How to Bluster Your Way Through the Dance Component of a Musical Theatre Audition When You Are a Troublingly Inflexible Non-Dancer With No Choreographic Memory
One thing about me is that I seem like I should be good at certain things I am not good at. I am tall and have long hair, so occasionally someone who is good at taking photos suggests taking some photos of me, thinking I'm going to be photogenic and they’ll end up with something nice to put on their website. The joke is on them because I am one of the least photogenic women I know, hopeless in front of a camera; I inevitably look wooden, desperate or drunk. Good photos of me exist, but they are the tip of an iceberg, and the bottom of the iceberg is comprised of thousands of photographs of me unintentionally bulging my eyes, retracting my chin into my neck, creating the intriguing illusion that I only have one tooth, slumping gormlessly or even just trying really hard to smile nicely but somehow still looking as if I’m attempting to communicate to the photographer that I have been kept in a basement for thirteen years.
I also seem like I am a good dancer. I am not a good dancer. What I am is an excitable dancer, and unpolluted by fear in a way that fails to extend to other aspects of my life. This lack of fear is easily confused for competence. I also have a reasonable sense of balance, which means I’m good at almost falling over and salvaging the situation at the last minute then pretending I did it on purpose, and I have discovered that many people confuse this, too, for talent.
Balance and an improvisational spirit can get you a long way in a room full of people who clap on one and three, but years of degrading recreational dance classes have taught me that you can’t fake someone else’s steps. My favourite dance class I ever took was 1960s go-go, and I’m pretty sure this was because you do not really need classes to do 1960s go-go. What happens in a 1960s go-go class is basically that someone says “here’s how you do a Pony, here’s the Monkey, aaaand now it’s time for the Watusi. Now mix it up. Add some personal flavour, or don’t, whatever. Okay, go.” And off we would trot. You couldn’t really get it wrong unless you absentmindedly swept into a pasa doble.
I did swing dance for a little while, just a few months, and I really enjoyed it but after a while I realised the guys I was partnered with didn’t. “Please just let me lead you,” they would say, and I recognised the look in their eyes. It was the same one as when I tried to smile nicely for photographers.
“I don’t know how,” I would say, “I’m sorry.” I really was.
I also have hamstrings that could make a late-career physiotherapist weep. People laugh at me when I try to do Pilates, then are silenced and shamed as they realise I am not being deliberately comedic. Making me sit upright with my legs outstretched in front of me probably violates some kind of human rights treaty. “Dad,” I said one time, certain that Dr Dale was about to dispense some wisdom that would change my dancing ability forever, “what do you reckon's the best way to improve my hamstring flexibility?”
“Doubt you can do much about that at all,” said my dad. “Short hamstrings in our family.”
(More recently my dad informed me that we are good at processing dietary fibre in our family so I suppose it all balances out.)
Anyway, I evidently chose to ignore all of these things when I decided on a whim to audition for a West Australian production of CATS. I have terrible taste and therefore have always loved CATS, ever since I was four years old and had one of those juvenile interspecies crushes on Magical Mister Mistoffelees, but knew I would never be in it, because I couldn’t really dance and besides I was a folk singer-songwriter, not a musical theatre performer.
For some reason I disregarded all that once I saw the audition notice. “Sure, I’m not a trained dancer,” I told M., “but I can move okay, and hell, I can sing pretty good these days.” He seemed confused but supportive.
I booked an audition slot. Then I Googled lots of articles on how to get better at learning choreography. They all seemed to be geared at someone who was capable of learning many dance routines in a day, and just needed that extra push to get them from ten to twelve. This was, I realised, not me.
I Googled “how to get good at choreography quickly when you are really bad at choreography and also not a dancer.”
I Googled, “how to bluster your way through the dance component of a musical theatre audition when you are a troublingly inflexible non-dancer with no choreographic memory.”
I found a bunch of clips of routines on YouTube - mostly Broadway jazz and contemporary - and tried to learn them. This was very hard. I stopped searching for ‘intermediate’ and started searching for ‘easy’ and finally, crushingly, ‘beginners’. I discovered that not only was I struggling to recall the choreo moments after I learnt it, but I found it almost impossible to break down the steps and work out what was happening at all. If someone told me three months prior, “show me your best Bob Fosse,” I feel like I could have rendered a ballsy if inaccurate approximation, but here I was barely able to execute a step-ball-change even with the expansive, infinitely babying support of the information superhighway behind me.
