Going Pro: Film

March 18, 2009

Films have become a coveted source of employment for professional dancers of every stripe. Here’s what you need to know about the biz.

Give and Take

For most movies, dance segments will be rehearsed daily for about a month prior to shooting. Expect to be paid for all rehearsals, unless it’s a nonunion, low-budget or independent project, in which case it’s a good idea to negotiate compensation in detail ahead of time. Once shooting begins, be adaptable and a quick study, as a director may make changes on the spot, says John “Cha Cha” O’Connell, choreographer for Disney’s Enchanted, starring Amy Adams and Patrick Dempsey (set for a November 2007 release at press time). “A director will throw something to the choreographer and the choreographer will throw it at you in two and a half seconds and you have to pull it together,” explains LaJon Dantzler, a dancer in an urban dance film titled Stomp the Yard starring Columbus Short and Ne-Yo that is due out in 2007. “You can’t complain and say ‘but we didn’t rehearse!’”

Life On Set

Grueling schedules are common. Some days, you may be on set for 12 hours, but only dance for 30 minutes, while on other days, you may dance a small section repeatedly for long periods of time. “The guiding principle on film sets is hurry up and wait,” says choreographer Daniel Ezralow. “You may be asked to dance something [full] out once for the camera, and then need to re–warm up three hours later when they actually shoot it.” In general, each dance segment will be shot a minimum of 10 times, says choreographer Shane Sparks (You Got Served). Directors need to amass footage as well as capture scenes from a number of different angles—and each take must be danced precisely the same way. Later, only one take may be used, or the scene may be edited out altogether.

Be prepared by keeping your body warm and by avoiding taking too many breaks, so you’re always ready to go when “action” is called. “Economize your energy—don’t get sucked in by the nervous tension of what’s going on around you,” says Ezralow. “Get into a private sense of calm about things, and keep in mind that this film is going to be released a year from now and seen by millions of people—it’s not about what’s happening that day.” Some dancers opt against taking on other dance projects during shooting. “Theater is intense, but you have your call time and you get into the weekly rhythm,” says Enchanted dancer Marcus Choi, 28. “On a set, you know that it’s going to be a couple of weeks or months of working ’round the clock and you won’t have time for much else.” Limit your number of late nights out, get plenty of rest and eat well during filming.

Precision Technique

You may have to make your movements smaller for the camera than you would in a theater, because there isn’t a great distance between you and the audience. “It’s a question of clarity,” says Enchanted associate choreographer Maria Torres. “The dancing on film has to be clearer, because the camera forces the viewer’s eyes directly to you, whereas in a theater, the audience has more control over what they notice.”

Getting Hired

Find an agent, join SAG.
An agent can get you seen by casting directors, while Screen Actors Guild membership will give you access to films that only hire union dancers—not to mention protection from poor working conditions. Keep in mind, however, that joining a union too early in your career may prevent you from being able to participate in nonunion projects that can help to build your resumé.

Treat everyone like the director.
You never know if the person checking you in at the audition table will be judging you later on that day (or further in the future), so be courteous and professional to everyone.

Be prepared for the process.
“Auditions usually start off by making a general assessment of the talent, which can take awhile, depending on how large the turnout is,” says Enchanted associate choreographer Maria Torres. First, casting personnel may look for technical precision, expression and an ability to pick up choreography, while attitude, stamina, ability to retain information and how you handle choreography may be evaluated at final callbacks.

Be versatile.
Make yourself employable by being proficient in as many disciplines as possible, says choreographer Shane Sparks. “You don’t want to hurt your career because you didn’t take jazz, ballet or ballroom,” he adds. “The ability to adapt is important for people looking to get jobs on film. Even hip hop is [mixing with] everything from jazz to salsa; the labels are gradually becoming extinct.”

Think of film auditions as interviews.
Research ahead of time, and follow casting notices. Some dancers prefer to dress in character, but this usually isn’t necessary. “Do whatever helps you be more present,” says Ezralow. “Dressing in character might help, because it’s an investigation into the role, but for a lot of dancers, it ends up being a crutch that they rely on, mistakenly thinking that it’s going to win them extra points at an audition, regardless of how they perform.”

Working in film is a chance to interact with artists you wouldn’t otherwise meet, so be sure to network on set. It may be the key to getting your next gig.