ASK PLAYBILL.COM: Dance Captains

By Lindsey Wilson
24 Jul 2008

Michael Balderrama
Michael Balderrama

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Question: What does a dance captain do?

Answer: To find out, Playbill.com consulted the dance captains of current Broadway shows: Gabriela Garcia of Chicago, Michael Balderrama from In the Heights, and Stephanie Klemons, assistant dance captain for In the Heights.

"It's basically our job to make sure that the show stays as close to the original product as possible," says Michael Balderrama, who is making his Broadway dance captain debut. "You have to consistently watch the show to make sure that the cast keeps their choreography from altering, or as we like calling it over at In the Heights, from 'remixing.'"

Dance captains are required to know the movement and choreography (called a "track") for every single character in the show because they are responsible for teaching the tracks to new cast members and giving notes when current performers aren't adhering to the original steps. They also work very closely with the stage managers to coordinate brush-up rehearsals; understudy rehearsals; and "put-ins," rehearsals with the whole company that typically happen shortly before a swing or understudy goes on for the first time.

Of course, things don't always go exactly as planned. A swing or understudy might have to go on with little or no notice, and performers can become ill or injured during a show, resulting in a quick replacement. Sometimes (and this is rare) so many cast members might be out that the dance captains will have to make emergency choreography cuts to accommodate the reduced size of the company.

Besides being dance captains, Garcia, Balderrama and Klemons are also swings. "It actually works for me, being a dance captain and a swing," says Garcia, who first became a Chicago dance captain in the Las Vegas company. "As a swing," Garcia explains, "I get to be in different positions all the time, do different tracks, different roles…I get to see the changes that have happened onstage that sometimes you can't tell from the front." Being familiar with multiple tracks and being able to watch the show from the audience or backstage is extremely helpful in determining how the choreography is holding up.

Stephanie Klemons says that during the performances she is usually either running through the show upstairs with the swings and understudies (the Richard Rodgers Theatre has a top floor where this is possible) or watching the show. "If I'm not on, chances are I'm watching the major production numbers."

Most Broadway shows have two dance captains or a dance captain and an assistant. Choreographers typically select dancers they have worked with before or those who show an impressive aptitude for quickly memorizing steps to be their dance captains. Klemons, who is a first-time captain, thinks it's extremely important for a show like In the Heights to have both a male and female dance captain due to the extensive partnering done in the dances. It's a big difference between what a male dancer does and what a female dancer does, especially where lifts are concerned, she says, and for this show it's "really in everyone's best interest to have a man and a woman teaching everyone."

Dance captains also communicate considerably with the cast, and people skills are essential. "Just the nuts and bolts of it, the Xs and Os, teaching the choreography, the right counts, the right steps, the right spots onstage, I'd say is about 60 percent of the job," says Balderrama. "Forty percent of the job is people."

Everyone works differently, and the captains say that knowing how to adjust your teaching style for each performer is key. "It's about being able to deliver the notes without being like, 'You're doing this wrong!'" says Garcia. "I always tell them, 'It's not that you're doing it wrong, it's just that you're not aware of what you're doing,' which is why I'm here."

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Lindsey Wilson, who is temporarily filling in for Zachary Pincus-Roth, is a theatre writer whose work has also been seen in The Syracuse Post-Standard. She can be reached by e-mailing LindseyAnnWilson@gmail.com.