Understanding Understudying

We’ve all been there: tirelessly exerting yourself in the back of the studio behind the first cast, attempting to rehearse choreography in 1/4 of the actual space, feeling like you have to prove yourself as worthy enough to earn a show… the struggles of being a second (or third) cast are real, and you’re not alone if you’ve felt mixed emotions about the overwhelming task of being an understudy.


ballet dancer in pointe shoes

Inevitably, when we’re not chosen first our egos may take a hit (similarly to the traumatizing practice of picking teams in gym class… *shudder*).

However, there are always so many factors that go into selecting a cast, and it can be much more complex than we even realize; the selection could be talent related, or it could be something as simple as conflicting programs - when a dancer wouldn’t be physically able to dance in a piece due to being in other pieces, etc. 

Understanding this can help us accept casting outcomes and progress through the rehearsal process successfully.

Connie Flachs, professional dancer with the Grand Rapids Ballet, explains one mental hurdle she encounters that makes understudying particularly challenging.

“I have always found it hard to approach the piece with the same freedom as I do when I am fully cast and chosen for the part.”

Fewer rehearsals and less attention combined with the feeling of being compared to the first cast are unavoidable components of being an understudy and are hard to defy.  

“Often I get caught up in the feeling of needing to prove myself, and this interferes with fully investing in the movement and taking risks with the same sense of security that I have when I am first cast” Flachs continues.


pointe shoe pointe paint


This feeling of insecurity is perhaps one of the biggest culprits holding many dancers back, and if you are able to push through it, the process and/or end result can be much more positive.

There can also be a definite learning curve when you’re not in the first cast, especially when a new work is being created on specific dancers.  Everyone’s bodies move differently, we all interpret movement uniquely, and our minds all work and learn in specific ways. Recognizing these differences is essential not only for the dancers, but also for the person at the front of the room.  

Even though an understudy may be doing their best to apply all of the corrections and notes that the first cast is given, their body may interpret these corrections in a different way, yielding different results than the first cast.

No matter how stressful or draining it may feel at times, you can gain so much from being an alternate cast.  Learning new choreography is an opportunity in itself, even if you don’t end up performing a role. Being able to take as much as possible from a rehearsal process- whether that means applying corrections, honing your artistry, or rehearsing in the corner as full out as possible- is essential to continuing to grow as an artist.  

You never know when it will pay off!

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