Want a no-stress recital? Start planning in summer for a springtime show that’s a breeze.
By Theresa Corbley Siller
Before every recital, the pressure builds: Will it go smoothly? You know your dancers are well rehearsed, and the more experienced ones will pull out all the stops, giving a great performance. But logistical problems, unfortunate incidents that result from poor planning or communication, can sabotage what should have been an evening to celebrate.
Take the case of little Jenna, who’s sobbing in the wings because her parents didn’t get the memo about the correct color of tights. Her mother has to risk a speeding ticket, running home to get her the right pair in time. Jenna feels rushed and pressured. Feeling the magic of being onstage will be hard for her tonight.
But there are ways to avoid Jenna’s sad scenario and see nothing but happy dancers and parents from dress rehearsal to the final performance. Good preparation plus communication equals little Jenna beaming, confident, and ready to step out into the lights. At Cuppett Performing Arts Center in Vienna, Virginia, 47 years of producing recitals have turned the process into a science. Here’s how the 10 months prior to each year’s recital play out.
Each August the school’s director, Amy Cuppett Stiverson, distributes the primary information for the dance year. Her first order of business for the dance year is nailing down the recital date in the last week of August. It’s smart to have the recital around the same time every year. Cuppett’s is usually around June 20, when families haven’t begun their vacations yet.
Stiverson announces the dates and times of the following June’s recital performances at the teachers’ meeting in August and then posts the information on the school’s website and in the thrice-yearly print newsletter, which is sent to students’ homes and posted in the front lobby. Families can then fill in their calendars immediately.
With a large school of 20 teachers and 750 students, multiple shows are needed. Cuppett does four performances: a Friday evening show for the intermediate/advanced dancers, an early Saturday matinee for students ages 3 to 6, a later Saturday matinee for the beginning/intermediate dancers (ages 7 to teens), and a Saturday evening show for the most advanced dancers (teenagers and adults). The dance company performs in all the shows.
Anyone with questions can contact the studio’s administrators, who are both organized and patient. It is amazing how many people miss important information, no matter how hard the entire staff—director, administrators, and teachers— tries to dispense it. For that reason, distributing information in a triple-threat fashion is important. If someone misses it in one delivery, they may catch it in another. It’s cross-checking at its finest.
In September, Stiverson emails the teachers to ask for suggestions for a recital theme and title. Everyone weighs in with ideas and then Stiverson makes the final decision.
Having the theme helps the teachers begin to think about music for their dances. It’s first come, first served, so the teachers who plan early reap the reward of getting their first choice.
Teachers’ first and second music choices must be submitted by November 30; these are compiled into a list so that any duplication can be avoided. Stiverson notifies the teachers immediately if there are any problems with their choices.
Costume choices must be made by December 30 so that ordering can begin after winter break, in January. Teachers choose the costumes for their classes, and to guarantee that each selection is correct, they must initial the final list. Stiverson approves the choices, which must be reasonably priced. Once the list is complete, she double-checks everything, which prevents many potential slipups or downright catastrophes.
Measuring for costumes is done during classes in November, and a quarter of an inch is added to accommodate for the students’ growth by June.
Getting through the costuming process requires an army. Stiverson is lucky, because she has one. Her three costume coordinators order more than 1,500 costumes every year and make sure that no one ends up in something that doesn’t fit right. Measuring for costumes is done during classes in November, and a quarter of an inch is added to accommodate for the students’ growth by June.
All choreography for recital dances begins in January. (At this point, prospective new students must wait until summer classes begin in July, since costumes have already been ordered and dances are in progress.) At the teacher meeting in August, Stiverson stresses that teachers should never spend an entire class on the recital dance. Fifteen minutes is the maximum, so that the students get their warm-up and technique. Then, as showtime draws near, up to a half-hour of class time can be used for rehearsals if needed.
With an extended rehearsal period, recital pieces are deep in the students’ muscle memory by June, so that they are free to enjoy themselves and shine in front of the audience.
The costumes begin arriving in March and continue to trickle in until the end of May. The costume coordinators check them in, put each student’s name on each bag and box, and place them in the correct studio for each class. All costumes are labeled with the dancers’ names, usually with a Sharpie on the tag, which avoids panic and confusion if one gets left behind at dress rehearsal. Teachers let the students do their dances in costume to check for any problems with fit. Any needed alterations are made immediately and the costumes are returned to the students within two weeks.
