Getty Images

So You’re an Understudy… How to Cover Someone Else’s Role Effectively—and Why it Matters

During one of Charlotte Nash's first few weeks with Houston Ballet II, she was thrown into a run-through of Balanchine's Theme and Variations. "I had never really understudied before and I didn't know what I was doing," she says. "I fell right away and was quickly replaced." For Nash, now a dancer with Festival Ballet Providence, the episode was a tough lesson. "I was mortified, but then I said to myself, 'Okay, I need to figure out how to learn things more quickly.'"


When you're understudying someone else's role, it can be tempting to take a back seat on the learning process. "Dancers tend to think they won't be in the performance or they weren't good enough to be chosen," says Kristi Capps, ballet master with Kansas City Ballet. "But you are really expected to be just as good as first cast, because at any moment you might have to go on."

By taking the process seriously, you show choreographers and artistic staff that you are a reliable, capable artist—which could lead to casting opportunities or even a promotion down the road. Below are tips to help you stay focused in and out of the studio, and be stage-ready if you get thrown in.

Understudy with Intention

When learning another dancer's role, it's helpful to have a method. Try going into rehearsal with a particular intention, such as paying attention to complex running patterns one day and the port de bras the next, to maintain your focus and make sure you are absorbing everything.

Nash (center), Kirsten Evans and David DuBois rehearse Balanchine's Serenade.

Dylan Giles, Courtesy Festival Ballet Providence

When learning another dancer's role, it's helpful to have a method. Try going into rehearsal with a particular intention, such as paying attention to complex running patterns one day and the port de bras the next, to maintain your focus and make sure you are absorbing everything.

Once you know the choreography well, step back and try to understand the formations. This can be especially important if you are watching multiple spots in the corps. Try to visualize bodies moving in the patterns, says Capps, and keep in mind that when you jump in, you may be with a different cast than the one you have been watching.

While sometimes you may need to stand in the corner because of space constraints, Nash recommends beginning each rehearsal in a different spot in the room to observe the ballet from different angles and make sure you know all of your marks and pathways. "A lot of people stay in one place and go through the motions," says Nash. "But sometimes it's good to just watch, so you can focus on the whole picture. When you are always trying to do both, your attention is divided."

Take Your Work Home

Understudying often has to go beyond the studio when you're learning in the back. "The choreographer doesn't have time to give you every detail," says Alonzo King LINES Ballet dancer Ashley Mayeux.

Boston Ballet soloist Addie Tapp agrees. "You have to take your own time outside of the rehearsal to go over choreography, watch videos or get to know the music better," she says. Get in the studio early, she advises, or use break times to try things full-out. (Mayeux often reviews roles she's covering in her hotel room on tour.) If you can organize a group run-through with other understudies or some people from second cast, all the better.

For Nash, humming the steps quietly along with the music or even creating her own story while learning the steps makes them easier to remember. Jot down counts or sketch formations for review later on your own. Whenever Tapp has to understudy a pas de deux without a partner, she makes sure she knows every hand and arm placement before asking another cast member if they'd be up for trying it with her another time. "Some understudies will ask to take their own rehearsal videos, so they can use it to go over it for themselves," she adds.

Tapp in Balanchine's Chaconne

Liza Voll, Courteys Boston Ballet

Building Confidence

Understudying has added benefits when you do a good job. "If you know something really well, the choreographer or director can tell, and they will often give you a chance," says Mayeux.

Remember, you were asked to be in the room for a reason, so when you're told to jump in, go for it. "The artistic staff knows that you are being thrown in, and that rehearsal is your time to figure it out," says Tapp. Capps agrees. "We can tell the difference between making a mistake and not knowing the steps or the patterns," she says. "If you are really nervous, it's okay to ask a question before the run or to quickly walk through something."

Understudying can also help you build confidence in unexpected ways. "I've struggled with stage fright throughout my career," says Mayeux, "so understudying has always been a lower-stress opportunity for researching my own artistry." And for Tapp, covering principal roles has given her the time to develop her acting chops. "I love watching how everyone does a role differently and absorbing everything in the room," she says. "It has also helped me learn how to work more on my own and make choices that look good on me."

As for Nash, her embarrassing Theme and Variations experience made her a stronger understudy and company member. "Last year I was cast in 'Rubies' because I could jump in easily," she says. "Smart dancers are appreciated, and good things come from being focused and caring about every role."

Latest Posts


The author, Lucy Van Cleef, dancing Balanchine's Serenade at Los Angeles Ballet. Reed Hutchinson, Courtesy Los Angeles Ballet

My 12-Year Journey to a Bachelor’s Degree While Dancing Professionally

If you'd have told me in 2009 that it would take 12 years to earn my bachelor's degree, I never would have believed you. Back then, I was a dancer in my early 20s and in my second year with Los Angeles Ballet. I was used to the straightforward demands of the professional ballet world. I knew that hard work and willpower were the currency you paid in the studio, and that the thrill of live performance made all that investment worth it. What I didn't know then is how life's twists and turns aren't always so straightforward. In hindsight, I can see how my winding road to higher education has strengthened me—and my relationship with the ballet world—more than I ever could have imagined.

