So You Think You Can’t Dance

As more opera singers find work in musical theatre and more opera companies program musical theatre pieces into their seasons, classically trained singers need to have better dance and movement skills. The audition expectations in musical theatre for what are known as “movement calls” are often more demanding or, at the very least, demanding in a different way from movement for opera.

I talked to two choreographers to find out what singers need to be prepared for. Deanna Dys has choreographed for Broadway, Off-Broadway, national tours, and television and film as well as for New York City Opera. Teddy Kern has choreographed for opera companies throughout the country as well as Broadway and Off-Broadway and was inducted in 2004 into the Living Legends of Dance.

In the initial audition, much is dependent on what the artistic team (the director and musical director) are looking for in the role. “Are they the right type, look, etc., for the show?” Dys says. “Is their voice quality and range what the role is asking for? If these items are fulfilled and the role they are auditioning for requires movement of any kind, I will want to have them back to dance.”

It is important in that initial audition for singers to be conscious of their bodies and to move with grace, ease, and confidence when entering and exiting the audition room. “You bring everything with you—how you carry your hands, your head, and how you walk to the piano,” Kern says. That tells the director and the choreographer a lot about a singer’s movement abilities.

Many audition training seminars and university-level classes cover walking into a room to sing and how to address the people behind the table and the pianist. So many singers feel they have that covered. But once singers are invited to a dance or movement callback, it’s often another story entirely.

“Gone are the days of a singing chorus and a separate dancing chorus, so greater movement skills are expected of singers, [just] as singing requirements for dancers have gotten higher,” Dys says. This means singers have greater responsibility for building competence with their physicality than ever before.

Musical theatre auditions have both dance calls and movement calls. Singers crossing over into musical theatre will most often encounter the latter. So, what’s the difference? A movement call is “less technical in terms of difficulty,” says Dys. “The dance steps will usually be simplified. The level of difficulty of dance will be appropriate for requirements of the role.”

How do you make a good impression in a movement call? Kern notes that starting exactly on the beat and ending with the choreographer are the most important, and making mistakes in the middle less so. “It’s not about your feet,” he says. “It’s mostly a style of movement, a particular carriage, bearing, humor, or seriousness.”
“If they can move their body to the beat and are internally connected to the way their body moves, I always feel that you can make anyone look good doing the choreography,” agrees Dys. “For me, personality and commitment to character stand out at an audition. I firmly believe you can teach anyone dance steps with enough rehearsal. Bringing a definitive character and a strong presence to the audition go a long way in helping you stand out in an ensemble movement call.”

It is also possible to stand out in a negative way in these situations. Dys describes what she calls a “space invader”—a person who is not aware of the other people around them or the space in which they are dancing. If someone is bumping into other performers and not maintaining the formation presented, Dys says this is a huge red flag. “I wonder if they will not be able to work well in the ensemble.”

According to Kern, this full body awareness is not something singers are trained to have. “Many singers are great [from the] diaphragm up, but all movement is centered in the lower thoracic and lumbar vertebrae,” he says. Sloppiness and poor posture are more evident in the lower body and show in the feet in both walking and movement callbacks.

A great way for singers to improve their movement and dance skills is by taking a dance class. “I worked at New York City Opera in the past, so I am aware of the differences between the opera world and the musical theatre world,” Dys says. “But the training for dance applies across the board. Seek out a movement for singers and actors class. These classes are usually geared for someone without a lot of dance training and will cover the basic foundations.”

Both Dys and Kern recommend taking any variety of classes—jazz, modern, ballet, tap, hip hop. They all provide a different sense of movement and train the body for different things. Focus on the types of classes that interest you or that are appropriate to the shows you see yourself auditioning for. Both suggest taking a basic or very beginner class.

Selecting the right studio is important. Kern warns against taking even a basic class at a professional dance studio, as many trained dancers attend even the basic classes to prepare for auditions, and it can feel intimidating for very beginners.

“Don’t go to a professionals class or to a children’s class,” she advises. “It’s possible to find basic classes for adults in any city. Stay in the back row until you feel comfortable moving up and ignore the people in the front row showboating—go for yourself!”

In New York City, Kern suggests looking into classes at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which has classes for non-dancers, “everything from Zumba to salsa and period movement—these welcome non-dancers without making them feel threatened.” Dys recommends STEPS on Broadway in NYC, where the quality of instruction is very high.

Just as important as starting a class is sticking with it. “You can’t start today and expect to get anything out of it next week or next month,” Kern says. “It has to be part of your artistic pursuit.” Much like developing our voices, dance takes time and patience—which, for singers who are actively seeking work and auditioning, is not easy.

“As a former performer, my strongest skill was dance and singing was something that did not come as naturally,” Dys says. “I remember a former voice coach used to have me do movement, even something as simple as a ballet plié or waving my arms around while I was doing a vocal warm-up as a way to ‘get out of my head,’ free my voice, and connect the two. I would suggest singers incorporate some movement into their vocal warm-up to start to feel more comfortable with the physicality.”

Kern also points out how dance helps with breathing for singing, as the muscles used for the compression of air to create sound are strengthened with dance study. “You can’t hold your breath in dance—which many singers try to do!” she says.

To build the ability to learn choreography quickly in a callback, developing your mental muscle is critical. “Muscle memory is such a huge component of dance,” he says. “Go to a class that teaches a combination. Just doing skills at the barre or a set dance warm-up will not help you pick up the material quickly. You need to get out there and learn new stuff all the time.

“Go to a class that is different from what you know. If you have some ballet training, go to a hip hop or tap class. You will be working a different set of mental muscles. If you learned a combination at an audition and have a callback, go over it until you don’t have to think of it at all. Most times the initial combination will be repeated at a callback. Whenever you are lying in bed, go over the combination in your head. See yourself doing the combination.”

Dance, like vocal study, is a lifelong endeavor that takes time to slowly build. “Don’t wait until a week before your audition to go to a class,” Kern cautions. “It will not have any effect except to intimidate you more.”

Even if a musical theatre audition isn’t in your near future, developing dance skills can make you feel better physically, allow you to show more confidence, and help you develop as a whole performer. “Spend the better part of your life studying,” Kern advises. “You can find cheap acting and cheap dance classes. . . . Surrender to the feelings of looking like a fool. If you’re going to spend your life in the business of performing, you need to be a whole person.”

Seek out a dance class this week and commit to going for the whole month. See what adding movement to your practice sessions can do. In time, you will be ready pick up the choreography quickly and confidently in those movement calls!

Joanie Brittingham

Joanie Brittingham is a soprano and writer living in New York City. She can be reached at joaniebrittingham@gmail.com. Visit her blog, Cure for the Common Crazy, at commoncrazy.blogspot.com or see her column, Big Apple Sauce, on the arts scene of New York, at the website JuicyHeads.com.