The Swing Shift

July 31, 2007
It’s called “swingitis,” or “a swing moment.” And every swing has had one. It happens when a swing, or fill-in dancer in a Broadway musical, has a mental glitch and gets lost on stage. The audience may not even notice that something has gone wrong—swings think fast, and so do the other dancers. 
Everyone adjusts, and the show, of course, continues. But not in the same autopilot way.
“Everyone’s eyes get really big,” says Jennifer Harrison Newman, who has been swinging with
The Lion King
 for three years. “They’re looking at you with those big eyes—‘What are you doing here? What are you doing here?’ ”
All dancers run risks on stage. But for swings, who never know whose shoes they’ll be filling on any given night, and who must sometimes go on at a moment’s notice, danger is a way of life. “It takes a really special mind and emotional makeup,” says Rusty Mowery, the dance production supervisor at
. Jerry Mitchell’s choreography doesn’t require super technique, he says—“It’s five basic ’60s steps.” But swinging on the show requires super swinging skills, because of the amount of partnering and the subtle differences among the tracks (their pathways onstage and backstage).
Nicole Powell, a
swing who grew up on Long Island, agrees. “The job is challenging, because if you’re doing one track you start off on your left foot on four, while in another track you start on the left foot on two. If you’re wrong, you can bump into somebody and cause a huge accident from a small step.”
Not everybody is cut out for swinging, Mowery says, and a good dancer can be a bad swing. “You have to be able to see a puzzle in your head at all times. You have to be able to handle the pressure.”
Mowery, who was put in ballet class at the Knoxville, Tennessee “Y” to channel his hyperactivity, learned about that pressure first-hand. “I made my Broadway debut as a swing in
,” he said, “covering eight guys who were on stage through the whole show. I was 22 years old, and it gave me a nervous breakdown. After I had learned two of the tracks, I ended up in the studio just sobbing—it was so hard to learn two, and I had six to go!  But after that, I knew I could do anything.”
Such bravado seems to be part of the swing personality. Garland Days, who is both a dance captain and a swing on
Lion King
, has been swinging for ten years. He trained in ballet, jazz and acrobatics outside Washington, DC, and in 1993, after college, came to New York. Six months later, he was hired for the Las Vegas production of Starlight Express, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s speedy musical-on-skates. It was good preparation for swinging, where constant change is the norm. “Every once in a while,” Days admits, “it would be nice to know what you’re going to do in advance.” But overall, he can’t see himself in the same job, dancing in the same track, day after day in a long-running show like Lion King. He enjoys the adrenalin rush of being paged backstage in the middle of a performance, throwing on a wig and a costume, and going on for someone who’s been taken ill.
As the dance captain, Days has to train new swings for
Lion King
, which presents challenges beyond the obvious. Because the ensemble has to learn how to handle a variety of puppets and masks as well as the music and choreography, it takes three to four weeks of preparation. “You can’t just throw someone in,” Days says.
Other shows are not so punctilious. Powell went on a week after she was hired as a swing on
. And on some musicals, she says, swings learn their multiple roles from a videotape. However they pick up their steps and patterns, swings are hired for their quickness, their toughness and their generic looks—if they look too special, they’re not as interchangeable. And interchangeability—both inside and out—is the key to success as a swing.
The rigors of the job are compensated by a small bump over the standard ensemble salary. And unlike understudies, swings draw that salary whether or not they perform. “We’re paid for what we know,” says Jennifer Newman, who started ballet at 6 in Berkeley, California.
Swinging was not part of her career plan. She’d had her own track in her first Broadway show,
Saturday Night Fever
; she’d had her own track touring for two seasons as a Radio City Music Hall Rockette. And she’d danced with Lula Washington and David Rousseve. But then she got a job as a swing with a touring company of Lion King. It required her to learn five separate versions of the Garth Fagan choreography and five different vocal parts. Her first thought was, “Oh my God, how am I gonna do this?” But her anxiety was quickly relieved.
“The process was amazing. The way the dance supervisor and the artistic director taught the show, they made sure the swings were constantly up rehearsing with the company. They made sure we never felt excluded. They had it down to a science. We had our tracking sheets—for each track, a chart of what side of the stage to enter, who to follow, and so on. Very specific notes: ‘Five steps to number seven, exit stage left, wing four, following so-and-so.’ I felt very confident and very prepared from day one.”
Nevertheless, she says, it took her about a year-and-a-half to feel completely at ease with all the tracks she’s now covering on Broadway.  Adjusting was a challenge even after the tour: “We have an entire show backstage,” she says.  “What direction you face when you take off your gazelle, and who you hand it to.  Where you go for which costume.” The stage choreography was the same, but all the backstage traffic patterns were new. 
Newman found she enjoyed swinging.  She likes both the diversity of her workdays and the balance swinging allows her body.  “You’re not always kicking the same leg.  And there are times when you can just rest—when you can undo what the show does to you physically.”
Twyla Tharp’s
Movin’ Out
, which is all dance all the time, takes a particularly heavy toll on bodies. Originally, the show tried to make do with a typical number of swings, somewhere between two and five. But it wasn’t enough. By trial and error, the show kept adding people. There are now nine men and five women swinging. And swings are now rotated into the show as a matter of course, to protect the regulars. Former Joffrey dancer Meg Paul, who has been with the production from its workshop days as both a swing and an understudy, is now also a dance captain. Swingitis is an everpresent problem, she says. “A lot of things are flip-flopped from one side to the other. There are so many little details that can get in your way. I’ve done it and taught it so often it’s just in there.  But it never gets boring.”
Brian Letendre, a New Yorker who grew up on Staten Island and graduated from Juilliard, joined
Movin’ Out
two years ago. He covers four tracks and performs the featured role of James at matinees—which is the reason he took a job as a swing.  “I don’t think I would swing on any other show,” he says. “But being that it’s Movin’ Out, I’m happy to, because it allows me to do principal work.” He’s discovered that swinging is more about his brain than his body. “One Wednesday, I did two different tracks—a complete flip.  I had to reverse everything I did at the matinee that night. It requires quick thinking.” 
But Letendre, too, has had a swing moment now and again. More important, he’s now at the point where he can see someone else’s swing moment coming a mile away. “It’s terrifying. You can see it in somebody’s eyes. So you just shove them into the right space and then they remember.”  On one occasion, he says, shoving would not have been enough. It was in the middle of a scene in which Elizabeth Parkinson flings herself off a bar. Sensing that another swing was in the throes of swingitis, he left his own track to take over. “Somebody had to catch Lizzie,” he said.

Sylviane Gold has written about dance and theater for
Newsday and The New York Times.