As a professional dancer in the entertainment industry, you will inevitably face opportunities and challenges working with different shows, companies, and artists throughout your career. Each camp has a different work culture and definition of what working as a team means to them. Understanding these subtle differences and unique requirements for each project will be vital to your success and consistent employment.
I've always aimed to be a versatile dancer, proficient in as many styles as possible, simply driven by my love of dance. Eventually, I realized the extent of how important versatility is to a professional dancer's career. But proficiency in various styles turned out to barely scratch the surface. Seeing yourself as a business and understanding each client's individual needs, preferences, and practices is just as important. You must become a chameleon, who can adjust to different expectations, workflows, and work conditions for each client, in addition to possessing great dance skills. To drive this point, I'll share two examples from my work experiences: the "Strip Love Tour" with Karol G and the "Glamonatrix Tour" with Dita Von Teese. Let's explore the differences and similarities that could be relevant to your own dance career.
Exhibit 1: Team Size
As a professional dancer, you'll work with both small and large teams in multiple productions. Touring with Dita Von Teese for seven years, I’ve experienced working as a team with a small group of around 20-25 people. It was easy to develop connections with all of my coworkers and establish a family-like dynamic, especially during extended periods of time, such as touring.
In contrast, working with Karol G meant being part of a much larger team, with over 100 members. The challenge here was to replicate the same level of connection as with a smaller team at DVT. Larger camps like this typically have smaller subdivisions, each with a leader (think: dancers and the dance captain, band and the band leader, stage crew and the stage manager, etc.) The best approach here is to get to know everyone in your division first and branch out as time passes. If you're particularly interested in any other show element besides dance, this is your chance to learn. Love light design? Interested in stage management? Want to learn how to play drums? Talk to those people. Most of them are passionate about what they do and will be excited to share. This is a unique opportunity to learn from the best in the industry and establish genuine relationships within the camp.
Exhibit 2: Work Conditions
Different shows have different work conditions, but you should always be able to adjust and deliver the best service and a consistent level of professionalism. There may be differences in the rehearsal process, show frequency, and means of travel. Always ensure you're okay with the work conditions before accepting a job. For example, while on the "Glamonatrix Tour" we were strictly traveling via plane and staying in hotels, the "Strip Love Tour" meant life on a tour bus. There's no saying which option is better, as it comes down to personal preference (some people dislike flying every other day, while others find it hard to fall asleep in a bunk bed on a moving bus…)
Always ensure you're okay with the work conditions before accepting a job.
The rehearsal process for both projects was different too. "Strip Love" rehearsed for weeks, first at a dance studio, then in production rehearsals with a fully-built stage. "Glamonatrix" only had a few days in a dance studio to develop the choreography, which would not be set on stage until a day before the opening night.
Lastly, each production has a different show frequency. When traveling by plane, you're less likely to perform on travel days and may have more downtime. On a tour bus, you'll often perform every day and travel overnight. You may also work as a dancer in a residency show that doesn't travel (e.g. "Magic Mike" in Las Vegas), where you could end up performing as many as two or three shows a day. Knowing and being prepared for these work conditions is crucial when accepting long-term engagements.
Exhibit 3 - Wardrobe and Props
While "Strip Love" had it in the name, "Glamonatrix" had it on stage - the striptease. As a burlesque performer, this is what Dita Von Teese is all about. Consequently, the show requires dancers to wear more layers, change outfits as many times as there are numbers, and handle more props than they would in a typical dance show. Some costumes consist of as many as 14 pieces. It’s essential to know all the elements and be able to put them on correctly during a mid-show quick change, which is a skill of its own. Since productions of smaller sizes like this typically do not have a wardrobe team to help dancers get dressed, they are on their own. Performers in a show of this nature also need to have the ability to take clothes off seamlessly on stage and work it into the choreography, all while not breaking character.
On the contrary, performing with a mainstream recording artist typically requires fewer wardrobe changes and there’s more personnel available to help. In such cases, dancers have the comfort of performing in multiple numbers with the same outfit on, and they can count on the wardrobe department to help with quick changes. Since shows of this nature usually move at a fast pace, such assistance becomes necessary and can save a dancer a lot of stress.
