In every professional dance job you have, you’ll have a dance captain. They’ll be your fearless leader and most of the time they deal with a lot of BS that we don’t even know about. I was a dance captain for about two years at Universal Orlando and I plan to take the leap into a dance captain position with Royal Caribbean soon.
So, I interviewed some of my dance captain friends.
In general, I have a hell of a lot of respect for these people as dancers, leaders, and humans. And hopefully it can help provide some insight (for myself as well) into what it’s like being a dance captain in various areas of the industry.
MEET THE DANCE CAPTAINS
Erika Ellis is dance captain for “Marilyn Monroe and the Diamond Bellas” at Universal Orlando and was one of my fellow dance captains for the “Hop” unit in Universal’s Superstar Parade.
Gizelle Pagan has been a dance captain for NBA’s Orlando Magic Dancers, AFL’s Orlando Predator Prowlers Dancers, and currently for the “Despicable Me” unit in Universal’s Superstar Parade.
Daniel DiFoggio is my current dance captain on Adventure of the Seas with Royal Caribbean International and has previously been dance captain on Jewel of the Seas and Quantum of the Seas.
Gioia Bartalo is a captain and fourth-year veteran of NFL’s Denver Broncos Cheerleaders.
What experience did you have prior to becoming a dance captain?
ERIKA: I was captain for my dance team in high school. Even though I was fairly young, it taught me patience and how to respect each individual no matter age or ability.
GIZELLE: I was a dance captain for my high school dance team and the Orlando Predators. I also taught dance classes and ran rehearsals at the studio I grew up at.
DANNY: I danced for companies in Chicago and owned my own dance studio prior to dancing on ships with Royal Caribbean.
GIOIA: I started dancing when I was two and in high school I was captain of our dance team. I then went on to study dance as part of my degree in college and was part of various hip hop crews and a technical based company before moving to Denver to join the Broncos.
How did you get the job?
ERIKA: I submitted a resume to my management team and show director. Once selected for an interview, I answered questions on what I had to offer as a dance captain and I also had to choreograph and teach a short combo. That was fun because I taught it to one of my managers!
GIZELLE: I got the job of dance captain by interviewing for the position. Then I went through a second step of teaching my choreography to another individual to show how I teach, relay information, and make corrections.
DANNY: I submitted my application and there was an interview that followed. I had done five contracts with Royal before I felt ready to take on the challenge. It's important to get to know ship life before becoming dance captain on a ship.
GIOIA: I booked a flight and an AirBnb and flew out to Colorado to audition! Really, I watched the team perform at Super Bowl 48 and knew that I was going to be on that field. When I got back home from that game, I had complete tunnel vision and my mind was set. Three months later, I made the cut!
What are your responsibilities as a dance captain?
ERIKA: There are so many depending on the show! My main role is to maintain show quality. I give notes on the choreography and blocking, lead warm-ups, make sure everyone is accounted for, and I help answer any questions for the day. Things are constantly changing in a theme park!
GIZELLE: To be a voice for my fellow coworkers. We are the ones they come to with questions regarding choreography, blocking, costuming issues, updates, anything and everything. I should always be one step ahead and make sure I’m relaying information given to me by management to my cast. I should go over choreography and blocking at all times in case there are changes needed to be made. I also take and give notes and then record them digitally. I also send emails to my fellow dance captains and management to recap the day.
DANNY: First and foremost my job is to keep the integrity of the shows by taking notes and making sure all the shows are clean. The cast comes first so it’s part of my job to keep up cast morale. Once on the ship, I prepare cast schedules, attend senior staff meetings, etc.
GIOIA: Mainly, my responsibilities are to be an exceptional teammate: be over-prepared, be dependable, be a great example, do everything for the overall benefit of the team. In the rehearsal room, I act as the right hand to our choreographer- helping lead warm ups, various run-throughs, being obsessively detail-oriented, visualizing formations, and helping teammates find their way. Also, our team takes a lot of pride in our legacy. As a captain, that is one of the most important aspects of this team to me. It is up to the current team to continue to raise the bar and standards that were set by the women who have come before us. I have to make sure that I am a better human every day, so that I can continue to push the people around me to do the same!
