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Archive for the ‘2008 | 11 | November’ Category

November 2008 Dance Studio Life


Ask Rhee Gold
2 Tips for Teachers
On My Mind

Thinking Out Loud | Spicy Choreography
Teacher in the Spotlight | Linda Lavender Ford

Feature Articles
Ballet Scene | From Boring to ‘Bravo!’ by Jennifer Rienert
Valuable Volunteers by Hedy Perna
Dance Against Disease by Brian McCormick
Costumes Like a Pro by Rhee Gold
Shirley, Showboats, and Silent Films by Anne L. Silveri
Through a Different Lens by Joshua Bartlett
Ground Rules for Recital Audiences by Melissa Hoffman
Common Ground | Bring On the Butterflies by Nancy Wozny
Recitals on a Shoestring by Diane Gudat
There’s Only One You
From Silver Screen to Studio by Heather Wisner


Ask Rhee Gold | November 2008


Dear Rhee,
In my school I have several employees, both faculty and office staff. In the past my employees have arrived late for work and some haven’t followed procedures because they wanted to save themselves some time—which I know saves no time because we have to redo the things that they didn’t do right the first time.

At the start of the season, I sat all of my employees down for a meeting to discuss the issues that were bothering me, like arriving late and not following procedures. I explained that these actions had consequences on the reputation and growth of my business. After our meeting, I really felt good because it seemed like they were receptive and that they were going to improve. And they did, for about two weeks.

Since that meeting, my teachers and office staff have continued to arrive late, saying they’re sorry but they got stuck in traffic or had an emergency. When it comes to processing payments, it is my policy to input each day’s receipts into the computer prior to leaving for that day. But instead my office staff was playing catch up at the end of the week or month to get all the payments recorded, which has led to lost payments and discrepancies about those who have paid or not.

Today I emailed bills to parents whom I thought had a balance due, and it turns out that many of them had already paid but my office staff had not processed the payments. Some of them seemed to be put off by the bill they received. I apologized and made excuses, but I was embarrassed because I feel like it made me look disorganized.

I am angry and disappointed because I have already explained why I want my policies followed and my employees have agreed to do so, but they are not following through. The hard part of this is that everyone always tells me how lucky I am to have the employees that I do, yet they don’t know that those employees are not performing up to par. I can’t fire the entire crew, and I’m lost as to what to do. Please help me! —Janice

Hi Janice,
As a business owner, I feel that the hardest part of the job is handling employee issues, and like you, one of my peeves happens to be late employees. In your situation, what makes things worse is the inability to single out one employee since the majority of them are late most of the time. Sometimes I associate this problem with children—they see their friend do something, so they believe it’s OK if they do it, even though they know it’s wrong.

It’s time for more meetings, but this time I would schedule a one-on-one talk with each employee. This eliminates any embarrassment that they might feel about being told that they’re doing something wrong in front of their peers. Explain that you consider the tardiness and/or the lack of compliance with procedures to be a serious issue and that their actions are unacceptable. Regarding the processing of each day’s receipts, explain what you went through when you emailed the bills so that each employee has a concrete example of what the consequences of his or her actions were for you.

Follow up each meeting with the consequences that the employee will face if the problem persists, anything from a dock in pay to termination. The bottom line is that you are the business owner and you make the rules; if the employees value their jobs, then they should fall in line.

The catch to this is that you must act the first time that someone doesn’t follow through on your employment policies. Whatever you told them would be the consequence of their action has to happen, no matter what. If one person gets away with not following your policies without you taking action, then you will find yourself back in the same place you are now.

Another reason that you have to confront your employees is because of the stress that is building up inside of you. You probably feel the hit in the pit in your stomach every time an employee is late or doesn’t follow through. Ignoring the problem or not having the confidence to speak up will eat away at you and distract you from focusing on your business and classes.

I know this is easier said than done, but it’s something that all employers have to deal with. You will feel a lot better when you get it off your chest. Good luck! —Rhee

Dear Rhee,
For the last 26 years I have been a school owner, completely devoted to my profession. I have taken pride in seeing my students grow to become successful adults as a result of having had dance in their lives. I was also delighted when I had the chance to see two of my students dance on Broadway.

I’m a single mom, and my school has been the financial backbone that has provided me with a home to raise three children and send two of them off to college. For these things I consider my dance life to be a blessing.

With all that said, the last couple of years have been a struggle for me. I no longer get excited to go to the studio. In fact, I am filled with anxiety every time I open the doors. It is so hard to face the parents who question me about class placement or my employees who base everything they do at the school on what they are getting paid for it. In the mix are the students who want to be in my performing group but then miss their classes and rehearsals. If I discipline a student who is acting up, I can always expect a call from a parent who would never consider that their child deserved the discipline. Instead they threaten to pull the child from my school.

I realize that the difference between now and 26 years ago is that then I was in control, running my school the way I wanted to. I felt a sense of respect from my students and their parents, which has now completely diminished. Today if someone isn’t pleased with my decisions, they simply move on to a school that will give them what they want, or they quit dancing altogether.

I feel like I am held hostage in my own business. Either I do what my students want or they will leave me. My teachers believe that they are not compensated enough and constantly ask me, “How much will you pay me for that?” They will no longer agree to be at registration, dress rehearsals, performances, and so on unless they are paid for it.

I could go on and on about what I’m feeling, but just writing to you fills me with anxiety. Am I alone with my struggles or are other school owners facing the same things? I am desperate for some sort of change, but I don’t know what to do. —Lee

Hello Lee,
First, let me start by saying you are not alone, and yes, I hear from many school owners who are facing the same challenges that you’ve described. However, my instinct tells me that you are dealing with more than just those issues—I believe that you are also facing burnout. That isn’t something to be ashamed of; I have been there myself (a couple of times). It may be time for you to speak with a counselor or another professional who will help you to move past this point.

From a personal perspective, I have discovered that burnout is the sign that it is time to change the direction of your life. Maybe 26 years of owning a school is enough for you. And if it is, then what could you do to close that chapter of your life and start a new one? Maybe you could consider selling your school and becoming an employee of the new owner, or you could sell the school and take a year off to decide what you want to do next.

That spirit that inspired you to become a dance teacher and school owner is still flowing through your blood; I can feel that from your email. But now it is time to nurture that spirit by making you your priority. You have spent the last 26 years giving all you have to your school and your students; be proud of that. But now it’s time for you to make yourself a priority. Don’t waste another minute putting your school before yourself! I wish you all the best. —Rhee


2 Tips for Teachers | Don’t Look Now

By Mignon Furman

Tip 1:
Do not demonstrate too much. When teachers demonstrate excessively, young students depend on copying them instead of absorbing and remembering the movements.

It is better to show the movements or combination—being very clear about what you want—and then sit down and allow the dancers to perform the movement.

Really look at your students, not through “rose-colored glasses” but realistically. Observe each student’s whole body and note where improvements can be made.

Tip 2:
Limit the dancers’ time working in front of the mirror. If you want a good eyeline (eyes aligned with the head instead of focused on the mirror) as well as no “copying,” it is best for the dancers to work without a mirror most of the time.

Working “blind” is also good practice for when they get onstage; it is very disconcerting to the dancers to suddenly be without the aid of a mirror if they are not used to dancing without one.


On My Mind | November 2008


It’s time for our annual recital issue, and I think you’ll love this one—it’s packed with great information and new ideas. And though I’m sure that’s what you’re expecting me to write about this month, I’ve got something even more important than recitals on my mind right now.

If you’ve been paying any attention to the news, you’ve been inundated with stories that the economy is faltering and that America could be falling into an era as catastrophic as the Great Depression. That kind of economic outlook makes me—and probably millions of other Americans—very worried about what the future holds for our businesses, the customers we serve, and our loved ones.

In a recent online survey done by my company that reached more than 500 teachers, I learned that 44 percent of them have experienced an increase in enrollment while 26 percent report having the same number of students as last season. That leaves 30 percent of the respondents experiencing a decrease in their enrollment numbers. Though it’s tough on that 30 percent, I’m encouraged—it sounds like dance teachers in general are faring well in this economic crisis. It’s an indicator that parents will tend to provide for their children, even when it means tightening the belt in other areas.

However, our focus on this situation shouldn’t be limited to worries about how the dance industry will fare. What’s more important is how you and I can have an impact on the future in a positive way. When I ask my dance friends who they’re going to vote for in the presidential election, many respond that they are not even registered, let alone knowledgeable about what’s happening on the national stage. Some tell me that they don’t believe that their vote will make a difference. Frankly, I’m saddened by the response.

Yes, I know that dance teachers are dedicated to building strong dancers, maintaining enrollment numbers, having a bit of a personal life, and simply making it from day to day, but being ignorant of or ambivalent about the world isn’t going to make the future better. We have to become involved, and so does every citizen who values the American life we all cherish.

Do you know which candidate supports the arts? Who wants to end our addiction to oil? How about the one who will support a stronger and more efficient education system for our children? Which candidate will help to improve the tax issues that face small business owners? If you have no idea how to answer any of these questions, then how can we make our country better?

Let your hands dance you through the media to find the answers to these questions and others that will certainly have an impact on your future. Take action to do your part in getting everyone in this country to dance to the same beat. Imagine the changes that we could witness if we all took part in the public debate and gained more knowledge about the things that have a major effect on our everyday lives.

It’s time for dance people to stand up for what we know is right for our country and its future and urge everyone we know to join us. It’s too late to ask those of you who aren’t registered to vote to reconsider. But I’m asking all you registered voters who think your vote doesn’t count to set those feelings aside and put the welfare of this country and its young people first. Chassé your way to the polls on November 4, even if it means getting someone to cover a class or a rehearsal for you. Just do it—we can’t afford not to!


Thinking Out Loud | Spicy Choreography

By Margaret Fuhrer

On most weekday nights, walking into Salsa International headquarters in New York City feels like arriving at a family party. Groups of men and women lounge around, laughing and chattering in English and Spanish, humming and tapping along with the salsa music that plays perpetually. Occasionally a couple heads to the center of the floor to practice a partnered turn or a complicated set of steps; if the dancers are especially good, onlookers clap or whistle in appreciation. After the last class on Friday nights, when the music is turned up and the overhead lights are turned off, the party becomes a full-blown fiesta, with women’s satin heels and men’s dress shoes tattooing the salsa beat into every inch of the floor.

But one Monday night in early spring felt different. The salsa family was there, and the music was playing, but few were talking and nobody was dancing. It was the first meeting of the Encuentro Sabroso (“flavorful encounter”) Student Performance Team. We were about to learn salsa choreography—and we were all nervous.

Salsa is a mutt of a dance. As its name implies, it is a “sauce”: bits of Cuban son and mambo mixed with equal parts jitterbug and jive and spiced with Puerto Rican bomba. Cuban and Puerto Rican exiles in New York City developed salsa (though the name came later) in the late 1960s, and it eventually returned to Latin America, where its lacquered surface acquired yet another cultural gloss. Intricate, intimate, and sexy, today’s salsa dance has become a huge international craze.

Salsa is by definition social and improvisational. Couples dance strings of steps that are chosen and led by the male partner, with the woman adding showy stylistic decoration to the man’s basic structure. Our anxiety that night was partly about the seemingly paradoxical idea of salsa choreography: What constitutes good salsa dancing when everyone’s doing the same thing?

Mike Brown, the team director, broke the tension. “OK, guyss, look”—Mike speaks with a kind of Barcelonan lisp in both Spanish and English—“You are all good dancerss, but we are going to make you great. And we are going to do some sweet choreography.” He grinned impishly. “Partner up!”

Here’s the seemingly paradoxical idea of salsa choreography: What constitutes good salsa dancing when everyone’s doing the same thing?

