When it comes time to apply for college Musical Theatre programs, there are lots of things you can prepare in advance: your song cuts, your monologues, your pre-screen videos, but what about the live dance call? How can you do your best in this situation where you have no idea what is going to be asked of you? If you are a strong dancer with years of training, how do you show yourself to your best advantage? If you are an untrained or less experienced dancer, how can you prepare for unknown choreography or routines that may be beyond your skill level?
To answer some of these questions, I sought the advice of acclaimed Broadway dancer, Jane Lanier, who has performed in six Broadway shows, earning a Tony nomination for JEROME ROBBINS’ BROADWAY and a Drama Desk nomination for FOSSE. Ms. Lanier is currently the Head of the Musical Theatre Dance program at the Theatre Conservatory at the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University.
Q: Let’s speak to the more seasoned dancers first. What skills are you looking for in an experienced dancer? How does someone qualify as a strong dance candidate in your mind?
Lanier: A strong, trained dancer would have a good amount of ballet training and be really technically proficient in ballet with at least 10 years of dance training in various styles. Contemporary and lyrical are popular now, too, but ballet is the most important.
Q: Not everyone comes in with tap training these days, right? Some do, some don’t?
Lanier: Right. A lot of musicals have tap, and a lot of them don’t, so not everyone gets that training. It would be so beneficial to take at least a year of tap before auditioning, if possible. At a musical theatre college dance call, you will often be asked to do a double or triple time step, and I know our tap teacher at school prefers to see a rolling shuffle, and that way she can really see how much technique you have.
Q: If a student comes in who is a strong dancer in other styles but is not proficient in tap, is that a dealbreaker for you?
Lanier: It is not a dealbreaker for me by any means because I was not tap proficient when I started in this business, and I went on to tap in two Broadway shows! However, having someone teach you a time step before you come in is good for your confidence, shows you’re willing to learn, you’re willing to put an effort into something even though you haven’t been trained in that discipline, and it’s a totally different vocabulary, so it’s good to get some basics under your belt.
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Q: For the strong dancer in a college dance call, what are you looking for?
Lanier: Technique, strength, and performance ability.
Q: If they have to do an audition video or pre-screen, what do you want to see? Do you want to see a variety of styles, and how long for each style?
Lanier: I’m still looking for those three elements: technique, strength, and performance ability. You should be able to show us what we need to see in 30-60 seconds. Specific skills may be asked for depending on the school. What I ask for is a petite or a grande allégro, which is a small or a big jump, and turns are important, pirouettes…either jazz or ballet. Then I want to see some kind of a jazz, modern, tap, contemporary or lyrical routine, something that really speaks to them, so that I see who they are as a person and a dancer.
Q: For an inexperienced dancer, someone who is in highschool and is going to apply in a few years, what would you tell them to do in preparation for college dance auditions?
Lanier: It would certainly help to take some kind of dance class so that they can get in their bodies and start learning how their body works and how it feels. This may also help them figure out what style fits best for them.
Q: Sure, and dance class helps you learn how to pick up a combination, etc…
Lanier: Doing the school musicals, even without formal dance training, you’re going to have to move, so that’s great practice, too. A lot of kids do a show choir or something where you have to pick up some choreography. You don’t want a college audition to be the first time that you’ve had to learn a dance routine quickly. Of course dance class is ideal, but doing a community production or a school musical can also be very helpful. Any kind of movement experience is better than none. The physical moves can be taught, but the mental side is also really important, so the more practice you have looking, hearing, and picking up choreography, the better. That’s really important. Not everyone in musicals has to be able to do a triple pirouette, but EVERYBODY has to move!
Q: For the more novice dancer, is tap not something they should worry about?
Lanier: Well, as I said before, I think the foundation for all dance is ballet, but for people who haven’t had a lot of dance training, many people find tap really fun and engaging! It occupies their brain and body in a different way, and it can encourage them to explore other dance styles, as well. Coming into a college program, you’re going to get some kind of tap, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to have some tap under your belt.
Q: So what if you can’t do some of the choreography in the dance call?
Lanier: Then you show me your personality!
Q: And if you are asked for a double pirouette and you can only do a single, would you rather see a clean single or a bad double?
