Many of us grew up watching great dance movies, grooving along in our living rooms to the iconic dance sequences of films like Honey, Center Stage, and the many iterations of the Step Up franchise. Dance continues to be a staple in many films, whether in those with dance-focused plots, movie musicals, or any variety of films that utilize dance to enhance specific scenes. Dancers who work on these films often benefit from stable contracts over longer lengths of time, higher pay based on SAG or Equity-agreed rates, and the opportunity to capture their performance to watch again forever. While dancing in films is a goal for many dancers, it is also a very unique experience in the industry that can be very different to live performances or shorter music video shoots.
So what is it actually like to dance in a movie? I caught up with three London-based dancers who had the thrilling opportunity to dance in the highly anticipated Barbie feature film starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling. Behind the scenes and the bright pink walls of the Barbie dream house, Hannah, Marlie, and Lucia-Rose share what you can expect dancing for the big screen.
A layered audition process
On a major film, don’t be surprised to encounter a longer audition process with multiple rounds of callbacks. The casting for the Barbie film was “not just about skill or smashing an audition,” Oxford, England native Lucia-Rose Sokolowski says about her experience, “they’re also casting to see if you’ll be pleasant at those 5 am call times or the 16th hour on set.”
Starting in January 2022, the dancers were subject to three rounds of auditions over the course of a month, where they learned and performed two combos. The second round was in front of director Greta Gerwig, and the final round happened on set at Warner Brothers Studios in London, dancer Marlie Goddard explains. Having just moved from Toronto, Canada a few months prior to the audition, Marlie wasn’t with an agency yet, so didn’t get sent the audition casting. “Luckily a friend, who also ended up booking the job, gave me the time and location and I showed up with another friend to crash it together,” Marlie says, “It was scary but they were really nice and gave us an audition time slot.”
It pays off to “listen to notes and have an eye on everything,” - Lucia-Rose
The openness of the casting team seems to be very much in keeping with the spirit of the film, which seeped into the different aspects of the audition process. “The whole essence of the movie is female empowerment and rooting for fellow Barbies,” Lucia-Rose explains, “I was really pleased that this was present in the audition process. ‘Barbies’ and ‘Kens’ of different builds, ethnicities, and even limb differences were all accepted and not typecast out of each round. It definitely caused me to question what being a Barbie can actually look like.”
Lucia-Rose learned a lot about the importance of your mindset during the audition process for Barbie, which is the first movie she’s been able to dance and act in. “I convinced myself that I wouldn’t get it from the moment I realized it was for Barbie,” she says, “Having preconceived ideas about what the panel was looking for or what a Barbie should look like meant that in the first round I was way more nervous than I needed to be. As the rounds went on I could enjoy and come out of my shell much more. So I guess being myself really did pay off.”
As the audition happened in early 2022, Covid-19 was still a factor in the process, with dancers having to audition in masks for the first rounds. Knowing the brief for Barbie would be to exude happiness and cheesy smiles, Essex, England-based dancer Hannah Nazareth asked herself how she was going to exude that behind the mask. “You had to do even more with your eyes,” she says. When the final round of auditions at Warner Brothers Studios was added, they required a PCR test so the dancers could perform without masks. Unfortunately, Hannah tested positive for Covid-19 and couldn’t attend. “I thought, I’m so close, I might have just lost out on a job,” she says, “But I don’t know what it was, I just felt like this job was meant for me and that I was going to be on it.” Luckily, a few days later, her agent called Hannah to say she still got the job, proving you should never discount the work you put into the earlier rounds of an audition.
Switched-on, surreal rehearsals with the cast
Once cast, the 30 dancers had one week of rehearsals to learn the big dance number, Marlie explains. “It started off pretty intense, because we learned all of the choreo on the first day,” she says, “Then towards the end of the week the actors joined our rehearsal, and the energy in the room was magic!”
On the first day of rehearsal, Hannah remembers everyone’s heads spinning with multiple variations of the choreography by lunchtime. “It was a lot of workshopping,” she says, “The first day they chucked a lot of choreography at us, which is oftentimes the way. You don’t end up doing all of it, as they choose who’s doing what in the end.” Even so, the dancers learned later on that it pays off to “listen to notes and have an eye on everything,” Lucia-Rose says, “Even if you’re not supposed to be in that section, you might get thrown in five seconds before the camera rolls, so you want to be able to nail it.”
