NEXT TIME YOU watch a musical dance number, look at the ensemble and imagine that one among them is a secret shape-shifter whose understanding of this dance borders on the omniscient. Not only does this individual know the sequence — beginning to end, head to toe — of every moving body onstage but also the composition of space and precise interactions among dancers, their respective cues, costume changes, and how other technical elements correspond to each move they make — both on and backstage.

These people exist. And you wouldn’t be able to pick one out from a corps unless you recognized their program headshot next to the words “dance captain.” The words may have an unassuming varsity cheerleader ring to them, but they refer to an essential leadership position in musical theatre. According to Shira Schwartz, director of theatre and Troupe 6815 at Basha High School in Chandler, Arizona, “The dance captain is one of the least recognized but most important figures in a musical. They make sure the entire cast knows their dance numbers. They hold additional rehearsals, they swing every ensemble part, and they ensure that what appears onstage is at all times what the choreographer wants.”

Although, according to Schwartz, good dance captains can be harder to find than good choreographers, we managed to track down two Thespian alums who have filled this role on Broadway: Jack Sippel (The Prom) and Natalie Caruncho (On Your Feet). They shared with Dramatics the responsibilities, challenges, and joys of dance captaining, and how student Thespian dancers can develop superpowers like theirs.

“I always think of the Matrix,” said Caruncho, who hails from Troupe 2450 at Gulliver Preparatory School in Pinecrest, Florida. “You have to see all the minutiae, but also shift and look at the big picture.” Dance captains must learn every aspect of a show’s choreography and understand how each detail contributes to the whole — both mechanically and artistically. “You are the person the choreographer trusts to hold onto their artistic vision,” Caruncho said, “to uphold the integrity of their artistic essence and understand the intention behind each moment of the show.”

This is not simply a matter of recording and relaying dance moves. Good dance captains are highly intuitive, empathetic humans who both channel the choreographer and encourage artistic ownership by each dancer, while redirecting individual performers whose creative impulses stray from the original intention.

Jack Sippel takes a bow in the Broadway production of The Prom. Photo courtesy of Jack Sippel.

The process begins with helping the choreographer teach the show. “You are the choreographer’s eyes and ears while they work with others,” said Sippel, an inductee of Troupe 5236 at Lafayette High School in Wildwood, Missouri. This is particularly true in large rehearsals with 60-plus dancers, as was the case with The Prom. Once the choreographer leaves, the dance captain stays behind as the caretaker of the show, essentially running the choreography department.

In addition to movement notes, Sippel wrote down every adjective choreographer Casey Nicholaw used as he taught. “You are just pen to paper every second,” he said. “Most people don’t think about taking down the specific lingo used because it’s just an off-the-cuff, one-time thing, but those notes help you stay connected to what was intended.”

Caruncho began her first dance captain gig, for the national tour of Flashdance, as a swing. “I came in, and I was super eager. I think (the choreographer) Sergio (Trujillo) saw the way I was learning, and the way I would watch him and watch the room.” Trujillo made Caruncho associate dance captain, then lead dance captain.

“Your first responsibility is to uphold the integrity of the choreographer’s work,” and to maintain this over several months, Caruncho said. As dance captain, she periodically made “time to talk about the intention of the piece. What is the point of the number? When people are doing the show eight times a week, sometimes they need a reminder of what it was like at the beginning to keep it alive.” If a dancer’s staging is off, she said, rather than simply correcting them, “I’d try to have a bigger conversation with someone to understand why something had shifted.”

Jack Sippel

Jack Sippel

For Sippel, giving notes is an art. “You have to really know your cast, each individual — how they take notes, how they receive feedback. It’s a special skill to understand the vibe of the person. You have to be gracious with people.”

The same is true at the high school level, said Schwartz, herself a former dance captain who now looks for students with that rare blend of skills — swift acquisition and accurate memory of movement, intuitive people skills, overall adaptability — to recruit as dance captains for her school musicals.

One of the trickiest parts, Schwartz said, is teaching. “I need someone who can work directly with their peers and impart knowledge in a way that makes the cast feel they’re capable of something they might not feel confident about,” she said. “They need creativity in teaching. They need patience and the willingness to say, ‘How I’m teaching isn’t working. I need to find something that will work for you.’”

Because dance captains often solo-teach entire tracks to swings or replacements joining a cast mid-run, a knack — and love — for teaching goes a long way. Sippel recalls the first time he worked with a newcomer after an ensemble member was injured. It was early in the process, he said, “so I’m still learning the show, then at night, I’m teaching her what I’ve learned.” Watching the new ensemble member successfully perform brought Sippel a rush of joy. “I’m watching her onstage that first night and, selfishly, I’m thinking, ‘I am so proud of myself for teaching this human this show.’”

