Musical Theater and Dance: How Good Do You Need to Be to Make It on Broadway?

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Photo Source: “Book of Mormon” Credit: Joan Marcus

It seems like all the performers are dancing these days—including legendary park and barker Jeremy Jordan, who broke out some moves for Broadway’s “The Great Gatsby” (leading to the joke that his “finally dancing in a musical” caused an earthquake in NYC). As the landscape of theater shifts from year to year, many stage actors may wonder if they’re versatile and talented enough as dancers. And even if you have all the ingredients to be a good dancer—singers have a great understanding of rhythm, after all—that doesn’t mean you’re ready to jump into a production of “A Chorus Line.” If you want to know how good you need to be at dancing to make it in musical theater, read on.

What is musical theater dance?

Musical theater dance is the type of dancing—usually ballet, jazz, hip-hop, or tap—used in choreographed sequences for musical theater. Once upon a time, in the Golden Age of Broadway, there were two ensembles: a singing ensemble and a dancing ensemble. But eventually producers got wise and realized it was pretty expensive to hire completely separate groups of people to cover the two jobs when they could just find half the number of (incredibly talented) people to do both at once. And it wasn’t without its benefits since it is pretty exciting to watch an army of ensemble members bust out singing and dancing in a high-energy opening number influenced by the following styles. 

Ballet: Although waning in popularity, most musical theater dance has ballet at its core. The poise, strength, and technique learned in ballet provides a wonderful foundation for any musical theater performer, regardless of whether they become proficient in the style. While ballet in its purest form isn’t seen on stage as often anymore—gone are the days of the dream ballet seen in “Oklahoma,” “West Side Story,” and “Carousel”—it does still occasionally make an appearance. “Anastasia,” “Phantom of the Opera,” and “An American in Paris” all feature not only ballet, but also dancers en pointe. Even if new musicals aren’t featuring ballet as much, revivals never go out of style, which is worth keeping in mind if you’re trying to decide whether to drag yourself back to ballet class. 

The 2018 “Carousel” revival may not have featured the original Agnes de Mille choreography, but this video shows how choreographer Justin Peck helped keep the ballet alive.

Jazz: The term “jazz” seems to be thrown around a lot in reference to musical theater dance as a genre. Much like jazz music, jazz dance had its origins in Black American culture before making its way to the vaudeville stage around the turn of the 20th century. And while the stereotypical moves taught in jazz classes are indicative of the style (jazz hands, anyone?), it’s ultimately much broader than that. Most current Broadway shows featuring dance likely fall somewhere under the jazz umbrella, so if you only have time to devote yourself to one style, this is probably the best place to concentrate your efforts. 

Remember that any choreographer of musical theater jazz has their own flavor, such as Bob Fosse’s unique stylized movements.

Hip-hop: Much of contemporary musical theater choreography lives in the nebulous space between jazz and true hip-hop, though whether it’s jazz with a hip-hop influence or the other way around is open to interpretation. You might never see hip-hop dancers in the commercial or contemporary dance space suddenly execute a pirouette, but it’s become almost standard on Broadway these days in productions like “& Juliet” and “Six.” Although many people will go their entire careers without being expected to execute something strictly hip-hop in a theatrical setting, it can never hurt to take a class and get a sense of the style in its purest form. 

Witness Broadway’s musical theater-ized hip-hop in this clip from “Hamilton.”

Tap: Tap is probably the least useful (if you can say such a thing) of the four main musical theater dance players in that it is truly its own beast—it has very little overlap with the other styles. Tap shows such as “42nd Street,” “Crazy for You,” and “Dames at Sea” don’t seem to be produced as often these days, and nothing currently on Broadway would be considered a tap show. Still, it’s incredibly popular to throw a tap number into a production, like in Broadway’s “SpongeBob SquarePants” and “The Book of Mormon,” meaning tap will always be a useful skill for any performer. The 2022 revival of “The Music Man” even added tap to its finale, though it wasn’t part of major productions of the show in the past. 

Musical theater’s take on “Mean Girls” includes this iconic tap number.

These are only the main players in musical theater dance; shout out to styles that are less represented but still relevant, such as ballroom, swing or partnering, and modern. Many shows even have a related need for tumbling and acrobatics, including the new show “Water for Elephants.”

How good a dancer do you need to be for musical theater?

If you want a career in musical theater, it will never hurt to be proficient in dance, but there’s no one-size-fits-all correlation between danceability and castability. 

On the one (jazz) hand, theater seems to be more and more dance-heavy by the minute. Most musicals currently on Broadway feature incredibly dynamic, athletic, difficult dancing executed by their entire ensemble. Even shows that would generally have a reputation for being singer-only, like “Sweeney Todd,” are starting to incorporate at least a certain level of movement.

At the same time, some recent shows don’t feature much dance at all, such as “Days of Wine and Roses” and “Merrily We Roll Along.” Even in shows that are otherwise very dance-heavy, some individual lead roles do not actually require the performer to be a skilled dancer; for all the hullabaloo about Jeremy Jordan dancing, it amounted to a few well-executed eight-counts.

So whether you’re a dancer first, a true triple threat, or someone who was put on earth to park and bark, there’s space for everyone in the magical world of musical theater.

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