I considered cancelling my audition slot.
I decided against it, just on the off-chance that the audition material might be easy. What I would do was turn up for the dance workshop and, if it proved to be the hellish experience I was anticipating, I would cut and run. Just go to the toilet and never come back, like a cat (topical!) in the night. Perhaps I would make a courtesy call to let them know that my slot was free once I was safely away from the audition room. Or perhaps not. Perhaps I would leave the whole nightmare behind me like the inconsiderate, terrible dancer I was.
I went to the audition.
When I entered the rehearsal studio I noticed that everyone was thinner, more flexible and seemingly seven to ten years younger than me. Perhaps this was a play for children and I had fatally misunderstood the audition notice. I immediately reconsidered the cut and run option, but while I was making my mind up the audition warm-up had begun.
We started learning the routine. The first two bars were perfectly manageable! I just had to crouch down into a squat and do a feline sort of thing with my hands and face! This was going to be okay after all! I was going to be a cat!
The routine got slightly trickier. High kicks were introduced. An impressive sea of legs went whizzing past ears. My foot barely went past my knee in a gentle, controlled motion (short hamstrings).
Pirouettes were introduced.
“Do as many as you can fit in comfortably with the music,” said the instructor kindly. “Two is okay.” I noticed the girls behind me practising three, then four. Unable to manage anything more or less, I settled on one and a quarter, so I consistently faced the wrong wall at the end of the turn.
“Don’t worry if you can’t exactly remember the routine,” said the instructor. “Just try to move well.”
That was what Google said, too. I decided to be the boldest, most stylish human pretending to be a cat the world had ever seen. Perhaps the audition panel wouldn’t notice that what I was dancing was not actually the routine.
We rehearsed it over and over. After the eighteenth run-through I wondered if perhaps I was starting to remember it, or at least parts of it.
“Great,” said the instructor. “That’s it from me, but feel free to practise on your own until you’re called in.”
I nodded. I was feeling good. I attempted the routine on my own and discovered I had already forgotten it.
A frighteningly short amount of time later, I was called in for my audition. I handed my sheet music to the pianist and sang sixteen bars of “Tell Me on a Sunday.” I felt a rare confidence come over me. I sounded good.
The panel eyed me warmly.
“Gorgeous,” said the choreographer.
“Very, very nice,” said the producer.
“I love that song,” said the director, closing his eyes briefly.
I am a genius, I thought.
“Give us the second song, and don’t be afraid to act for this one. Move a little, if you like.”
I sang my second song - one from the show as requested, “Macavity”. My voice felt powerful and smoky and expressive. I may have, at one point, curled my arm into a theatrical claw-like motion. I was a cat, a performing cat, a sexy cabaret cat with a bad attitude.
(I always find it kind of joyfully fucked up how, if you ask anyone the question, “what’s sexier: a dog or a cat?”, everyone realises they know the answer straight away.)
“Great. That’s great. I think we’ve heard enough. Now, are you ready to dance for us?”
I realised then that I had left it too late to run out of the room. Perhaps I could do it once the music started, but the door might be locked and then I really would be embarrassed. I stood fixed to the spot.
The music started and, unexpectedly, the moves we’d learnt in rehearsal began to flow through my body, strong and liquid. Five seconds passed, and ten, and I was I was feline, snarling, dynamic; my body was weaponised. The panel was looking at me with some interest. I was a dancer; I was a queen. I was a fucking star. I promptly forgot the next part of the routine.
I sort of wiggled kittenishly on the spot for a bit, trying not to panic, which was a piece of advice I had encountered in my ceaseless Googling. Then I remembered a bit more of the routine. Ahh, I thought, getting into the movements again, a mere hiccup, by which I shall demonstrate my resilience.
I danced on for an exhilarating two to three seconds, then forgot the next bit. I wiggled some more in as aggressive and feline a manner as I could muster.
“That’s good,” said the choreographer encouragingly, “keep going, make it up if you have to.”
I don’t remember what I did next, but if I had to guess I would guess this: I went back to the start of the choreography, repeated it, got lost in exactly the same place, then wiggled hopefully until fade out.