Late April/early May
Stiverson edits all the music and places it in the studios by late April. The teachers test the music, and if they approve it, they initial the CD jacket. They report any problems immediately and Stiverson re-cuts it within one week. Final CDs of all recital music are kept in all studios, and backup copies are placed in the lighting and sound room at the theater.
In late April, the spring newsletter is sent home with students and posted on the website and in the lobby. It includes detailed information about all rehearsals, both those at the studio and at the stage, plus parking maps, dressing room assignments, and show times. At this point, there’s no reason why families shouldn’t be well aware of all dates and times that involve their children. Still, the office administrators field hundreds of questions.
Tickets are printed and go on sale. Early ticket sales are discounted, and tickets remain available for purchase until the day of the show.
Work on the recital program booklet begins in late April. The director and administrators puzzle together the show order so that harried backstage costume changes are minimized. The program is posted in all studios, and teachers and students check all name spellings for correctness. After checking, teachers initial each class list. Once the program is completed, a feeling of anticipation fills the studio.
Teachers send flyers home to parents detailing hair and makeup requirements.
Around May 20 the 3- to 6-year-old dancers have a studio rehearsal. This gives them a chance to get used to the stage setup and the order of their dances in the show, preparing them for the onstage dress rehearsals. While they are waiting for their dance, they learn to sit quietly. Company dancers help with the little ones and the matinee performances.
During the four weeks before the recital, once a week, in the last 10 minutes of class time, all of the students perform their dances for the other students and teachers. Everyone enjoys watching each other’s dances, and it builds camaraderie.
The week before the show is devoted to onstage dress rehearsals. Since the dance year has ended, there are no more classes at the studio, which avoids confusion about where to report. The rehearsals are arranged by show order, so the first show’s dress rehearsal is the first one, the second one is second, and so on. The youngest dancers rehearse early and get to go home. Later rehearsals are reserved for the oldest and most advanced students.
Students must arrive at the theater an hour and a half before performance time. Parent volunteers check everyone in, and the students are assigned to dressing rooms. We provide videotapes and games to keep the children occupied when they’re not onstage. Parents have the option to take young students home after their dances rather than staying for the entire performance.
One staff member organizes a group of parent volunteers, who chaperone the 3- to 10-year-old dancers. For their efforts, these generous mothers get complimentary tickets and an acknowledgement in the recital program.
At performance time, teacher Mozelle Karnette Stanton, who has been at Cuppett for 30 years, supervises the makeup for every show. She is the authority on powder, blush, eyes, and lips. She places her eight assistants at specific task stations, an efficient arrangement that optimizes the flow of children through the makeup process.
In the dressing rooms, all the students give each other a helping hand. It’s so touching to see this. The generosity and spirit of sharing are uplifting. Anyone who forgets something will be quickly accommodated, and we keep small essentials like hairpins, safety pins, and hairnets on hand for anyone who needs them. Tights are available for purchase at the ticket table.
By early morning on the day of the show, with coffee in hand, dedicated parents begin the task of readying the stage. It must be wet-mopped with a solution of water and rosin, with time to dry before the dancers get on it. The school’s three administrators staff the ticket table, while some male volunteers raise the scenery.
Meanwhile, our director consults her last-minute list of graduating seniors (who receive trophies), students who passed their Cecchetti exams, those with perfect attendance, and scholarship recipients. She organizes the trophies and certificates, which will be presented at the end of the show.
When it’s finally showtime, lining up is a snap. Students know to be in line three dances ahead of time. Teachers are posted in the dressing room, in the hallway by the stage door, and in the wings. The show order is posted on the walls for easy reference on both sides of the stage and in the dressing rooms and hallways. Other than the frequent shushing of ecstatic dancers, this infrastructure is well oiled.
After the students have received their post-recital awards and flowers, the staff and volunteers clean up and load out the scenery and props. Forgotten costumes are sent back to the studio to be claimed later. Staff, parents, and students meet at a restaurant later to celebrate their achievements, bask in a feeling of accomplishment, and relax. With a smooth-running recital, happy faces are everywhere.