As a swing in La Cage aux Folles, Broadway newcomer Caitlin Mundth didn’t get to perform on opening night—but she did get to bow. The entire cast was invited onstage for the final reprise, and one huge group bow. “I entered from the wings, tucked myself next to my friend and co-star Robin de Jesús and sang with the whole cast,” she says. “We bowed with elbows locked, and the audience was on its feet.”
Another bow that Mundth treasures stands in contrast to her Broadway debut: Originally a classical ballerina, Mundth performed a lead role in George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments while a soloist with Carolina Ballet. “The company bowed, then I assumed the center and led the final company bow,” Mundth says.
Though the two moments were vastly different, Mundth explains “whether you’re center stage or in the back line, the bow is powerful. You can feel this thing on your chest—the spotlight or your heart, or maybe the combination of the two. It drives you forward as you thank the audience for thanking you.”
Mundth’s not alone in finding bows thrilling. From Broadway to ballet and everywhere in between, the curtain call is a time-honored tradition: Without it, a show isn’t quite complete. DS investigates the origin of the ritual, its forms, functions and significance—and how you can get it right every time.
Bows originated in the days of ruffled shirts and courtesans as part of court rituals. “Early opera and ballet performances took place during the Renaissance and then the French courts in the 18th and 19th centuries,” says Lynn Garafola, a dance historian, journalist and professor at Barnard College. “Anytime a duke or sovereign was present, everyone completed elaborate bows as a sign of respect. Performers’ bows were initially related to that.”
As theaters grew in size, bows—and their dramatics—evolved, too. “Gigantic opera houses like the Paris Opera House induced the grand curtain call,” Garafola says. “Multiple levels created a huge space between the audience and the artist. The bow had to accommodate that.” Today, the link between the venue and bow remains: “If a piece is performed in an intimate space, the bow won’t be as elaborate as it will be at a classical ballet at the Metropolitan Opera House,” Garafola says.
From Court to Class
You might have encountered your first bow in the form of révérence at the end of ballet class. Edward Ellison, artistic director of the Ellison Ballet in NYC, teaches his students to complete révérence after each class. He believes this practice is important for artistic growth. “Révérence is a simple action that teaches students to treat our art as sacred,” he explains. “Students physically express their respect not only for the teacher and accompanist, but also for their classmates, the space and ballet itself.” If a visitor is present, students bow to that person, as well.
Even prima ballerinas first learn révérence in class. For Jennifer Carlynn Kronenberg, a principal with Miami City Ballet, learning to bow from her first teacher, Teresa Aubel at Once Upon A Time, Inc., in Queens, NY, is a special memory. “At the end of every class we had a révérence portion and we focused on presenting our feet and arms,” Kronenberg remembers. Aubel taught her to stand in B-plus, with the knees crossed and touching and the back foot fully pointed. For port de bras, she preferred students move either the right arm followed by the left arm through first into second position, or both arms at once. Though you may learn one way of bowing in your own school, different academies, companies and shows might ask for changes; there is no right or wrong.
Bow in Style
While Kronenberg trained in the Russian style under her classical teacher Aubel, she switched to the Balanchine technique while studying at the School of American Ballet. There, she learned George Balanchine’s slight variation on the bow: perching the back foot on demi-pointe instead of a full point. Balanchine bows are typically shorter than the bows of grand Russian and European companies. “In Russian story ballets, bows are stylized with more port de bras, which showcases the ballerina,” Kronenberg says. But Balanchine resisted playing favorites during bows, Garafola explains: “Even though Balanchine had principal dancers who were significant to him, he resisted a star system. There was a sense that it was a choreographer’s theater and this was echoed in the bow.”
As contemporary forms of dance like modern and jazz emerged, bows were tailored to the new styles. Serious and simple bows for modern pieces were common. These bows strayed from the ballet B-plus position. Instead, bowing with the feet together and arms relaxed became more common. Many early modern troupes in the 1920s were all-female, so the balletic differentiation between a male (feet close together, bending at the waist) and female (one foot back, knees crossed, plié and lowering the head) bow was unnecessary.
Lorin Latarro, a Broadway veteran and the associate choreographer of American Idiot, says that “in musical theater, you bow in the style of the show.” When she performed in Guys and Dolls, Latarro’s team tried many variations of the bow (singing while bowing, silent, etc.) to get it right. Eventually the team chose to have the performers bow to music alone before singing a final chorus. “The bow is the last thing the audience sees—it stays with them,” she says. “If done correctly, it adds one final surge of excitement.”
Lots of Logistics
Bows happen in a flash, but a lot of effort goes into making them happen seamlessly. In ballet, the hierarchical nature of companies makes it easy to stick to an ascending order: corps, then soloists and finally principals. Afterward, a prima ballerina and her partner may have separate bows—often referred to as curtain calls—where they emerge for an encore bow. (Check out the “Fun with Flowers” sidebar for the inside scoop on how primas handle flowers during these bows!) In jazz and modern companies, those with solos generally step forward from an ensemble line for individual recognition.