Do you find that your own dancing suffers from your extra responsibilities? Or does the job help strengthen your personal dance skills?
ERIKA: The job definitely helps strengthen my skills. I get to watch so many different types of dancers and even though we’re doing the same choreography, I learn so much from each individual. Also, when I’m giving notes, I think so myself, “Wait. Am I even doing that right?!” I’m always perfecting my show as well.
GIZELLE: I definitely think that this job strengthens my personal dance skills. It keeps me on my toes. I know that if I had someone I looked up to in the dance captain role, I would want to see someone who is confident in what they do, always full out, and always trying to better themselves. I strive for these things and it makes me work harder.
DANNY: Definitely helps strengthen my personal dance skills. As you’re taking notes you’re also watching yourself. Plus, when you’re in a cast of strong dancers it makes you want to step up your game.
GIOIA: Honestly… a little bit of both. I dance just as hard and energized as I did previously. But It’s no longer just about me. When we are practicing routines, I’m not watching myself. I’m watching my teammates to make sure we are blending together and hitting what we are supposed to; making sure our team style is making sense to the Rookies. It’s no longer about improving for my personal performance and technique goals… it’s about making sure that we, as a team, are ready to take the field together.
What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned from being a dance captain?
ERIKA: RESPECT. RESPECT. RESPECT. I can’t say it enough. I’m a dance captain for so many different types of dancers. Some older, some younger, no experience, or years of experience. I’ve learned to respect every individual. No one learns the same or thinks the same and we all react to critiques in our own way. That being said, respect goes both ways. I always treat my dance captain with the respect I want to be treated with. I take the note and apply it. If I don’t understand, I kindly ask to go over it because maybe I learned it a different way. Let’s talk through it. I don’t react with an attitude because, what good does that do?
GIZELLE: I’ve learned that you cannot take the name “dance captain” too strongly. Yes, as a dance captain we want to be seen as a strong figure in authority and someone that everyone respects. But I have found that being yourself and knowing how to adapt to certain situations in a manner that is okay for everyone involved is the true key. Stay true to yourself and people will respect you more.
DANNY: I continue to learn that you can’t take things too personally and you must believe in yourself as a dance captain. People are always going to question you and the decision you make as a captain, so it’s important to trust yourself.
GIOIA: It’s been a really beautiful lesson to learn how important our differences are. We are teammates, yes. But we are all human first. That comes with each of us having different strengths and weaknesses. No two team members are the same and that’s what makes the team such a beautiful thing! Learning to appreciate the differences, while helping each other grow is what makes the experience such a memorable one.
What is your strategy for giving notes?
ERIKA: I give the note! ;) I explain what the issue was and help fix it together. A lot of the time I’ll say it was a great show, because it was. There are just minor adjustments that need to be made.
GIZELLE: My strategy for notes is easy. I know everything is super exact, especially at a theme park, but as a dance captain I just love seeing people enjoy themselves. As long as no one is in danger because blocking is wrong or choreography is totally out of whack then I will not give a note. Having fun is key and giving your cast positive notes makes them want to try harder.
DANNY: To be honest, I just give the note… And if I’ve given the note before and you’re not taking it, well then we have a problem. But I always try to know my audience as some dancers are very sensitive. So, with those individuals I try to deliver the note with a bit of positivity.
GIOIA: I have a very straightforward (Italian) personality and I value open communication. I give direct corrections to the individual but I make sure to watch the next couple of times we run through the routine to give positive feedback for what was adjusted.
Do you find that your biggest challenges lie within a dancers’ technical abilities or with their backstage behavior?
ERIKA: Backstage behavior for sure. That circles back around to respecting someone.
GIZELLE: Backstage behavior. Every person is different and I feel like, as a dance captain, we should know how to adapt to everyone in our cast that day. Knowing how to talk to people and translate what your trying to say to accommodate their feelings and behavior is key. Get to know everyone individually. One person is not going to take a note like the other. Adapt to different personalities and just people in general.
DANNY: Backstage behavior. You can always work on the technique. The attitudes and lack of work ethic are definitely harder to manage.
