Going Pro: Backup Dancer

March 18, 2009

L.A. is the place to be if your professional goal is to dance onstage behind your favorite pop star, or appear on MTV. Below are tips on how to make this dream a reality.

The Audition

Most auditions for backup tour and music video dancers are huge cattle calls, though if you have an agent, it’s possible to be part of a smaller audition with other clients from your agency. Don’t plan anything else the day of an audition, as it’s likely you’ll be there all day. Also, be prepared for the recording artist to make an appearance toward the end—you don’t want to look too starstruck when an icon walks through the door.

Always plan on being asked to freestyle as well as to learn a couple of short funk or sexy R&B combinations, but keep in mind that the most marketable dancers are versed in other styles besides jazz and hip hop. Studying flamenco, salsa or African dance can give you an edge. Also, many tours incorporate aerial dance and skills such as stilt walking. Backup dancer Leo Moctezuma explains, “Dancers can’t just be dancers; they need some kind of specialty to stand out.” If you have such a skill, bring a performance reel highlighting your specialty to every audition.

Those casting are more likely to remember your performance than technique level. “I would rather have a dancer come in there dancing his butt off,” says choreographer Shane Sparks, than someone who has mastered the combination but has “no feeling, no drive, no energy.” But don’t confuse confidence with cockiness: “Just be humble,” says choreographer Tone Talauega. “Every dancer can’t get everybody’s style. You’re learning something new every day. I’m still learning.”

Looking the Part

Solid technique won’t get you far in this industry if you don’t look the part. Typecasting, which can mean getting cut as soon as you walk through the door because of your look, is a very real part of backup work.

If you have an agent, you’ll be told what look the casting directors you’re auditioning for want, though you should strive to show your uniqueness even within a given mold. For instance, if you prefer a sexy look, but the part calls for a more athletic persona, you could wear low-rise jeans, sneakers and a corset.

Women should always bring heels—not character shoes, but street pumps you can dance in. And carry a few pairs of cute sneakers—again, not dance sneakers, but street shoes. No matter how well you’ve planned your outfit, it’s important to bring other choices to the audition so you can change if needed, after sizing up the situation. “I have options in the trunk of my car,” says Moctezuma. His bag includes funky, rugged boots as well as a cool pair of sneakers and jazz shoes. Guys should also bring layers (a tank top and a hoodie) and jeans in different sizes and colors.

Along with extra clothes, bring additional headshots and resumés to your audition. Update your photos at least annually. At photo sessions, Brown suggests that you “do all your looks—curly hair, pulled-back hair, straight hair—so you have all these options to match your look that day.” It’s unwise to look one way in a photo and another in real life. Make sure to get full-body shots, too. “[The photo] is the thing that gets you in the door and the last thing they look at after you’re gone,” emphasizes Clear Talent Group agent Brooklyn Lavin.

After Landing The Gig

Shooting a video can take 1-3 days, with lots of time spent waiting around. Dancer Tiana Brown says that backup dancers may be kept into the night because the director “likes to get the artist during the day when he or she is fresh.” Also, expect that only a fraction of the moves you shoot will make it into the final video, “maybe two eight-counts out of 16 eight-counts” that you rehearsed all day, Sparks says.

Before a tour goes on the road, you could rehearse for weeks or even months. Tour contracts generally range from a month to a year, with a different contract for each country. Cancellation clauses, residuals or buyouts, per diem and hazard pay are all negotiable contract items. Tours are some of the best-paying jobs in the industry; videos pay considerably less. Visit dancersalliance.com to learn about pay rates and conditions (particularly for videos).

Michelle Carafano is a freelance writer based in L.A.