Dancing for film and television, plays, or events is an experience that many USA Dance members will never get to have. Here in Los Angeles, though, it's not at all uncommon. My partner and I have been cast as "dance extras" for a feature film and a festival short; have danced to promote Dancing with the Stars, and as part of the entertainment cast for a prominent local charity event; and have danced in a stage production.
If you are interested in such opportunities, here are some tips to help you be prepared the next time a casting call reaches out to the ballroom community!
Work with a regular partner, who is also able/willing to take time off work if need be. Casting directors are not equipped to match up single dancers; they are looking for partnerships in which they don't have to worry that only one person will show up or that partners won't work well together.
Be prepared to work for free – just for fun and the experience. Most short films (and plays) cannot afford to pay extras anything, though they will generally try to feed you. Feature films do pay – sometimes quite generously – but most will require you to be on set for a full day or more.
Be prepared to audition. An audition is often required, even for a no-budget short. That's because the producers are renting space and equipment, and every extra minute they have to spend re-setting a scene or giving direction literally costs them money. If the casting call specifies a period style, be prepared with a routine in the right style and wearing an appropriate costume. Be on time, be prepared to wait, and have a resumé and a head shot. (A YouTube link won't hurt, either.)
Build up a small collection of period costumes. Male dancers, be aware that a modern suit is not going to look right in a film set in the 70s, 50s, 30s, or pre-1900. Ladies, to take advantage of various casting calls, you will most likely want a modern club-style outfit, a 50s-style dress, a flapper dress, and a floor-length ballgown that is adaptable to styles from 1800-1900. The production may or may not provide costumes. It's possible to rent garments like this; but maybe not on short notice, so it can't hurt to have your own. Showing up looking "right" is half the battle.
Have a couple of representative routines in your repertoire. Club dances are likely candidates for a scene requiring dance extras, but I've done scenes explicitly requiring Viennese Waltz. If you are primarily a "club" dancer, you will still need to know how to lead/follow other styles in order to be useful to a casting director.
American style waltz & foxtrot, International style Viennese Waltz, and social cha-cha, rumba, swing, salsa, and Argentine Tango are the most useful dances to have in your pocket, as far as casting directors are concerned.
Block your routine(s) for a crowded, small space. Standard and Smooth dancers, learn to adjust your action so that you can still do a solid, satisfactory waltz or foxtrot in 100 square feet. Excellent social dancers make excellent dance extras!
As a dance extra, you will not be the center of attention.Your dancing will take place behind, or on the sidelines of, the primary action in the scene. Hence: small.
Be prepared to learn, or to produce, choreography. The producers may have a choreographer, but that person may have never worked with ballroom dancers before. Learn the terminology of basic stagecraft and stage dancing, and you will be better positioned to learn from a non-ballroom choreographer. To be an asset to producers, develop choreography skills and/or the ability to freestyle.
Just because the producers are not dance experts, don't assume they don't know what they want. Most directors will have a pretty clear vision of how they want a scene to look. What you do, in that context, has to serve their vision. The scene is never about you (darn it!). If they want the waltz to travel clockwise … make it work.
If you are a "non-traditional" partnership, or if one of you is a body-art devotee, and the project is for certain international markets or a period piece (pre-1970), accept that you will most likely not be cast. Some projects use ballroom dancing as metaphor, use color-blind casting, or otherwise bring modern attitudes to the production; others don't. The more literal the production, the less diversity there will be in the cast. Get the most information about the project that you can, before going out for the audition, to avoid disappointments of this nature.
Understand that filmmaking – even if the film is about dancing! - is not about the dancing. There will be a lot of downtime, there will be repetition, there will be constant changes, and the days may be long. You will need to keep yourself quietly entertained while cameras and lights are set and actors are rehearsed. Chatter on the set is BAD. And there may be nowhere else to go. It is a bit like jury duty. So if you are not actually interested in the process, working as a dance extra may not be for you.
A stage production is even more demanding than film. There are no re-takes in a play; it has to go all the way through even if someone screws up. So preliminary rehearsals are essential, and there may be a lot of them depending on the size of the cast and the complexity of the staging. Before answering a casting call for a stage production, be sure you really want to be available for rehearsal up to several nights a week, plus every night of the performance run, plus costume fittings, photo calls, etc. Again, you'll get the most out of it (and be most valuable to the casting director) if you can be genuinely interested in the process.
If you respond to a casting call through your chapter, always conduct yourself as a representative of USA Dance: your courtesy, discretion, and professionalism will make the organization look good, as well as you!
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USA Dance (Los Angeles County) Chapter #4031
P.O. Box 267
Los Angeles, CA 90078
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