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When I Grow Up, I Want To Be A Musical Swing!

Musical Swing
By JayeElster

What if I asked you, ‘who was your role model when you were ten years old?’ The sentimental among us may have said our family but my guess is that many would have picked the most prominent celebrity of the time. For my era that’s the likes of David Beckham, Jennifer Lopez, J.K Rowling and Oprah Winfrey. What do all four of those people have in common?

Until 2016, Beckham held the appearance record playing for England as an outfield player. In 2001 Jennifer Lopez became the first woman to have a number one album and film in the same week, later establishing herself as the highest-paid Latin actress in Hollywood. J.K. Rowling is one of only five self-made billionaires, and the first billion-dollar author. Oprah was the face of the highest-rated television program of its kind in history between 1986 to 2011. Beckham was the face of England football, Lopez was the face of Latin America, Rowling was the face of fiction and Winfrey was the literal face of The Oprah Winfrey Show. What is it then that we look for in a role model? I’d forgive you for thinking it were praise of the highest acclaim.

A role model is a person whose behavior, example or success is or can be emulated by others, especially by younger people.

By picking figures such as Beckham, Lopez, Rowling and Winfrey, we are routinely setting a premise that our wildest dreams are that of being ‘the star’. Think about it, have you ever been asked, ‘if you could be anything, ANYTHING, irrelevant of money or your skill, what would you be?’ How many of us answered … A Hollywood actress! … An athlete in the Olympics! … Richard Branson! Except we’re not all the same are we? We are all wired so very differently and so to assume that we’d all have the same idea of what our wildest dreams look like, that’s a bit absurd isn’t it?

Most recently I’ve been talking at length with my closest friends who I deem to be football fanatics. They eat, sleep and breathe football and unsurprisingly their childhood role models were the likes of David Beckham, Ian Wright and Ruud Gullit (all star players of their time). Heaven forbid that they would have looked up to say, “the goalie sat on the subs bench.”

I, myself, know nothing of football; I can follow a game by counting how many times the ball goes in the goal but tactics and fouls? I’m dumbfounded! Instead I choose to trust that the ref knows best (much to many a football fan’s disagreement). As such, I’ve unwittingly come to understand that the players on the substitute bench are of a substandard to the players on the pitch. After all, you would only put your best players on the pitch, right?

It got me thinking; I perform in theatre as a swing. When a show begins, I wait in the dressing room until another actress falls ill or gets injured requiring me to spring into action in their place.

By comparison, I am effectively on the subs bench. I wait in the dressing room (on the bench), until another actress (player) falls ill and I am substituted in their place. So am I to say that I am a substitute actress of a substandard to the actresses on the stage eight shows per week? I would argue passionately that I am not, believing firmly that swings are the unsung heroes of theatre. Am I a hypocrite? I decided to enlist the help of my football friends to find out.

I asked them, ‘why are certain players kept on the subs bench?’ I was met by a whole variety of answers; ‘they’re not as good’, ‘they might be working with injury’, ‘it might be too expensive to play them’, ‘they might not be appropriate for the intended tactical play’, ‘they may have had some negative press in recent weeks’. None of those answers however relate to the reason I do not perform eight shows a week. I simply prefer it.

You might think I got into theatre so that I could be seen, isn’t that the definition of performing? To perform is to present to an audience. Ironically, the best compliment I ever received as a swing was ‘I didn’t even know you were on’. In other words, I was invisible. In real terms, it meant that I was able to go on stage at a moment’s notice and yet the show to appear unchanged to both the audience and my fellow performers.

That is the job I pride myself in, delivering a show of equal accuracy and quality but in a somewhat state of emergency. Could it be then, that some of those players on the subs bench feel the same way as I do?

They thrive off of stepping into play when they are most needed. Is this a category of reasoning that even the most avid of football fans fail to recognise because it’s so unfathomable to us that anyone’s driving motivation is not to be the world’s highest paid footballer?

So I spoke to the men in the arena, the footballers. True enough there are plenty more reasons that a player might find themselves on the subs bench other than being of a substandard including a knack for versatility. Never before have I heard of a utility player. In team sports, Wikipedia defines the utility player is one who can play several positions competently. Such a player, or jack-of-all-trades is kept on the subs bench to play as a wild card. Their knowledge of the different plays that can be made from different positions on the pitch correlates directly with the knowledge a swing has of the different choreography performed in different positions on the stage. It can also be said that many young players get their foot in the door (so-to- speak) to professional football by demonstrating an aptitude for being a utility player.

When asked about my journey to being a swing in musical theatre, I have often been known to say that I feel as though I was inadvertently mentored to be a swing from a very young age.

As a young teen, I would assist my dance teacher to choreograph competitive group dance routines, planning proposed formations on paper using a self-developed noughts and crosses- like system. As a late teen, I worked for £12 an hour recreating the choreography of others across amateur theatre schools in South-West London.

My big break in professional training came when I was appointed a swing in my first year for a third year dance piece. The very same year the artistic director of that production invited me to sit next to her in the auditorium so that I could learn first hand of the finer details the naked eye couldn’t see. Things like being sure to note down entrances and exits as hastily as the main body of choreography. You might say that I am a walking example of the theories that suggest to even think about having command over your chosen field, you must first spend ten thousand hours training and practicing. That’s three hours of training every day for ten years. Like many experts before me, I could have only achieved that by spending a majority of my training years unbeknown that I was indeed training.

As a graduate, that same artistic director was the associate choreographer on my first professional job. I got my foot in the door to musical theatre by training to be a swing first and since then? A whole variety of opportunities made themselves available to me from ensemble roles to desirable understudies. Despite this, I have always known that I am happiest as a swing.

I am not the rule, however; the following onward careers of former swings should be recognised. Tony award winning actress Karen Olivo made her Broadway debut in the 1996 production of ‘Rent’ as a swing. Jonathan Groff made his Broadway debut as a swing in the 2005 production of ‘In My Life’. He can now be heard providing the voice of ‘Kristoff’ in the tenth highest grossing film of all time ‘Frozen’ (Box Office Mojo, 2018). Lastly, esteemed choreographer and two-time Tony award winner, Jerry Mitchell began his career as a swing in the American National tour of ‘A Chorus Line’ as well as Broadway’s ‘Woman of the Year’. Of the latter he recalls ‘I had to learn how to juggle ball, pins, boxes and rings, walk on a high wire, do the teeterboard, walk on painter stilts … I had to learn to do everything’ (Mitchell, 2015 p.177). Being a swing can serve as an entry point to a plethora of careers in theatre, just as being a utility player in football could path the way to being the highest paid footballer in history. But if you’re like me, I live out my wildest dream as a swing.

Which leads me to suggest that perhaps we are placing too great an emphasis on aspiring to be the star player or the leading actress and not enough value on aspiring to be versatile.

There’s an old English proverb “Behind every great man, there is a great woman”. If we ignore the outdated role gender plays in this statement, how many of us want to be the “great woman” when we grow up? If we don’t want to be anything more, are we strange? Is being a facilitator of greatness a dream in itself? I’m not here to theorise that behind every great football team there’s probably a utility player but here to insist that behind every great musical there is a swing.

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