Exhibit 4 - The Platform
What about the platform used to host the performance? Since we’re talking live production, the differences are in the type and size of the venue and the stage. With big arena and stadium tours, a stage design is created explicitly for the show. This means that the same custom stage will be built everywhere you perform. Any of the special effects such as pyro, fire, and fireworks, as well as your entrances and exits, will be the same every time. You will typically have multiple production rehearsals on that custom stage, as discussed previously. You will also face much larger audiences and likely have to use in-ears to hear the band and the real-time directions from production, the choreographer, or even the artist themself (i.e. notes on formations, warnings of pyro being triggered, etc.)
Performing in a theater show is another story. The stage is slightly different in each venue, requiring a walk-through with the stage manager, choreographer, or dance captain. Depending on sightlines, apron size, stage depth, and wing space, some re-staging of choreography, entrances, and exits may be necessary. This requires dancers to stay nimble and adjust their execution to these ever-changing details. Moreover, in a theater, you will rarely perform to live music. You will likely dance to a track with no need for in-ears. Lastly, the size of the venue (and the audience) is often parallel to the energy you feel on stage but not always. Sometimes, the acoustics in an old theater will allow you to hear an audience of 2,500 roar louder than a stadium of 30 thousand, simply because of how the venue is constructed. Hence, don't discount a theater show as less exciting; you may be surprised!
Exhibit 5 - The Skill
Each show requires dancers to be proficient in specific dance styles depending on the theme or music genre. The importance of versatile dance training cannot be overstated, and it deserves an article of its own. But for now, let's focus on a few other subtleties with the show examples at hand.
When dancing with different artists, dancers must adjust their performance to suit the style and tone of the show. For example, working with Dita Von Teese requires a lot of elegance, storytelling, and playing a different character in each number. Dancers must balance stillness with movement and handle a greater number of props, including clothes coming off throughout the performance. With only a few dancers on stage at a time, attention to detail is paramount, and mistakes are impossible to hide.
When dancing with different artists, dancers must adjust their performance to suit the style and tone of the show.
In contrast, working with a mainstream vocalist allows for more freedom within the choreography, with opportunities to add your own flavor, stylize, and freestyle. Typically, there’s a greater number of dancers on stage at the same time. In these larger venues, the audience may not just be in front, but also on the sides or even behind the performer. Therefore, dancers must use their entire body, as the audience may be viewing from multiple angles. Regardless of the viewpoint, the execution of the dance should look flawless (training tip: film yourself doing the choreography from the side and from the back; rewatch and find ways to improve.) Performers should also be prepared for the possibility of numbers being cut or added mid-show, with the order changing at a moment's notice. This means dancers should know the choreography so well that they can do any of the numbers in any order (training tip: put the show setlist on shuffle and dance to whichever track comes up next.) Shows like this will likely require more stamina too, having dancers performing full out in multiple numbers back to back.
The Universal Values - Always a Safe Bet
Throughout your dance career, you will encounter subtle differences in working with various artists and shows. However, some universal truths and best practices can never go wrong. A lot of it is common sense, but it's surprising how often it gets neglected. These "duh" qualities can make you stand out as a team player and help you become an asset to any camp.
It's important to show respect to all coworkers. Not just the higher-ups like choreographers, directors, and clients, but also fellow cast members, production assistants, catering staff, drivers, and anyone else involved in the production. I’ve seen talented dancers get fired from jobs for not being appreciative of the tech crew or simply taking their work for granted. Dancers should have each other's backs and be willing to help one another with choreography, costumes, and any issues that may arise. If there is a problem with a transition, spacing or choreography, dancers should try to fix it collectively before asking for help from the director or choreographer, who usually have a lot on their plate. Lastly, you can never go wrong with the standard, great work ethic practices: being on time, coming prepared and leaving personal problems outside of the work space.
As a professional dancer, you will work with many different teams, each with its own preferences, workflows, and cultural backgrounds, creating their unique work culture. Think of being as versatile at adjusting to these elements as you are in your dance training. Being nimble and adaptable will help you stay consistently hired and maintain multiple streams of income throughout your dance career. Hopefully, understanding these subtle differences and universal values will help you on your path as a professional performer, no matter which artist or camp you work with next. Good luck out there!