Amy Holihan-061-Edit

Dancer : Amy Holihan
Photo by : Geek With a Lens

I remember the thrill of being asked to understudy Snowflakes in The Nutcracker at the age of twelve in the small, pre-professional company in which I grew up.   I also remember the terror of realizing that one doesn’t have to just know the steps, but the floor patterns as well.  The first time I went in, I almost took out three older dancers because I wasn’t sure of the paths to take.  Lesson learned.   I was also asked at thirteen to understudy the lead in one of our major ballets because the choreographer wanted a ‘little girl’ that the guest male dancer could practice lifts with easily.  I was on cloud nine being able to understudy such a role and under a dancer I really admired.  Three years later when we danced the ballet again, I got the opportunity to perform that lead role.  I remember the sense of accomplishment I felt when I remembered how technically difficult it had been for me just three years earlier and now how much fun I could have with developing the character instead of just worrying about the steps. It showed me how far I had come, not only in my technique, but as an artist.

As I got older, the definition and role of understudy didn’t change, but the connotation did.  Being told that I was an understudy as I aged suddenly stopped meaning, ‘I believe in you and so I’m going to give you this opportunity,’ but rather, ‘you’re good, but still not good enough.’  I remember the frustration that came with this change.  I know my teachers felt this and tried to bolster us with stories of how understudying is really just an opportunity in disguise.  I specifically remember two stories, one from Melinda Jones Howe about Tina LeBlanc, a former student of hers that ended her professional career as a principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet and still works there on staff, and Jeri Mcburney-Rodgers about Paul Gibson, an alumni of our school who ended his professional career as principal dancer at Pacific Northwest Ballet and who is still working as their Ballet Master today.    The stories were basically the same.  As young dancers in professional companies, they would watch the rehearsals of the more advanced dancers in the company instead of going home early or taking a break.  When those advanced dancers got injured, the artistic director asked who knew their roles and felt sure they could perform them.  Both of them knew the roles even though they weren’t official understudies for them and it helped to launch their careers.  Because I knew these people and admired them, it helped and I stopped getting that hopeless feeling when I’d see a cast list posted with my name in the understudy column.   It also inspired me to ask to understudy roles that I wanted and to learn solos of every work I was in even if I wasn’t chosen as the official understudy.   

What truly changed my impression about understudying, however, was a conversation I had with my mother.  I came home complaining that some other girl got the lead role I really wanted and that I was in the corps and was ‘only the understudy’ for the role.  My mom then asked me, ‘Well, what are you going to do about it?’ I asked her what she meant.  She replied, ‘Well, this seems like an opportunity to me.  If you think you can dance the role better than the girl that got it, prove it.  Dance it on the sides better than her.  Who knows?  All casting is always subject to change.  Prove yourself.  Even if you don’t get a chance to dance the lead this time, the next time this choreographer comes in, he’ll remember how hard you worked and I guarantee he won’t overlook you again.’  She gave me control of the situation and she was absolutely right.  From that moment on, I took the role of understudy not just as an opportunity, but as a personal challenge.  There were many times when casting was changed or extra performances were added so that I would get the chance to perform the role as well.

Now, being on the other side of things as an artistic director and choreographer myself, I can tell how surprised I am with the different reactions from young dancers and also from their parents when it comes to understudying and how their reactions affect my thoughts and feelings about that dancer.  Over the past few years, I have been given amazing impressions of some dancers that take the understudy role and run with it and others who leave a sour taste in my mouth and make me think twice about ever casting them in a work.

I’ve asked young dancers to understudy roles who I hear squeal as I leave the room because they’re so excited for that chance and other young dancers that have asked me, ‘Do I have to?’  Talk about making your artistic director think twice about taking a chance on you as a dancer again.  Unfortunately, I’ve also had parents ask me, ‘Does my daughter really have to come to all the rehearsals?  After all, she’s just an understudy and all she does is sit there.’  I always answer, ‘Absolutely, she must attend all rehearsals and if she’s sitting there, she’s not doing it right.  This is her chance to prove herself and to learn from the more experienced dancers.  She should be up dancing and working harder than the people who are actually cast in the work.’ The parent’s reply nine times out of ten is, ‘Well, no one ever told her that!’   I don’t ever remembering anyone explaining to me the role of an understudy; I thought it was common sense.  I wish I could say that the above incidents were exceptions, but more and more I see both parents and young dancers unwilling to pay their dues and only want to work when they can see a direct benefit from it.

One young dancer that made a fantastic impression on me was a young lady whom I asked to understudy a work of mine.  After the piece was set and we were in the cleaning process, she came up to me with a binder after a rehearsal.  She had written down all eight cast members’ steps and floor patterns and she wanted to make sure she had written them down properly.  Wow!  Now there was a kid that was worth my time and energy.  The next year she was cast in my work and given a demi-solo; the following year she had the lead in my work as she did every subsequent year until she graduated.

A few months ago, we had our Regional Dance America adjudication on a Friday and our Spring Concert the next day on Saturday.  Sadly, Wednesday night prior, we had one of our best dancers break her foot.  We called an emergency rehearsal on Thursday.  I was so impressed when our understudies were prepared, if not nervous, and did a fantastic job.  The next night they were judged on five works and our adjudicator, the fabulous Jeffrey Gribler, said he couldn’t tell the understudies from the original cast members.  Now, that’s the professionalism every pre-professional director hopes to see in their dancers and it is the kind of thing that makes an impression on us and makes us see you differently than we may have seen you before.

What’s the moral here?   The role of understudy is not an obstacle; it’s an opportunity: to prove yourself, to learn important lessons, to grow as a dancer and artist, to push yourself to the next level and to make an impression on your choreographer and artistic directors.  What you choose to do with that opportunity can change you and how others perceive you.  Choose wisely!