During a regular salsa drill, instructors will put together sets of basic steps with shorthand names and allow the dancers to elaborate on them. If there is a point in a class combination, for example, when the women are left undirected—as when the man is doing a complicated turn—Mike will often yell, “Butt roll, ladies, butt roll!” to indicate that the girls should throw in an alluring styling move. But in rehearsals, every bit of styling is choreographed. Every “butt roll” becomes a specific movement that has to be taught and practiced.

Good salsa dancers can learn a minute-long salsa combination in an hour-long class, or improvise for an entire night at a club. Hampered by the need for uniformity, we learned only 24 counts of choreography in that first rehearsal. Mike feigned anger. “Guyss!” he said gleefully, as we filed out, sweaty and tired. “That was about one-sixth of what I wanted to do tonight! Go home and dream salsa.”

The next Monday we started to discover some of the nicer aspects of choreographed salsa dance—particularly the sophisticated musicality that a set piece of music allows for. Improvised, social salsa illustrates only the standard musical beats; choreographed salsa can reflect accents specific to one song. A song’s deviations from the traditional salsa rhythm (burdens to unsuspecting club dancers) become opportunities for creative choreography. Our performance song—“Como Lo Hacen,” by Puerto Rican legend Tommy Olivencia—has a random four-count break that might throw club dancers off beat. But it gave us a chance to show off: Mike filled it with a flashy partnered triple turn. Even the song’s lyrics became choreographic inspirations. We altered the timing of a three-step preparation for a turn so that it would fall neatly on the lyrics, “yo no sé”—one word per step. This dance wasn’t just technically impressive; it was thoughtful.

At the end of that second night, Mike clapped his hands. “Woo! OK, guyss!” he crowed. “That’s half our dance! We’re halfway!”

In four hours, we had learned a little less than a minute of choreography. But it felt like a major accomplishment. We had discovered, in these rehearsals, a new kind of fiesta.


Mail | November 2008


Words from our readers

I just had to say thank you, thank you, thank you for including “Fantasy Comebacks” in your September issue. It put a big smile on my face at the end of a long week during an even longer registration season! It’s good to know I’m not the only one with less than perfect patience for my studio parents.
Meghan Slade
General Manager
Dance Steps Studio, Inc.
Saline, MI

Please tell Diane [Gudat] that I was laughing until I cried reading her “Fantasy Comebacks” article. Every teacher should include a copy of this article in their newsletters or at least hand them out to the president of the Parent Association.
Christopher F. Davis
Producing Director
Dancers Responding to AIDS
New York, NY

I just wanted to say thank you for putting in that “Fantasy Comebacks” article in your magazine. It was hilarious. How true all of those questions that parents ask are. I wish your magazine would put “Fantasy Comebacks” in more often. It just made my day!
Jessica Mink
Dancin’ for Fun
Gulf Breeze, FL

I want to thank you for your work on Dance Studio Life, as it provides motivation, insight, and education for me and thousands of dance educators and managers each month.
Stacey Rogers
Assistant Professor of Dance
Ann Lacy School of American Dance & Arts Management
Oklahoma City University
Oklahoma City, OK

I just wanted to take a moment to thank you for including me in the September [2008] issue of Dance Studio Life. I was honored to be mentioned in the “FYI: What’s up in the dance community” segment. It is publications like Dance Studio Life that allow educators like myself the opportunity to share our work with others in the field.
Debra Danese
Director, Kdance Productions
West Chester, PA


Teacher in the Spotlight | Linda Lavender Ford


Teacher and director, Linda Lavender Schools of Dance, and artistic director, Twin City Ballet Company, Monroe, LA

NOMINATED BY: Mare Brennan, Twin City Ballet board member: “Linda Lavender Ford inspires all ages with her kindness and spirit. She received the Governor’s Arts Award in 1997 for outstanding lifetime achievement in the arts. Her original choreography includes three complete ballets for children, A Storybook Christmas, Rudolph, and Scrooge. Her influence on the cultural enhancement of life in our northeastern Louisiana region is immeasurable.”

Ford says she believes in teaching students to love dance first, “then they will always be dancers in their hearts.” (Photo courtesy Linda Lavender Ford)

AGES TAUGHT: From 3 to adult.

GENRES TAUGHT: Ballet, pointe, and tap.

TEACHING DANCE FOR: Nearly 50 years.

WHY SHE TEACHES: Teaching dance is what I was destined to do. I have truly been blessed and very lucky to have an occupation I love, to earn a good living, and to raise a family.

GREATEST INSPIRATION: My mother—I still draw from the courage, strength, and work ethic she exemplified—and my teachers Mary Lou and Pat Young, the best tap teachers in the South, who taught me to believe that I could dance. Also Cecilia Kelly, from England and Ballet La Scala, a great teacher who brought classical ballet to north Louisiana.

PHILOSOPHY OF TEACHING: Those of us privileged to teach dance should take our art form to our students through love. Teach them to love dance first—then they will always be dancers in their hearts.

WHAT MAKES HER A GOOD TEACHER: I’ve watched with pride as many of our dancers have gone on to professional careers and have established their own schools and performing companies.

FONDEST TEACHING MEMORY: Being part of the founding of the Twin City Ballet Company in 1970 and watching it grow and become accepted into the Regional Dance America/Southwest as a Performing and now an Honor Company.

BEST PIECE OF ADVICE FOR STUDENTS AND/OR TEACHERS: To be a good teacher you must be a caring teacher. The classes we teach are full of children who need to believe they can do it! Every parent who picks up their child after class says, “Did you have fun today?” Make each class fun and enjoyable, and find a way to say something positive and encouraging to every student.

WHAT SHE WOULD DO IF SHE COULDN’T TEACH DANCE: I can’t imagine what I would have done if I couldn’t be a dance teacher. It was my destiny. Schoolteachers have children for a year and they move on. How lucky am I to have students in classes for 10 or more years and watch them as they grow up

MORE THOUGHTS ON DANCE AND TEACHING: My husband and I raised two sons and a daughter, Linda Lou. She grew up in the studio and is now my right arm and the glue that holds our studios together. I watch her teach with her glowing smile and great spirit. Seeing how the children respond to her gives me such a feeling of tremendous joy.

DO YOU KNOW A DANCE TEACHER WHO DESERVES TO BE IN THE SPOTLIGHT? Email your nominations to or mail them to David Favrot, Dance Studio Life, 10 South Washington St., Norton, MA 02766. Please include why you think this teacher should be featured in Dance Studio Life, along with his or her contact information.


Ballet Scene | From Boring to ‘Bravo!’


How to make the most of ballet dancing in your recital

By Jennifer Rienert

It’s recital-planning time, and if you offer ballet at your school, you’re probably wondering how to avoid hearing audiences grumble when your ballet students take the stage. Jazz, lyrical, and tap routines are audience pleasers because they tend to be upbeat and showy. But all too often recital ballet numbers are slow and repetitive or danced by students who aren’t up to the challenge—and that kind of presentation gives ballet a bad rap. Audiences who are subjected to unimaginative choreography and shaky pointe work think the b in “ballet” stands for “boring” or even worse, “bad.” Well, it’s time to change that!

(Photo courtesy Jennifer Rienert)

So how do you incorporate ballet into a performance without leaving your audience snoring? Here at New Hampshire School of Ballet the ratio of ballet classes to all other disciplines is about two to one. So over the past 40 years we’ve learned how to produce fun, entertaining shows that are about 50 percent ballet.

The key to an engaging production is simple: Tell a story. The worst mistake you can make is to present a string of random dances and songs that does not engage audiences in any way; consequently they quickly become bored or distracted. By utilizing a familiar story line to make a cohesive production, the audience is enjoying a new interpretation of something they already know, so it doesn’t matter which dance disciplines are in it. Or you can come up with a new story that will prove just as engaging. Either way, a story allows you to mix dances of various genres in a way that makes sense in the context of the action onstage.

Stories for all ages
This year we based one of our performances on a children’s favorite, the fairy tale “Cinderella.” It began like the Disney movie with Cinderella cleaning diligently and dancing a pointe solo to “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes,” followed by a funny, contemporary ballet duo danced by the stepsisters to “Stepsisters’ Lament,” from the Broadway version. We then continued the story by using songs from the Disney and Broadway soundtracks to keep the audience involved, but we expanded it by including other songs and dance styles.

Audiences who are subjected to unimaginative choreography and shaky pointe work think the b in “ballet” stands for “boring” or even worse, “bad.” Well, it’s time to change that!

When there’s not enough music in a soundtrack to accompany all the dances you’d like to include, select some classical pieces that work with your theme. To give you an idea of how to do that, here’s a sampling of numbers from our show:

  • “The Fairy Godmother” was a pointe solo set to the song “Bibbidy Bobbidy Boo” from the Disney movie.
  • “Mice Friends,” set to “The Work Song” from the Disney movie, was danced by a ballet class of 5-year-olds. Then to add a twist of humor, we added “Tappin’ Mice Friends” to the song “Hamster Dance.”
  • A class of 6-year-olds performed a ballet dance as “Barnyard Chickens” to “Gavotte,” an upbeat instrumental piece from the original production.
  • Cinderella’s bird friends performed in blue tutus to “Sing Sweet Nightingale” from the Disney movie.
  • A ballet class played the Courtiers who delivered the ball invitations, dancing to “The Prince Is Giving a Ball” from the original telecast and Broadway version.
  • To mix it up for the audience but still stay within the story line, we had Tappin’ Pumpkins dance to the song “Impossible; It’s Possible” (also in the original 1957 telecast and the Broadway version), but we used classical music from Coppélia for the Royal Horses that pulled the carriage.

This format works well for young children and still offers advanced students a chance to dance ballet and pointe lead roles. Think about stories that include (or allow you to add) the kinds of roles you need for your students. The story “Cinderella,” for example, lets advanced students shine in the soloist roles of Cinderella and the Fairy Godmother. The roles of the Stepsisters create an opportunity for a fun duo, and if needed you could add another solo for the Stepmother. Getting creative in how you tell the story and having fun with diverse music choices are great ways to incorporate ballet into a show that includes other dance genres.

Choices for older students
If you’d like to mix lyrical and jazz with ballet in a production that your older students would enjoy, choose more mature musicals like Phantom of the Opera, Carousel, or Les Misèrables. Ballet can play a huge part in these shows and will be audience-friendly as long as you tell an engaging story. And often audiences enjoy this change from the children’s themes to more mature ones. If you limit the production to a reasonable time frame and cast only the most advanced dancers, it will eventually become a part of the recital that students will strive to be in and look forward to for years. We present this more professional part of the recital as a privilege for the advanced students, and when they reach the level of ballet training that allows them to perform in it, they are thrilled (as are their parents).

Mini classics
Studios that have a strong ballet program have another option for integrating their ballet classes into a recital: an abbreviated version of an original ballet. Over the years we have chosen such classical favorites as The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake and shorter works like George Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes and David Lichine’s Graduation Ball. This kind of showcase rewards your most serious and talented dancers by allowing them to perform in a mature and professional atmosphere.

This year we produced a mini Coppélia, in which only the five most advanced ballet classes were allowed to participate. We used the original story and music as a framework, linking the highlights together in an abbreviated version to keep it short (around 30 to 40 minutes) and maintain the audiences’ attention.

With this type of production, you can opt to place the mini ballet after intermission, allowing the younger dancers to enact children’s stories in the first half of the show. That allows viewers and students to leave after intermission if they are not interested in watching the advanced dancers perform. But don’t be surprised if many parents of younger children remain in the audience for this portion of the show. Many of them want to see what the advanced students are doing, and they often encourage their children to continue their studies so that they can someday be a part of this important performance.

 Of course, most ballets have roles for men, and not all schools are fortunate enough to have male dancers to fill these roles. One option is to check with other dance schools for a “loaner” male dancer or two. Another is to look among your clientele for a student’s brother or father who might be up to the task. Or try checking with local theater groups; even if you can’t find dancers for those roles, an actor (ideally someone who can move well) can help keep your story cohesive.

