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  • Writer's pictureLinnea Swarting

The Understudy Question- Learning Quickly and Effectively

The question most dancers have asked me (and I was asked recently on instagram) is, "How do I be a good understudy?" To me, “being a good understudy” is synonymous with “being a good dancer.” There are no more wild stories of success linked to going in for a soloist when they are injured- it’s now part of the job description. The same way standards have been raised for increased flexibility and greater technical strength by dancers like Sylvie Guillem or Marianela Nuñez, dancers who have been trying to prove themselves and break out of the corps by “being a good understudy” have raised the standards for all dancers. It is expected that we learn quickly and are ready to go into any role at any time. Just as we push the boundaries on what the human body can do physically, we push what the brain can do- how much choreography can you retain and how fast can you learn it?

I feel like I can say this because I’ve been told it’s my special skill. I have ALWAYS been in the corps- able to go in for any other spot- and an understudy watching several different parts. I don’t say that to brag because I actually think it’s just part of what the job demands. I had a teacher at Boston Ballet School who would have students demonstrate steps, and when the rest of the class applauded them, she would say, “Don’t clap for them- that’s how you’re supposed to do it.”

That’s how I feel about learning choreography. We learn choreography, we rehearse it, and we perform it- there is nothing special about learning. You just have to learn how to learn.

Granted, I will admit there are sometimes that learning repertoire is harder than others. I’ve had ballet masters who just put on a video and say, “Find your girl,” in the corps. Or they teach you the entire piece in silence because “the music annoys them.” So, in these situations, I try my best to enter the room prepared- get to know the music well if you can and watch the video beforehand if it’s available. Honestly, if it’s possible, I try to teach myself the choreography before even going into a rehearsal. This stems from my early years, where I would watch the video of my studio’s Nutcracker and learn all of the roles I hoped to dance before the audition. It was mostly just for fun, because I was optimistic and had dreams, but also proved to be a valuable tool, since I was then more confident in the audition while everyone else was just learning it for the first time.

Usually now as a professional I don’t have the luxury of knowing choreography beforehand (except for the Nutcracker- there's no avoiding the yearly recall of snow and flower corps, or whatever you're normally cast in). I still personally find it easier to learn classical choreography because you can know the music beforehand. If you know you’re doing Sleeping Beauty, you can listen to the score, and when you’re called to learn every divertissement in Act 3, the tracks just flow in your head. Knowing the context of the choreography is also an extremely useful tool in memorizing it. The other really annoying tactic ballet masters occasionally use is teaching new ballets out of order. When I first learned Carmina Burana at Nashville Ballet (I had already seen it as an audience member), I learned the ending first. The whole ballet was split into 25 or 26 sections, and instead of starting at 1 and going to the end, we went 25,26,21,16,1,2,3,6,18, etc. When we finally learned all the sections and the ballet masters said, “Ok let’s run it,” we would all frantically turn to each other between every single section and say, “What comes next?” and only senior company members really knew the answer. BUT, if you know the music well, as I definitely got to during that process, your body and mind automatically know what comes next.

The other thing I often tell people who ask me how to improve their learning ability is not only does the music inform what comes next, it literally tells you what to do. The easiest way to retain choreography is to hear the steps in the music. I learned this from my first ballet teacher, Ms. Pat at New England Academy of Dance back in 1997. I will never forget, clear as day, she said, “If you listen to the music it tells you what to do,” and proceeded to play some classical versions of children’s songs and she would sing along to them. For example, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” would sound like “plié stretch and tendu, close, plié stretch and tendu, close.” That principle guides me to this day (even though the steps and music have become more complex) and I really think I have Ms. Pat and my weird obsession with ballet videos to thank for any kind of skill I have in learning choreography. This even works for contemporary pieces- if there’s no name for a step, you just sing whatever makes you remember the step. That’s why choreographers and contemporary teachers sound crazy when they’re teaching combos and we make fun of them for saying “ba di dahhh da STOP and melt.” But… it works.

Some people also like to write down choreography or make diagrams, and now with phones you can always film something in a rehearsal to review later in the evening. Truthfully, I really don’t do that, but if it works for you then of course I recommend it. Having knowledge of your own learning style is key as a professional. I think the traditional “understudy” would most likely succeed if they’re a visual learner, as it’s a lot of standing in the back and watching the action, but of course auditory and kinetic learners can use their style and make it work. To really make the movement stick in your mind, it takes a combination of the three, and doing the steps even if you’re in the back. Especially when learning details of port de bras or transitions, doing it full out as you’re learning it helps.

This is such a hard topic for me to cover, because I can only speak for how my brain works, but it’s something that a lot people have asked me about. I got a lot of practice learning visually off of videos when I was young, and I was obsessed with classical music, especially pieces I was dancing to. Of course, it all comes easier now with years of experience. YEARS of standing in the back and praying for an opportunity to go in. Years of being moved around in the corps because of injuries or rechoreographing that forces you to just learn every spot. You eventually pick up on patterns, you learn both sides at the same time because you know it’s the same thing just on the other leg, you watch the person who is most likely to miss rehearsal and make sure that’s the first spot you learn. Dancers have to be smart, but in reality, it’s really not that hard. Just stay calm and do your job.

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