Growing up in the entertainment industry, we are conditioned to believe that no matter what happens, “the show must go on.” While there is some validity to the statement, this mindset has proven harmful and dated when it comes to ensuring a performer’s overall health and wellbeing in live performance. Artists in the industry are evolving and constantly striving to change this narrative, allowing the show to go forward but with safe, informed decisions. Further, what happens when a cast member gets sick or has to step out of a show for a period of time? How does the show feasibly still go on as “normal?”
Well, just as in any fairy tale or story, we turn to an array of heroes to save the day: understudies and dance swings. Examining these roles is important to note the differences, as they are sometimes used interchangeably.
- Understudy: an understudy is an ensemble member who learns a principal track along with performing their own ensemble track. They may go on for their principal track if the person is sick or out of town.
- Swing: a dance swing is an offstage performer who learns and rehearses multiple dance tracks and is ready to perform at a moment’s notice. These performers cover multiple roles and are therefore crucial to the overall cohesion and preparedness of a production.
It goes without saying, but understudies and dance swings are truly the MVP’s of the live performance industry. Shows do not and can not go on without these performer’s hard, dedicated work. Understudies and swings arrive at the theatre everyday ready to save the show if needed, serving as an invaluable necessity.
As you can probably guess, finding success in these cover positions is not for the faint of heart. These super performers must have a myriad of expert qualities to be successful: flexibility, adaptability, organization, timeliness, and attention to detail.
Go with the flow. While some roles may require understudies to be physically flexible for certain dance tricks, more importantly, these performers need to have the mental flexibility to learn multiple roles. Along with this, it is uncommon for an understudy/swing’s performance to be 100% perfect, and that’s okay! Sometimes these performers are covering complicated dance lifts or set transitions that require time and practice to perfect, so a one-time, last minute swing-on might not go exactly as planned. When situations like this arise, it is important to note that above all, safety is the number one priority. Understudy and swing performers must be flexible to ever changing tracks and obstacles in live performance. Bottom line, when it comes to swinging on, the show will go on!
For Sean Viator, these qualities have developed naturally as he has worked on some of the biggest production shows in the world. Sean (he/him) is a professional dancer/teacher/choreographer based in Los Angeles, CA. Like many dancers, he started dancing at a young age of 9, and went on to attend the University of Arizona where he attained his BFA in dance. Since then, he has danced for numerous big-name artists like Sam Smith, Demi Lovato, Christina Aguilera and Alessia Cara, as well as working in numerous commercials, music videos, and live shows. Additionally, he completed his 2nd season of the Christmas Spectacular starring the Radio City Rockettes in New York City.
With your experience, what are the most challenging aspects of being a swing/understudy?
Sean Viator: “Being a swing is the hardest job I have ever done! It takes great mental fortitude to learn multiple tracks and perform them sometimes at a moment’s notice. The rehearsal process can be very overwhelming. You are learning choreography, while also having to reverse it as well as learn any variations in spacing, timing, etc., for each track you cover. It’s a lot of info! When I was a swing at Radio City, we had swing charts, which contained formations for every single number in the show. Each spot in the formation has a number and color line that you go to. There are multiple formations in a single number, so as you can imagine, it’s a lot of memorization. From there I condensed them into cliff notes and typed them up. Then I laminated them on a notecard to wear around my neck during the show. Learning all the differences between the multiple tracks you swing can be difficult, but I think the most challenging thing is that many times you can be swung on at the last minute. If someone gets sick or injured right before the show you can get thrown on. You have to be able to access that info in your mind quickly and work well under pressure. Luckily, I am a very analytical person and numbers make sense to me, which is why I think being a swing is fun! I’ve also had shows where I thought I was going on for one person, and then someone called out, which means I ended up going on for someone else. It always helps to keep things interesting!”
"Being a swing could eventually lead to being a dance captain as well, since most dance captains are usually swings. It’s a great stepping stone!" - Sean Viator
For myself, the stage has been my home ever since I can remember. From musical theatre to dance concerts, to family-owned or huge corporate theme parks, to film and television sets, every day is truly a different experience in live performance. I’ve been having the time of my life. However, I must admit, even though I have always admired the work of understudies and swings, I never saw that career for myself. Contrary to my thoughts, the industry had different plans for me.