The reality of dancing on film is that being able to act comes with the territory" - Lucia-Rose
All three of the dancers I spoke to used the word ‘surreal’ to describe what it was like to work with actors like Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, and Will Ferrell - celebrity actors they’d watched on screen for years, and were now performing next to. Lucia-Rose was impressed by how the actors all jumped into the “cute and campy vibes” of the dance number, which occurs during a party scene in the movie. “Honestly I think they were equally as nervous as we were at the start,” Lucia-Rose says, “However, we all came together by the end of rehearsals and had so many jokes and laughs with them.”
Although it was easy to be “starstruck,” as Hannah recalls when seeing Ryan Gosling in rehearsals for the first time, the dancers saw firsthand that each actor was there to do their jobs just like the dancers were, and everyone maintained a professional but encouraging and fun environment throughout the rehearsal process.
Staying on your toes on set
Once on set, the dance scene was given one day of camera rehearsal, and then two long shoot days. “There were definitely a few curveballs that kept us on our toes,” Marlie says, from costume issues to last minute changes. Some of those changes happened after a dancer tested positive for Covid-19 on the shoot day, “so we had to change a few formations and have another girl learn her section.” Harkening back to the importance of staying alert during the rehearsal process, “Even if you’re being put into one section, don’t forget about the choreography of the other sections - you want that screen time! If you can do both, you might get to do both,” Hannah says.
For Lucia-Rose, the dance scene filming days were the most challenging part of her experience. “I think we racked up 16 hours or so in one day, so you can easily start to detach a little bit between takes if it’s taking a while,” she says, “I just tried to learn as much as possible, especially regarding quick changes that might occur a few seconds before you start rolling. Can’t make a journey? Gotta get there. Someone bumps you? Keep going. Suddenly rotate the entire 50 person formation 90°? You just have to be prepared, switched on and adaptable. You don’t have time to be the person with all the questions.”
As happy as all the dancers look in their gold-clad outfits of the party scene, their cute Barbie kitten heels were anything but smile-inducing, with most of the dancers finishing the second day of filming “held together with bandages and plasters” Lucia-Rose says. Having footwear that isn't made for dancing, plus early call times and long shoot days, are just a few realities the girls learned can happen dancing on set.
For Marlie, these realities mean that “the most important thing really is the people you are with and the energy of everyone. The days are super long and start really early so everyone is tired, but if you remain grateful and excited, and you’re around good and positive people, you can still have so much fun.” The dancers all learned how important it is to be aware of your energy while being on set and how it may affect those around you. In challenging moments, they learned to gauge when to speak up - like when needing help taking care of a blister - but also staying positive, patient, and adaptable. As Lucia-Rose acknowledges, you’re not the only one dealing with issues that pop up on set. “Your fellow creatives will be stressed and under a lot of pressure, so try to be forgiving and understanding, and do your best to help them by doing a great job,” she advises.
More than just hitting steps
The dancers were also asked to spend several weeks in various ‘extras’ roles for other scenes, reacting to the actors, and helping tell the story. Hannah, who previously worked on the film ‘What’s Love Got to Do With It’ as a Bollywood dancer for just three weeks, ended up working on Barbie for five months, thanks to these additional scenes. “They used us rather than bringing in extras because we were able to make movement look good,” Hannah says, “For example, I had a volleyball scene, where rather than having anyone jumping around, they wanted dancers who could make it really graceful and pretty because we’re Barbies. It was kind of like a choreographed volleyball scene, with lots of jumps and running around.”
The reality of dancing on film is that being able to act comes with the territory. “I think it’s easy for dancers to think they’ll be out of place in acting scenes but we’re so good at direction, there is nothing to fear,” Lucia-Rose says, “We got notes from Greta about what she wanted as reactions to the main actor’s dialogue, then off we went. It was so much quicker than filming the dance scene but still had many changes and takes.”
Memories to last a lifetime
For many dancers who perform in feature films, the lasting record of their work is one of the most rewarding parts of the experience - years down the line, they’ll be able to show their families and friends their performances in films past. For Hannah, Marlie, and Lucia-Rose, all of the challenges, realities, and pressures of being in a major movie are worth it for that, and especially with this film, they are all hyper aware of being part of something they know is so important within popular culture all across the world. While not every part of the process of making a feature film is glamorous, “I’ve made friends that I really adore and are bound together by the memory that we all helped to create something so iconic,” Lucia-Rose says. The blisters from their Barbie heels will (thankfully) disappear, but the memories of being a part of Barbieland will last a lifetime.