Lanier: Well, usually for the less experienced dancers, I ask for a clean single or a double if they have it.
Q: How about the ensemble component of the dance call? How they interact with others, share the space, etc…How important is that to you?
Lanier: You want to stand out, but you don’t want to step in front of the person upstage of you. I don’t like that. You have to respect each other’s space. Be a good colleague.
Q: So schools will usually ask you to bring specific types of dance shoes, depending on the nature of their dance call, but do you have any other dance clothing recommendations?
Lanier: Wear something that you feel comfortable in and that you feel that you look good in. That could mean specific colors or black…show me a little of your personality. Also, I know everybody does it, but the 1-inch character shoes are like nails on a chalkboard for me! Women should get used to dancing in 2.5-inch heels. Consider color and your legline when choosing colors for shoes and tights. You don’t want to wear tan tights or bare legs with black shoes; nude shoes will elongate the legline if you’re wearing tan tights, but black shoes will cut you off. Consider matching tights and shoe colors for a better overall look.
Q: Not everyone is going to have the money or the know-how to buy a wide variety of shoes and attire.
Lanier: True, which is why I’m putting it out there that when you are buying character shoes, don’t get 1-inch! You will never use them in this business.
Q: Any advice for the men regarding dance audition attire? Dance clothing can be new territory for some men.
Lanier: If you don’t have a lot of dance experience, and you haven’t had any ballet training, you should not show up in tights! Jazz pants are good, athletic sweatpants or shorts are all fine. Avoid super baggy clothes, though. We still need to see your body so that we can assess technique and potential. We need to see how your body moves. Also, men, you should always wear a dance belt, regardless of what you are wearing, so that’s something you should get familiar with before college dance calls. You’re always going to be moving through space and possibly jumping, so a dance belt is necessary. You will also need a jazz shoe or a dance sneaker.
Q: Do women still need to show up to dance calls in leotards and tights, or it that more old school attire?
Lanier: The women really don’t wear leotards and tights anymore. There’s yoga pants, shorts, sports bras, leotards under shorts, and many women go bare legged now. I mean, for a Golden Age musical audition, I would recommend a leotard with a skirt, but for a general college dance audition, the more modern dancewear is the norm.
Q: The more seasoned dancers often spend big bucks on dance shoes, but do you have any advice for beginning dancers on where to purchase good quality, entry level dance shoes?
Lanier: If you don’t have a good dance shop in your area, you can check out www.discountdance.com, which has some really good prices on dancewear, shoes, etc…You are going to be using this gear in college, so you don’t want to just buy the cheapest thing you possibly can, because then it will fall apart, and you will end up spending twice the amount if you’d just bought a better shoe from the beginning. That goes for men and women.
Q: This is such great information! Any final pearls of wisdom?
Lanier: One other thing for less experienced dancers, in my point of view, I’m not judging on technique. Auditions can be nerve-wracking and scary, but I’m looking for that person who shows up and goes for it. I see a lot of kids just totally back away, give up, or show their frustration if they aren’t “getting it”. That can read as attitude, and that turns me off. So jump in, make big mistakes! That makes me want you. A lot of times students know they’re not perfect at the choreography, but they’re going for it, and that’s what I love to see. That’s someone who’s teachable. That’s someone I want in the program!
About Jane Lanier
Jane Lanier is the Head of the Musical Theatre Dance concentration program in the Theatre Conservatory in the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University. Jane brings her real world experience to this triple threat program. Broadway credits: Original star of FOSSE (Drama Desk Nomination), GUYS AND DOLLS (Adelaide Cover), JEROME ROBBINS’ BROADWAY (Tony Award Nomination), ANYTHING GOES with Patti LuPone, SWEET CHARITY directed by Bob Fosse, and ON YOUR TOES. Jane has done two national tours, countless regional productions, commercials, industrials, voice overs, guest and recurring roles on television, and films including MICHAEL, starring John Travolta. Jane has directed and choreographed for theatre, film, television, and commercials. She choreographed CHICAGO at Drury Lane Oakbrook which earned her a Jeff Award Nomination, and most recently, she returned to Drury Lane to choreograph MAMMA MIA in 2019.She is a proud union member of AEA, SAG/AFTRA, and SDC.