This kind of exclusive ballet production can offer deserving bunheads a chance to dance the classical roles they’ve always dreamed of. They feel like they are a part of something very important, and it’s a great experience for those who aspire to a career in ballet.

Original productions
It’s easy to incorporate ballet into a recital when you put together your own contemporary production. Find some interesting music and build a story of your own that you can tell in a way that utilizes ballet and pointe classes along with other dance forms.

For example, one year we did a show called “American Swing.” The story line was based on sporting events, so we dressed the ballet students in the appropriate sportswear and choreographed dances for them that included basketball and tennis racquets as props. The advanced pointe students were the cheerleaders, and they did some fabulous contemporary ballet with pom-poms. Of course there was a lead role that involved flirting with a basketball player (a student’s brother, who got to show off some dribbling action and do a little partnering with the soloist). I used 1940s Big Band music and some old-school jazz.

Another original production was based on a fun idea that had the audiences laughing and enjoying ballet at the same time. Called “Mistake Waltz,” it featured clever and funny groupings of ballet classes, all making choreographed mistakes. Along with the group dances, a lead dancer did a pas de deux with a male non-dancer. We played off the fact that he wasn’t a dancer with choreography that had him crashing into her, missing the big lifts, and with knees ending up in all the wrong places. Humor is a great way to incorporate ballet into your shows, and audiences are usually very appreciative.

The beauty of ballet
Remember those important rules for any recital: Keep the dances at a reasonable length (2 1/2 to 3 minutes) and move the show along by connecting the dances musically or by having one group enter as another exits. Backdrops, props, and proper lighting help tell the story effectively and enhance the professionalism of your show. But because ballet takes many years to master, there’s another rule to consider: Don’t over-choreograph the dances. Keep them clean and beautiful and let your students’ artistry, not tricks, be the star.

Ballet can be a wonderfully emotional, humorous, beautiful, and expressive way to tell a story, so don’t be afraid to fill your performances with it. Stay creative in storytelling, music choices, and costuming, and your audiences will be right where you want them—in their seats!


Valuable Volunteers


How to choose—and keep—unpaid helpers for your studio

By Hedy Perna

When my dance teacher friends come to my annual production, they always comment on my crew of backstage helpers, staff, and recital aides. Many of those helpers who make my show run so smoothly and professionally are one of a dance school’s most valuable resources: volunteers. If my friends only knew the number of volunteers that I enlist year round at the studio—at last count it was more than 100!

Painting the scenery goes quickly with many helping hands, and volunteers are a big help backstage at the recital. (Photo by Les Pierce)

When I first opened my dance studio, I didn’t like to depend on anyone except my family. In fact, sometimes I felt like I shouldn’t expect to depend on anyone at all. After all, it was my business and I was sure I was capable of doing it all. And it worked that way for the first few years. But quickly the studio grew larger and larger and the workload got larger and larger. I hired more office staff and teachers, but there was always work that didn’t get done for one reason or another. I realized quickly that if I hired someone to take care of every job that needed to be done, I would have an exorbitant payroll each month. And, as every businessperson knows, that cost would have to be passed on to my clientele, which would make dancing school unaffordable for many families.

Enter the volunteers. As any parent knows, most academic schools rely heavily on the good nature of parents to volunteer at book fairs, on class trips, as lunch aides, and so on. Dance studios are no different. Whether my staff offers to put in extra time or I enlist the help of parents, the activities and events in which my studio participates require the help of many volunteers.

Now, there is one big difference between what I do and how the public school system handles its volunteers: I choose mine. Unlike a public program in which everyone has an opinion, wants to be in charge, or picks what they want to do, my school is a business, owned and operated by me. I have the first and final say in everything that affects my studio, which ultimately benefits both my students and my business.

Each volunteer position has specific criteria, and just like an employment agency, I take the placement of volunteers seriously. It’s not personal; not all volunteers can do all tasks. So before I approach anyone for help, I consider who would be the perfect candidate with the right skills and personality for the task.

For example, if I need a volunteer to work backstage with the children, I usually choose someone who is patient but can work quickly. Or perhaps we need workers for our annual Ticket Day—I’ll seek out a person who is organized, stays focused, and can “take the heat.” If we’re going on a studio trip and are using multiple buses, I pick parents who have strong personalities and are dependable enough to keep the kids safe while they’re on the bus.

Sometimes parents will tell me that they are interested in helping out but I feel that they might not be suited for a volunteer position or they still need to learn about how we do things at my school. I thank them for their generous offer and tell them I’ll call them when a suitable position becomes available. Occasionally I’ll pair new volunteers with experienced ones, allowing them to learn what is needed to do a certain task adequately on their own. I don’t worry about hurting anyone’s feelings because my goal is to do what is best for my students and my business.

Volunteering at my studio is serious business. I am careful and quite deliberate in choosing my helpers. I am very clear about what is expected of them and I emphasize that there will be no special privileges for their child or personal expectations based on their volunteer work. Their child will not be moved to a higher level; they will not get an earlier time slot for their recital tickets; their child will still have to follow all studio guidelines. There are no exceptions to studio policy just because a student’s mom or dad helps out at the studio.

At recital time, after we determine which classes will perform in which of our four shows, I seek a class mom for each one. Class moms are the final line of defense; they are the unsung heroes of studio protocol and guidelines. No matter how much we communicate to our parents through flyers, notices, and signs, somehow there are always a few who don’t know what is going on.

There is one big difference between what I do and how the public school system handles its volunteers: I choose mine.

For example, before picture day every student receives a schedule that highlights their picture time, along with guidelines on how to wear the costume, hair and shoe requirements, and packets for purchasing photos. It’s all self-explanatory—but who reads it? So our class moms make friendly reminder phone calls to the families of each student in the class, reminding them what time to be there, what to wear, and what to bring. They ask if the parents have any questions, and you’d be surprised at how many do. Perhaps they were embarrassed to ask the receptionist a question in person; perhaps they don’t come into the studio very often—whatever the reason, they hadn’t asked it before. But thank goodness they had a chance to ask it before picture day, when most likely it would be too late to do anything about it. Class moms—our studio heroes!

At my school, we value our many volunteers and always take the time to let them know we appreciate them and their help. We make them feel special and valued. Whenever possible, we give them something to wear to indicate that they are special. Sometimes it’s a “Production Team” T-shirt or lanyard—anything that’s recognizable at a glance when they’re on the job.

After every event in which we use volunteers, we send thank-you cards to them. We usually include a small token of appreciation, such as a Dunkin Donuts card that says something like “Thanks for the help with the show—now go enjoy a cup of joe.” Sometimes, as an initiative to get backstage volunteers for our annual show, we offer all volunteers two complimentary tickets to their child’s show. That ensures that they will work backstage—but not at their child’s show, so there is no conflict of interest.

As grateful as school owners typically are for the work their volunteers do, it’s important to remember that we are in charge and must be effective leaders. Ultimately, if you run a private business, there is one person in charge: you. Make sure that your volunteers completely understand that they are helping the studio for the sake of all the children, not just their own, and not you personally.

There are two keys to making the volunteer experience a win–win situation. One is to treat all volunteers fairly and honestly—always. At my school, everyone knows exactly what is expected and where I stand. There are no surprises. Who has time for pettiness and games? The other is to make sure that every volunteer feels valued. I recognize and appreciate how much these helpers have enhanced my studio’s success and made my life just a little easier.

Guidelines for Working With Volunteers

Be selective and specific. I am very discreet in my selection procedure and do not broadcast my need for volunteers. Ask your staff for their recommendations. Usually parents who are busy with other activities make great volunteers. They “get it.”

Consider your graduates. They know what is expected and usually stay in touch with the studio for many years after graduation. Our recital “Land of Littles” coordinator, a former student who has long graduated from college, returns each year for our annual production to take charge of the young combo classes. Because I value her contribution to the success of our show, I give her a monetary gift after the show. But you can choose your own method of saying thank you. How about a barter of their time in exchange for dance classes?

Keep the number of volunteers to a bare minimum. It’s easier to manage a small group and it’s best to keep them constantly busy. Remember, you do not have to accept the help of everyone who offers.

Take time to personally give verbal directions. After that, most volunteers will be left on their own, so writing down the procedures for the specific task or what is expected from the volunteer helps keep everyone on track. We issue a “Class Mother Packet” with detailed instructions and checklists. Be very clear and precise so that no major decisions need to be made by the volunteers.

Make sure that volunteers are easily identifiable to other staff members and the students. Issue special lanyards, badges, T-shirts, or wristbands. I also make sure that the students know who the volunteers are, that they are to be respected, and that they are working on my behalf.

Try to use the same people year after year, but continually train new volunteers with the more experienced ones. If you plan carefully, you will have a new crop trained and ready to go when needed.

Whenever possible, do not put volunteers in charge of their own child’s class or group. Sometimes this is unavoidable; if so, be extra clear about what is expected and that every child will require the volunteer’s attention.

Don’t assume that after a student graduates the volunteer parent no longer is interested in helping out. Many times parents of grads miss the studio events and are happy to come back for special events. They are the ideal volunteers—they know what to do and have no children at the studio, so there is no personal conflict. Just ask—you’d be surprised at how flattered they’ll be to know that you think so highly of them.

Don’t feel guilty about not asking a volunteer to return if he or she doesn’t work out. Either find something else for them to do or thank them for their service and indicate that you’ll be going a different way next year. No regrets.

Make your volunteers feel special. Show your appreciation in a professional, not personal, manner. Send a sincere thank-you note, and consider going a step further by holding a volunteer appreciation picnic at your studio or paying for their lunch or pizza between shows. Each gesture makes them feel valued.

Try not to sweat it. Not everyone will do things exactly the way you would do them yourself, but if a task gets done correctly it doesn’t matter how it came about. As a control freak myself, I find that it is difficult to delegate—but I’m getting better at it!


Dance Against Disease


Fighting cancer with dance therapy through Dréa’s Dream

By Brian McCormick

For many girls, the dream of dance begins with the ballerina, the model of physical perfection. But for Andréa Rizzo, dance began as therapy and the means for overcoming the debilitating effects of early childhood cancer. She was one of many children who have tempered their struggle with disease with the joys of dance. It was a gift she was destined to share with other little boys and girls just like her.

Registered dance therapist Jean Basiner works with children with special needs in Newport, RI, through a program funded by Dréa’s Dream. (Photo courtesy Susan Rizzo Vincent)

At only 18 months of age, Andréa was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a rare cancer of the sympathetic nervous system. She was treated at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, surviving surgery and chemotherapy. When Andréa was 3, a family friend, Sharon Mulcahy (who later became a dance therapist), suggested that dance classes would help the toddler overcome some of the motor problems caused by the cancer and its treatment. Andréa’s mother, Susan Rizzo Vincent, enrolled her in a local dance school, and Dréa later studied with Mulcahy when she opened a local dance studio.

As a result of her early childhood experiences, Andréa had a dream: to become a dance therapist for children with cancer and disabilities. She was pursuing her master’s degree in dance therapy at NYU and working as a second grade special education teacher at Narragansett Elementary School in Rhode Island when, coming home from a performance at Broadway Dance Center in May 2002, she was killed by a drunk driver.

How does a parent cope with such a tragic loss? For Susan Rizzo Vincent, one way was to take action. To keep alive her daughter’s vision, she established The Andréa Rizzo Foundation, the only nonprofit organization in the United States whose sole mission is to provide dance therapy for children with cancer and special needs exclusively under the direction of registered dance therapists.

The program, fittingly, is called Dréa’s Dream, and it started small, in a public school in Rhode Island. “Sharon Mulcahy was the first dance therapist funded by the program,” says Vincent. Almost simultaneously, Vincent approached Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, which “embraced the idea with open arms,” she says. Everything was in motion within three months of Andréa’s death.

