In the Limelight: Casting director, salsa performer and teacher Magda Sobolewska

I first became aware of Magda Sobolewska’s amazing talent as a performer when I saw her dance a very memorable and dramatic tango based on a scene in Moulin Rouge. I later learned that as well as an international salsa teacher and performer, she has a dynamic career as a casting director for films — including one of my favourites, Loving Vincent — and runs her own successful casting company, Limelight People. Here she tells me of her exciting journey in both careers.

Magda is a very ambitious, hard-working, goal-driven, dedicated professional; it is clear her successes derive from those attributes. She first came to London from Poland after finishing university 24 years ago. Originally from a town some 200km south of Krakow, she studied marketing managing, which at the time was a very new thing in Poland. While she had several interviews for marketing roles in Poland, nothing happened. Then her dad suggested she come to London for a year to do some English classes. Although she didn’t really plan to stay in the UK, she now considers it her home. “I love London!” she says. “I love the fact you can do anything here – there are so many opportunities.”

While studying English in London, she met a hotel manager through some friends who invited her to work for the hotel. Eventually she was promoted to supervisor and then to manager, where she also worked in hospitality. Through this, she began working in the events industry, and found she really loved the buzz of organising events. She did some very big events, some of which involved even being in very close proximity to the Queen. “No, I didn’t meet her,” she laughs, “but I walked past her a few times!”

While working in the hotel industry, she got to know several film crews staying there. Some were doing big Bollywood productions, with many films being done back to back. When they were short of extras and materials for the shoots, she helped them out by sourcing extra people and props for the scenes. Through this, she got to know the owner of a modelling agency who was supplying the extras for the films, and who was very keen for her to work for him.

Magda on set with her crew of royal family lookalikes – but she also worked in the events industry, including events where the real Queen was present!

Later, after she became pregnant with her son, she got a job in the marketing department of a Polish newspaper and worked there for a while, but she found she preferred the buzz of working in events. When the modelling agency guy asked her to help him with work on a film, she agreed. As soon as she started working on the set, she realised “I can really do this!” and decided to commit to this.

Creating Limelight People

In 2008, she set up her own casting agency, Limelight People, initially working with an American business partner. The agency focuses on supplying a pool of supporting artists, dancers and extras from a range of styles and disciplines, as well as other specialist performers.

Since then, Limelight People has become a fantastic success, although setting it up was initially challenging, since “there are no university courses in casting for being a casting director – you just have to learn by working with another casting director”. Although it was a steep learning curve at first, she was very determined. She thought, “If I am going to do this, I want to do it properly!”

The timing of films means work is often highly pressurised: “When I am working, I hardly sleep – only three hours when the film is on. Because of the timing and budgets for films, you usually only have a very tight time frame in which to film, so you have to get everything right – and if the extras don’t turn up, you have to think fast to find a solution.” She quickly developed excellent trouble-shooting skills – for example, making sure she wouldn’t be left with only 250 people when 300 were needed for a scene.

Magda on set with a film crew filming on Westminster Bridge

The film industry is very much about connections, so it helped that she had already developed many of these in her early work. The first film she did after setting up Limelight People was a psychological horror film (Fired); the second film (Housefull) was a very big Indian comedy film production with 3,000 extras, and it was quite challenging as they didn’t yet have the technology in place to help organise everything.

But with the money they earned on that film, she and her business partner were able to hire a space in Shoreditch that could serve as both an office and a dance studio, which they had built inside it. “This was also around the time I started teaching salsa, so it was a happy coincidence,” she explains. In the few years they were in that studio, they did two seasons of the TV series Luther and did X-Men, as well as several other films and shows (see her full filmography credits here.)

At one point, she and her business partner Ana were approached to help produce and stream a live show for seven days a week. At that time, they were swapping shifts – in the morning, they were doing casting; in the afternoon, producing; and in the evening, she was teaching as well as raising her son, with all the challenges of being a working single mother. “Thankfully, my mum has also been here to help look after my son while I was working. Although things are a little less manic now, it is still a challenge juggling everything – but I really couldn’t stop doing either job because they are both my passion!”

Soon, she was asked to do casting for feature parts, starting with small one-liners and going up to more involved roles: “I wasn’t that keen to get involved in handling lead parts because of the level of contracts involved. I work on a lot of foreign films and organise the secondary casting (supporting actors, dancers, extras, etc) – some of those are for one scene or only for a couple of days. I also don’t really do stunt actors, because they usually bring their own team – working with stunt actors is very specialised.”

A master of versatility, Magda excels in both her passions, being a highly successful female entrepreneur and casting director as well as a gifted dance teacher and performer

Q: How do you ensure the people you hire are reliable?