In the last few years, I have found much joy and success in understudy and swing roles in professional theatre and dance productions. Many performers call the mindset to compartmentalize swing/understudy duties as a “swing brain,” and I can honestly say my swing brain is one of the most organized, yet chaotic places to visit. As a dance swing, I enjoy compartmentalizing different roles in my mind in order to master individual choreography and blocking patterns. Additionally, it is interesting to think that growing up in amateur theater and dance, the demand for swings/understudies was low, if at all. However in the professional world, many of the shows I have been a part of would not have happened without the work of these super swings and understudies.
Though a show may be frozen and set in its ways once it is open, the swing lifestyle is ever changing. Sometimes, performers are asked to “split track,” or combine two roles and perform them as one. Swings and understudies are constantly learning new skills to aid in covering missing holes from a live performance. The adaptability and flexibility of a swing performer is important when looking at growth and maturity, as these performers must respond to situations quickly and be fully available at a moment’s notice. And sometimes, if enough people are out of the show (for various reasons: sickness, vacation, weddings, etc) swings and understudies are asked to learn and perform roles that they don’t originally cover.
To my surprise, I have been very fulfilled in understudy and cast swing roles. Before performing professionally and learning these types of positions, there was almost a stigma surrounding it. Stereotypically, people think that because a performer is cast as the understudy for the lead or as an offstage swing, that it somehow has a negative connotation, but this is far from the case. Understudy and swing performers must have the talent and capability of keeping up in their own track in addition to other tracks they cover. After all, as a cast is learning individual tracks, the swing is learning all of the tracks in a show at once.
As an understudy and swing, the lasting effects of COVID-19 continue to affect these performers everywhere, in more ways than just the initial shutdown. The entertainment industry was hit hard at the start of the pandemic, and it is still not back in full swing entirely, as performers are still adapting to the “new normal” of the industry. Masks and social distancing are still needed to keep actors, crew, and audiences safe, and audience capacity is still reduced in many venues. Further, it throws a whole new wrench into the process of being an understudy or swing. Yes, the job entails being ready at a moment’s notice to fill in during a show, but the stressors of the pandemic amplify the need, demand, and necessity for these unsung hero performers.
With Sean’s prestigious and diverse career ranging from dance companies and commercial work to some of the biggest production shows in the world, it’s easy to wonder how he himself stays motivated and flexible, as well as how he motivates his students.
How did/does the COVID-19 affect you and your career? What has changed?
Sean: “COVID definitely was a shift for me. I was working very consistently right up until the week before everything shut down. I remember being on several major jobs week after week and it felt amazing, because in LA working consistently is always the dream. I’m also not great at sitting still and doing nothing. Luckily, I decided to take time to really dive deeper into my training. I took a lot of online classes in my living room, went for lots of walks, journaled, and watched lots of sunsets. I am happy things are slowly returning to normal but one positive thing was giving my body a sort of break from the constant work it was doing before COVID.”
Stressors of the pandemic amplify the need, demand, and necessity for these unsung hero performers.
Considering COVID-19 and the shutdown, performers are on their toes both from a career standpoint but also on a personal level. Performers rely on their bodies for their careers, and the coronavirus has the potential to cause detrimental damage, changing their life forever. Yet, for those who have fallen under the shadow of long-haul COVID-19, the trauma of the pandemic is compounded with the burden of becoming an athlete with a chronic illness; operating in a world that has little to no tolerance for physical hardships. This added stressor to an already stressful job leaves understudies and swings to be their own motivators, focusing on staying organized at all times and timely when learning and reviewing material.
What is your best advice for performers entering the industry today, considering the challenges that COVID-19 still presents?
Sean: “Keep training and working hard. Dancing as a job can be tricky. Make sure you are dancing for yourself and not anyone’s validation. Rejection is hard to deal with, but if you dance because you love it, that will help the “no’s” sting a little less. Lots of auditions are self-tapes now, so make sure you have a good setup to film and that your personality is really coming through the camera!”
