On the lower half of a performer’s resume, you can typically find a “special skills” section dedicated to different qualifications and a series of niche skills that set a performer apart from others.
Special Skills: juggling, underwater basket weaving, baton twirling, cartwheel into double backflip, swing.
Speaking of niche skills, a swing is an essential offstage performer who learns all of the ensemble member roles and is ready to perform at a moment's notice. The idea of dance swings and offstage performers may sometimes carry a negative connotation, but this misconception couldn't be farther from the truth. Performers like swings, understudies, and dance captains serve as invaluable necessities, showing up to the theater everyday ready to save a show if needed.
Caroline Fairweather (she/her/hers), is an actor, playwright, and musician originally from Western Massachusetts. Recently, Caroline made her debut in the Broadway Company of Parade at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater as a Swing and Dance Captain.
Examining the swing misconception closely, we look to Caroline’s insider insight on Broadway to aid in confirming or debunking common myths surrounding what it takes to be a successful swing in the industry.
1. Swings need to be organized and detail oriented
TRUE. Through various note taking methods, color coding, diagram drawings, videos, charts and more, swings utilize many different work combinations in order to stay organized. Successful swings are fast learners, organized, can see the big picture of the show, can stay calm under pressure, pattern oriented, and have a good sense of humor. After all, without a system to stay well-organized, swings’ and dance swings’ core jobs would be incredibly difficult to manage and execute.
Caroline: This statement is definitely true! Being a swing is quite a unique job— we need to memorize physical information through non-physical means— often written and visual— and be able to metabolize that information at a moment’s notice. In Parade, I cover six tracks— Monteen and Essie (Factory Girls), Nina Formby and Nurse (Ensemble tracks), Mrs. Phagan, and Sally Slaton. There’s a fair amount of variance between these tracks since they span different ages and social statuses, so I’ve notated them in ways that make sense for me and for the tracks themselves, with the help of lots of resources! Everyone notates a little differently. For example, I have some crazy-looking tracking documents with symbols for pieces of furniture and areas of the stage. I’m pretty sure it would be unintelligible to anyone else without a ton of context! In a show like Parade, each track is extraordinarily unique and individualized. This mosaic of people and experiences makes the show all the more compelling as we tell Leo Frank’s story, so it’s important for swings and understudies to be detail-oriented and to note carefully- each track is a beautiful planet with an orbit of its own, and it’s our job to keep them spinning!
2. Swings get the same amount of rehearsal time as the rest of the cast
TRUE (mostly). While swings and dance swings may rehearse differently from the rest of the cast, they still receive ample amounts of time to prepare and learn a show from the ground up. Self motivation and discipline play a key role in a swing’s success, staying up-to-date with changes during rehearsal to take accurate and timely notes.
Caroline: I think this is true in some ways! With Parade, swings began rehearsals with the rest of the company, which is not always the case. Swings and understudies can be added later on in the process, but being there every step of the way really helped me internalize the decisions that were being made as the team crafted the show, even if I wasn't stepping through each moment as it was built. It was very fulfilling, both creatively and logistically! Now that we’ve opened the show, we’ve been having more understudy rehearsals, giving us valuable time to step through our tracks on the deck. Lots of small details have changed throughout tech and previews, so these rehearsals are our chance to update our notes and begin to build that muscle memory. There are always beautiful moments of synergy and generosity at these rehearsals in which folks share tidbits and tricks from their own tracks with their understudies. The company of Parade Broadway musical is endlessly caring, and this support means the world as the swings and understudies build their confidence and knowledge!
3. Swings get paid more to cover more roles
TRUE. Swings, and dance swings are compensated more for their work on a production, considering they are typically covering numerous tracks/roles in one production. In Caroline’s experience and more often than not, swings are also named leadership roles like dance captain, which also leads to different pay scales. Dance captain duties combine well with swing duties, maintaining the artistic integrity and show standard once the creative team leaves a production, while also allowing for performers to visualize and critique a production from an outside eye.
Caroline: Swings get a weekly increment for covering roles, as well as additional compensation depending on the type of role. And if a swing performs a principal role, they get another pay bump for that performance! I have a lot of respect for Equity’s rules around paying swings— I feel that my time, effort, and energy is valued, and that all of us in the Swing Set are integral members of the company!
Each track is a beautiful planet with an orbit of its own, and it’s our job to keep them spinning! - Caroline Fairweather
4. Swings only go on for one track at a time
FALSE. More often than not, swings need to go on for multiple tracks at one time, known as a split track. Having swing performers cover multiple tracks is incredibly important. In order for a show to remain safe and consistent, swings and dance swings must cover all of the elements needed for show cohesion, like set transitions, costume changes, choreography formations, and more.
Caroline: Swings can definitely go on for more than one track at a time! These are called split tracks— where they combine important specialties from multiple tracks in one show. This is complex in a show like Parade in which the majority of the cast is involved with prop, set, and costume changes. The small relationships and ways we help each other onstage are crucial, so split tracks have to be very carefully engineered! Part of my job as Dance Captain is to assist the Stage Management team (superheros Justin Scribner, Sarah Harris, and Anita Shastri) in communicating clear expectations about these split tracks to our swings and understudies. It takes a fair amount of foresight to allow a split track to run smoothly, but it’s definitely possible (and at times, necessary)!
5. Being a swing is easy, you get paid to do nothing
FALSE. Depending on the size of a production, swing and dance swings can cover anywhere from 2-30+ tracks at one time. Clearly, the mantra of a swing or dance swing is “being ready at a moment's notice,” and not “I’m getting paid to do next to nothing!” These hero performers show up to the theater every night, rehearse backstage, and prepare to fill in if any emergencies happen during a show. Similarly, both dance swings and dance captains must have strong relationships with their castmates and genuine connection with the show material. These qualities are the first steps to “understanding your cast, your company, and yourself [to become] a good captain leading performers and performances to success.”
Caroline: Although there are days that seem slower than others, the important thing about being a swing is that you’re ready to go on at any moment! No one is looking over your shoulder checking to see whether you’ve done the work necessary to maintain a working knowledge of the show, and things can truly change in the blink of an eye. It’s a lot of self-structured time that requires discipline and confidence! Being Dance Captain also affects my day-to-day experience. We’ve been blessed with such beautiful material with Parade, and there’s always another journey to make towards a clearer and more compelling story. My job as Dance Captain is to help guide the company through these journeys using the movement set by our wonderful choreo team— Lauren and Christopher Grant. My days are fulfilling and joyful, particularly when we have someone swing on! Being a swing and Dance Captain has allowed me to appreciate so many aspects of the process of creating Parade. I have no doubt that I’ll continue to learn deeply about the material and about our company each day I step through the stage door at the Jacobs.
After following Caroline's experience as a professional swing in Broadway’s Parade, it is clear that the swing skillset is crucial and valuable to any production. Being a swing is a niche, essential skill that calls for a performer to hone their versatility, flexibility and adaptability, most times covering numerous tracks at one time.
For more information or to buy tickets to Broadway’s Parade, click here!