Jayme Thornton

Hamilton’s Dance Revolution

The runaway hit is carving out new possibilities for dance on Broadway.

Hamilton cast members Jon Rua, Morgan Marcell and Austin Smith. All photos by Jayme Thornton.

Picture a group of dancers who can do it all. Place them in an unlikely musical about America's first treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton—think city streets pulsing with revolution, battlefields and ballrooms, political intrigue and scandal—and watch them go. In one moment, their hands look almost Fosse-like; in another, they're soldiers in full battle regalia, all whirling physicality and sharp movements; in still another, they sweep across the floor in formal gowns, the style aptly reminiscent of an 18th-century courtship dance.

This is the world of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda's hit Broadway musical, where cabinet meetings are rap battles, bullets are personified through movement and an ensemble of triple threats weaves seamlessly through it all, tracing and shaping our understanding of the action. Since it first exploded onto the off-Broadway scene with a sold-out run at New York's Public Theater, the show has taken the nation by storm. Big names—from Stephen Sondheim to Busta Rhymes to President Obama himself—have flocked to the Richard Rodgers Theatre in droves. The show has attracted a following from people all over the country, many of whom never would have thought of attending a theater performance otherwise. Those who can't get their hands on a highly coveted ticket experience it through watching the free #Ham4Ham shows the cast puts on outside the theater during lottery drawings, listening to the Grammy-winning soundtrack on repeat and following the cast on Twitter.

Dance has made waves in a fair number of musicals recently, from Christopher Wheeldon's balletic An American in Paris to Joshua Bergasse's fresh take on On the Town. Choreography often thrives in revivals or more traditional shows. But Hamilton—and its movement—feels different: It's at the forefront of something game-changing, and truly of-the-moment.

This isn't the first time dance has been integral to a landmark show. Agnes de Mille's dream ballet for Oklahoma! in 1943, often considered the first major instance of dance moving the plot forward in a musical, revealed the inner workings of the main character's psyche. Jerome Robbins, in shows like West Side Story, made the movement an essential tool for understanding who the characters were. In Michael Bennett's A Chorus Line, which pulled back the curtain on show business, dance—and the struggles of dancers trying to make it on Broadway—was the story. And in the same way that Hamilton, which is sung-through, feels saturated with words, it's also chock-full of movement. Like an engine that propels the action forward, the ensemble moves almost nonstop through the nearly three-hour show, embodying the emotional arc of the plot and staying in constant dialogue with the music.

Emmy Raver-Lampman, Seth Stewart and Carleigh Bettiol photos by Jayme Thornton

Hamilton ends up being sort of like a ballet in many respects," says choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler of movement's weight in the show. The choreography, though, is a mash-up of styles, incorporating everything from jazz to hip hop to swing to jitterbug. To Blankenbuehler, each movement onstage is a piece of choreography—even those as simple as a person standing still on a turntable as it rotates them around. And every one of those moments furthers the story in some way, placing a huge responsibility on the dancers. “We're all greatly involved in giving the experience its detail," says ensemble member and Hamilton understudy Jon Rua. “We're translating it. We become a medium for you to take in what's going on."

Blankenbuehler's process was about finding the right way to build movement from the show's action. “I think there's a challenge to throw away the idea of steps, because steps are based on an idea that has already happened," he says. “Hamilton was really from the ground up brand-new." There are recognizable shapes sprinkled throughout: turns, kicks, isolations. But as quickly as you think you've noticed a specific step, it's blended with something else. He emphasizes that the score allowed him to make the movement feel so fresh and contemporary—and to draw from so many rhythmically driven styles. The music, which tells much of Hamilton's story through rap, also incorporates elements of jazz, British pop and classic Broadway show tunes, and references a melting pot of artists, from Rodgers and Hammerstein to The Notorious B.I.G. “Just the fact that I'm imitating Lin's music makes the imitation really current," Blankenbuehler says. “Lin doesn't write stagnant music. Even when he writes a slow song, it moves."

But what's making Hamilton resonate with so many people? After all, hip hop has been brought to Broadway before with mixed success—including by Blankenbuehler and Miranda, who worked together on the Tony-winning In the Heights and the shorter-lived Bring It On: The Musical. With Hamilton, it's the way hip hop makes this particular world recognizable, and speaks to our current moment in history. And it's the visual, in addition to the music, that lets audiences see a story they can relate to. “Social dance reflects how people are feeling at the time," Blankenbuehler says. “Hip hop gives a sense of expression to humongous groups of people who are struggling with social injustices." By using hip hop, the show filters the action through a lens that feels directly relevant to the anxieties our own culture is facing. “Our history is repeating itself," Blankenbuehler says. “We have things that are important to fight for. We are demanding for our voice to be heard—that's happening more than ever."

Sasha Hutchings, Voltaire Wade-Green and Ariana DeBose photos by Jayme Thornton

By making contemporary movement essential to such an influential musical, Hamilton may also help give it a definitive place on the Broadway stage. Along with inspiring future artists, which it's sure to do, Blankenbuehler points out that the show has helped people to “believe that real stories can be told in new ways. Important stories can be told through dance, important stories can be told through rap." If a new generation of theatergoers grows up with this in mind, the revolution is really just beginning.


Carleigh Bettiol

Oneonta, NY

Ensemble, understudy for Eliza Hamilton

On getting to Broadway: “I went to school for business, specializing in economics, and continued to perform on the side. When I graduated, I moved to New York within two weeks, by myself, and started auditioning."

