In the commercial dance industry, it’s simply a fact that your ‘look’ matters just as much, and in some cases more than, your talent for many jobs. As a commercial dancer, you are often playing some type of role in selling something – a product in a commercial, a song in a music video, an experience on tour – so those casting the project have to determine if your look works for their intended audience, sales goals, and creative vision.
We come across this fact daily as commercial dancers in the form of ‘typecasting,’ sometimes stated in a casting call, and sometimes in moments when we walk into an audition and are immediately told, “Thank you, but we are actually only looking for blondes today.” A typecast can be so frustrating that it’s easy to start to feel like you should pigeonhole yourself into a ‘type’ that isn’t true to who you really are, or despair that you can never dance for a specific project because you don’t have the ‘usual look’ you see from them. Typecasts will always be around as long as companies are trying to market to specific audiences - but luckily for dancers, their understanding of what those audiences want to see is expanding.
In recent years, casting calls that include language like “want to see unique looks” and “need diverse types of people” are becoming much more frequent. Arguably, each and every dancer fits into those categories, which means these calls give dancers the freedom to truly be themselves – and worrying about what ‘type’ you are becomes obsolete.
As companies start embracing diversity in their audiences and potential consumers, opportunities [...] appear.
We can thank our changing societal norms for some of these newly diverse casting calls. As companies start embracing diversity in their audiences and potential consumers, opportunities for diversifying the means through which they sell their products appear. For example, this award-winning, dance-centric ad for Burberry’s 2020 holiday campaign featured a cast of four diverse dancers in a captivating spin on ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ in the streets of London. The directors chose the dancers and choreographers specifically because, “It was right in the middle of the Covid situation and the racial tensions that shook all of us during that moment… We wanted to make something positive that expressed resilience and a collective fight against adversity,” they said in a statement. The resulting ad very clearly portrays a message that the brand is steeped in community, culture, and an urban, youthful energy. As more and more companies start to see the value of expanding their brand to larger audiences, dancers will have more opportunities to get cast for exactly who they are.
Nowhere are we seeing this shift in typecasting more so than in music, where artists are embracing diverse life experiences in their music, videos, and live performances. In sharing their unique but relatable experiences as people of color, LGBTQ+, or even not being a size 00, these artists are also casting dancers who represent the diverse realities of those experiences, therefore allowing audiences to see representations of themselves in their work. It can be seen as a strategy for connecting to more diverse audiences, but it also has a huge payoff for dancers in creating opportunities for anyone who has felt under-represented in the dance industry.
Jamie Rose has been dancing professionally since she was 16, but arguably got her ‘big break’ after auditioning for Lizzo and booking her Coachella performance in 2019, choreographed by Jemel McWilliams. Rose has seen huge changes in the types of dancers on stage and in videos with major artists since the early 2000’s, where she only saw “curvy” or “plus-sized” dancers getting hired as “video vixens”, not “regular backup dancers.” She remembers, “going to auditions in Hollywood, and taping my breasts down so that I would get picked. I did my best to blend in and I couldn’t because my breasts were always so big and stood out.
Booking the job for Lizzo not only solidified her qualifications as a professional dancer for her personally, but for many dancers like Rose who had previously been passed over because of their body type, it represented a greater shift in the industry embracing diversity and what ‘types’ of dancers can book jobs with major artists. “I’m in my 30’s and I’ve been doing this professionally since I was 16, and it’s really awesome to finally feel accepted and wanted. Lizzo is breaking down barriers for people and I feel like this is going to stay,” she says.
While these casting shifts are exciting and a long time coming, Rose sees how some companies may want to jump on a trend with no other aim than good publicity. As she sees it, it’s up to every dancer to make sure they’re not just relying on their typecast to book jobs, but truly working on their skills. “Where [hiring plus-sized dancers] will avoid being gimmicky is if every dancer takes things seriously – seriously train to not just be a plus-sized dancer, but just a good dancer,” she says, “Choreographers are really adamant about putting their name out there with only the best people. They’re gonna pick you not just cause you’re plus-sized but because you’re plus-sized AND you slay.”
"Where [hiring plus-sized dancers] will avoid being gimmicky is if every dancer takes things seriously" - Jamie Rose
Paula Ayotte has found similar career success with the current expanding nature of what ‘types’ are in demand for commercial projects. Coming back to dance after years of working as a marine scientist, at 59-years-old and only a few years back in the industry, Ayotte has already found success as an actress, model, and dancer, even performing live on The Ellen Show and The Kelly Clarkson Show. “Compared to 30 years ago, typecasting has definitely changed and broadened,” Ayotte says, “I hadn't expected that my type would be marketable and was surprised that it was, and I think many other older dancers feel the same.”
Currently a signed commercial dancer in LA, Paula doesn’t shy away from dancing in heels or training in pole classes despite being typecast as an older dancer. “I think that many dancers believe they need to fit into a mold, or to look and dance like everyone else,” she says, “What I've found is that no matter what type you fit into, being genuine and exactly who you are is an incredibly powerful asset.”
A typecast can be so frustrating that it’s easy to start to feel like you should pigeonhole yourself into a ‘type’ that isn’t true to who you really are.
While owning her typecast as something that helps her stand out, Ayotte doesn’t let her age determine the style or level of work she does, which has led her to projects where she dances, models, and acts professionally alongside people of all ages, and for projects that aren’t only aimed at older people. As the entertainment industry continues to subvert the idea of what ‘types’ of dancers we see on stage, Ayotte hopes “to see older dancers not just get cast as the ‘older dancer’ but as just a ‘dancer,’ maybe dancing backup for a top recording artist, especially the ones who themselves would fit into the ‘older’ range.”
While the reality is that most every commercial project will still be looking for specific ‘types’, today those types are now expanding to be much more inclusive and representative of the diversity of the world we live in. This levels the playing field and creates more opportunities for everyone – and for dancers to embrace their individuality. Casting the usual ‘type’ is being thrown out everywhere from Broadway to ballet companies, so the next time you go to an audition, don’t worry about your ‘type’ or put pressure on what you think they want to see – simply go and be uniquely you.