Now, six years on, Dréa’s Dream funds eight dance therapists—at four hospitals (Memorial Sloan-Kettering; Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford, CT; Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence, RI; St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital in Tampa, FL); at the Ronald McDonald House in New York City, and at public schools across the country. Plans are also in the works to bring Dréa’s Dream to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and Mattel Children’s Hospital at UCLA. The program helps young cancer patients to regain movement, manage pain, and access emotions, all through the power of dance therapy.

At Sloan-Kettering, the Integrative Medicine Services department provides dance therapy to pediatrics patients through individual sessions at the bedside and group sessions in the playroom. The primary goals are to give patients some control of their bodies and a means of self-expression in a time that is often unpredictable and traumatic. Other benefits include pain relief and an improvement in body awareness and self-image.

Many of the sessions include family members, especially with the very young children, some as young as 2 months old. The dance therapists educate the parents and teach them activities to do with their young children. Often, the children need help to overcome fears related to the pain and discomfort of treatment.

Pediatric administrator Nina Pickett, who oversees the program at Sloan-Kettering, says, “It was meant to be. We get a lot of phone calls; I don’t and can’t respond to everything. But in this case, I took the call.” She says that her department had been working on developing treatment techniques for children that would help them regain control over their bodies “at a time [when] disease is taking that away. We felt that creative movement and dance would help our population.”

At Sloan-Kettering, the first dance therapist funded by Dréa’s Dream was Dr. Suzi Tortora, who has more than 20 years of experience working with people of all ages. The program needed someone with Tortora’s experience in order to succeed, according to Pickett. “This is not like having a class coming into the studio. You’ll see the patient for 5 minutes and then won’t see them again for three weeks. You have to think about things to leave with them to do during the time between.”

Pickett says that dance therapy is very effective in treating pain associated with chemotherapy. She cites another kind of success story: “a young girl who had lost her leg to disease. She was a dancer. In her case, dance therapy provided her with a means to learn to control her movement.”

‘Even when I couldn’t get out of bed, these wonderful therapists were able to transport me out of the hospital, into the sky, the ocean, a sandy beach—wherever my fancy would take me that day.’ —Julie, a cancer patient

Another dancer, Julie, was 16 when she was diagnosed with a rare form of liver cancer. Chemotherapy left her tired and sick in bed most of the time, and she found it hard to cope with not being able to move as she once did. The team of dance therapists at Sloan-Kettering coaxed Julie into trying dance therapy during one of her stays. “Even when I couldn’t get out of bed, these wonderful therapists were able to transport me out of the hospital, into the sky, the ocean, a sandy beach—wherever my fancy would take me that day,” Julie wrote in a letter to the hospital.

Dance has been an important part of self-expression, ceremonial and religious events, and health in most cultures throughout history. Many indigenous cultures use dance as part of their healing rituals. But the use of dance to complement conventional Western medical therapy did not begin until 1942, through the work of Marian Chace, after psychiatrists found that their patients received therapeutic benefits from attending her dance classes. Physically, dance therapy provides exercise, improves mobility and muscle coordination, and reduces muscle tension. Emotionally, it improves self-awareness, self-confidence, and interpersonal interaction and provides an outlet for communicating feelings.

Anecdotal accounts provide most of the support for the value of dance therapy, but reports from a few experimental studies suggest that it helps in developing body image; improving self-concept and self-esteem; reducing stress, anxiety, and depression; decreasing isolation and chronic pain; and increasing communication skills and feelings of well-being. The relationship between mind and body is not well understood by the general public. But with kids, explains Pickett, the innate connection is intact. “They want to play; they want to be up; and it’s challenging to treat them as sick children.”

Mulcahy—herself a recent breast cancer survivor—agrees. “Ninety-nine percent is mental attitude.” Movement, she adds, can produce direct therapeutic results. She offers the example of a patient she worked with at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, who “was due to have his chest X-rayed after his dance therapy session, and then was likely going to be moved into intensive care. I asked him what we should do, and he said, ‘Lady, you’re the dancer.’ Well, we danced until the back of my hair was wet.”

The following week, Mulcahy learned that X-rays had shown so much improvement in the patient’s lungs that he didn’t have to go into intensive care. “I believe the movement had broken up the congestion,” says Mulcahy. “He wasn’t just lying in bed.”

Mulcahy works one-on-one with children, at bedside, for 15-minute sessions. “Together we create a world of imagination through music and dance,” she says. “Families come and join. Seeing children laugh in this setting creates a bond for everyone. Support from families can be a definitive part of this therapy.”

Through the foundation, Mulcahy also goes into public schools. At an elementary school in Connecticut she works with four autistic boys. “All one boy did was cry, through everything,” she relays. “It was his way of expressing. We used scarves, balls, blowing bubbles for breathing, and lots of different music. When I played Glenn Miller [music], he looked at me, wiped his face, took my hand, and we danced. There was something in that music that got through to him, and he didn’t have to verbalize it.”

Dréa’s Dream benefits hundreds of patients each year and continues to expand its reach—through grants, auctions, walk-a-thons, benefit classes in New York City at Dance New Amsterdam and Broadway Dance Center, and Dance Across America™ dance-a-thons. The TV show Dancing With the Stars has also contributed to the program’s visibility, donating VIP passes that have been used as fund-raising incentives and have helped to publicize the foundation’s work.

“The good news about cancer and children,” says Pickett, “is that the majority of them will be cured and will never see the disease again in their lifetime. With that amount of empowerment, it’s essential to keep them socially, psychologically, and emotionally intact. This is just a moment in time.”

For more information about The Andréa Rizzo Foundation, visit

What Is a Dance Therapist?

Dance/movement therapists help a wide range of people, from children with autism to seniors with declining health, amputees, individuals with spinal cord injuries, and those who just feel uncomfortable with their bodies.

More than 1,200 registered dance therapists in the United States and abroad practice in mental health, rehabilitation, medical, educational, and forensic settings, and in nursing homes, daycare centers, private practice, and disease-prevention and health-promotion programs.

DTR (Dance Therapist Registered) qualification requires a master’s degree in dance/movement therapy or a master’s degree in a related field, plus 45 credits of specific dance/movement therapy curriculum. Programs integrate anatomy, kinesiology, and expressive spirit with counseling, psychotherapy, and rehabilitation. All candidates must complete a 700-hour supervised clinical internship in dance/movement therapy.

The title Academy of Dance Therapists Registered (ADTR) is awarded to advanced-level dance therapists who have completed 3,640 hours of supervised clinical work in an agency, institution, or special school with additional supervision from an ADTR.


Costumes Like a Pro


How to make costumes a no-stress part of your recital

By Rhee Gold

Recital season comes with what most school owners consider to be one big headache: costumes. If the mere mention of the word makes you want to hide in the nearest closet, it’s time to revamp your approach to purchasing and distributing costumes. With some forethought and organization, outfitting your students for your school’s annual show can be a pleasure and not a pain.

Ordering costumes
At this point in the dance season you’ve received your costume catalogs, but have you taken the time to do a pre-screening? Before you make your final decisions and place the orders, go through all the catalogs to see which costumes fit your performance’s theme or concept and budget. Mark each possibility with a sticky note, placing it on the page like a notebook divider and writing on it the class or level that you have in mind and the cost; that way your choices will be marked in an “at a glance” format. This procedure will save you time when it comes to making final decisions.

It’s a good idea to involve your faculty in the decision-making process. They will feel like their input is valued and have the costume that they believe best fits their choreography and students. It is a win–win approach for you and them. Schedule a meeting and call it a “recital planning party.” Spend the day going through the choices that you have already narrowed down for them. Two or three choices per class are enough. If you think you have found the perfect costume for a particular class, all you’ll need to do is run the choice by the teacher. If she doesn’t like it, then go back to some of the other options you’ve marked to find a compromise.

Once you’re ready to place your orders, call the costume companies to ask for a personal representative. Get a name and an extension number so that you can communicate with one person during the entire process. This important step will minimize any costume stress if there are any problems with your order. Having a personal representative also makes it easy to check on any back-ordered items.

Place orders early to ensure adequate delivery; the end of November or the first of December is best. Most costume companies will send you a confirmation listing all the items and sizes ordered. Open it immediately to verify that what they have in your order and what you have on file match. Many school owners simply assume that everything is right and never open their costume order confirmations, and they often find themselves in “recital-stress mode” when they don’t have to be. By simply checking your order for accuracy, you will eliminate the need for last-minute exchanges that make getting the costumes you need more time-consuming than necessary.

If you order your costumes in November or December, your deliveries could start arriving in late February or early March (or even earlier). Don’t let those boxes sit unopened until you’re ready to distribute the costumes; open them immediately to take an inventory and match them to your original order. If any sizes are missing or the wrong costume has been delivered, you have plenty of time to fix the errors.

Presentation and distribution
When you receive the costumes, pull them out of those small plastic bags they come in, shake them out, and place each one on a hanger inside a clear plastic dry-cleaning bag. If you include tights or other accessories with the costumes, put them in a small plastic bag and place them on the hanger with the costume.

Why go to all that trouble? Let’s say that you charge $65 for a costume. It doesn’t look like it is worth $65 in that small plastic bag it was shipped in. How would you feel if you picked out an expensive blouse at Macy’s and it was handed to you all rolled up and wrinkled in its small plastic shipping bag? You’d probably wonder if it was really worth what you paid for it.

Dry-cleaning bags and hangers can be purchased wholesale at or, or check with your local dry-cleaners to see if they can get you the products you need. One dance teacher I know received complimentary bags and hangers from her neighborhood cleaners, who put their logo on the bags. They felt that the advertising for their business was worth the cost of the bags and hangers. 

For easy distribution, place a sticker on each costume bag and write the child’s name and costume size on it. You also might want to include the parent’s contact information, in case the costume is not picked up. This step will make distribution much easier.

Make it a policy not to distribute costumes until all costume balances have been paid in full. In some cases you might want to hold the costumes until all payments for the season, including tuition, have been paid (unless you have a picture day early in the year and the children need their costumes for their photos). Having a policy that all accounts due must be paid before the costumes are distributed means that your clients will be motivated to pay up and get those costumes for their eager children.

Some school owners might think that this method of preparing costumes for distribution sounds time consuming, but handling them in an organized, efficient manner is a professional business move that your clients will appreciate. In the pursuit of professionalism in your business, you’ll want to impress your clients, and this process will do just that—and there’s nothing better for your business!

Covering Your Bases With Costumes, Accessories, and Props

When you arrive at dress rehearsal, be prepared for anything. This short list of smart ideas will make problem-solving for costumes, accessories, and props a breeze.

  • Have two extras of every prop or accessory (like hats) used in the performance, and if you’re using delicate props like parasols, make it three.
  • Don’t allow students to take the props home and bring them to the show. Have a designated backstage person who is in charge of all props, knows the counts of each, and hands them out to the students. This decreases the chance of damage or loss.
  • Tights will run, no question! Have a large inventory of all the colors, styles, and sizes that are needed for the show.
  • Station a parent or seamstress backstage or in the dressing room, with a sewing machine. Then you don’t have to worry about last-minute seam rips or broken straps.
  • Keep plenty of elastic for hats and shoes on hand.
  • If shoes were supposed to be dyed by the students or parents, keep an inventory of shoe dye on hand to do quick touch-ups or dye shoes that are the wrong color.
Sample Information Letter

Each costume should be accompanied by a letter that informs the parents of your policies on costume care. The following sample can be adapted for your studio’s use—just change the details as needed.

Dear Parents,
We are very excited that your child will be participating in the ABC School of Dance’s annual recital! The following are our policies regarding costume maintenance. Compliance with them will ensure that your child has the best recital experience possible.

