Jump-Start Your Career by Performing in Holiday Shows

The holiday season. A time for family anxieties, financial struggle, and using all of your acting skills to pretend the formerly listed aren’t really happening, especially when that one aunt who doesn’t really get what you do asks things like “How are the swing sets going?” and you correct her for the millionth time that you are a Swing in a show, not a swing maker. Luckily for you, a performer pursuing a dance career, it’s one of the busiest performance seasons and the perfect excuse to ditch out on all that family drama because “I booked this really great holiday show gig and I can’t pass it up!” Or if you’re not as jokingly cynical as me, you can at least afford to send some good gifts home to show you care since you can’t be there for all the festivities.

Since my college days, I have missed every Christmas, Chanukah and New Years besides two.... that’s twice in almost eleven years that I’ve actually been able to fly home to California for a sunny holiday. But let’s be honest, as much as I love my family... holiday contracts rock!

All of my time in holiday shows has actually brought my family closer together

Hi, I’m Justin Keats, and I’m gonna tell you about my favorite three Christmas contracts and how all of them were major firsts in my career. But first, before I become that annoying actor friend, a little background on me. I’m a California transplant who has been doing the New York grind for six years now. I grew up a competitive dancer who then went to school at the university of California Irvine for a dance degree and then decided performing in musicals is how I wanted to spend my life and made the move across country to NYC. Okay, that’s enough...back to Christmas.

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My first ever professional dance job was A Christmas Fantasy Parade at Disneyland. As most holiday contracts are, it was short term, but it gave me the chance to see if working for the mouse was something I would want to continue to do. Turns out dancing down Main Street USA as “Ball Dancer #4” was exactly what I wanted to be doing. It might have been the vanilla scent they pump out of the vents, but I was hooked! I worked for Disney for four consecutive years through college in other parades and shows through out the park. I think dancing down the parade route everyday seeing so many happy faces really imprinted on my brain. Holiday shows make people happy and, as it turns out, I love making people happy. I gladly donned my gold bloomer pants and feathered top hat five days a week and spent Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Eve performing as my parents and siblings used my guest passes. You know, so that “we all get to be together.” Actually, a trip to Disneyland became a family tradition that carried on for several years after I stopped working there.

For [...] a performer pursuing a dance career, it’s one of the busiest performance seasons

Much as my first job ever was a Christmas contract, my first equity contract was also a Christmas show. It also seemed that even though I had tried to move on, Disney wasn’t quite done with me yet. I got my equity card dancing in Walt Disney World’s Celebrate The Season, which was the Christmas show on the main stage in front of Cinderella’s castle. It was a perfect introduction to how a performer in a union is treated. Ten minute breaks every hour and a half, fair pay, shoes only I had ever worn, a real dressing room, and a cot to rest on between shows. I definitely laughed at the last one at first, but I was happy it existed every day between show #4 and #5.

Working on the castle stage is a special kind of magic. When you walk out from the doors and face thousands of people standing excitedly to see a magical twenty-seven minute show, complete with a nutcracker section, you can’t help but feel proud of the joy you’re providing. And that feedback of a crowd singing along with you as you lip sync the classic Christmas carols really gives you the boost that makes performing worth it. It made me for sure push harder for that fourth side tilt of the show. To jump higher in a Russian jump for the fifth show that day. To remember to smile when it’s almost New Years and you’re still singing about how excited you are that Christmas is almost here. (A common, odd problem with Holiday specific shows). But it really does bring thousands of people joy. At the time this was also the biggest amount of people I had performed for at once - but my third show tops them all.

The Radio City Christmas Spectacular is the most holiday cheer filled show I have ever seen and ever been a part of. It was also my first major job in NYC (Christmas is clearly a time for firsts for me!). With an audience of six thousand PER SHOW, it really is the ultimate theatrical Christmas tradition. It definitely has become one of my personal traditions whether I’m in it or not. Stepping onto the “Great Stage,” which is nearly a city block long, is epic. It’s also the hardest job I have ever had - well, physically at least. The hour and a half show is chock full of fast paced, intricate detailed choreography that our dance captains are charged to maintain over the two month run. All the blood, sweat, and tears (and yes - I cried once during a 9am show when I had to put a bear head on and do a jump split for my 16th time that week) are worth it when you’re out shopping for a coat with your mother, who can’t stop telling everyone what you’re performing in, and the woman checking us out at the register starts crying and says that RCCS has been a tradition in her family every year for three generations and asks if she can hug you and thank you. To dance for thousands of people at once makes you feel strong and important. Like a rock star. What’s sweeter though is when you get to meet someone one on one who is truly moved by the show you’ve been in.

when it comes to a holiday show people remember what I think theater is all about. Entertaining people.

I think that’s really why I love a holiday show. As theater performers, patrons and critics we're all so quick to judge shows harshly. We demand to be changed and moved by theater. It has to be innovative and deep, fun and serious, and it should make the viewer laugh and cry; but when it comes to a holiday show people remember what I think theater is all about. Entertaining people. Making people feel like they had an escape from the craziness of life. All of my time in holiday shows has actually brought my family closer together. It has brought my family all over the country and given us memories we cherish. Holiday shows allow us to give a pass to the cheesy and give in to just relaxing and having fun. And as a performer, I love being a part of creating that joy.

Getting to be home in California this Christmas with my family will be wonderful, but I will miss performing in a high energy, love filled, holiday show. I guess I could do a one man show for my family and call it my gift to them.

About the author

A competitive dancer for ten years, Keats then made the leap (probably a switch second) to college and after earning a BFA in performance dance from the University of California, Irvine, he made the jump (Sauter de chat for sure this time) from working as a parade performer for the Disney corporation to dancing on cruise ships. After a year at sea, he taught as a guest artist in residence for a semester at Colorado Mesa University. Since moving to New York, Keats has been fortunate to work regionally (Pioneer Theater/ Sacramento Music Circus/ Alabama Shakespeare Festival/ La Jolla Playhouse) as well as performing in New York with Radio City's Christmas Spectacular (fittingly as the Sugar Plum Fairy Bear) and on Broadway in Escape to Margaritaville and Cirque Du Soleil's Paramour. He is a passionate, full out dancer who enjoys cultivating an entertaining life in NYC.