Dancing for Disney

November 5, 2008

Maybe it was a family vaca, with mom and dad toting you along to ride the teacups. Or it might have been the first time you saw Cinderella’s big puffy dress at the ball on the silver screen. It might have even been last week, when you were watching High School Musical for the umpteenth time. The magic of Disney caught you. Good news: It’s easier than ever to blend your love for the mouse with your love of dancing house, by getting a job dancing for one of Disney’s many parks or cruises. With new programs underway to connect the many stages Disney offers, from theme parks to cruise ships to conservatories, you can end up with a solid gig that could lead to an even bigger future. No glass slippers required.

A Walk in the Park

Hidden amongst the rides and shiny castles are a wealth of performing venues for dancers in hundreds of productions. Opportunities vary from park to park (see “Getting the Gig,” p. 70, for audition info). At Tokyo Disney, the show Under the Sea has Ariel flying above the audience—which means aerial training is a plus. Nearby, a 1940s-style big band review requires lots of jazz, while One Man’s Dream, which features dancing princesses and princes, demands strong technique, including ballet.


Disney casting directors emphasize that candidates need versatility. Sonia Jesso, 37, who’s been performing at the Magic Kingdom in Orlando since she was 25, dances in up to eight shows a day, four days a week. Her audition included ballet, musical theater and tap. While she credits her strong ballet foundation—she started when she was 3—with enabling her to master a range of styles, as a dance captain she emphasizes that prospective dancers must have more than one strength. “To perform for Disney, your best asset is to be well-versed,” she says. “Train with as many people in as many styles as you can.” Leah Lowman, 22, who performs in the Magic Kingdom’s Enchanted Adventures Parade, agrees with Jesso. “You can’t just do one type of dancing,” she says. “There are so many shows and parades I want to be in, so it’s in my best interest to master as many things as I possibly can.”

You Are Who You Play

Like many Disney dancers, Jesso enjoys the audiences who come ready to believe in what’s onstage. “I love seeing the wonder in the children’s eyes,” she says. Disneyland Resort and Tokyo Disney Resort casting director Daniel Solis started out as a Disneyland performer and remembers that feeling. “I played Aladdin, and when I came onstage, little kids would say, ‘There’s Aladdin. Hi, Aladdin!’ They think you are the character,” he says. Dancers who perform as a character must stay in character at all times. Lowman, who dances as a character in certain parades, can’t even tell anyone which one she portrays! “It’s just the Disney magic,” she says.


Audience enthusiasm helps dancers with some of the challenges of performing outdoors. “Disney is an amazing training ground because it’s difficult to perform five shows a day in the heat of summer,” says Solis. “When you’re tired and you hear that little kid call your name and you know that families have saved up for a year to spend a day at Disney, it becomes so easy to do those shows.”


But even that enthusiasm can’t always compensate for some of the rigors. “We try to limit the performers’ challenges,” says Michelle Baron, manager of outreach, recruitment and diversity for Disney Parks Talent Casting. “But challenges come in when you perform outside. The stage could be wonderful but it could be humid or hot. Sometimes the audience is distracted—they’re eating ice cream or popcorn or a train goes by.”


Salaries vary widely for dancers. There are different levels of opportunity within the parks, with stage shows paying more than parades and requiring different auditions. Jesso, for instance, who performs in Dream Along With Mickey, is an Equity member and a full-time employee. Some park opportunities are seasonal, and some pay only minimum wage.


If you’ve always dreamed of living abroad, Disney recruits in the U.S. as well as locally. American dancers who perform in the Tokyo park get a daily allowance on top of their salaries, so they often can save a fair amount of what they earn. And while working in a Disney theme park could seem like the most American of jobs, in reality you have a lot of opportunities to absorb a different culture. “Even between shows in the break room, you sit among cast members from the native country, and they want to know about American pop stars and movies,” says Solis. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to have a cultural exchange.”

Cruisin’ Together

If you think your dancing feet could double as sea legs, Disney Cruise Line, which currently has two ships, could be your perfect gig. Each ship puts on three full-scale productions per cruise, as well as opening and closing night numbers and a deck party celebration. The cast will vary based on the specific show and talents of the performers, so it pays to be well-rounded. Don’t be surprised if you’re asked to sing!


Ron LaRosa, global talent casting consultant for Disney Creative Entertainment, holds open-call auditions in cities like NYC, Toronto and L.A. Dancers are hired for 71⁄2-month contracts. There are two or three shows a day, and performers don’t have additional “cruise staff” duties.


LaRosa looks for dancers with a mix of ballet and jazz skills and a strong performance style. “Our audiences are families and children,” says LaRosa. “If I can’t take my eyes off of someone while they are dancing, neither will our audiences.”


The shows typically have high production values. “They’re written, directed and choreographed by first-rate creative teams that have worked on Broadway, Academy Award–winning films and on television,” LaRosa says. “Our stages are equipped with hydraulic lifts, flying rigs, and Broadway-quality sound and lighting.”


Dancers aboard even have the chance to hone their skills for when they leave the ship. “We have begun a program where Broadway casting directors come on board to lead master classes for our performers to keep their audition skills in shape for their return to land,” LaRosa explains.


Beyond the Park

The Disney empire reaches beyond the bounds of park and boat, but Broadway, films and television are cast through independent agencies. However, Baron says they are working to change that.


Dancers are often surprised at how long they end up staying with Disney. Jesso, for instance, has been at Disney World since 1996. “The most gratifying part is performing,” she says. “I’m paid to dance every day with my friends.”


Lowman echoes her feelings. “This job is the most amazing thing I’ve ever done,” she says. “You perform and every day you make someone happy. It really is magical.”