  • To assure a quality fit, we have already had your child try on the costume, so there is no need for him or her to wear it again until the dress rehearsal. Please do not allow your child to wear the costume until then.
  • Be sure that your hands and your child’s hands are clean when handling the costumes.
  • Your child should never be in costume while consuming food or drink.
  • The tights and other accessories are for dress rehearsal and performance only. They should not be worn until that time, nor should any of the items be washed. It is important that all tights match onstage.
  • Although your costumes came in a plastic bag, it’s a good idea to place them in a high-quality garment bag when traveling to and from the show. This will help prevent the accessories or costume parts from getting lost or soiled. If the costume has a hat, please place it in a hatbox so that it will not get crushed.
  • When storing the costumes at your home, place them in a closet for protection from young siblings or pets who might damage them.
  • To remove wrinkles, please do not use an iron—it could change the color or burn the costume. Steaming is safer. Hanging the costume in the bathroom during a hot shower (far away from the water) works well to eliminate wrinkles.
  • Each item—costume, hats, shoes, gloves, etc.—must have your child’s name on it. Many costumes and accessories look alike. Be sure to identify everything so that there is no confusion about what belongs to your child.
  • Create a checklist of every item for every costume. Refer to the list before you leave home for the dress rehearsal, after the dress rehearsal, and again for all performances.
  • No child should wear his or her costume while traveling to dress rehearsal or performances. Costumes must be protected from stains. There will be adequate time and dressing rooms for your child to put on the costume and make sure that it is perfect for the performance.
  • Apply makeup and do hair before putting on the costume to help keep it clean.
  • After the performances, if you want to clean the costume, check with your dry cleaner for the best process. Some cleaning methods can ruin certain fabrics and trim.

Shirley, Showboats, and Silent Films


Entertainment and education go hand in hand in history-themed recitals

By Anne L. Silveri

For Vicki Michelle Bull, her studio’s annual recital isn’t just a dance showcase; it’s a learning experience—about anything from Cole Porter to the Civil War. “We are educators,” she says, “so we think everything we do should have an educational focus.”

Bull feels strongly that there’s a movement afoot in dance education to better understand the origins of dance. “There’s a lot of interest right now among dance teachers to know the roots of what we teach to our kids,” says Bull, who is sharpening her own tap education to fill in the gaps. “I want our students to know they are a part of a very long tradition. As dance teachers we are in the perfect place to connect dance to history.”

Bull, 38, has been operating her recreational studio, called Vicki Michelle, in Spring, TX, for 14 years and offers a full range of classes including ballet, jazz, tap, musical theater, acting, twirl, and cheer. She runs a small competition team as well but never wants her focus to veer from her recital. “The recital is the most important part of a dance school,” she says. “It’s the report card the parents receive at the end of the year, so why not make it the best experience possible?”

Themed recitals have always worked well for Bull’s students. She decided to step up the learning two years ago with a “Classic Hollywood” show that focused on films from the 1940s and earlier, including those with Shirley Temple, the music of Cole Porter, Show Boat, 42nd Street, and silent movies.

The 3- to 5-year-old children entered the world of Shirley Temple. Bull did her homework, searching for Temple’s films and obtaining music at The teachers chose their classes’ songs from among 40 that Bull selected and were required to do a little research themselves. “I expect my teachers to be able to answer questions that come up,” says Bull. Recital work for the youngest dancers started with a short talk to introduce them to Shirley Temple. “We didn’t want kids just dressing up like Shirley Temple; [we wanted them] to really know who she was,” says the school owner.

Bull asked her students’ parents to rent Temple’s videos and even purchased several that parents could borrow. She wasn’t surprised that the films were new to some of the young mothers as well as to their children. “With our preschool moms, I realized we were exposing the parents and the children to a whole new world,” Bull says. “Our parents were delighted by the task, and some reported that their little ones danced around the house with newfound energy.”

Although Temple’s routines were too difficult for the littlest students, Bull did ask the teachers to use elements from the child star’s dances. To bring the recital audience in on the learning, Bull opened that part of the performance with a short biographical statement on Temple, followed by some film footage. Costuming was easy; almost every costume company offered several choices. The Shirley Temple exploration was so successful that Bull plans to repeat it every few years.

For the school-age students, Bull found inspiration in Show Boat. Among the black-and-white films at the local video store Bull spied a copy of the 1936 film, based on the 1927 musical of the same name. “The music from the actual show was way too operatic for us, but the idea of the showboat worked well with the ‘Classic Hollywood’ idea and was perfect for our school-age children,” says Bull. “We wanted the kids to understand the whole traveling entertainment showboat concept, which basically preceded the cruise business.” The students, ages 5 to 15, performed before a backdrop of an enormous showboat, dancing to classic music from the 1940s.

The musical theater class, with students ranging in age from 6 to 15, did a piece based on silent films, complete with a black-cloaked villain and a damsel in distress. To prepare the students, Bull asked parents to dig through their favorite video store’s offerings for silent films. “Many of our children did not even know there was such a thing as a silent movie,” says Bull. “The overexaggerated movement really developed their acting skills.”

For the ballet classes, Bull used all Cole Porter music. “It’s so elegant and just perfect for ballet,” she says. “You just can’t go wrong with Cole Porter, and [his music is] everywhere in movies from the 1930s and 1940s.” When she proposed the idea, her teachers and the parents had only a vague idea of who Porter was—that is, until she put the music on and they recognized the familiar tunes.

Bull sees recitals as an opportunity to expose her students to a part of culture that they might not ordinarily experience.

For the jazz classes, Bull chose Charleston steps and the music of the Roaring ’20s. “We try to provide context whenever we can, so if we are teaching Charleston moves, we explain where and when this historic dance began.”

The show, costumed entirely in black and white to go with the old-films concept, ended with tap numbers inspired by the 1933 Broadway hit 42nd Street. A glimmer curtain added Hollywood sparkle. “The continuity [in the show] made for a wonderful stage experience,” Bull says.

Bull sees recitals as an opportunity to expose her students to a part of culture that they might not ordinarily experience. “Kids are immersed in the music of today,” she says. “Why not expose them to something different? I see that as part of my job.” The response from parents has been overwhelmingly positive. “They really get engaged in the process and seem to appreciate the extra work we do in preparing for the recital,” Bull says. “The dads even did a cute Charlie Chaplin number. We even had a grandfather who remembered Chaplin.” The response from her faculty of six has also been extremely positive, according to Bull, who says that they found the extra investment of time and effort to be enriching.

The school’s most recent recital explored the ’50s with a theme called “Class of 1959.” Set in a school gym and using only music from that decade, the recital followed the structure of a school year. Bull tried to keep it as historically accurate as possible. “I wanted my kids to know what life was like in the 1950s, from the fashions to the dance styles,” she says. “They had a blast learning the jive.”

Bull likes to integrate the acting classes into the recital process since they are an important part of her studio. The acting students provided a seamless thread of continuity, introducing each number with witty remarks that were in keeping with the vernacular of the day. Bull feels that her approach gives these students a key role in her recitals by providing context for her theme.

Once an idea is in motion, Bull researches everything about the period, from how people wore their hair to how they spoke. No detail is unimportant. Once she has collected the information, she gives it to her teachers to make it easy for them to answer students’ questions.

Bull’s eyes light up as she talks about next May’s recital, “Sweet Liberty,” with an American history theme. With Caroline Batson, her top teacher, she starts planning for each

recital more than a year out. For Batson, who majored in dance at the University of Nevada, Bull’s approach makes perfect sense. “When I was in school and we were learning Graham technique, we couldn’t do that without learning who she was and where she came from,” says Batson, 52. “This approach really adds depth to their dancing. The children have something to draw from; they can use the dance as a springboard to a deeper emotional connection. Dance is uniquely able to connect us to our history and our environment.”

The two women meet once a week for a two-hour lunch, when they go over ideas. “We have such synergy together,” Bull says. “Sometimes we come up with the exact same idea simultaneously. It’s such a creative process for us.” They make tentative plans for each number and gradually fill in the details as the year progresses. With the American history theme in mind, Batson is working on a “Rosie the Riveter” piece, based on the woman who became a symbol of American women’s entry into the industrial work force in large numbers during World War II. Excited to be sharing this information with her students, Batson welcomes the opportunity to learn more about this amazing woman herself.

For their part in next year’s recital, the acting students are preparing a scene from the 1969 Broadway musical 1776. Ballet classes will be set in the Civil War period, to music from Gone With the Wind. Bull expects to do a lot of explaining about the Civil War if students haven’t gotten that far in their history classes. The twirl and cheer students will perform to music by John Philip Sousa. “We don’t just put on the music,” she says. “We want them to know who Sousa was in his time, and he was the king of march music.”

Bull readily admits that her students, teachers, and parents are not the only learners in the bunch—she’s acquiring new knowledge along with them. And she says that she wants other teachers to know that though it may sound like extra work, it’s well worth the time. “I found it was a bit more effort in the beginning, but then everything fell into place,” she says. “I also want teachers to know that just because a show is educational doesn’t mean it has to be boring. We entertain as well as educate.” This year Bull plans to institute a movie night for families, when she’ll show films that contain classic dance sequences or relate to the recital theme.

Bull hopes that the excitement of learning will spill over into her students’ school experience. “Sure, there must be easier ways to put on a recital, but this way works for me and my families. Dance is such a fun way to learn about anything,” she says. “I hope I am inspiring my young dancers to be lifelong learners.”


Through a Different Lens


Preserving and spreading the power of dance through film festivals

By Joshua Bartlett

Since the beginning of cinematic history, film and movement have maintained a close relationship. Think of the early silent films of Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, whose mime abilities were fluidly balletic in quality. Even the phrase “motion picture” succinctly defines the essence of cinema.

Horizon of Exile (2007), an award-winning film by Isabel Rocamora, features stunning cinematography. (Image courtesy Deirdre Towers)

But the last 20 years have brought into focus the significance of dance on the screen, and, as a result, dance film festivals have become more numerous and prominent. According to Deirdre Towers, artistic director of New York’s Dance on Camera Festival and of the Dance Films Association, there are at least 35 major dance film festivals around the world (a handful of them in the United States), with many smaller organized screenings popping up every year. There are those who think dance videos or films diminish the original purpose of dance—to be seen live on a stage or at a specified gathering. Festival filmmakers and directors, nonetheless, see a clear purpose in making films for and about dance and in establishing venues where they can be seen.

For Towers, the original purpose of the Dance on Camera Festival, which emerged from the DFA (founded in 1956) and became an official film festival in 1972, remains essentially unchanged today. “Dance films were being made and there wasn’t a venue to look at them and get a sense of a standard of excellence,” she says. “We wanted filmmakers to get an impression of alternative and interesting approaches.”

John Crawford, director of the UCI Dance Film Festival on the campus of the University of California at Irvine, honors the achievements of pioneer film choreographers and directors such as Gene Kelly or Busby Berkeley. However, he thinks that for a long time the evolution of dance filmmaking lagged behind mainstream films in terms of directing and technology. “Dance film is a genre that is really developing very rapidly,” says Crawford. “As of the last 10 years we are at the advent of very capable video technology that makes filmmaking so much less expensive. We are seeing an explosion of film experiments by choreographers that allows for the transformation of dance as an art form. Now we can fully integrate the vocabulary of film to realize its potential.” The end result is the creation of a new language for the screen that necessitates film festivals to allow for a wider exposure to dance.

Los Angeles obviously holds the distinction of being the film capital of the world. Nevertheless, when Lynette Kessler, artistic and executive director of Dance Camera West of Los Angeles, started the festival seven years ago, she didn’t expect the overwhelming response it received. “It was sold out for a month before it happened,” she says. “I come from a modern dance background and had to drag people to see my concerts.” In her view, one of the festival’s primary purposes is to accentuate the diverse cultural audience in the area. “We have 102 different languages and dance forms represented here. I have the unique opportunity to show films made from nearly any style or genre or cultural background.” She gets submissions from countries as varied as India, Congo, Cambodia, Estonia, Iceland, Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil. Like the other festivals, she includes features, documentaries, restagings of existing work for the screen, animation, and experimental shorts.