“I have a database of actors, and from this I can work out how they will do. I go on the set and sometimes even do the casting while there, so I learn to know all the supporting artists by name, which is quite unusual in the industry. Through this, I show my interest and respect for the artists, so they respect me too because I treat them as a person not a number on the database.

“The film industry is very competitive, with more and more people getting into it. All the elements of the film are important –  if you get one element wrong, the whole film can suffer. During the whole time of the shooting, I hardly sleep – my phone is always on in case people are letting me know the night before if they got sick, so then I have to be available to work until I can get a replacement.”

Finding a replacement at short notice can be very challenging especially with period films, because the costumes have to fit a certain size – for example, with Loving Vincent, she had to find actors who looked like the people in Vincent van Gogh’s paintings. So that can add an extra layer of difficulty to the casting.

Poster for the extraordinary 2017 art-meets-life film ‘Loving Vincent’, which Magda had a key part in supplying extras for

Q: What have been the highest and the lowest points of the work so far?

“It’s always a buzz seeing every film I’ve worked on, especially to see that the artists I cast were a part of it. I love to see my people in the film and see how well they are doing. I also do my own research around the film themes and scenarios, reading the scripts to get the background, etc and to ensure the actors are a good fit for the film and are what the director wants.

“Last year, I did a film about cricket players called 83; it should be shown this year. It required 6,000 people. The work on the film from the beginning of the main casting to completing the shoot went on for nine months. The film was about the Cricket World Cup in the 1980s, so the cast had to have the looks and the skills, as well as availability. The film is called 83 and should be shown this year.

“It’s very challenging, but I love it – it’s such an adrenaline rush. On the first day I say, ‘I can’t wait till the last day’, but on the last day, I have a rest, and then the next day I am already looking for the next film. It’s the same adrenaline rush I had when I was doing events – there’s so much to do to organise it. And then after the event finishes you rest, and then you’re like, ‘What’s next?'”

Magda with her crew of dancers and extras on a set

Q: What advice do you have about getting into the film industry?

“You just have to keep trying to get into the industry. You have to do your research to know what films are shooting, and then get your foot in the door by starting as an assistant, being a shadow or a runner. It isn’t glamorous waking up at 4am, commuting to the site, doing a 12-hour shoot sometimes outdoors in bad weather, but that is all part of the job.

“Sometimes things go wrong – for example, I lost a booking sheet the day before and had no backup; you just have to find a way to make it fix it. Twice or thrice I almost quit, but I always persevered, and my producer helped me stay. I believe if someone offers you an opportunity, but you are not sure you can do it, you should say ‘yes’ and learn how to do it later. I tend to agree to things a lot not even though I don’t  know how I am going to do it, but I always find a way. I do a lot of research and ask a lot of questions.

“The perks of the job are that you get to work with some amazing people and see some amazing places that you normally wouldn’t have a chance to see. Seeing your name in the film credits is also great!”

Magda Sobolewska

The filming is usually in the UK, but she does travel a bit (France, Ireland, Scotland), and also sends actors abroad – including to India, as she’s still got a long-term connection with Bollywood. She has worked with all the big production companies in India, and laughs that she is probably better known there than in the UK.

She loves observing the whole project and getting involved in the project early because it does take time to get the whole film together, and she likes to get a feel of what the director wants. She casts extras a few weeks before the shoot once the scenes are all set up as they then have a better idea of what they need from the extras. “The casting process is really fascinating – there’s so many elements involved!”

Magda performing a tango dance routine on stage

Q: What about acting? Have you ever wanted to be in the limelight yourself?

“I have never really had a desire to be an actress – I love being behind the camera. The only time I would like to be in front of the camera is for dancing – for example, when I did Cuban Fury [for which she joined as a dancer]. I do have two acting credits though – for example, I played the mother of my son when he was cast in films.

“My dance performance experience is similar to my casting work, because when you are dancing on stage, you get into character – that is the bit of acting I enjoy.”

Q: So how did you get into dancing and teaching salsa professionally?

“Although I had done ballroom and musical theatre back in Poland, dancing wasn’t a priority for me when I first came to London. However, there was a dance company in the same building where I was working with the modelling agency, and the beginnings of a dance company at City Academy. After I became friends with them, I decided to check it out when they started teaching salsa classes there in 2007.

As soon as she had her first lesson in salsa, she was hooked. Soon she started assisting the teacher, Silvio, and within a year she was teaching her own classes. As Silvio was going away, and as she needed someone to teach with her, she met Dani K and in 2009, they started teaching together. They have now been teaching together for 12 years. Dani also encouraged her to learn to lead to help her develop as a dancer.

She has since learned a lot from other teachers – for example, she took part in Adolfo Indacochea and Tania Cannarsa’s student team in London, and honed her performance skills with Terry Allianz and Cecile Ovide. She started going to congresses and watching how teachers taught beginners. “This helped me a lot as I am now able to adapt myself to whoever I am teaching.”

