How dancers are transitioning from pointe shoes to character shoes
In Broadway’s An American in Paris, Allison Walsh whirls through the streets of the City of Light with the aplomb of a veteran musical theater dancer. In The Lion King, Jaysin McCollum stalks the jungle with the presence required of a performer dedicated to the Great White Way. Though both are clearly at home on Broadway, it’s not their natural habitat: Instead, they’re former ballet dancers.
And they’re not alone. Dance-centric shows like An American in Paris, On the Town, Finding Neverland and Fiddler on the Roof have made a comeback in the last 10 years, a happy return after several seasons in which smaller, more intimate musicals proved the norm. Now, classical ballet dancers are being hired for their technique, quick pick-up skills and in-depth partnering knowledge. “For On the Town, much of the dancing was ballet-based, so we were looking for great ballet training,” says choreographer Joshua Bergasse. “Dancers with a ballet background understand body lines and partnering.”
But, not everything gleaned in the ballet studio will help if you’re hoping to switch out your pointe shoes for LaDucas. What does it take to make it on the Great White Way after a career in ballet?
For many ballet dancers, there are a variety of perks. To start, because musicals continually open and close in New York City and around the country, different types of dancers are needed more often, and the chances of getting hired are better. For Jennifer Gruener, this larger volume of opportunities was attractive. After studying at Philadelphia Dance Theatre and The Rock School for Dance Education, a degree in dance from Indiana University garnered her only an unpaid trainee position. Taking her mother’s advice, she journeyed to New York City, shifted her focus to musical theater and has embraced the diverse styles of dance available to her: She’s performed with the Radio City Christmas Spectacular national tour, at regional theaters and, currently, in the ensemble of off-Broadway’s Trip of Love.
Walsh, a 30-year-old ensemble member and lead understudy in AAiP previously performed with the Joffrey Ballet and BalletX. She saw AAiP as an opportunity to continue her career in a less physically demanding way: “I was at a point where I wanted to try something new before I retired,” she says.
Finding Your Voice
When dancers make the leap, they’re often surprised to find how vastly different the musical theater audition scene is—leaving many unprepared for their first stabs. Having to learn new dance styles, sing, and read lines and monologues can be daunting. “After we did ballet, Horton and choreography from the show, they asked if we could sing,” remembers McCollum of The Lion King audition. “I didn’t know I was supposed to bring music! I sang a cappella, which isn’t appropriate.”
Gruener adds: “When I started auditioning, I hated singing. I had to get over that—quickly. With casting now, it’s important to be able to understudy roles: You must sing.”
She started taking as many voice lessons as possible. “When I’m not good at something immediately, it’s hard for me to stick with it. In auditions, I didn’t always know what would come out of my mouth! But just like I kept working at ballet, I kept at the voice aspect, even though it was uncomfortable.”
Walsh did the same: “Breathing for singing is so different than dancing. Just to sing and be comfortable in front of people is the biggest challenge,” she says. “But if you’re comfortable, the casting team can see you’re someone they can work with.” McCollum adds that he consulted his new cast mates to understand where to go for future auditions: Now he has a music book and monologue choices, and he goes to acting classes regularly.
“Go to every possible audition,” says Gruener. “Get in the practice of it, largely so you can understand the process, see how many styles you have to pick up and start to understand what you’re right for.”
But take comfort: Your ballet base will hold you in good stead in many ways. “The strength and technique of ballet dancers is always helpful in the rehearsal room, and they speak that common language of ballet vocabulary that can make creating faster,” says Bergasse. “I can say do eight counts of jeté turns and then fouettés, and a ballerina can execute it quickly without demonstration.”
Walsh’s attention to detail and ability to retain information has also allowed her to spend time as a dance captain for AAiP. “I learn quickly, I can help choreographers and I know how to communicate with other dancers because of my time in the ballet world,” she says. “Actors often comment how quickly ballerinas learn and how eager we are to adapt. We’re smart and intuitive: That counts.”
But not all ballet studio protocol is helpful. “In ballet you don’t necessarily talk to teachers or those you audition for. There’s a sort of ‘pedestal’ situation,” says Gruener. “But in musical theater, it helps to network.” Gruener noticed that taking classes with teachers who she’d later see in auditions was a natural—and common—way to create connections, and chatting with them afterward was appropriate.
The vibe of musical theater auditions and rehearsals also shocks many former ballet dancers: They bustle with energy and chatting instead of quiet gravitas, and big personalities are much more apparent. It’s important to find your own center of focus and relax. “I’m looking to see if the dancers can let loose. Not everyone can: They’re not necessarily trained in that, and sometimes it’s harder than you think to adapt,” says Bergasse. “Try to be yourself, that person who loves dance and finds joy in it.”
Bergasse notes that this more high-energy situation can be intimidating. But, trusting in your training and ability to adapt will help. “Sometimes the personalities in the musical theater world can be overwhelming,” he says. “But, rather than be afraid of it, embrace it. In the end, we’re all cut from the same dancer cloth.”
For Gruener, trusting in this fact has paid off. “I think back and am always so happy I didn’t get a job in ballet,” she says, with a laugh. “Musical theater has allowed me to live in New York, go on tour to places I wouldn’t have before and enjoy jazz and other styles I always loved. When I first moved here and wasn’t getting jobs, I wondered if I made a mistake. But it’s been beyond worth it to see my artistry and abilities grow in such a fun, unexpected way.”
Lauren Kay is an NYC–based writer and dancer.