Dance Camera West, held at venues like the Getty Center and the Walt Disney Concert Hall (as well as lower-profile spaces), represents numerous examples of successful dance films. Inside the Circle (2007), shown at the 2007 festival, documented the break-dancing culture that congregates for an annual three-day competition, called B-Boy City, in Austin, TX. Following several of the participants over a six-year period, director Marcy Garriott examined the outstanding talents and sometimes wayward lives of the dancers. The audience choice award at the June 2008 festival went to The Rain (2006), directed by Pontus Lidberg, which featured sensual choreography in rain-soaked settings. Another award winner, Horizon of Exile (2007), directed by Isabel Rocamora, provided visually stunning cinematography of burka-clad women dancing ritualistically on an arid plain while streams of water bubbled from the earth’s surface.

Dance on Camera presented a range of films at its New York showings in January, including Water Flowing Together, a documentary about former New York City Ballet principal dancer Jock Soto’s offstage life. An example of a popular short feature (produced for around $2,000) was the whimsical INEARTHIA (2006), in which a man wraps himself around a pole and attempts to spin the Earth faster and faster until it starts to unwind. The festival holds screenings primarily at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center, but also at galleries and performance spaces in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

‘We have 102 different languages and dance forms represented here. I have the unique opportunity to show films made from nearly any style or genre or cultural background.’ — Lynette Kessler, Dance Camera West

At the UCI Dance Film Festival, held over a three-day period, Crawford screened William Forsythe’s One Flat Thing, reproduced, but also devoted a full afternoon exclusively to student work. In his opinion, plenty of dance is seen on television these days, but it is limited in its scope, camera work, and vocabulary. “So You Think You Can Dance is fabulous because it lets people see the passion and athleticism that a strong dancer can bring to the screen,” says Crawford, who fully grasps the importance of combining dance with media technology for the younger generation. “But as an art form, dance needs to go beyond that. A film festival doesn’t replace the more popular forms; it just adds to the mix. A lot of what you see is so commercial and sexist in its orientation that we need to give other kinds of artists the ability to respond in their own way.”

To get the attention of a festival director, a film needs to reach certain criteria. Crawford looks for eclecticism among the entries and stresses that dance should stake a place in the foreground of a work, rather than merely be incidental to it. Towers insists, since much of her festival takes place at Lincoln Center, that there has to be a reason to see it “in the can,” as they say in movie lingo. “To ask someone to sit in a film house, it has to be as good as or better than the live performance,” says Towers. “From our submissions, we try to show the best in terms of clarity of intention. I am a fan of all the things a dance teacher would like: good dancing, good musicality, grace, wit, something that shows imagination.”

“We are interested in what media can do for dance in taking it to a new place,” says Kessler. In doing so, Dance Camera West sometimes uses alternative surfaces for screenings, such as buildings or trees.

Most festival directors agree on what they do not want: one-dimensional documentation of a stage performance. “We don’t want to see a stage recording where you see the heads in the audience, the edge of the stage and the wings,” says Towers. “It’s clear when the camera was put in the back of the room and there was no collaboration between the choreographer and the director.”

So what is the relevance of dance film festivals to dance studio owners and teachers who have enough in their busy lives to worry about? The short answer is that they can broaden their horizons about the art form. “I think dance teachers and students need to see all kinds of dance,” says Kessler. “Studios get into their structures, offering a certain curriculum and then structure even deeper with competitions and recitals. They have to have those structures to stay in business. But dance and media allow for all kinds of possibilities.”

Knowing how to shoot your own video of a dance competition or performance, for example, is simply good business. “Your video becomes an ambassador for the studio beyond its immediate circuit,” says Towers. “You have to look at it from the point of view of how the technology can be used to enhance what you are doing.” In addition, Towers cites her experience with a studio owner who wanted to get an edge on the competition in her hometown. Because she had a rectangular studio, Towers encouraged her to screen her own mini dance film festival there to ratchet up some publicity. Even placing a television monitor with dance films in the waiting room of a studio can provoke curiosity and educate at the same time.

Dance film festivals, large or small, also have the potential to bring a new dance audience from the general public. “People might not initially plunk down $50 to see a live dance performance, but they might stumble onto a Dance Camera West event because it is $10, or in the case of some outdoor events, free,” says Kessler. “The Los Angeles Music Center and UCLA Live have seen dance audiences grow because of Dance Camera West.”

Each festival has information on future programming and basic application forms for submissions of DVDs on its website. The next events are: Dance on Camera, January 7–16, 2009 (; UCI Film Festival, March 2009 (; Dance Camera West, June 5–27, 2009 (


Ground Rules for Recital Audiences


How to keep ‘on the sidelines’ behavior in the ballpark and out of the theater

By Melissa Hoffman

“Suzy, I love you!” a dad in the balcony yelled to his child, over and over, at my recital last May. I was dumbfounded. Suzy is a 3-year-old—yes, a 3-year-old—who, because of his calls to her, spent her time onstage looking all over for her dad. My first reaction was fear, as my mind raced to the possibility that with the stage lights on she could not see the lip of the stage and if she kept creeping forward to find her dad she could fall. Luckily I got her attention from the wings, and she got back into doing her dance.

But this parent’s intrusive yelling quickly spiraled into more of the same, with several others joining in to call out their own children’s names. I had done a good job of preparing my young dancers to expect to hear the audience laugh and clap while they were dancing, but I did not prepare them to hear their names being yelled. I never imagined that I would need to be so diligent about educating parents on audience etiquette at a performing arts event.

I had seen this type of behavior in previous years, mostly with our recreational hip-hop dancers. I know it’s typical of crowds watching break dancers on the street, but I hated it when the families at our recitals would go into what I call “ballpark mode,” screaming and yelling throughout the kids’ routine. The first time this happened I paused the show and spoke briefly about the fact that yelling during a routine could be distracting for the dancers and that I’d appreciate it if they would refrain from that behavior.

The following year I decided to nip the behavior in the bud. I went to each hip-hop class for students ages 12 and older and spoke to the dancers directly, asking them to instruct the people who were going to attend the performance to refrain from yelling and screaming. The kids were happy to do so because they found that kind of behavior embarrassing.

Since I started the practice of talking to the older kids about appropriate behavior, I haven’t seen this kind of disruption happen while they are onstage. But apparently, as the incident with the 3-year-old shows, the sporting-event mentality knows no age limits. And it is important to keep in mind that once one person starts yelling, there is a snowball effect and people think that is the thing to do. So coming up with an across-the-board plan to forestall the stadium mentality is important. It is up to school owners to educate audiences who might be attending their first performing arts event about what constitutes appropriate behavior in the theater.

Of course, not everyone agrees on what’s appropriate. Charlotte Klein, of Charlotte Klein Dance Centers in Worcester and Westboro, MA, discovered that it was more effective to change her expectations than her clients’ behavior. “After many years of analyzing recital audiences, I began to view a recital as a family experience, with all the excitement that goes with it,” Klein told me via email. “Once I changed my expectations I enjoyed seeing families have a wonderful experience instead of fathers dreading attending a recital. This has worked for me, and when fall registration time comes I hear wonderful compliments about the recitals from my parents.”

That kind of family atmosphere is great as long as audiences don’t get out of hand. But for those who want to set some ground rules for a concert-like experience for their recital audiences and students, some heavy-duty instruction is in order.

Start early
To be most effective, the process of educating audiences should start long before they arrive at the theater. If you do not already have an “all you need to know about dress rehearsal and recital” handout, perhaps this should be the year you produce one. This handout should include your check-in and pickup policy, your procedure for getting the dancers to and from the stage, photography and video policies—and an audience etiquette section. In the introductory letter that talks about the show, I make a statement that dance is an art form and not a sport. Therefore, viewing a performance should be done with respect for the art.

Follow through
Remember, just because you wrote the handout doesn’t mean that people will read it—and in fact you need to assume it has not been read. So you need to have a plan to get the word out about all your recital policies that will reach your clients directly. I have found that the best way to do this is to sit with the parents of the 12-and-under dancers as their costumes are distributed. I use this one-on-one time to go over costume pieces, hairstyles, and, most important, rehearsal and recital procedures. After my experience at my last recital, I will also take the time to talk about being an audience member.

To be most effective, the process of educating audiences should start long before they arrive at the theater.

The process of talking with each group of parents is time consuming. I set aside a whole week for these chats, during which I have subs teach my classes, because I believe the message has more impact when it comes from the school owner rather than a teacher or office manager.

What to say
Be careful with your wording; you never want your clients to feel that you are talking down to them. It is important to explain that screaming and yelling can be distracting to the dancers and thus cause a well-rehearsed routine to go amok. But of even more concern, as I saw with that 3-year-old, is the possibility that the situation can become dangerous.

To take the explanation one step further, you can explain that disruptive behavior can also detract from the art of the piece being performed, not to mention that it’s distracting and irritating to the audience members around them. I tell them that clapping for a job well done is great and that we encourage having fun at the performance. But we do not tolerate chaos. 

At the theater
It’s important to get the message out about proper behavior to all audience members, not only families. It’s impossible to predict what might happen when a large number of people are together in an emotionally charged atmosphere. For example, during my school’s first show (this was before we implemented reserved seating), a man and woman had a fight over saved seats. Fortunately we had a police officer on the premises and he dealt with the issue. There are now 10 security officials who work for our facility. They always deal with these types of issues, as well as people with cameras and video cameras—and now we will add shushing the noisemakers to their list of duties.

For future recitals I plan to incorporate into my opening welcome (which includes a request that audiences turn off their cell phones and pagers) a new statement that discourages them from yelling. I will preface it by saying I’m asking that of them for the same reason that we do not allow pictures and videos: for the safety of the dancers and the comfort of those around them.

Revisit and repeat
If your school has a competitive team, audience behavior is a concern more than once a year, at recital time. Be prepared to revisit the topic frequently during the season. Audiences are often out of control at competitive events, with people pumping their fists in the air, shouting, “Ooh, ooh!” or whistling, banging on cowbells, and screaming things like “You go, girl!” and “Do it!” The atmosphere, instead of being suited to the experience of observing an art form, quickly deteriorates into rowdiness.

Again, the only way to avoid this is by educating the dancers and their parents. At our competitive team meeting at the beginning of the year we go over the competition process, expectations, and rules, both for the events we attend as well as those we produce. You must make it clear that although other schools may behave inappropriately, you expect to see no such conduct among the people affiliated with your school. That idea can be reinforced repeatedly since competition team dancers perform frequently—just make sure to remind them of the rules before each event.

What happens when a team member violates your rules? One option is to suspend the privilege of being on the team. After such an incident at a competition, I made a note on the dancer’s registration form not to invite her back on the team until we had had a conversation about her behavior. The parent and I spoke, and I received an apology and a promise that the behavior would never happen again. And in the four years since then, it has not.

Set an example
Unfortunately, inappropriate behavior sometimes comes directly from studio owners and teachers, either by tolerating it or engaging in it themselves. This is primarily a concern at competitions, where the sporting-event mentality of winning (and the gloating that can go with it) is too often apparent. If studio owners and teachers cannot count on their peers to maintain standards of behavior, those of us who would like to see dance treated as an art form need to make our feelings known. The intervention could start with a comment to the competition producers regarding the noise level. The next step would be to ask that the disruptive schools’ teachers be instructed to control their students and attendees. If neither of these approaches works, there should be some type of penalty, such as a loss of points or disqualification.

Personally, I would want to know if my students’ parents were out of control so that I could address it. There is nothing more discouraging than not being able to hear one of your dancers being introduced due to the screaming for the previous number or to be onstage and hear the chants of the people in the wings who are waiting to go on. This behavior should simply be unacceptable.

