A few months ago, I saw a call on Backstage for an HBO TV Show. The show (which I can’t name yet—no spoilers!) was searching for Background talent, or “extras.”
For those who don’t know, extras are the people who can be seen in the background of a shot; hence the term “Background.” They’re the people chatting in a restaurant, passing by on the street, sleeping in a subway car, or waiting in line at a grocery store. They’re a vital part of the scenery, but often overlooked.
I submitted my information and a few candid photos. Then I forgot all about it.
A few weeks later I received an email that said: “We can use you on the show. Stand by for more information.”
And before I knew it, I was on my way to my first TV set, with absolutely no clue what to expect.
Over the course of my eleven-hour day, I found myself relying more and more on my dance training.
Here, in my opinion, is why dancers make ideal background actors:
There’s a lot of stress on set. The cast and crew have a schedule to stick to, so any unexpected developments—such as a traffic jam—can cause the entire plan to change.
When these shifts occur, it’s important to stay calm and professional. So it’s a good thing dancers are cool under pressure.
Three-minute costume change? Done.
The van didn’t show up, and I need to sprint to the next location? Point me there.
Fifteen second reset on a scene? I’m ready in ten.
A dancer can handle it all.
As dancers, we’ve learned to put up with pretty much everything in the book.
Ask us to stand outside in the rain for five hours, and we’ll do it without hesitation.
Ask us to wear heels all day, and we’ll laugh, because seriously, heels have nothing on pointe shoes.
Ask us to stand perfectly still while the camera focuses, and we become statues.
Ask us to shorten our lunch break, and we’ll scarf down our food with six minutes to spare.
Assistant Directors and PAs have very little time to spare on the extras. That means your instructions sound something like this:
“Stand here, talk to him. When she hits the mark there, turn around and walk to that statue. When she moves to the mark there, walk that way, when she leaves, walk back.”
Rattled off once, and that’s it. No more direction.
Luckily, dancers are smart and intuitive. When I received these exact instructions, I didn’t ask questions. Instead, I paid close attention to the cameraman as he rehearsed his track; I surreptitiously eavesdropped on the director as he talked to the star, and I figured out what I needed to do in the scene.
Then, I did it exactly same way every time. After all, consistency is a dancer’s specialty.
As fun as it sounds, a long day on a TV set can test your patience. Filming is about getting the scene exactly right, from all angles. It’s about repetition and details.
Dancers are uniquely suited to this process because we practice it daily in class and rehearsal.
We understand that it’s not about the glamour, the lights, or the celebrities in the scene. It’s about getting the work done well.
And that’s exactly what dancers do best.
Elizabeth Shew is a Portland, OR native and a New York-based dancer, writer, and creator. She is a graduate of The Ailey School and Fordham University and holds BFAs in Dance and English/Creative Writing. She has danced for choreographers Cindy Salgado, Jae Man Joo, Brice Mousset, Christopher Huggins and Taryn Kaschock Russell, among others. Recently, she participated in Cherice and Charissa Barton’s summer program, Axis Connect, and performed alongside the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in their annual piece *Memoria. *She is a current apprentice with BodyStories: Teresa Fellion Dance.
Kick up your heels and let's dance!
Broadway Dance Dreams