Behind the Scenes at Disney's Stage Shows

From the Left Coast to the Dirty South, musical theater dancers with Broadway aspirations who happen to live outside of Manhattan dream about one day making the big move. For these dancers, however, there are stage opportunities in other places besides the Great White Way. Case in point: Hollywood’s El Capitan Theatre. Several times per year, dancers are hired to bring Disney movies to life in kid-friendly, high-energy stage shows. We went behind the scenes of Herbie: Fully Loaded, the theater’s most recent production, to give you an inside track.

Dancing, Disney-Style
“[In conjunction] with Disney film releases, we do a production that takes the audience inside the movie they’re about to see,” says show director Barnette Ricci. “We want audiences to have fun, so we hire dancers that show us they’re having a blast onstage. Being Disney, we like a fresh, bright performer with a lot of personality and smiles.” 

 

Most of the Disney stage shows employ between 15 and 25 dancers, including principal cast dancers, swing cast members and costumed character dancers. Though many are hired on a recurring basis to perform at what they affectionately call the “El Cap,” it’s not impossible to get in the door. Dancers with strong personalities plus an ability to adapt to different styles are always in demand, says Herbie assistant choreographer and line captain Dani Wylie. 

 

For the show, Wylie and choreographer Mic Thompson were charged with designing dance numbers that reflected Herbie’s onscreen journey through the decades, so it was important to find versatile dancers who could pull off everything from popping to the pony. Dancer Kevin Sateri says his broad training background (which includes Disney shows such as Toy Story) helped him land the Herbie gig and adjust to its fast-paced rehearsal schedule. “Musical theater is about knowing how to perform and pick up steps quickly,” Sateri explains. “We learned the show in its entirety in about three days.” 

 

The stability offered by such stage shows is worth the long rehearsal hours. “In L.A., you [usually] have gigs that last a few days or weeks,” says dancer Kelley Parker, who has performed for Buena Vista Special Events for 10 years while also assisting choreographer Vincent Patterson. “[The Disney shows] run for several months, so it’s one of the most stable jobs you can land.”

Nailing the job
Getting onstage at the El Capitan may be as easy as listening to the radio or browsing through industry trade publications such as Backstage West for casting notices. Ricci says that Disney holds major auditions at least once a year, making sure to advertise publicly in order to attract new talent. She encourages dancers with a wide range of experience to give it a shot: “Sometimes you see a dancer that may not be technically trained, but shows joy and a certain style and attitude,” Ricci says. “It’s refreshing to see that kind of expression, so we always try to find a place for that person.” 

 

Sateri adds that even older dancers who may be considered past their primes in other areas of the industry have found a home with Disney doing character work. “The characters don’t have to dance as extensively, which gives older people starting out a better shot at getting into a show like this,” he explains. When casting characters, height and personality are also considered.

 

When hiring choreographers, Ricci considers both budding choreographers and current performers. “If a performer wants to move into choreographing, I’ll give [him or her] the opportunity to be an assistant choreographer first and see how well [he or she deals] with cast members,” says Ricci. “Sometimes I also assign smaller-scale shows or shows that just need one number [at first].”

Reaping the Rewards
Besides the stability and exposure, performing live onstage for a flock of enthusiastic families can be very rewarding. “The kids go crazy for the characters,” says Parker. “It’s like a rock concert for kids, and they’re screaming, ‘Mickey! Minnie!’ It’s so much fun.” Parker adds that being part of a seasoned cast is another boon, especially for dancers new to the scene: “[Disney shows are] good for young performers because there is some structure to them. The caliber of dancers is excellent, so it’s a good place to learn how to conduct yourself professionally from other dancers.” Another perk is the opportunity to perform for a live audience in a city that mostly revolves around dance on film. “I don’t think you can beat live stage shows,” says Wylie. “I love the fact that anything can happen at a moment’s notice and you have to keep going. Seeing the audience enjoying themselves is priceless.”

 

If you’re wondering if you have what it takes, take a cue from Walt Disney himself: “If you can dream it, you can do it.”

Latest Posts


Alex Wong (Collette Mruk, courtesy Alex Wong)

6 AAPI Dancers Share Their Stories

Last year, anti-Asian hate crimes increased by 150 percent in many of America's largest cities. And last month, a mass shooting in the Atlanta area took the lives of eight people, six of them Asian women. Since then, the attacks on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have continued, sparking a national movement to stop AAPI hate.

In light of this, Dance Spirit wanted to help amplify the voices of AAPI dancers. We asked six to share their thoughts about anti-Asian racism and how it appears in the dance world. Here's what they had to say.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
William Zinser works with a dancer at The Joyce Theater (Kristin Stevens, courtesy William Zinser)

How to Beat 5 Common Cheats Dancers Commit

Y'all, we get it. Dance is really, really hard. So what's the harm in taking the easy way out on a technical correction? Answer: an increased chance of injury, and a whole slew of new technique problems that could take a loooooooong time to fix.

Lucky for you, Dance Spirit has enlisted the expert help of Dale Lam, artistic director of CCJ Conservatory in South Carolina, and William Zinser, certified athletic trainer at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries in NYC, so you can start leveling up your technique the honest way.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
What happens if you are passed over for the opportunity when it feels like your time? (Getty Images/kf4851)

What to Do When Your Dance Teacher Says You're Not Pointe Ready

Since the day you pulled on your first leotard, you have no doubt been dreaming of the day you would attend your first pointe shoe fitting. Going on pointe is a rite of passage as a ballet dancer, and the result of years of hard work.

But what happens if you are passed over for the opportunity when it feels like your time? It's totally understandable to be disappointed and frustrated if your teacher doesn't move you on pointe, but don't lose faith in yourself. "I've seen a lot of dancers go on pointe over the years," says Josephine Lee, professional pointe shoe fitter and founder of The Pointe Shop. "I don't think I have ever seen a dancer who was held back from pointework feel like they were behind in the long run."

Ideally, your teacher has laid out clear guidelines for what makes a dancer pointe-ready. But if they haven't, there are some milestones that ballet professionals are looking for to give the green light for your first pair of shoes. Factors like your age, technique level, range of motion and strength all come into play. And the good news is that if going on pointe is a goal for you, there are proactive ways that you can get there.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks

contest
Enter the Cover Model Search