Keep reading SHOW LESS

#TBT: Alessandra Ferri and Carlos Acosta in "Manon" (2000)

It seems hard to believe, but the last time that Alessandra Ferri and Carlos Acosta performed together was more than 20 years ago. At the Havana International Ballet Festival in 2000, Ferri, who was then a principal with American Ballet Theatre, and Acosta, a Royal Ballet star, danced the bedroom pas de deux from Manon, but they never got to grace the stage together again.

When Acosta became the director of Birmingham Royal Ballet in 2020, shortly before the pandemic struck the UK, he announced to great excitement that his first season would include a world premiere duet for him and Ferri. While the initial performance was postponed, BRB confirmed last week that Acosta and Ferri's reunion will be part of the company's triple bill in London this October. To celebrate the pair's upcoming return to the stage, we're revisiting this video from 2000 of the duo in Manon.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Victoria Morgan with Cincinnati Ballet principal dancer Sirui Liu. Jennifer Denham, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet

After 25 Years, Victoria Morgan to Step Down as Cincinnati Ballet's Artistic Director

Last month, Victoria Morgan announced that she will step down as Cincinnati Ballet's artistic director at the conclusion of the 2021-22 season. The organization's board of trustees has formed a committee to conduct a national search for her replacement.

Prior to coming to Cincinnati Ballet in 1997, the Salt Lake City native was a principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet and Ballet West, as well as resident choreographer for the San Francisco Opera. She graduated magna cum laude from University of Utah, where she also earned her MFA, and has judged several international ballet competitions.

Entering her 25th and final season as director, Morgan has accomplished a lot at Cincinnati Ballet, not the least erasing the $800,000 in company debt she inherited at the outset of her tenure. To right the organization's financial ship she had to make tough choices early on—the first task the company's executive committee gave her was to release a third of the company's dancers. In her continuing effort to overhaul how the organization did business, in 2008 she became both the artistic director and CEO and set about building the company's now $14.5 million endowment. For the 2016–17 season, with the arrival of new company president and CEO Scott Altman, Morgan returned to being full-time artistic director and helped lead the realization of the organization's new $31 million home, the Margaret and Michael Valentine Center for Dance.

A champion of female choreographers, Morgan has also choreographed numerous ballets for the company, including world premieres of King Arthur's Camelot and The Nutcracker. She has also helped orchestrate several company collaborations, including 2013's Frampton and Cincinnati Ballet Live and joint productions with BalletMet.

Pointe caught up with Morgan to talk about her recent announcement.

Victoria Morgan is shown from the side standing on stage right, turning to smile at a line of costumed dancers to her left during bows. She wears a patterned green dress with chunky green high heels and holds a red rose in her hand.

Peter Mueller, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet

Why leave Cincinnati Ballet now?

It's been an amazing run and I have seen it all. I am not sure where I would go from here. I also feel there is a required stimulus and infusion of new ideas and energy that always needs to be a part of a growing, evolving and exciting arts organization.

What made you happiest at Cincinnati Ballet?

The people, from the devotion of patrons and donors to learning from and feeling the pride in work from the staff. It has also been so satisfying for me to choreograph on and watch so many dancers evolve in their dance careers and lives.

Were there things you wanted to do for the company that you weren't able to?

There were other collaborations I wanted us to explore and choreographers I wanted us to work with. It takes quite an investment to make those happen.

Your legacy includes actively creating opportunities for female choreographers. What motivated that?

I started realizing, in a profound way, the gender inequities in our art form. Because I was in a leadership position, I thought I could do something about this and try to get to a 50-50 balance of male and female choreographers. It took a little time to find women to step forward, but it happened. Now there are many more prominent female choreographers, including our resident choreographer Jennifer Archibald, and I am proud of that.

If you could handpick your successor, what qualities would you look for?

Somebody creative, charged up, and who can be visionary. Someone who has had a high-level experience in our art form. A leader who is demanding but also kind and supportive, and who opens doors to find new ideas while still embracing Cincinnati Ballet's philosophies.

What do you feel will be one of the biggest challenges for the new artistic director?

The important cause of DEIA (diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility). Whoever steps into that position has to have awareness of the culture of today's conversation.

Do you plan to keep choreographing?

I am not being proactive about it, but if the opportunity presents itself, it would be fun.

What's next?

I feel my next calling is bringing movement to the biggest segment of our population, baby boomers. I want to be part of an initiative that makes moving and wellness enjoyable and enlivens people.

Editors' Picks