It is our responsibility as dance educators to teach our students not only how to dance but also how to attend or perform in a performing arts event. By teaching our clients to appreciate what they are seeing, we elevate the performance to the art it is. Ultimately, spending the time to educate the dancers and their parents will make for a safe and smooth performing arts event and give the dancers the respect they deserve.


Common Ground | Bring On the Butterflies


How to make the most of pre-show jitters

By Nancy Wozny

Your costume fits perfectly. Your parents are in the audience, along with a few aunts and uncles and the cute guy from your math class. Other dancers are warming up nearby while the stage manager gives the dreaded 5-minute “Places!” warning. You are completely ready and, for all purposes, good to go. You have been in rehearsals for weeks now; you know your stuff inside and out and you went through your solo just 10 minutes ago. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever to feel panic.

Yet the butterflies—otherwise known as that queasy feeling performers get before the curtain goes up—are holding a convention in your stomach. Your pulse might feel quickened, your mouth dry, and your hands clammy. If all of this is happening, then good for you—it’s supposed to, and you are right on schedule. This is the experience of a dancer preparing to ramp it up, fly into high gear, and dazzle the crowds. This is the body on performance juice, known as adrenaline. So instead of thinking about how to banish those butterflies, thank them for showing up.

Pre-show jitters are enormously misunderstood. Generally speaking, being nervous is not looked at as a positive emotion. We think getting a case of the nerves is bad and hope it doesn’t happen to us. According to John Eliot, PhD, author of Overachievement and a leading authority on performance psychology, the trouble starts with the word “nervous,” which we generally regard as a negative. Nerves are for weaklings—we think of them as a flaw. “ ‘Nervousness’ is actually the name for what we call physiological arousal, which is our body getting into a fight-or-flight mode and preparing to perform at a higher level,” says Eliot. “We got into trouble when we named the feeling ‘nervous.’ ”

Maybe you look over at your best friend, who is gabbing away with everybody around her, and wish you could be just like her. You are just supposed to relax, right? Most people will tell you to calm down, take a cleansing breath, or do meditation or yoga. A host of professionals will tell you to remember a time when you did this or that leap flawlessly, and so on. “This information is just plain wrong,” insists Eliot, whose methods have helped artists and athletes achieve their best. “The last thing you want to do is relax or calm down before a show. You should embrace stress.”

So there you are backstage, still feeling those butterflies. What are you supposed to do? Nothing, really. Your body’s innate intelligence is kicking in and your job is to get out of the way. Eliot thinks it’s wise to have a basic knowledge of what is happening to your body. Blood is being diverted away from your digestive system to your muscles, where it’s needed—hence the butterflies. This is a good reason to eat lightly on performance days (and nothing remotely heavy right before you dance). Adrenaline is pumping through your system, getting you performance-ready. We experience this as uneasiness, but it’s right on target. These chemical changes are paving the way for you to perform at a high level. Eliot says that we should welcome these physical changes. It’s all about getting out of your head and into your body.

You should also notice a change in your level of awareness. A pre-performance mind-set is extremely focused, so if you find yourself in that state, again you are right where you want to be. Eliot calls this the “trusting mind-set,” and it’s actually a positive result of feeling nervous. “It’s a free state, rhythmic, loose, with no judgment, goals, or second guessing,” he says. “It’s really a state of play, and performers need to set aside time to practice the trusting mind-set. It’s a time to enjoy the flow and let it go. Our training gets us two-thirds of the way to where we want to be as performers; the other third comes from getting the trusting mind-set to kick in.”

Then what exactly is stage fright? It’s when we get overly worried and spiral out of control. “Anxiety is what sets in when we don’t understand what’s happening to us,” says Eliot. “It’s really a perception problem.” He finds that once performers have a basic understanding of what’s happening to smart. Eliot has lots of stories about great sprinters and musicians doing their best when they are the them, they actually enjoy getting the butterflies. They begin to trust the fact that the body is naturally most nervous.

Sometimes a pre-show ritual is a good idea; it helps dancers get into performance mode. The ritual might be warming up while listening to their favorite tunes; sometimes it’s an actual warm-up that makes performers feel especially ready. Movement can trigger a response to the body that it’s time to get its “A” game on. Eliot would like performers to keep in mind that the lucky socks, or favorite song, or special super-slow grand pliés are not what make or break a performance; it’s the ready state they put us in. “It’s not about the physical routine itself but the effect it has on us,” he says. “It’s also about shifting from the training mind-set to the trusting mind-set.”

‘It helps students to know that teachers get a bit jittery too before a performance.’ —Sanna Carapellotti

Sanna Carapellotti, director of Pennsylvania-based Mental Performances, works with dancers of all ages who find themselves frozen in the wings. She has her own name for the trusting mind-set: the Inner Child-Creative Connection. “In my work with dancers, we tune into the freedom and passion of the inner child and infuse that energy for our performance,” she says. “You can see it in a dancer’s eyes—motivation and focus increases, and everything else can be left behind.”

Carapellotti likes to create unique pre-performance activities for each dancer she works with. As a mother of a ballet dancer herself, she knows firsthand the difficulties of traveling from the classroom to the stage. She realizes that sometimes it’s not enough to simply tell a young dancer that her body is doing the right thing. The youngest ones are not ready to understand complicated bodily processes and can benefit from a pre-show routine that involves storytelling.

For example, when a 9-year-old dancer playing the role of Clara in The Nutcracker experienced a bad case of stage fright, Carapellotti created a mental exercise that helped the young dancer transition from a state of anxiety to stage readiness. The process is not unlike what actors do to prepare for a dramatic role. She describes the process: “We gave the character an expanded presence and a history that created a Clara that was more dimensional and more real. She crafted a childhood and daily experiences and described her home, what she liked to do, her favorite Christmas dessert, books she read, and her favorite Disney princess. After she danced the role she related that she could really be Clara rather than simply dancing the choreography.” The ritual also involved the walk from the dressing room to the stage, with each step moving her deeper into her character. By the time she stepped onstage she had turned into Clara, and that frozen feeling that comes with stage fright was nowhere to be found.

Both Eliot and Carapellotti believe that one of the best uses of a dress rehearsal is to get used to all aspects of performance, from the feeling of your costume to the feeling in your body. Teachers can enhance the process by educating their students, so that when the jitters hit it’s no big deal. The time to talk about the possibility of getting nervous is in class, before the helpful jitters turn into counterproductive stage fright.

Teachers can help their students, says Carapellotti, when they tell stories about their own struggles with performance. They can connect with the teacher’s feelings on a personal level. “Students want to know the details of your own experiences,” she says. “We all respond to a good story.”

Carapellotti also recommends that teachers maintain an open-door policy when it comes to the students’ need to talk about their fears and concerns as performance season approaches. “Have a group discussion close to the dress rehearsal,” she suggests. “It even helps students to know that teachers get a bit jittery too before a performance.” Don’t be surprised if your students’ parents do as well; it’s all part of the excitement of the theater.

Building confidence into the performance process is key. “One cannot have too much of that stuff,” says Eliot. “Believe in yourself and what you know completely and don’t be afraid to flaunt it.” He is full of stories of great leaders and artists who never doubted themselves and thinks that modesty is overrated when it comes to performance.

Confidence is also a factor in the performance itself. When Eliot studies the behavior of people who do well onstage or in sports, he finds that the answer to the question of what they are thinking about when they are in performance mode is most likely “Nothing.” A performance is not the time to remember all the notes and corrections your teacher gave you over the semester. Great performers just let it happen and are not attached to results. Dancing onstage is more about doing than thinking. The more a dancer can let go of distractions, the better the performance.

So back to you in the wings. That 5 minutes is probably up and it’s time to show that big, empty pool of blackness known as the audience what you’ve got. Feeling better about feeling queasy? Let your new flock of winged friends help you soar to new heights onstage.


Recitals on a Shoestring


Cost-cutting ideas for a quality production

By Diane Gudat

When it comes to recital time, do you dream about putting on that perfect fantasy production? Well, think again—it might actually be the right time to consider cutting back. “Cut back!” you say. “Forget it! Last year’s recital was really good and I am going to have to do something to top it.” But cutting back on recital expenses might be the best business move you could ever make.

Most studios do their shows during the last weekends of May or throughout the month of June. The following two months of July and August are generally the bleakest when it comes to the health of the studio checking account, so depleting your funds at this time of year simply does not make good business sense. Many teachers struggle to put together summer camps and workshops just to pay those July bills instead of taking a little well-deserved time off; yet they do not hesitate to drop unbudgeted money for that extra pair of lights or the live video feed into the waiting rooms.

Let’s take a moment to rethink the situation. A change in your attitude toward the recital itself might be the biggest cost-cutter of all. Start by asking yourself if you are overdoing it. Better yet, consider asking your spouse or mother what they think is “over the top” spending in this area. They have no emotional attachment to the situation (unless, of course, they too are dance people).

If you’re a studio owner, ask yourself what the purpose of the year-end show is and what it does to improve your studio’s enrollment. This becomes a huge struggle between the right and left sides of your brain. The artist in you wants the show to be the biggest, most amazing production known to planet Earth. You want Busby Berkeley to roll over in his grave. We all love big props, big lights, and big ooohs and ahhhs, but the business manager in us needs to look at the show as part of the entire year’s budget.

Does the amount of money you spend on recital extras translate into an equivalent number of new students, or are you simply excessively entertaining your current clientele and their families while feeding your own obsessive, need-for-perfection genes? Do more lights and props make your dancers look better, or would spicing up the choreography and using interesting staging do the same trick? Will the parents be impressed with all the expensive extra lights or would they rather see their children’s sweet faces in simple lighting?

What will your dance students remember about the day or weekend—the teachers who were calm, pleasant, and proud, or the extra props? Hopefully their memories are of a special day when family and friends gathered to give them their undivided attention with pictures taken, lots of applause, and maybe even a flower or two.

Shouldn’t we strive, every time a child steps into our classroom, to ensure that she will want to return the next year and that she will bring her relatives and friends?

Wouldn’t it be more cost-effective to show parents that we deserve their respect by keeping things organized, calm, and simple at dress rehearsal and backstage at the show?

How about showing them that we respect their hard-earned investment in their child’s dance training by keeping a lid on the cost of costumes and extras?

What can be done in the costume department to alleviate some of the financial stress and strain? First, let’s point out that costume costs should include the time it takes the school owner and studio staff to select, measure, and order them. Finding reasonably priced costumes that reflect the quality you expect is a lot of work! Do not leave yourself out of the equation.

