Across the performance industry, there are countless unsung heroes, from assistant choreographers to swings to understudies and more. However, one position in particular is responsible for maintaining a show’s integrity and keeping it rolling for a duration of a run: the dance captain. These multifaceted, mastermind performers have a myriad of duties, from mastering and teaching choreography to preparing for and holding “put-in” rehearsals for understudies and swings. However, if nothing else, a dance captain’s primary responsibility is to lead by example and navigate how to be a good leader to their cast and crew.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, it is important to understand a dance captain's job description, plus some of the different vocabulary surrounding these performance heroes.
- Dance Captain- A dance captain is a performer, either on or offstage, that is responsible for maintaining the artistic integrity and show standard once the creative team leaves a production. They are required to execute, teach, and clarify choreography to members of the cast with poise and expertise, as well as lead put-in rehearsals.
- Swing- A swing is an offstage performer who learns and rehearses multiple tracks and is ready to perform at a moment’s notice.
- 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.
- Standby- A standby is like an understudy, but they usually do not have their own track in the show and only cover one or two roles.
- Alternate- An alternate is scheduled to perform at certain performances every week, usually for a larger role in a production.
During rehearsals, directors and choreographers steer the ship, setting blocking and choreography patterns as well as making logistical changes along the way, always keeping to an artistic vision. However after a show opens, who becomes the captain of the ship? Typically, during casting or early in the rehearsal process, the creative team will choose an ensemble member or swing as the dance captain.
Many times, a choreographer will name a dance captain based on who they have previously worked with and who they trust stepping into a leadership role. The relationship between a choreographer and a dance captain is crucial, as much of a dance captain’s position revolves around supporting a choreographer’s vision and understanding how to perform, demonstrate and teach the choreographer’s choreography and movement once they step away from the production. Maintaining this “show integrity,” or staying true to the original intention and direction through the duration of the show, calls for an incredibly intuitive, multifaceted, empathetic leader: a dance captain.
There is no one way to succeed as a dance captain, it takes time to figure out what works best for different leaders.
As the title suggests, a dance captain is a performer with many versatile qualities, both on and off the stage. They are expected to learn, master and eventually teach new company members all choreography and movement in the show. In addition to choreography, the dance captain also learns and memorizes all the “tracks” in the show, or each character’s lines, blocking, set transitions, prop handoff/placements, and backstage traffic. Leading by example, dance captains often act as swings, knowing and covering as many tracks as needed if something goes haywire in a particular show. As you can probably imagine, this is no small feat.
So how does a dance captain do it? Do they have incredible photographic memories? While some people might, dance captains typically utilize a number of resources to make their job easier and more efficient. Some create a “show bible,” or a notebook that holds all the information needed: tracking, blocking, and choreography. In the last few years, a new mobile app called Stagewrite Software has been game changing: digitally creating and setting tracking patterns, formations and blocking patterns while allowing for multiple users (choreographers, dance captains, assistant, swings, etc) to utilize it simultaneously. Just as in any profession, there is no one way to succeed as a dance captain, it takes time to figure out what works best for different leaders.
With that being said, stepping into a leadership role is never easy. Dance captains must command a room and demand respect, through confidence and poise, but not as a bossy authority figure. The role of a dance captain is to maintain show integrity by making informed, well-thought decisions regarding show changes. Specifically, one of the most important leadership roles as a dance captain is running “put-in” rehearsals. When original cast members are unable to perform, a dance captain calls a rehearsal to allow the understudy/swing time to get comfortable in the track.
When planned, put-in rehearsals are a chance for a dance captain to demonstrate their organized leadership style, covering all the aspects of the track to preserve the artistic standard of the show. Running the show and ensuring the performer’s safety is key for a successful rehearsal and further, a successful and safe performance. If show changes and modifications are necessary, the dance captain must ensure that all dancers are comfortable with their updated performance tracks. Although, with the state of the performance world and the unpredictability that COVID-19 places on the performance industry, dance captains often face these last-minute rehearsals with no prep time. Qualities like adaptability, professionalism and courage are what makes a good captain lead performers and performances to success, just as any good leader might. Rolling with the punches by being prepared and adaptable in last minute, emergency rehearsals is crucial to support the cast as a whole, let alone the performers going into the show with little notice. Dance captains need to uphold several of these qualities to ensure their fullest potential and success when stepping into these leadership type roles.
Additionally, to maintain show integrity, dance captains must have an objective eye to give the cast notes and corrections as needed during a run. Oftentimes dance captains get weekly recordings of the show, especially if they are actively performing in it, in order to view and take notes. Giving feedback and constructive criticism to peers is difficult, so dance captains navigate as both a fellow cast member but also as a member of the creative team or management staff. With this, there is a creativity in teaching that a dance captain finds, towing the line of catering feedback to each individual performer while creatively finding solutions to needed changes.
The relationship between a choreographer and a dance captain is crucial.
While some may be convinced that being dance captain equates to having perfect dance technique or executing the most impressive dance tricks, the true role of a dance captain goes much, much deeper than that. While any performer strives to always perform their best, a dance captain needs to be free of an ego or power-hungry mindset. By motivating their cast through positivity, the process is easier to delegate the needed track coverage during a show. For instance, it is much easier as a leader to ask a cast to help pick up set transitions/prop placement/choreography changes that is motivated through positivity and direction, rather than an egotistical authority figure.
The most successful dance captains are just as talented as they are humble, motivated, conscientious, and efficient. Leading as a dance captain does not translate to having the most power or being the most talented, it rather regards genuine connection to guide and direct the cast to achieve a common goal or solve the problem at hand. The key to a successful dance captain requires authentic leadership, where the importance of leadership is high, as you are responsible for keeping the camaraderie of your group intact. At the forefront, a dance captain’s duties include maintaining show integrity while always having the dancer’s safety in mind, plus striving toward how to be a good leader.