What Does a Backup Dancer Do?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A backup dancer accompanies leads in a performance, dancing with or behind them to add depth to the choreography. Backup dancers can appear in live as well as recorded performances. They may be hired on a contract basis or could become part of a permanent creative team hired by an artist or dance troupe. Some pop stars and other performers get their start in the backup dancer position, working their way through the ranks as they develop skills and eventually have an opportunity to audition on their own for lead roles.

Backup dancing may require extreme strength, flexibility, and fitness.
Backup dancing may require extreme strength, flexibility, and fitness.

These dancers need professional training and skills in the type of dance they will perform. A hip-hop backup dancer, for example, needs to be familiar with specific moves, different from pop backup dancers. People who work on musicals may also play small speaking or singing roles, dancing in the background in other scenes, and thus need a flexible set of creative skills.

Backup dancers start by attending a series of rehearsals to learn the choreography and practice the routine. They work with the lead and the choreographer and may be taped during rehearsals to provide material for review and study after hours. Once the dancers are familiar with the piece and ready to perform, they can start filming, for recorded performances, or perform live at concerts, musicals, and other events. Dancers on tour need to stay in shape and attend regular rehearsals at new venues to make any necessary adjustments to the choreography to adapt to new performance spaces.

Live performance can present a number of challenges. Dancers need to be able to adapt to mistakes and other problems that can potentially arise during performance. The ability to improvise can help cover up missteps, forgotten lyrics, and other events. While such incidents are rare, they do happen, and a quick recovery on the part of a backup dancer can be critical. The dancers may be able to cover up an event so seamlessly that the audience doesn't notice, reducing the risk of bad reviews or complaints from unhappy attendees.

This type of work can be physically demanding. A backup dancer on tour may perform on multiple nights in a row, in performances that can last two hours or more. Some of the moves may require extreme strength, flexibility, and fitness. The dancers must protect themselves from injuries and strains while performing. Pay and benefits can vary, depending on the firm or artist hiring the dancers and their seniority in the cast.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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