Clearly, understudies and swings need to have clear and organized methods of always staying prepared, which comes in many different processes. Some performers have specific note taking methods, highlighting and emphasizing processes, patterns of rewatching and learning show sequences in order to learn and maintain the track. Keeping note of an understudy track’s blocking, choreographing, staging, costumes, and props, takes an efficient method of notetaking to ensure success when going in. Nowadays, many swings use various mobile applications like Stagewrite Software, Noteworthy, and more. Technology can play a key role in staying organized as an understudy and swing, although some performers still prefer the old pen, notebook, and highlighter method.
To ensure preparedness, understudies must start learning their roles very early on in the process. Sometimes performers end up calling out due to other callbacks or performances, so understudies must be ready at a moment’s notice. Oftentimes swing performers are contracted to learn multiple roles, sometimes upwards of ten tracks in a show. It is the performer’s job to be rehearsing and practicing each track routinely, to keep the information, choreography, and blocking fresh in the mind.
What part(s) of your dance training have best equipped you for being a successful swing?
Sean: “In college, I had a jazz teacher that made us reverse every combo. It was hard, but to this day is one of the most important things I’ve ever learned. Being able to reverse on the spot is an invaluable tool to have. Also, being able to pick up choreography quickly is paramount. The more you take class, the better you’ll get at picking up choreography and the quicker you’ll be able to focus on the details.”
Attention to Detail
From watching the show at the side stage wings, to profusely taking notes during rehearsals, understudies must have a keen eye for the small details. These performers' notes require thoroughness, while monitoring and checking choreography. Swings and understudies must utilize complete and accurate information when it comes to tracking their understudy duties. It is just as important to know where you personally are supposed to be on stage as it is the rest of the cast, to ensure safety and accuracy for all involved.
Through the years, I have found safety and comfortability in the ensemble, so stepping into an understudy track with known performance dates was very nerve wracking. But at the end of the day, I prepared to the fullest extent, delivered my performance and ensured my castmates’ safety as I sailed the seas, in search of a mysterious, siren-like voice. After going on in this understudy track, the quality that aided my success the most in my understudy track was my attention to detail and preparedness, especially in focusing on the little nuances of the track. A couple personal goals and areas of intent were ensuring my castmates’ comfortability with me during dance lifts and checking in with scene partners to ensure blocking. After all, the work of an understudy and swing is never fully finished.
By far, my favorite aspect of being an understudy is towing the line between the dichotomy of strict blocking/choreography parameters I have to step into, and the freedom found when going on for the role. Of course, I am always ready to say the lines, dance the dances, sing the songs, and portray a character that I was cast as, but I loved the freedom in the small details. Understudies may get a few hours of rehearsal before performing, but they do not receive the same rehearsal process in terms of creative direction, creation, or rehearsal. Stepping into an understudy role is freeing, following the broad strokes you have purposely taken notes on and rehearsed, but finding your own choices in the small details of the show and character is invigorating. While understudying and swinging might not be for everyone, I hope to continue my career in these roles.
What are the top pros and cons of being an understudy/swing? What’s your biggest piece of advice for a dancer diving into their first swing contract?
Sean: “The pros for me were that I showed myself I was fully capable of covering multiple tracks and performing them successfully. It’s such a rush to go onstage with your fellow cast members and be in a different spot every night. It always stays fresh and exciting. It’s a bigger risk, but also a bigger reward. Being a swing could eventually lead to being a dance captain as well, since most dance captains are usually swings. It’s a great stepping stone!
The only cons are that it can be overwhelming and very stressful, especially at first. I remember feeling very lost in rehearsal trying to learn choreography for multiple people. It’s also time consuming! Every night after rehearsal I would go home and write note cards or fill out my swing charts. It’s a lot of extra work outside of rehearsal.
My biggest piece of advice is to breathe and just stay focused. Try to stay ahead of the work and review after every rehearsal. You can always ask for help! The more prepared and organized you are, the better. Lastly, HAVE FUN! Swings are the true heroes of Showbiz.”
While the old idea of “the show must go on” is dated, there is some truth to it still. No, performers should never jeopardize their health or overall well-being for the sake of a show. Looking a bit deeper, there are always people trained and prepared to save the day in times of need who demonstrate flexibility, adaptability, organization, timeliness, and attention to detail: our unsung understudies and super swings.