In musical theater, it’s more complicated. The curtain call is likely “choreographed at a frenetic pace,” Latarro says. And, unlike concert dance bows which usually happen to applause only, show orchestrations make counting and choreography essential. The cast must know when to reenter, when to dance—and when not to!
Regardless of the dance style, it’s considered a high mark of honor to have a later or final bow. But in musical theater, if two performers have similar workloads, the decision can be difficult. “The director and choreographer make a list and have a heated discussion,” Latarro explains. “It’s not always cut-and-dried and that’s why sometimes two actors bow together. But in the end, you have to be humble and enjoy your bow at whatever point it comes.”
The bow is an industry-wide standard—but the significance of the experience is personal. For Jacquelyn Elder, a modern dancer, it’s recognition of intimate moments she has shared with the audience. “I love performing, but not as much as I love dance,” she says. “When I bow I honor the audience for sharing what I would’ve done even by myself!”
Irina Dvorovenko, a principal with American Ballet Theatre, says her bow simply “thanks the audience for appreciating what I’ve done.” Kronenberg agrees: “The bow is not about how wonderful I was, but a thank-you to the audience for watching me and staying with me for however long the ballet lasted.”
The final bow is a moment of pride for Mundth. “For me, the bow is a moment to be grateful to the audience and to enjoy their appreciation,” she says. “You are proud and gracious all at once.”
Did You Know?
In many Russian ballet companies and performances, after a virtuoso sequence think 32 fouettes, dancers will pause for a bow —in the middle of a variation! Though this practice is largely out of style now, you can still catch a prima taking a mid-performance bow (and a breath in certain ultra-traditional groups.
Fun with Flowers
Everyone loves to receive flowers, but prima ballerinas have a special association with them: After a performance and curtain call, a prima and her cavalier step from behind the curtain to take an encore bow. A stagehand or conductor hands the ballerina a bouquet of flowers, then she delicately plucks one and gives it to her partner in a gesture of thanks.
Looks lovely, right? But Miami City Ballet principal Jennifer Carlynn Kronenberg says it’s not always easy. “There’s so much calculation involved: How do you take a big, heavy bouquet gracefully while being humble, thanking that person, avoiding the long ribbons attached, and taking a rose out for your partner?” she says with a laugh. Kronenberg says someone backstage will detach one rose for the cavalier ahead of time, making her job easier. “Now I’m often dancing with my husband, Carlos Guerra, so giving him the rose means even more,” she says. “I’m saying, ‘Thank you for dancing with me—and not dropping me!’ ”
Irina Dvorovenko, a principal with American Ballet Theatre, adds that catching thrown flowers is another tricky task. She says the ballet’s tone must be considered when deciding whether or not to catch a few bouquets. “If it’s a bravura role, it’s fine to step out and catch them with one hand and then the other,” she says. “But I’d rather not catch a bunch after doing Swan Lake!”
Regardless, Dvorovenko says flowers are a sign of appreciation that should never be taken for granted. “If I get flowers in Japan, for example, I bring them home because it’s a huge sign of gratitude,” she says.
To Be or Not to Be…in Character
After becoming a character for two hours during a performance, disconnecting from that persona for the curtain call can be tough. Staying fully in character for a bow, though, is fairly uncommon. Miami City Ballet principal Jennifer Carlynn Kronenberg says bowing in character “maintains the fantasy for the audience.” But she adds, “Usually, the audience likes to see you as a person. It’s a peek behind the curtain.”
Many performers bow with a subtle nod to the piece instead of staying fully in character. “When I do Swan Lake, I keep the swan port de bras involved in the bow,” says American Ballet Theatre principal Irina Dvorovenko. “And when I do Kitri for Don Quixote, I might put one arm on my waist in the Spanish style.”
Lorin Latarro, Broadway veteran and associate choreographer of American Idiot, says this approach is standard in musical theater. “In Swing, we danced onstage in couples and in Fosse, we maintained Bob Fosse’s slink,” she says. “But the bow should still be a separate event.”
Bowing Dos and Don'ts
- Do make it quick. “You don’t want the audience to have clapping fatigue and leave with low energy,” says American Idiot associate choreographer Lorin Latarro.
- But, Don’t rush, either. “I hate when dancers bow and run like they’ve stolen something!” says Irina Dvorovenko, a principal with American Ballet Theatre.
- Do mind your lines and formations.
- Don’t let your energy fade. “After your hard work, the worst thing you can do is disconnect in the bow,” says La Cage aux Folles swing Caitlin Mundth.
- Do acknowledge the entire audience by scanning the space with your eyes.
- Don’t hog the spotlight. “Once your bow is over, be gracious and allow your castmates their moments, too,” says Latarro.
- Do acknowledge your partner.
- Don’t squat if you are bowing in B-plus. Keep your knees together!
- Do stand tall.
- ALWAYS: Be gracious and sincere.