Known for their flexible skill set, excellent technique, tireless stamina, and copious live performance experience, backup dancers support major recording artists in concerts, tours, and music videos. In this gig-based field, there are opportunities for performers from a range of backgrounds to find work: from highly educated dancers who have trained from birth to relative newcomers scouted from clubs and universities. However, that's not to suggest that this business is forgiving; the world of background dance is fast-paced and competitive, and those who make it their career must work tirelessly to keep up.
While beginners might get away with substituting charisma and appeal for dedicated training, anyone hoping for a long-term career as a backup dancer must thoroughly learn the four critical dance styles: ballet, hip-hop, jazz, and modern. Once they've mastered those, backup dancers are always on the lookout for something to grant an edge over the competition, be it a difficult move, a particular movement style like tap or mime, or a highly complementary skill like acting or singing. In fact, almost all of a backup dancer's time while not working is spent taking classes to learn new techniques, practicing to keep up their skills, and working out to stay in shape. Professional development is constant, lest backup dancers risk falling behind.
At a Glance
Backup dancers have a wide range of backgrounds and aspirations. Some train their whole lives, while others discover dance as young adults. Some see backup dance as a way to pay the bills, while others are aiming for the limelight, seeking to emulate the backup-dancer-turned-star trajectory charted by people like Jennifer Lopez. A number cross over from working as theatrical ensemble dancers. Regardless, all but the luckiest dancers must start by proving themselves in the battle royale of open auditions. Those who land gigs and perform well gain access to new opportunities and connections, until eventually they spend more time in closed auditions than open ones. Inevitably, the best of the best rise to the top; dancers who form a bond of trust with a specific recording artist might become dance captains—a position prized for its security in this gig-based field—while those who prefer to remain free agents might become highly sought-after performers and even celebrities in their own right.
It must be said that even the most successful backup dance careers end eventually. The job is highly taxing on the body, leading most professional dancers to move away from performance by their forties if not sooner. After retiring from performance, dancers might reinvent themselves as choreographers, form their own dance companies, or shift towards careers as dance teachers, movement coaches, physical therapists, or dance therapists. Additionally, those with high-profile careers and large followings might move into the entertainment industry, becoming actors or media personalities.
Auditions are the sole way to get hired as a backup dancer, and they come in two varieties: open, which means accessible to all and therefore crowded and time-consuming; and closed, which means only for those with solid connections or a great reputation. Stamina, cleverness, and charm are key in open auditions, in which backup dancers seek to distinguish themselves over the course of as many as three 10-hour days. Websites like Backstage can be useful for finding open auditions.
In addition to putting their all into mastering the art of the audition—particularly the ability to quickly learn and perform new choreography—aspiring backup dancers should create a portfolio or website with videos that showcase their work, build a detailed dance resumé, and get headshots and full-body photographs taken. Networking is another major tool; one never knows when another dancer might pass along an audition, or even choose their own replacement when forced to drop out of a gig. Finally, an excellent agent or agency can help dancers to negotiate contracts, find auditions, and get paid properly after a gig. Like everything else in this field, partnering with an agency generally requires—you guessed it—more auditions.
- Quick to pick up and memorize new choreography
- Takes direction well
- Experience with live performance and touring
- Exceptional fitness and strength
- Collaboration (esp. synchronization)
- Verbal communication
Backup dancers are in many ways defined by their flexibility, curiosity, and persistence. Constantly learning new skills and improving old ones in order to broaden their capabilities and be more appealing to choreographers, backup dancers rarely sit idle. Of course, they must have an excellent sense of rhythm, flawless technique, and an intuitive ability to synchronize with other performers, but all of this is useless if backup dancers can't take direction and make quick adjustments based on the choreographer's feedback. Finally, this is a career in which attitude and style are really important—if two dancers are equal in skill, then the choreographer will probably take the one whose style suits the video, who really sells their dance moves with energy or enthusiasm, or who simply seems a more pleasant partner for a long rehearsal, tour, or shoot.