In addition to teaching salsa, Magda is also Head of Partner Dance at London’t City Academy, where she teaches other partner dances such as Latin ballroom, swing and jive

Alongside teaching with Dani, Magda has been performing with Otra Danz since 2011, and is now a renowned and sought-after guest teacher at many international salsa festivals. She also became Head of Partnerwork (jive, swing, Latin ballroom, salsa, etc) classes for London’s City Academy. When she left Otra Danz in November 2019, it was to show her journey as a dancer. Cha cha is current love, and the project her heart is in.

For Magda, concentrating on the basics so she can teach everyone and explain how to do everything properly – all the mechanisms of the moves – is very important. She always tries to give her students something they can connect with, so it’s not just a mechanical thing but it becomes part of their soul, and they can feel the move as well as do it. “If you don’t have the soul when you’re dancing, then you are only half-dancing – you are just practising. To really dance, you have to have your technique and the feeling. Only when you have both together does it become dancing.”

But it was only when she found that connection in herself that she understood what to do to help others to learn. “I always try to give them something personal – just one small tip to help them to click – even when they are in a big group. It also is important to engage their minds. And when that happens – when they engage both the mind and the feelings – even those who only wanted to learn a few steps will start to see the possibilities of what they can do with it. And when they get hooked, it’s amazing!

It’s all about the smiles: Magda enjoys leading as a social dancer as much as a teacher, as here at the Teeside, UK salsa festival

Although she does have a rigorously perfectionist side, her goal is to ensure her students learn. “I love teaching – and now I have more patience and willingness to work with people personally to help them grow. I love seeing the smiles on the dancers’ faces when they start to get it and their movements improve.”

She also dances socially as a leader so people can see she practises what she preaches. Magda’s goal is to help followers know how to respond – not because they know what’s coming, but because they can feel the response – and teaches leaders what the follower needs to feel, too. Several leaders have said they’d never been taught those things.

Magda has since been offered to teaching of partnerwork classes as a solo female teacher at events and congresses – including Berlin – which she says felt like “a confirmation that I am doing the right thing”.

“Female teachers/dancers are a very important element in the salsa scene. Because it is a partner dance involving two dancers, a good female instructor can not only explain the follower’s steps, but what a follower should feel from the leader. They can also help the leader to improve the lead. For this reason, female instructors are so much more important to teaching salsa than just teaching ladies’ styling!” 

—Magda sobolewska
Magda teaching at the Luxembourg Unified Dance Festival

Q: So how have you managed in lockdown, both with casting and dance teaching?

“Being in lockdown has given me the time to think about what I want to do – I want to develop my own things, not in competition to City Academy but as a compliment to it. The cha cha is something I want to fully focus on, because I love it – I have started doing a Latin fusion thing for the ladies, with heel classes, combining the ballroom Latin thing with the salsa Latin thing. In ballroom, you’ve got the standard, and then you’ve got Latin American, whereas salsa is like the street version. So I want to combine some movements and techniques from ballroom Latin in what I teach.”

She is also interested in doing something specifically for ladies – especially older ladies, because it is difficult for them because they are often labelled and subjected to limits. She knows some older ladies are scared and don’t have the confidence to try, therefore she wants to try to reach those ladies and give them a second youth, to help them to feel young and happy again via dance.

“I got this idea from another friend in Poland, who was doing something similar. I believe this can be a good thing, a niche market. I used to teach elderly people in a community centre, and I recently taught a class of elderly people, even a lady who was 94 who joined in, and this gave her a lot of joy. So I believe dance can help you to keep your youth.” One of her challenges recently was teaching a deaf girl, by tapping the rhythm on the girl’s hands – and it gave the girl a lot of joy just being able to move.

Although some projects are still a work in progress, Magda’s confidence and determination are all the tools she needs to conquer the future

Being in lockdown gave her a lot – she bought a flat and has had a lot of time with her son. It has also meant she has had more time to work through her ideas for the future, which is still a work in progress.

Now that lockdown is easing and dance classes are resuming, so is her hectic filming schedule – so the time off has helped as she is now back to working 20-hour days. But, knowing Magda – who jokes that she has more energy than many people in their 20s, and is “like a prototype for a Duracell battery” – the demanding full-on schedule will surely see her thriving and truly in her element.

“I’m a fighter and an opportunist – I’m always looking for opportunities to create something new. If I have even the slightest chance to do something, I will do it. I approach everything with the attitude that I can at least try it – because if I don’t try it, I won’t know! Developing the confidence to try has given me the courage to look for opportunities and even create them.”

If you are interested in learning with Magda, you can see her full course and private session offerings on her website.

© Jane Cahane August 2021

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