard the term "swing." But as the performers who stand by to go on for several different ensemble roles whenever necessary, swings may be the most valued members of a Broadway cast—especially during flu season. Just ask Jennifer Dunne, a swing who's been responsible for six ensemble tracks in Chicago on Broadway for more than five years.

"As a swing, there are plenty of moments when you feel like you've got to rescue the show," Dunne says. "When everyone in the cast is sick, and there aren't enough people in the building to keep things going, that's when you really feel like a superhero. I very well might have the flu too, but I have to overcome whatever's plaguing me to perform for someone else."

Swings have not only triple-threat talent, but also super brains for choreography and stage directions. They may not get the accolades that come with leading roles, but these uniquely gifted performers form the support system that props up a show's entire cast—and they like it that way.

What It Takes

How do you become a swing? A choreographer may cast you in a traditional audition or book you through other channels. For long-running shows, potential swings may get a call because they have history with the production and already know one or more of the tracks they'd have to cover.

"Chicago" cast members Angel Reda, Eddie George, and Jennifer Dunne(photo by Jeremy Daniels, courtesy Boneau-Bryan Brown)

Whatever the scenario, choreographers are looking for one simple asset, besides talent and a good work ethic: "The most important thing you need is a positive disposition," says Kelly Devine, choreographer for Broadway's Rock of Ages and Come From Away. "I've never worked on a show where a swing didn't have to go on in the very first week. The rest of the cast has gone from rehearsal into tech and then right into previews, so something's bound to happen." It's a stressful position, and you have to be able to handle moments of confusion or panic with grace.

Fast Track(s)

Once a swing is cast, the work of learning multiple tracks begins. "A swing has to be able to multitask, pay attention to detail and pick up choreography really quickly," Dunne says. "Six tracks in a two-hour show is 12 hours of information that you need to take in." And you'll probably have little time to absorb it all. In a brand-new cast, swings might be learning choreography from the sidelines until the rest of the performers are done rehearsing—and then it's on them to do their homework. Early in Dunne's first Chicago tour, the swings sat and watched rehearsals, then jumped up during 15-minute breaks and lunches to get the choreography into their bodies.

The Good Book

Every swing has her own system for remembering her various tracks, and almost all of them involve a detailed cheat sheet. "I made a book of color-coded notecards," says Bravita Threatt, a swing and dance captain for The Lion King on Broadway. "Each track is a different color, and each scene has a card filled out with mini diagrams of the stage and my spacing, entrances and choreography." Hitting every mark is especially important for Threatt, because the puppetry and mechanical stage in The Lion King make spacing critical—it can be downright dangerous if a swing is in the wrong spot. "The floor moves, drops and raises, and you have these heavy headpieces on," Threatt says. "You can't be on autopilot."

Similarly, Come From Away relies on the performers to move set pieces, so there are many landmines for swings, Devine says. "That's why we created an ironclad bible for the performers, with notations of every single movement."

You're Either In or You're Out

Frequently, Broadway swings have a chance to perform each of their tracks during scheduled put-ins, allowing them a little time to prepare. But otherwise, their lives are pretty unpredictable. A swing has to be at the theater for every show, and is usually onstage a couple of times a week—or more. "Especially in a long-running show, you might be onstage a lot," Dunne says. "There are the last-minute moments when someone suddenly gets sick or injured, but you might also be in for a stretch while someone is resting a knee. And there are scheduled put-ins for vacations and personal days." Leads come and go too, and if there's any lag time between two contracts, swings cover the understudies who go in for the lead. "One week I might not be on at all, and the next week I could be doing five parts in six days," Dunne says.

The cast of Disney's "The Lion King" (photo by Brinkhoff-Mogenburg, courtesy The Walt Disney Company)

The Undeniable Perks

What makes all the hard work and unpredictable scheduling worth it? One upside is what Dunne calls the "stress tax": Swings are paid more than ensemble members, because they're responsible for more information. "And probably to say, 'Sorry, you don't get all the glory,' " Dunne adds.

Threatt also loves that swinging lets her grow into roles over time, while keeping an interesting mix of challenges in her day-to-day life. "It exercises different parts of my brain," she says. "Plus I get to be a cheerleader for the performers who have a single track." Dunne agrees. "You can tell it's like a breath of fresh air for the ensemble performers when we step onstage," she says. "Their regular partners are great, but I'm like the fun babysitter who lets them watch movies."

It's also humbling and gratifying to play such an important part in the larger production. You allow cast members time off to get married, take care of family members and nurse injuries so they can perform at their best. "We have a big cast, and life happens—that's a beautiful thing to be a part of," says Threatt. "I never go on for someone and say, 'Here comes Bravita!' It's not about you—it's about the bigger whole." Swings may not be stars, but they regularly save the day.

You Might Be Swing Material If…

…you can't stand dancing the same role night after night.

…you always liked pop quizzes.

…you're self-motivated enough to rehearse yourself and keep each role fresh.

You Might Not Be Swing Material If…

...you don't work well under pressure.

…you've only got eyes for the white-hot spotlight.

…you're not OK with a less-than-perfect performance—because you probably won't get many perfect ones.