On backstage life: “We all have a lot of moments with each other that happen every night. Going into the final duel, I always look up at Jonathan Groff in the balcony—he makes a face and I mimic it."

Craziest fan encounter: “I was proposed to at the stage door, with a ring and everything."

Twitter: @cmbettiol

Instagram: @bettcm

Voltaire Wade-Greene

Bakersfield, CA

Co-dance captain, swing

On being a swing: “Each male track is completely different, as far as style. I try to keep the essence of each person. All six have individual things where you can take liberties and put your own funk into it."

Favorite number: “The very first time I went onstage was for 'Wait For It.' That was probably one of the most empowering and life-changing moments because I was just like 'Alright, there's no turning back. It's time to show what I got.' "

On working with Miranda: “For me, he made it cool to just be yourself and keep doing things that you love, regardless if people laugh at you."

Twitter and Instagram: @tisvoltaire

Ariana DeBose

Raleigh, NC

Ensemble

Notable ensemble roles: The bullet during the final duel; Sally Hemings in “What'd I Miss"

Warm-up routine: “I have a playlist of good-luck songs. I'll listen to 'Gabriel,' by Lamb, then Rihanna to get me fired up, because the show sort of pops you out of a cannon."

On performing eight shows a week: “Sometimes we make up different backstories. One night maybe my name will be Sassy Chartreuse during the ball, and then another night I'll be Amiable Amelia who's just trying to blend in."

On celebrity visitors: “I grew up watching Meryl Streep, Angela Bassett, Megan Mullally—all of these powerhouse women got tickets to our show and have been so gracious."

Twitter and Instagram: @arianadebose

Emmy Raver-Lampman

Norfolk, VA

Ensemble, understudy for Angelica Schuyler, Eliza Hamilton and Peggy/Maria

Favorite song: “In 'The Reynolds Pamphlet' there's, like, six to eight bars of freestyle and it's different every night. There's paper flying everywhere and everyone's letting loose."

On the costumes: “Our costumes are full of buttons and almost every other number a button falls—now the sound of a button hitting the floor will always make me think of this show."

On celebrity visitors: “We have a wall backstage that celebrities sign. It used to be this life-sized picture of Alexander Hamilton, but now it's just full of writing."

Twitter: @himynameisemmy

Instagram: @emmyraver

Seth Stewart

Kent, OH

Ensemble, understudy for Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson

Backstage habit: “Scaring people. When they're coming around the corner, I'll just jump out."

Memorable celebrity encounter: “MC Hammer—I think he was shocked at how much of a fan I was, but I was like 'You're the reason I started this whole thing!' "

Post-show attitude: “When I leave the theater, I don't worry about it until the next day. The paint is on the picture."

Twitter and Instagram: @iamsethstewart

Morgan Marcell

San Diego, CA

Co-dance captain, swing

On battle scenes: “I like being a soldier. It's pretty badass that men and women are given the same choreography. It's only sort of gender-specific in the ball, actually."

Recognizable moment: “I did a #Ham4Ham where I played Hamilton in 'My Shot,' and it's this crazy Twitter phenomenon—I get fan art."

On working with Blankenbuehler: “It's a master class in how to tell a story."

Twitter and Instagram: @morgankei

Jon Rua

Linden, NJ

Ensemble, Charles Lee, understudy for Hamilton

Getting to Broadway: Danced socially in college, then in the underground house dance scene in New York

Favorite moment: “The last song, 'Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.' It's the time I feel the story gives something to the world that they can't describe in words."

On the fan base: “The show is beautiful. I just didn't know it was going to become the cultural phenomenon that it did. I've gotten drawings of myself, and gifts, and postcards from Australia."

Twitter: @jonrua

Instagram: @jonrua_choreo

Thayne Jasperson

Evanston, WY

Ensemble, Samuel Seabury, understudy for King George III and Laurens/Philip

On Samuel Seabury: “I've loved creating the role of the first Episcopal bishop of the U.S., and having a song."

On onstage mishaps: “I love when people mess up. That's the thing with live theater—you don't get an exact replica every time. We do a partner slide where I slide a girl between my legs, and one time she went off tumbling down the stairs of the stage in front. I was mortified. Luckily she was fine."

Memorable celebrity encounter: “Joe Biden came on my birthday. He was the coolest guy."

Twitter and Instagram: @thaynejasperson

Sasha Hutchings

Macon, GA

Ensemble, understudy for Peggy/Maria

Notable ensemble role: “Twice in the show they talk about Hamilton's dead mother, and I get lifted up, and then at the end I'm waiting for him. Andy's created a lot of images so you can see what Hamilton is thinking about."

Pre-show habit: “I'm always the last to get dressed. People gauge how behind they are for places by where I am in my process."

On not wearing wigs: “Even though we're in this very iconic time period, they combine that with who we are. We look like real people you'd see on the street."

Twitter and Instagram: @sashahutchings

Austin Smith

Chicago, IL

Ensemble, understudy for Aaron Burr, George Washington and Hercules Mulligan/James Madison

Pre-show habit: “A group of us meet up and pray."

Craziest fan encounter: “I had a girl ask me to sign her arm. I obliged."

On understudying: “Burr comes more naturally to me, so it's been rewarding to go on for Washington because it presents more of a challenge. I'm younger than both the other guys who play him, so I have to find my way into communicating the same level of conviction and authority."

Twitter and Instagram: @austinsmithsolo

Latest Posts


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