Phelan in Western Symphony

Paul Kolnik, courtesy NYCB

All the Feels: The Emotional Rollercoaster of Understudying

The first time New York City Ballet soloist Unity Phelan went onstage as an understudy, she was waiting for the curtain to rise when the announcement was made that she would be replacing beloved principal Sara Mearns. "The whole audience went 'Awww,' " Phelan recalls. "We all started cackling. Tyler Angle said, 'This means they have low expectations, so you've gotta wow them.' " Phelan was well-rehearsed and ready for the chance to prove herself. "I was like, 'They're gonna love it,' and they did!"

For the audience, it can be disappointing at first: You buy tickets to a show hoping to see a particular dancer, but instead, you see a lesser-known understudy. For Phelan and so many understudies, though, it's a huge opportunity—one that comes with an array of emotions.

The Anxiety

The best way to avoid preshow panic is to be as prepared as possible, says Nicole Detling, PhD, mental performance coach at HeadStrong Consulting. "When you truly feel that you put in the time, went to rehearsals, put forth your strongest effort and learned from your failures, you have the best opportunity to shine," she says.

Rachel Schur, who understudies Roxie and Mama Morton in Chicago on Broadway, has gotten calls to go on as late as 6 pm before an 8 pm curtain. The key to keeping calm, Schur says, is dismissing the craziness of it all. "I don't have time to be nervous," she says. "I have to go and tell this story." Plus, as much as it feels like your big moment, it's about the entire cast. That shift in mind-set can help take the pressure off you.

"It's okay to be nervous," says Detling. "Remind yourself that in most, if not all, of your previous performances, you did really well, and you were probably nervous then, too. Reframe the nervousness to excitement."

The Doubt

The understudy isn't necessarily the second-best person for the role. "It just means the people they found that work best together are the ones they cast," Schur says. "Sometimes you're just too tall or too short to dance with the guy they cast." Other times, the understudies just need a little more experience leading a show.

"An understudy is a very specific type of person," Schur says. "It's a skill set all its own." She considers herself an actor who can play many different parts and nail another role at a moment's notice.

But what about when, as in Phelan's case, you get to perform—but the audience is audibly disappointed before you've made your first move? "The audience is there to be entertained," says Detling. "Rather than thinking about their disappointment, think about the opportunity to showcase your talent."

Phelan, in a light purple dress and bow in her bun, is in a luxurious first arabesque. She is alone onstage against a blue backdrop.

Phelan in Dances at a Gathering

Erin Baiano, Courtesy NYCB

The Awkwardness

At NYCB, understudies attend as many rehearsals as they can, trying to learn the choreography without stepping on the principals' toes. "There's an internal struggle of whether or not to dance," Phelan says. "You don't want to be a distraction, but you do want to get something out of the rehearsal. The ballet master may want you to dance, but the dancer you're understudying doesn't."

The best way to broach a potentially awkward scenario is to ask the dancer you're understudying if they mind if you're dancing off to the side—before rehearsal starts. If you're not comfortable with that, talk to the rehearsal director about their expectations, and try to pick up as much as possible without being distracting.

The Disappointment 

You may never get to go on in a role, which can be devastating. "Don't discount the way you feel," says Detling. "But follow those feelings with a list of what you've learned. How have you grown from that situation? How will the lessons you learned serve you in the future?"

Schur standing in front of her dressing room door, which has a sign with her name on it and another sign that says "Roxie." She is wearing all black, has stage makeup on, and blows a kiss at the camera.

Courtesy Schur

The Jealousy

What happens when you're the lead and your under­study goes on—and everyone loves her? "There's always going to be healthy competition," Schur says. "That keeps the fire aflame." Just make sure the jealousy doesn't become vicious or unproductive. "Instead," she says, "see someone have a great show, and let it make you want to have a great show next time."

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Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021