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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Dance in Musicals

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By Lindsey Huster
Edited By Angie Rentmeester

From the advent of Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, to more recent Zac Efron moves in High School Musical, one component of the film musical genre has remained constant: dance.

“Dance provides another level of emotional expression, taking the characters beyond where they function within the traditional confines of the narrative and beyond where they sing,” said Jerome Delamater, author of Dance in the Hollywood Musical and professor of communications at Hofstra University.

With roots in cabaret, operas, vaudeville and theater, film in the 1930s began to take on a different shape, combining elements of both song and dance to create the film musical. Now, with almost a half of a century under its belt, the film musical has come a long way and has subsequently provided a few favorites to choose from.

West Side Story (1961)
Choreographed by Jerome Robins

A not-so-typical Romeo and Juliet love story strongly reflected in dance sequences marked with cultural flare. In particular, the gym scene readily displays the dualistic nature of the Jets and Sharks through their different approaches to the mambo. Other dance sequences, such as “America” reflect the perceived cultural differences between America and Puerto Rico.

“West Side Story is the perfect marriage of passionate composer Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins, a choreographer grounded in classical ballet,” said Rick Heiman, artistic Director of Hollywood Ballet and Southern California Dance Company.

Singing in the Rain (1952)
Choreographed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly

Nothing can dampen Gene Kelly’ s opening tap dancing scene as he hangs off lamp posts and skips puddles and police officers, proving that love can dispel even bad weather.

“In the ‘ Singin’ in the Rain’ number, the character learns something about himself because he has danced those feelings and as a result of the dance….can have a meaningful relationship with his love interest,” said Delamater.

This enthusiasm is equally matched with a tap dancing sequence found in “Good Morning” as the dancing trio, Gene Kelly, Donald O’ Connor, Debbie Reynolds, trip over couches, up stairs and down.

Hairspray (1988, 2007)
Choreographed by Jerry Mitchell

With a recent musical reincarnation of the John Waters film, Hairspray’ s best moves are not just a blast from the past. With the help of plus-sized Tracy Turnblad and her best friend Penny Pingleton, songs like “You Can’ t Stop the Beat” show off the best moves of the 60s, including the Twist and the Mashed Potato. The most updated version, that stars High School Musical’ s Zac Efron’ s, has as much bubble-gum sweetness as the Broadway musical.

“Hairspray is both serious and fancy free at the same time,” said Diane White, a dancer from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “It combines music, dance and dialog with ease making for a fun musical to watch.”

Chicago (2002)
Choreographed by Bob Fosse

The entire film musical moves with the beat of the jazz-era mixed with a fosse-flare. A favorite for most fans is the Cell block Tango, a piece that describes the unapologetic murders of fellow inmates of Roxy Hart and Velma Kelly, which mixes modern with the slinky, seductive, (and perhaps deadly) quality of the Tango. With all that jazz, (and tap too) it’ s not hard to love this film musical.

Regardless of the genre and musical styling, dance continually plays a significant component to any film musical. “Dance has become an integral part of the musical’ s storyline and creates multidimensionality in telling the story,” said Heiman.

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