While most department heads stay behind the scenes during a show’s run, the dance captain often takes an ensemble role and is prepared at any moment to hit the stage in other parts. As a universal swing, they can pivot to any track at any time. “There’s a heightened sense of always being alert when you’re at the theatre,” said Sippel. “Before and during every show, your everything revolves around what is happening at that moment. In a heartbeat, someone could get hurt, and you’re the one who steps in to make sure everything’s good.”

Dance captains may even have to swing multiple tracks on the same night, and it’s up to them to adjust blocking and choreography, sometimes as they go. “There was a time (in The Prom) when I was already on for two people, and just before the big dance number of Act 1, as I’m about to walk onstage to preset myself, the stage manager says, ‘Hey, so-and-so is also out tonight, and we’re just going to make that happen,’” said Sippel. “And I go, ‘OK.’”

In moments like this, a dance captain must revise combinations and discreetly redirect other ensemble members in real time, while singing and moving onstage. “As I’m walking on to dance another number, I’m also in my head analyzing this very intricate dance sequence that has a lot of partnering and precise formations, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘I can’t let a specific feature go by, so who’s featured — who do I need to be when and where?’”

On a normal night as dance captain, Sippel might have alternates trained for missing tracks, or at least know about multiple absences hours before curtain time, allowing him to make last-minute cuts or restructure choreography before the show. Since any onstage change has a potential ripple effect, Sippel then huddles with the stage management team and department heads for lighting, sound, costumes, and props to discuss technical implications.

Natalie Caruncho

Natalie Caruncho

But that night? As Sippel’s body danced multiple, intersecting tracks, his mind turned into a graph of lighting cues. “I knew this one dance number was so specific that at a certain point, there was a pool of light for every couple and, for the two center couples, their lights overlapped. This was a blessing from above, because I could leave one couple there who shared one light cue, then shift. So, we’re dancing, and I look at my partner: She’s dancing her solo, then I sort of point to my eyes like, ‘Here we go; watch me, girl,’ and I literally pick her up and move her to where we now need her to be, as we’re dancing, and she goes with it — Susie Carroll, she’s a pro — we just make it happen together.”

Asked what Thespians can do to set themselves up for a dance captain role, both Caruncho and Sippel advise gaining basic literacy in classical dance styles, while training for versatility. “I do think ballet is important,” said Caruncho. “I remember (Hamilton choreographer) Andy Blankenbuehler saying, ‘I can tell when people have been in ballet because they have awareness of their bodies down to the fingertips.’”

Not that you must be a prima ballerina. “Basic ballet training helps that focus on length and line,” Caruncho said. “Take classes you feel like you’re not at the level for, watch the people who are really killing it, and copy them.”

As a kid, Sippel attended a studio that offered hybrid ballet-tap-jazz classes and focused on a breadth of basic techniques. After that, he said, “I just took it upon myself to be as well-rounded as I could and try to grab style wherever I was and finesse it.” He advised “hopping into classes that are so uncomfortable, that are in your danger zone of fear. So, when you’re thrown into that hip-hop combo, you can make that happen for yourself.”

In addition to building stylistic reference points and learning to quickly pick up movement, Caruncho suggests asking the choreographer or director if you can take or give notes, understudy other people’s tracks, and even help teach. Above all, she said, hone your observational skills. “Once you know your material, look around, take in what the choreographer is getting at. Train your mind to go from your track to the full picture, your track to the full picture — that’s a muscle.”

Caruncho, who recently taught the dance captain for the tour of On Your Feet as Trujillo’s associate choreographer, got her Thespian start when she played the Baker’s Wife in Into the Woods her freshman year of high school. She also fondly recalls playing Princess Winnifred the Woebegone when she “was a senior and just felt on top of the world!”

Sippel — now the assistant choreographer for the Netflix film adaptation of The Prom, adapting movement for the likes of Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman — made his high school debut sophomore year as Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors. Although he did not get to go to a Missouri Thespians Conference with his troupe (he was busy performing in the national tour of Memphis — coincidentally also choreographed by Trujillo), Sippel did attend in 2014, a year after his high school graduation, during a break between gigs. “I reached out and offered to teach, and ended up giving a plethora of workshops, which was so much fun. The students and I could relate to each other, since I was literally a high schooler the year before.”

Sippel’s best advice for Thespians is “don’t stop. Take in whatever area of theatre you’re interested in and keep going. If you want this dream of yours to come true, you can’t stop fighting for yourself. Keep learning from different teachers; they love you, and they’re probably amazing. And yes, there are a million people who can act and sing and dance, but you go after it anyway — never stop training, learning, being uncomfortable, and pushing yourself.”

Watch Natalie Caruncho’s On Your Feet one-minute choreography lesson on Instagram.

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