GIOIA: Backstage behavior. For the Broncos, you have to be over-qualified to make the team (technically speaking). The auditions consist of technical dance skills that just aren’t possible in boots and chaps, on grass in game day elements. So, everyone is very technically capable of performing the dancing responsibilities. The hardest part for most dancers is that our team culture and legacy is very important to us. It’s no longer about just dancing. It’s about who you are as a human and how you can grow to be the absolute best version of yourself.
What’s your favorite part about being a dance captain?
ERIKA: I get to help people. I also get to solve conflicts or struggles in a show that’s maybe unsafe for someone. I get to lead and that’s such an amazing feeling.
GIZELLE: My favorite part about being a dance captain is getting to train new people that come into parade. They are always excited to be there and eager to learn. Makes me feel happy that I get to be in this position. I’m proud to be able to teach them something they, usually, have been wanting to learn for a long time.
DANNY: I really enjoy the extra responsibility that comes with being a dance captain on ships. And the way that some people look up to me and being a role model in a way is rewarding at the end of the day.
GIOIA: My favorite part about being a dance captain is having the opportunity to motivate others to be their best! We all have moments of doubts and insecurity, especially in an industry where “better luck next time” is more common than “you’re booked.” So having a platform to encourage the women around me to just go for it and that they are worth it… that’s an opportunity I really cherish.
What’s the most difficult part of your job?
ERIKA: Coming back to respect! Honestly, I haven’t had too many issues but there have been some instances where I get a whole lot of attitude when I give a note; And that’s just not any fun! It makes the situation weird and who wants that? Let’s have fun and help each other succeed.
GIZELLE: The most difficult part of my job is making sure that I know all of the different contingencies that may happen throughout the day. Whether it be we lost some of the cast, floats are down, weather, anything and everything, I need to be on step ahead and know what happens so everyone can feel confident enough to go out and still do the best show.
DANNY: Holding back my emotion. I am a very passionate person and so just staying neutral is sometimes very difficult.
What do you plan to do next in your career?
ERIKA: I’m hoping to step my foot into being a performance coordinator (which is basically an assistant to the show directors) at Universal Orlando. I already love being a captain and I know that if I get the chance to become a performance coordinator, it will push me to be a better leader and I want nothing more than to grow.
GIZELLE: Next in my career I would want to travel the world as a back-up dancer for an artist. That would be my ultimate dream as a dancer.
DANNY: I have a couple more contracts left in me but my next move will be stepping into a rehearsal director position teaching the production shows to new casts at the studios in Miami.
GIOIA: Ultimately, I want to open up my own dance studio in the mountains. I would love to work on a cruise ship as well!
What advice do you have for dancers who aspire to be a dance captain in the future?
ERIKA: Be confident, show respect, and be organized. There are so many more traits to being a leader but those three are what I remember to be each and every day.
GIZELLE: Have fun, be adaptable, and be one step ahead of the game. All eyes are on you most of the time and it can be hard. So just be yourself and everyone will respect you. It’s an easy job that people can take too seriously. Enjoy being a dance captain and people will enjoy you in that position.
DANNY: If you are passionate about it and it’s not about the money (or the cabin) then go for it. It’s very difficult but it’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.
GIOIA: Work hard, learn from your Veterans, and put the team first.
So, what can we take from this?
As a dancer with a dance captain to report to, I strive to be good at applying notes with zero attitude attached, be flexible and kind as I know how difficult it can be to succeed as a dance captain, and to stay under the radar so that my dance captain doesn’t have to deal with me in an administrative manner like being on time or putting away my costumes.
As someone planning to move into the dance captain role on ships after working as a dance captain in a theme park, I’m definitely taking into consideration the stress of never really leaving work. It’s very different being able to “go home” and get away from a particularly upsetting day at work. Versus on a ship where that problem never really leaves. I think my biggest struggle will be like Danny's and taking things too personally.
My other dance captain friends: I’d love to hear from you and add to this post! Leave your answers in the comments or send me a message here.
I’m liking this interview thing. Coming soon: Makeup artists’ tips and favs