All the Feels: The Emotional Rollercoaster of Understudying

February 3, 2020

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.”