A cast of courtiers watch former PNB principal Kaori Nakamura and Lucien Postlewaite in "Don Quixote." Photo by Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB.

Smile! You're Living Scenery: Finding the Silver Lining in Non-Dancing Roles

Everyone has to start somewhere. It's a mantra you may repeat to yourself time and time again when you see your name next to less-than-desirable roles on the cast list. Perhaps it's the townsperson, the courtier or the garland girl—that character that makes you feel more like part of the scenery than part of the company. Some dancers seem to leapfrog over or power through this initiation stage, getting cast in featured roles during their first professional season. But the majority of us have to come to terms with standing by the backdrop for a few years, mime-clapping for the soloists at the front.

No matter what stage you are at in your career, you've likely dealt with the frustration of being cast in small dance-sparse roles. But these three dancers show that remaining positive in the face of disappointing casting pays off, both for your peace of mind and your future opportunities.

Confidence When It Counts

For sixth-year Ballet West corps member Ronald Tilton, his average role is higher up the totem pole than it used to be. For example, last season he performed Death in Kurt Jooss' The Green Table. But he's no stranger to being "the guy in the goofy wig literally standing there for half an hour." The Sleeping Beauty was one of his first full-length ballets when he joined the company, and he remembers struggling to simply remain motionless onstage as a courtier. "I thought I was standing still," he says, "but then over the God mic they said, 'Ron. Don't. Move.' "

Tilton has since mastered the art of micromovements so as to not conspicuously squirm, but performing supernumerary parts "where you hand a stick to the prince and that's your role," has had other valuable lessons. Namely, not to get dispirited. "It's important to want to dance more, but not get discouraged when you're not," Tilton says. He finds that walking into a little role with the goal to kill it, no matter what it is, not only impresses your director, but the can-do attitude will also become a healthy habit, building your confidence stores for when you do land that coveted featured part.

Act Like You Mean It

Acting isn't always taught in school, says Orlando Ballet dancer Blair Bagley, but it's something that you'll call upon at every stage in your career. She says that when American Ballet Theatre ballet mistress Susan Jones came to set Don Quixote on Orlando Ballet in 2016, she told a story about a corps member making it into a newspaper review for his acting in the background. The skills translate when you graduate from townsperson to featured dancer, Bagley notes.

Yet in a company without ranks, where everyone technically has a fair shot at featured parts, it can feel harder to come to terms with being cast in small non-dancing roles. Bagley says it comes down to putting in your time. She worked her way up from Orlando Ballet II to joining the main company in 2012. Once there, her lot often amounted to roles like "friend" in Romeo and Juliet, "village person" in nearly every ballet in the classical cannon or "flower" (with a costume that looked more like grass) in Peter and the Wolf. "I wasn't born with crazy feet and legs," she says, noting that her rise to roles like Dew Drop in The Nutcracker and pas de trois in Swan Lake hasn't been meteoric.

"You have to swallow your pride.

Being the girl in the corner crying about your role

is not going to help." —Blair Bagley

But hard work and keeping a good attitude have made all the difference. "You have to swallow your pride," she admits. "Being the girl in the corner crying about your role is not going to help." Her advice? Take a moment if you need to upon first reading the casting, but then keep your head up, do your job and keep smiling. When you look back on this time in your career, you'll be a lot happier with yourself if you had a good attitude.

Patience and Purpose

First year Pacific Northwest Ballet corps member Amanda Morgan sometimes finds herself in an awkward position during casting. "I'm the only black woman in my company right now, and I'm also very tall," she says. On the one hand, she acknowledges that these things have helped her stand out—as an apprentice she got to perform the character Rosalia in West Side Story Suite—but it also means she's sometimes left out of the action altogether. Because of her height (about 5' 11"), she says, "I'm not always used for a lot of corps stuff."

Thus, Morgan has learned to appreciate every moment she gets to be onstage. It's also key for her to have an open dialogue with her boss. "I've had this talk with my director so many times, to just be patient," she says. "Some people move fast up the ranks, and for other people it takes more time. I don't know what's going to happen for me, but I'm taking it day by day."

And in Morgan's opinion, a back-seat view is underrated. As onstage "scenery"—a gypsy in the background during Don Quixote's wedding scene, for example—she's perfectly placed to watch and learn from the principals dancing mere feet away. She also loves the camaraderie of being part of a town scene or corps. No matter how much dancing a role requires, she says, "it's about making something beautiful, something bigger than yourself."

Latest Posts

James Barkley, Courtesy Dance for Change

Take Class From Celebrated Black Dancers and Raise Money for the NAACP Through Dance for Change

Since the nationwide fight against racial inequality took center stage in May, organizations across the dance world have been looking for meaningful ways to show their support, rather than fall back on empty social media signifiers. July 10-11, Diamante Ballet Dancewear is taking action with Dance for Change, a two-day event dedicated to fundraising for the NAACP, and amplifying the voices of Black professional dancers.