Ones to Watch

These three swings are pulling superhero duty for Broadway's newest musicals:

Kathryn Boswell, a swing and understudy for Anya in Anastasia. She previously swung for Gigi on Broadway in 2015. She received a BFA in musical theater from the University of Cincinnati, College-Conservatory of Music.

Courtesy Kathryn Boswell

Susan Dunstan, a Toronto native who's currently a swing in Come From Away and made her Broadway debut in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Her regional credits include Kinky Boots, Lord of the Rings, South Pacific and The Lion King.

Courtesy Susan Dunstan

Amy Quanbeck, making her Broadway debut as a swing in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, having previously appeared in the Wicked national tour. She has a BFA in dance performance from University of California, Irvine (and was featured in Dance Spirit when she was just 13 years old!).

Photo by James Jin, courtesy Quanback

Show Comments ()
Dance News
(From left) ABT's Erica Lall; NYCB's India Bradley; Washington Ballet's Nardia Boodoo; NYCB's Rachel Hutsell (all photos by Rachel Neville)

Misty Copeland. Her name is synonymous with exquisite artistry and outspoken advocacy. And her visibility has made a huge impact on the ballet world. Ballet's relationship with race has always been strained at best, hostile at worst. But Copeland's persistent message and star quality have finally forced the ballet industry to start talking about racial diversity, inclusivity, and representation. "The rarity of seeing ourselves represented is sad," Copeland says. "The more we see every hue and body shape represented on the stage, the more possibilities young dancers feel they have for themselves."

Keep reading... Show less

"Whole, low-fat, or skim?" The question of which milk to drink has gotten a little more complicated lately, with a wide variety of nondairy milks popping up in grocery stores. To find out which ones are worth your milk money, we had registered dietitian Monika Saigal answer some FAQs.

Keep reading... Show less
Via Jaime Guttenberg's memorialized Facebook page

Yesterday, the dance community was heartbroken to learn that Jaime Guttenberg and Cara Loughran, both 14-year-old dancers, were among the 17 people killed on Valentine's Day in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer
Sarah Lane as Clara in The Nutcracker (photo by Gene Schiavone, courtesy American Ballet Theatre)

American Ballet Theatre principal Sarah Lane charms audiences with her bright energy and crisp technique. The San Francisco, CA, native first started dancing at age 4 at a local community center, and at age 7 started training in Memphis, TN, at the Classical Ballet Memphis. Her family later moved to Rochester, NY, where she continued studying at the Draper Center for Dance Education. In 2002, she was a YoungArts Foundation winner in dance, allowing her to become a U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts. She joined American Ballet Theatre as an apprentice in 2003, was made a soloist in 2007, and was promoted to principal last fall. Recently, she originated the role of Princess Praline in Alexei Ratmansky's Whipped Cream. Catch her later this spring during ABT's Metropolitan Opera season. —Courtney Bowers

Keep reading... Show less

You and I both know that dancing is the best thing since chocolate chip cookies! But its always nice when dance gets the recognition it deserves from non–dance-world peeps. That's why we did our own happy dance when we saw Shape magazine's article on how dancing can actually make you a better athlete.

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
Ruby Castro with All-Star partner Paul Karmiryan on "So You Think You Can Dance" (Adam Rose/FOX)

When Ruby Castro became a Top 10 finalist on "So You Think You Can Dance" Season 13, she was a fresh, feisty new face to most at-home viewers. But in the dance world—particularly on the ballroom circuit—Ruby was already a household name. Miami-based Ruby grew up as a belle of the ballroom: Her parents, Manny and Lory Castro, are veritable superstars of the scene. They're the owners of Dance Town, an ultra-competitive studio in Doral, FL, and raised Ruby to follow in their furiously fast footsteps. Before she graced the "SYT" stage, Ruby had already been named a U.S. Junior Champion in Latin Ballroom, and competed on "America's Got Talent"—twice!

So, we know she's talented, we know she's versatile, we know she's stunning, and we know she can dance. But here's what you may not know about Ruby.

Keep reading... Show less
Coach Marie-France Dubreuil (left) LIVED every second of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir's gold-medal-winning routine. (via Twitter)

You know that thing when you're onstage at a competition and you catch your teacher unconsciously marking through every step of the choreography in the wings, just willing you and the rest of the group to dance perfectly?

Yeah—that happens in ice dancing, too. Case in point: the scene at the Olympic rink yesterday, as Canadian ice-dancing legends Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir skated their way to their third Olympic gold.

Obviously, their performance was all kinds of epic. But the off-ice "performance" given by their coach, Marie-France Dubreuil, was EVERYTHING.

Keep reading... Show less

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 dearkatie@dancespirit.com for a chance to be featured!

Dear Katie,

I want to dance in a ballet company, but I'm insecure about my body. I'm not skinny, and I don't think I ever will be, because that's just not the way I'm built. Please be honest with me: If I don't have the traditional ballet body, do I have a future in professional ballet?


Keep reading... Show less
Season 14's All-Stars & Top 10 contestants (via @danceonfox on Instagram)

Is it summer yet?

Keep reading... Show less


Want to Be on Our Cover?





Get Dance Spirit in your inbox