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

Dancer to Dancer

Happy Thanksgiving, dance friends! Since today is a day for reflection and gratitude (and eating...so much eating), I asked my fellow Dance Spirit editors to tell me the dance-world things they're most grateful for. Here's what they had to say:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
The finalists await their results (Adam Rose/ABC)

What a week in the "Dancing with the Stars" universe, amirite? After we bid farewell to Drew Scott and Emma Slater on Monday (in a surprise to pretty much nobody, despite the duo's strong performance in a super-fun freestyle that evening), it was time, last night, for Season 25's Grand Finale. And goodness, I don't know if we've ever seen quite so many perfect scores thrown around the ballroom. The final three—Frankie Muniz and Witney Carson, Jordan Fisher and Lindsay Arnold, and Lindsey Stirling and Mark Ballas—performed a total of six routines on Tuesday, and five of them earned straight 10s. Yes, those scores were well-deserved; the finalists danced their bedazzled behinds off. But it also felt like the judges were channeling Oprah. YOU get a 10, and YOU get a 10, and YOUUUU get a 10!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
MSG Entertainment

Turkey is great and all, but the best part of Thanksgiving? It's watching some truly fantastic dancing on television, courtesy the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. On Thursday, when your arms are sore from mashing potatoes and/or you need to escape crazy Aunt Linda, head to the living room to catch these super-dancey parade highlights:

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer
Photo by Lee Gumbs, courtesy Taja Riley

Taja Riley's bold, full-out presence and unique ability to mix hard-hitting hip hop with smooth, sensual choreography paved the way for her success in the commercial industry. She's danced with music icons like Chris Brown, Janet Jackson, Ne-Yo, Kanye West, 50 Cent, Pitbull, and Bruno Mars, and has assisted with choreography for Britney Spears' Femme Fatale tour, Demi Lovato's Skyscraper tour, and Beyoncé's Mrs. Carter tour. She also appeared in Beyoncé's groundbreaking visual album Lemonade. Raised in Virginia Beach, VA, Riley grew up training at Denise Wall's Dance Energy. Currently, she's on faculty at New York City Dance Alliance, where you can catch her touring the convention circuit. —Courtney Bowers

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 dearkatie@dancespirit.comfor a chance to be featured!

Dear Katie,

I'm being bullied by one of the girls at my studio, and it's awful. I've talked to my dance teacher and confronted the bully directly, but it hasn't made a difference. What should I do?


Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer
Via @biscuitballerina on Instagram

Last week, we highlighted the deliberately, hysterically bad @biscuitballerina Instagram account, created by a then-mysterious dancer with a great sense of humor. This week, the artist behind @biscuitballerina—who turns out to be Royal Ballet of Flanders corps member Shelby Williams—got in touch with us to set the record straight about the intentions of those LOL-worthy posts.

Her photos and videos, with their exaggeratedly cringe-worthy technical flaws, are NOT meant to mock amateur dancers. Instead, Williams is actually hoping the account will help all dancers move past their shortcomings and accept themselves and their dancing.

Keep reading... Show less
Watch This
via ew.com

P!nk, known for her high-flying, acrobatic awards show sets, has literally raised the bar for pop stars everywhere. For her performance at last night's American Music Awards, P!nk decided to break out some flips and tricks ON THE SIDE OF A BUILDING. WHILE FLAWLESSLY SINGING HER FACE OFF. You know, just casually, like you do when you're a full-on goddess.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Double leg amputee, Eric Graise dancing (via Youtube)

When you think of a dancer, a double leg amputee may not be the first thing that comes to mind. But Eric Graise, who's one of the stars of the upcoming "Step Up: High Water" YouTube Red series, hopes to change that. Graise, whose legs were amputated as a child due to missing fibula bones, will play a character named King in the new dance series, set to debut early next year.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
New York City Ballet in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker (via @nycballet on Twitter)

We all suffer from Nutcracker fatigue sometimes. After a zillion performances, it's hard not to. But there's nothing to restore your little-kid sense of Nutcracker wonder like a look at the sheer scale of a world-class Nut.

New York City Ballet's iconic production of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker opens on Friday, and for the past week, the company has been Tweeting out some seriously eye-popping #NutcrackerNumbers. The stats cover everything from the number of jingle bells used on each Candy Cane costume (that'd be 144) to the watts of light used in the show's grand finale (ONE. MILLION. WATTS.).

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer

One of the most beautiful things social media has brought us is the ability to feel like we're up close and personal behind-the-scenes with all our favorite dancers. And one of our favorite stars to Insta-stalk are actually two casts of 36 scintillatingly synchronized precision dancers. I'm talking, of course, about my mild obsession with the legendary Radio City Rockettes.

Keep reading... Show less


Want to Be on Our Cover?





Get Dance Spirit in your inbox