Organized by Diamante Ballet Dancewear's founder, Nashville Ballet 2 dancer Isichel Perez, and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre teacher Elise Gillum, Dance for Change makes it easy to participate. Dancers need only to make a donation to the NAACP (in any amount) and email proof to diamante.ballet@gmail.com to be given online access to a full schedule of Zoom master classes taught by Black pros artists. Teachers include Ballet Memphis' George Sanders, Boston Ballet's Daniel Durrett, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Corey Bourbonniere, and more. "It's important that we amplify BIPOC voices during this time, and it's also important that we're conscious of where we're putting our dollars," says Bourbonniere. "Diamante is doing both with Dance for Change, and I'm honored to be in this talented group of melanated dancers."

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Vikki Sloviter

Sydney Dolan Takes Center Stage at Pennsylvania Ballet

This is Pointe's Summer 2020 cover story. You can subscribe to the magazine here, or click here to purchase this issue.

Just days before the world shuttered under the strain of the coronavirus pandemic, and the curtain came down indefinitely on dance companies everywhere, Pennsylvania Ballet soloist Sydney Dolan debuted Gamzatti in La Bayadère with captivating ease. Her jumps soared, her technique was sound, and her cheeky smile paired with exquisite port de bras was beguiling. Though she didn't know the company would soon cancel the remainder of its season, her beautiful performance acted as a kind of send-off into the unknown.

Dolan's career could be described in one word: charmed. At just 19 years old, she's flown through the ranks at PAB, debuted a long list of roles, won a Princess Grace Award and been named one of Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch." Yet it's her challenges that have shaped not only her training but her outlook, giving her a solid foundation for becoming one of Pennsylvania Ballet's rising stars.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Courtesy de Roos

SAB Student Founds Dancewear Nonprofit to Help Others in Need

When School of American Ballet student Alexandra de Roos was 8 years old, she placed a collection box at her dance studio for others to donate their gently used dancewear. De Roos, now 17, has since turned that single collection box into a nonprofit organization that aims to minimize economic barriers in the performing arts with free dancewear and classes.

De Roos' organization, Peace Love Leotards, has collected about $2,600 of new and gently-used dancewear and $2,000 in grants and donations since formally launching in April. Dancers or studio owners can request items through a form on the organization's website.

"I knew that dancewear was really expensive and that a lot of students might not be able to do the thing that they love because it's cost-prohibitive," de Roos said. "I really wanted to create something to allow people to have the same experience of the love and joy of dance that I've been so grateful to have."

After SAB shifted its winter term online amid the COVID-19 pandemic, de Roos decided to expand Peace Love Leotards. She reached out to dance companies, resulting in partnerships with brands including Jo+Jax, Lone Reed Designs, RubiaWear and Wear Moi.

"To have them be like 'We want to help you with this and we love this idea and what you're doing is amazing,' that was really exciting to me," she said. "It was very heartwarming."

Jordan Reed, the creator of custom dancewear brand Lone Reed Designs, said she has donated seven items to Peace Love Leotards with plans to donate more consistently every quarter. Custom leotards often retail at higher prices, but Reed, a former Houston Ballet corps member, said the one-of-a-kind clothing offers an "extra bit of confidence, which can go more than a long way in a dancer's journey of training."

Paul Plesh, a sales director for Wear Moi in the United States and Canada, said the company donated 11 leotards after finding Peace Love Leotards' mission to be "commendable." Joey Dowling-Fakhrieh, the founder and creative director of Jo+Jax, said dancewear "can make a significant impact on a student's confidence, as well as how much they enjoy the process of learning dance."

De Roos has worked to expand Peace Love Leotards, Inc. rapidly in the past few months, but she first created the organization at eight years old after participating in a mentorship program with competitors in the Miss Florida and Miss Florida's Outstanding Teen pageants. The pageants, which are part of the Miss America Organization, require competitors to have personal platforms they advocate for as titleholders. As a competition dancer, de Roos instantly thought about the cost barriers to dance when wondering what her own future platform would be.

De Roos said she and her young classmates often outgrew nearly brand-new dancewear, so she approached her studio's owner about placing a collection box at the studio.

Barbara Mizell, who owns Barbara's Centré for Dance in Florida, said she was unsurprised by de Roos' proposal. De Roos always had "such a way of pushing herself and she never forgot those around her," Mizell said. As the box filled up, she distributed the dancewear to others at the studio, local schools with dance programs, and the local YMCA.

"When they could start to see that it was providing happiness for others, then it was almost like the kids couldn't wait to donate," Mizell said.

Nearly a decade after the Miss Florida organization inspired her to launch Peace Love Leotards, de Roos is now a titleholder herself, as Miss Gainesville's Outstanding Teen 2020. Her new mission for Peace Love Leotards is applying for grants, and she has already received a $1,000 grant from the Delores Barr Weaver Legacy Fund that will be used to fund a Title 1 school class.

"The whole organization behind Peace Love Leotards is the dancers," de Roos said. "Being able to help the dancers that are in need and being able to think about the dancewear that they're going to be receiving or have received has been truly amazing."

Editors' Picks