Getting a leg up on Broadway

Worcester’s Paul compiles anthology of tips culled from Great White Way’s best hoofers

By Pamela H. Sacks

Tina Paul views her new book as both a practical guide and an inspirational tome.

As she took pen in hand, Ms. Paul thought back to when she was young.

“I asked myself, `What is everything I would want someone to tell me to know the inside scoop?’ The more you know, the more you fit in,” she said by telephone from her home in Yonkers, N.Y.

A little advice from Ms. Paul, a Worcester native, would no doubt be most welcome to anyone who seeks to crack her glamorous and exciting profession — that of a Broadway dancer.

She has been a headliner and an ensemble performer, appearing in hits such as “A Chorus Line,” “Chicago” and “Grand Hotel.” She is a choreographer and dance instructor, as well.

A couple of years ago, Ms. Paul decided the time had come to share what she had learned over 25 years’ time. She glanced through dance books and realized that most of them either focused on ballet or were autobiographies.

Ms. Paul wanted to do more, so she interviewed 14 fellow dancers, among them Tommy Tune, Chita Rivera and Bebe Neuwirth, whose experiences and observations she included in her account. Together, the dancers had worked on 167 Broadway shows and national tours as performers, directors and choreographers.

Ms. Paul then put together “So You Want to Dance on Broadway?” The book is a 176-page compendium of anecdotes and advice on how to carve out a career dancing on the Great White Way and survive New York City. It was published by Heinemann earlier this month and costs $17.95.

In her book, Ms. Paul covers it all, from finding an apartment to dressing for an audition to whether or not to attend college. She even includes practicalities, such as where to buy food and do laundry.

“A lot of people think, `You sing and dance, how fun.’ No, it’s a very difficult and disciplined profession. It’s a real thing. Not just fun and games,” said Ms. Paul, who is 51 years old.

The book works well, partly because Ms. Paul has given considerable space to the other dancers. She sought a cross-section of talent, she said, and selected several dancers who have had good careers performing in ensembles, rather than in leading roles.

And she selected only dancers who love Broadway and love what they do. “Some people can get sour,” Ms. Paul said. “I picked a generous group.”

Among them is her husband, Luis Perez, who danced with the Joffrey Ballet before embarking on his Broadway career. The two fell in love while performing in a workshop with another dancer featured in the book, Graciela Daniele.

“He’s the only person, when I look in his eyes, he makes me forget my steps,” Ms. Paul said, breaking into laughter. They married in 1991 and have a 10-year-old son, Gabriel.

In an anecdote about an early audition, Mr. Perez hit a lighthearted note: “ … I wore my best dark blue unitard, my white socks up to my knees, and my white ballet shoes. I walked into the room sleek as a panther, and here are all these fantastic Broadway veterans, the best of Broadway, wearing their show jazz boots and jeans and ripped-up T-shirts, looking like guy-guys, and there I am as this prim and proper ballet dancer from the Joffrey. The guys looked me up and down like I was some kind of a freak — which I was!”

On the other hand, Ms. Paul’s book does not shy away from the hurtful aspects of the business. Mamie Duncan-Gibbs tells of how she faced rejection after rejection because of her large nose. At first she didn’t believe it was her appearance. She thought that if she improved her steps, her nose wouldn’t matter. Finally, she was bluntly informed: Fix your nose or you’ll never get a job. She reluctantly had plastic surgery, and has gone on to a successful career.

Ms. Paul’s own history is indicative of what it takes to become a performer. She started tap, ballet and jazz lessons when she was 5. Her older sister Maureen took lessons, too, and they were a dance team. Early on, it was all in good fun.

Then Ms. Paul was 12 and had an experience that set her on the path to professional dancing.

“I was on stage and in the middle of a number, I felt free, like a bird just soaring,” she said. “I thought, `If I can re-create this feeling, it’s what I want to do.’ ”

The Paul family moved to the Midwest for a year and then returned East and settled in Westboro, where Ms. Paul graduated from high school. She went on to the Boston Conservatory of Music, majoring in dance and drama.

After deciding that she wasn’t ready for New York City, she headed to France and joined the Roland Petit Dance Co. of Marseille. She performed all across Europe for three years.

When Ms. Paul returned to the United States, she headed to New York, where she set her cap for Broadway. With her experience — “I could handle anybody’s style,” she said — she had little trouble breaking in.

She has always moved back and forth between ensemble dancing and lead parts, and for many years she worked steadily, leaving one role to go on to another.

A Broadway dancer gets decent pay — a minimum of $1,300 a week nowadays. As a dancer’s reputation builds, the pay goes up to as much as $2,000 a week, Ms. Paul said. But the job is insecure; many shows close down in a few months’ time.

“People say, `Oh, you get paid all that money just to sing and dance.’ You have to save your money. If your show closes, you could be out of work for the next year,” she said.

Ms. Paul said she began writing “So You Want to Dance on Broadway?” after she injured her back and a veteran actor advised her to think about giving back all she had gotten from her Broadway career.

In his introduction to the book, Tommy Tune indicated that Ms. Paul had contributed a great deal. Her book is so valuable to young people who dream of Broadway, he wrote, “that I’m jealous it didn’t exist when I first hit New York. Straight up from Texas, I was seeking a chorus job on the Great White Way. This detailed book would have alleviated a lot of my trepidation.”