“Great,” said the choreographer with superhuman patience, looking at my CV. “So, you don’t have a great deal of professional dance experience, is that correct?”
“That…………………………... is correct,” I said.
“But a few classes here and there.”
“Uhh, yep.” I did not clarify that the majority of said lessons took place before I was ten years old.
“You know,” she said, “you’ve got a dancer’s look about you, the right sort of build.”
I just about died. This was the best thing anyone ever said to me. I had spent most of my life trying to trick people into telling me I looked like a dancer, at least sartorially, by wearing leotards and tights-as-tops with inappropriate regularity. I certainly wasn’t rail-thin or delicate or anything your average person might associate with a dancer's build, but here was the most dancer-y person I had ever met telling me otherwise, and who was I to doubt her? Even now, when I am feeling terrible about myself and my life, I sometimes remember being told that I have that dancer’s look about me by a Choreographer of Note, and know that my life to date has not been lived in vain.
She continued. “You just need to get your confidence up a bit.”
It seemed to me the problem was not a dearth of confidence so much as an excess of it, which was what had prompted me to audition for a principal role in a dance-based musical in first place, but I smiled modestly, as if perhaps she was right and the only thing standing between myself and a flawlessly executed audition had been a little dose of self-belief.
I was notified of a callback three days later. I wondered what kind of shonky operation I had got myself into.
The second rehearsal session went much as the first had - a swelling sense of apocalyptic doom followed by a surge of confidence as I mastered some small aspect of the routine, rinse and repeat.
We auditioned in groups this time. I shuffled towards the back of the group. “Caroline, to the front please,” they said.
I danced for about five seconds before screwing the routine up, but at least I could watch the other dancers in the room in the mirror this time and copy them. They were awfully good. How on earth had they learnt this routine so quickly? They were wizard people. Dancers were freaks, I adored and worshipped them, and I regretted that they had to see me like this. I looked forward to being delicately thrown out of the room and never having to go through this humiliation again.
“Again,” they said. “Front row, to the back.”
I moved gratefully to the back of the room where, buoyed by the confidence of invisibility, I messed up slightly less.
“Great. Caroline, to the front again.”
I messed up at once, boldly and stylishly.
“Front row to the back. Caroline, stay in the front.”
I messed up, but not immediately. I was starting to remember the first thirty seconds of the routine now, at least. Perhaps if we did this another four hundred times I would start to remember the rest.
“And again. Caroline, stay in the front.”
I don’t think I danced that routine through once without fucking it up, but by the end of that group audition I was so at one with humiliation that I stopped caring. I was flailing my limbs into erroneous shapes with as much devil-may-care bravado as I could. My presence in the room felt so blatantly farcical that I was teetering on the brink of having fun. The panel smiled at us.
“Good,” they said. “We’ll be in touch.”
I found out a week later that I had been cast as Demeter, the part I wanted so badly I couldn’t admit it out loud. I never really adjusted to the shock of someone being permitted to dance in front of a paying public. It still surprises me a little to think of it, which usually happens when I’m at the beginners dance class I go to once a week, struggling and failing to force myself into a downward dog.
You cannot Google your way through the dance component of a musical theatre audition.
My hamstrings never really improved, not after months of stretching.
I was vaguely fit at the time, which probably helped a bit.
To date I cannot perform an adequate pirouette or chaîné. I firmly believe spotting is a myth.
The thing about being a confident improviser is true though.
Make sure they don’t lock the audition room door so you can run out if you need to.
Be good at singing.
“You really looked at home up there,” said one of my friends, after one of the shows, “You sounded great. And you were dancing! I could hardly believe it was you!”
“Ahh, well,” I said modestly, “they made it easy for me. They’re very clever at choreographing for your strengths. Or around your weaknesses, in my case, hahaha.”
I looked around the bar: one of those wonderful decrepit theatre bars, a tiered mezzanine of vile carpet, velvet ottomans and marbled perspex tabletops. It was packed and noisy, and other side of the room could see members of my cat family, traces of whiskers still visible on their faces, clutching armloads of bouquets and chattering to audience members animatedly. I felt very happy.
“Yeah,” said another friend, whom I have since severed from my life for unrelated reasons, “you really were in the back for quite a lot of the dance numbers, I noticed.”
“Yes,” I glowed, adjusting my fake eyelashes. “I really was, wasn’t I.”