Broadway Baby: Dancing for Musical Theater

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by Jill Swenby

After graduating from high school, lifetime dancer Laura Leitheiser was concerned about how she was going to earn a living as a professional dancer. She discussed this with her dance teacher, who said that if she wanted to have a successful career she needed to learn to sing. Upon this advice, Laura went on to study at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City.

Since graduating from AMDA, Laura has gone on several national tours including Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Singin’ in the Rain, West Side Story and currently White Christmas at the Armory Theatre.

However, Laura did encounter a few differences. Because of the singing involved in musical theater, choreography must be adjusted to accommodate the movement of performers who are singing as well as dancing.

“Choreographers are working with singers who are moving as opposed to dancers,” says Laura. “It’s a very different environment.”

Similar to other types of dance, the choreography in musical theater is designed to tell a story. The ways in which choreographers tell the story for musical theater are largely dictated by the particular play they are choreographing. For example, Fosse has a very distinct jazz style, whereas classical plays like White Christmas are based more in tap. Like many dance forms, musical theater choreography can be very diverse.

While dancing is not the only skill needed for musical theater, Laura insists that it is very helpful to have a solid foundation in dance. Most ensemble cast members dance quite a bit. Laura says that some men may be able to get by without much skill, but women are often expected to have extensive dancing experience.

She also says it is important for dancers to know the basics. “Always take ballet,” says Laura. “Ballet is number one.”

As musical theater professionals gain experience in the business, they are able to obtain roles that do not require as much dancing. But for beginners, a strong dance foundation gives dancers a crucial edge over their competition.

Another useful tip for beginners is to make connections with people who are involved in the musical theater business. Laura cites going to school at AMDA in New York as an important vehicle for transitioning from school into a career. She also says that meeting theater members in school provided her with great connections after graduation.

“I’m not going to say it’s easy,” says Laura. “It’s never easy.”

However, after touring with national plays for the past few years, Laura says she loves her job so far. She has great memories of dancing the original choreography to the opening number in Chorus Line and feeling inspired by the hopeful number as she too was beginning her career.

“I love it. I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” she says, “There’s nothing better than being on stage.”

Helpful musical theater links for dancers:

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