  • When selecting costumes, consider ordering basics in fun colors. All costume companies offer a wide variety of undecorated ballet tutus and dancewear basics. These can then be decorated with simple accessories like flowers, sashes, or appliqués. Some pieces, like leotards or jazz pants, can even be worn in dance class after the recital.
  • Get creative in making costume pieces do double duty. For younger dancers, consider using a banded tutu for their ballet piece and then folding it in half and tacking it to the rear of the costume as a bustle for their tap or jazz piece.
  • Build a large accessories “library” that will spruce up your choreography for years to come. You can do this by not including accessories in the costume fee. Collect all hats, headpieces, and handheld props at the end of the recital and store them for future use.
  • Order costumes early to take advantage of the discounts offered by the costume companies. Try to use one or two major companies for your entire order. This might require a bit of compromise, but it will allow your order to reach an overall amount that will qualify for even more discounts. Large orders also might receive free or discounted postage.
  • Take advantage of companies that offer “two-in-ones”—one costume that comes with a themed base leotard and two choices of accessories that covert it from ballet to jazz. By spacing the classes that wear these two looks far apart in the recital, you can fool the audience into thinking that each is a totally new look. Avoid buying extras like gloves and shoe covers; instead buy gloves and frilly socks on sale after Easter and save them for the following year.
  • Consider sharing hats, props, and backdrops with dance studio owners in your area. Offer them yours and you might be amazed at what they will loan to you. I have costumes and crazy props on loan all over the country.
  • Pair inexpensive, trendy tops from bargain fashion stores with nicely structured jazz pants or modern shorts. By investing in an airbrush machine, you can convert basic costumes into colorful, one-of-a-kind masterpieces that enhance a story line. You can achieve the same effect with cans of spray paint from the dollar store and some homemade stencils. (As the winner of a few overall costume awards, I can attest to the effectiveness of this technique: My garage floor shows the signs of many spray-painted costumes.) Of course, the costumes will need time to air out in order to minimize the paint smell (fresh-air sprays help the process), and the painted fabric will lose its stiffness quickly with use.
  • Well-fitting, basic dress pants can be accented with suspenders or embellished with rhinestones, sequins, or ribbon along the seams or at the cuffs.
  • Dying white or light-colored basics also creates beautiful effects. Tie-dyeing, drip dyeing, or dipping the costumes to create color levels are all reasonably easy projects.
  • Take advantage of the online convenience and splurge control of shopping online at discount department stores like Target, Wal-Mart, and Kmart. These are excellent sources for hip-hop basics like hoodies, baggie jeans, overalls, cute skirts, and multicolored T-shirts, as well as matching sneakers. Shopping online also cuts down on the valuable time you would spend and gas you would use in trying to find 15 identical shirts in a variety of sizes.
  • Use your imagination instead of buying ready-made costumes. For example, convert black sweatshirts and sweat pants into “faux tuxedos” for your guys. Remove the sweatshirt’s ribbing, slice it down the front, peel back and shape the lapels, hot glue some buttons on, and add a stripe of ribbon to the outside seam of each pant leg. Under the jacket, place a white T-shirt with multiple layers of edge lace glued down the front and you’ve created the impression of vintage tuxedos for your Nutcracker party guests. A few safety pins alter the size and keep the front closed. With the same kind of simple basics you can easily make Dalmatian, clown, and chicken costumes. Add black felt dots and tails to large white sweatshirts and you’ve got a pack of Dalmatians; for clowns, use large, colorful sweatshirts with small hula-hoops threaded through the bottom ribbing; to make chickens, add stuffing to yellow sweatshirts and top them with ball caps with orange bills.

The rule of thumb for all costuming is that it must create the correct illusion from the front seat of the theater, which is usually at least 20 feet away from the performers.

How about showing parents that you respect their hard-earned investment in their child’s dance training by keeping a lid on the cost of costumes and extras?

Props and backdrops
With scenic elements, simpler is better. For example, if you want a forest set, do not allow your dancers to get lost in the confusion and color of a full forest backdrop. Instead create the suggestion of a forest with these simple but effective methods.

  • Place a few wire and papier-mâché trees upstage right or left. Alternately, or in addition, build triangular, three-sided flats on casters that can be painted to look like trees and rotated as the scenes change. These can be repainted repeatedly for years of use.
  • Use a gobo to throw the image of a forest or clump of trees on the back curtain. Gobos (circular metal plates used to create patterns of projected light) can be as inexpensive as $12 each and can cover the stage with any shape or design imaginable. Creative souls can make simple gobos out of soda cans. (Beer cans are more fun and can actually enhance your creativity! Plus, some of them are thinner and therefore easier to work with than soda cans.) Ask your theater crew if they have a supply of gobos that you could borrow and if they have lights that are equipped with fittings to hold them. Renting a light or two to hold a variety of gobos can be infinitely less expensive than renting, installing, and returning rented backdrops.
  • If you insist on using a backdrop, check with the theater to see if they have any from previous performances; they might already be hung and available for your use.
  • In this day of mixed-media events, consider using the computer skills of your dancers or their “geek” friends to project beautiful still or moving images onto the stage.
  • Owning your own fog machine and simple accessories like a disco ball and rotating mount will eliminate rental fees for such items and allow you to create special “club nights” at the studio for your jazz or hip-hop classes during the year.

When you ask the staff at your rental facility for favors, loans, and freebies, be sure to treat them with the utmost respect and kindness. Send them a thank-you note for a job well done and enclose a small gift card to a coffee spot or local restaurant. This will go a long way to getting those extras for your next show.

Other ways to save
One essential that you should never compromise on is an excellent sound system. However, that doesn’t mean you have to race out and buy the latest equipment. Check with your theater staff to see what they have before ordering or transporting your studio systems. And don’t forget to use your clients as a resource—I requested help with sound equipment in my newsletter and unearthed two studio dads who were in small rock bands; they let me use their full stack of concert-quality speakers absolutely free. They also hooked up the speakers and loaned me their strobe and laser lights. Do not be embarrassed to ask for help.

Check to see if a business that you or your students frequent would be willing to sponsor the printing of your recital tickets. Defray the cost of your programs by including business sponsors or selling “good luck” lines. But be careful not to overload your already insane schedule with these extra endeavors. Delegate, delegate, delegate—and when that does not work, beg for help.

Quality, not quantity
With the crumbling economy we seem to be facing, many families will appreciate any efforts you make to ensure that their out-of-pocket expenses for their children’s extracurricular activities are kept as low as possible. “Less is more!” is a wonderful motto to aspire to. The key is to be organized, start early to meet deadlines, and go for quality, not quantity. We can be our best for less.


There’s Only One You


Defining your studio’s unique identity

By Nancy Wozny

No two people are alike, so it follows that no two businesses are alike either. There might be a dozen dance studios in the country with identical names, all of which offer jazz, tap, and lyrical, but if you look beyond the surface, each is distinct. What makes them so? You, the school owners, that’s who. You are unique and your one-of-a-kind personality infuses your business. If there’s one idea I came away with after spending four days with roughly 500 dance teachers at the DanceLife Teacher Conference last summer, it’s that each dance studio is different.

There’s an idea going around that A-list studios have a certain look. They’re big, with several dance rooms, huge enrollments, dozens of faculty members, and snazzy competition teams. This is simply not true. Teachers aspire to their own definition of success. Here are just a few of the ways teachers I’ve spoken to describe what they do:

  • “I am a one-person dance studio.”
  • “I don’t do competitions.”
  • “We are all about performing for our local community.”
  • “I specialize in adults.”
  • “We do alternative recitals.”
  • “I want to grow my enrollment to 100.”
  • “I am hoping to reach 700 students this fall.”
  • “I work out of a community center.”
  • “I have a dance studio and a company under one roof.”

Honestly, if each school owner you ever met described her studio to you, I doubt you would hear two stories that were the same. For each of these descriptions, there are parents out there looking for exactly what those schools do.

But sometimes you hear otherwise. Books, articles, and workshops abound for dance studio owners, all telling you how best to run and market your business. Have a dress code, keep parents at a distance, emphasize classes for ages 3 to 13, get a flashy website, charge this or that fee. Dance teachers are inundated with well-meaning advice. What if you looked at these ideas as suggestions and not a set of operating instructions? How can those suggestions be adapted to fit you? You know your school and yourself better than anyone else, so pick and choose according to what best fits your unique niche in the dance world.

Define yourself
Most dance studio owners have a mission statement. Usually it says something about aspiring to the highest standards of dance education and providing a nurturing environment for learning. All of that is fine, and important—but it’s too generic. Your business has more flavor than that. What if you took it a step further and truly defined your studio’s personality? If you took over an existing studio when you opened your business, then it’s especially important to do this work.

What’s the vibe at your studio? What feeling does the school evoke? How is it different from other studios? If a stranger walked in the door and had to describe the environment in just one sentence, what would she say? How do people talk about your studio? How do you talk about your studio?

Find a few friends who are not in the dance studio business and ask them to listen to you talk about your school for 30 seconds. In the sales world, this is known as an “elevator speech.” Afterward, have the listeners write down three ideas that popped into their minds. How well do these ideas match with your concept of your school? Try the exercise a few times and select three sound ideas that describe you perfectly. Add them to your mission statement.

Why define myself?
Your goal is to have clarity in all that you do and portray, from the person who answers the phone to the sign on the building. When you define yourself you attract the students who could benefit most from your unique service. Sometimes studio owners think that they need to be everything to everybody. Students sometimes leave and they wonder why. There are many reasons why students leave (see “Wish They’d Stay, Wish They’d Go,” DSL, October 2008), but one is that your service was not a match for that particular student or family. And students who leave open up spaces in class for someone who is a good match. It’s an entirely different way to look at losing business: as an opportunity. The good news is that there are enough dance students out there for everyone.

OK, I have defined myself. Now what?
Ideally people discover whether there is a match between student and teacher in an actual dance class, but a lot happens before that relationship begins. Opinions are formed long before anybody steps in the door. That’s why it’s best to make sure that your entire environment, both physical and virtual, as well as your print materials, reflect your special message. Think of your entire marketing package as having a cumulative effect. It’s impossible to import your entire personality into your website or your lobby. But if you take a good look at what’s already in place, chances are you will be delighted to find that you are naturally doing this all by yourself. Now how can you do it more consciously and consistently through your entire business?

Website and print media
A website is often a potential customer’s first stop in considering your school. Take a good look at yours and rate it from 1 to 10 on how well it conveys your message. How could you get that number up? Do the photos send an accurate visual message? Do they look like the kids that you actually see at your studio? Lovely photos are wonderful, but if they send the wrong message they will attract the wrong students, and if those students are not a good fit they might eventually leave. Even a simple font change can make a difference in the online image of your school. However, a website doesn’t have to do it all, so try not to stress out about having the perfect site.

When it comes to print media the same principles apply. Images, fonts, and overall design lend specific messages about what goes on at your studio. Take out some old ads, postcards, or brochures. Are they generic? Could they fit just about any dance studio? If so, it’s time for an update. If you are working with a professional graphic designer, describe what’s unique about your business so that he or she can transfer that information into a visual image. That’s the designer’s job, not yours.

Putting more you in your studio environment
Start with your front door and signage. What does it say about you? If someone were to walk by and peek in the door, would what he saw be an accurate reflection of what you stand for? What can you change easily without spending a bundle? Signs are expensive, and you might have been limited in your choices, especially if you are located in a strip mall. Ask yourself what is changeable in a way that would be more suited to you—color, size, overall design? Or perhaps adding lights to an existing sign is an option.

Find a few friends who are not in the dance studio business and ask them to listen to you talk about your school for 30 seconds. In the sales world, this is known as an ‘elevator speech.’

Next move to your lobby. How is your personality present in your interior choices, color scheme, furniture, photos on the wall? All of it counts. Now take a tour to the nucleus of your business, the actual dance rooms. Are the walls blank and white? If that feels perfect for you, great; you are there. If they feel a little pale, it’s time to jazz them up with your style. Or perhaps they are still painted that ’80s mauve from two owners ago. If so, it’s time for a trip to the paint store. And maybe add some photos on the wall or update a window treatment. Never underestimate the power of small changes; think of them as putting a touch of you in your dance rooms.

You at the front desk
Many people claim that word of mouth is their best selling tool. That’s great, but what about the mouth that is doing the talking for you? Do the people answering the phone at your school reflect your values? What’s on your answering machine? Consider recording the message or writing the script yourself. The front desk staff should be familiar with your mission statement and able to convey a consistent message. From time to time it’s good to have a meeting with your faculty and staff to go through this important information.

You in your recital
Recitals are widely considered to be good selling tools, so why not have yours also connect to your mission? There are so many options for recitals these days; in fact, it’s possible to buy an entire recital in a box. Backdrops and themes, complete with music, can be ordered from a catalog, making it easier for you to put on a big show. But is it your studio’s show? Take a look at the DVD of last year’s recital. What could you change easily? It could be the venue, length, presentation style, program, costumes, choice of music, or style of dance. Here’s a good indicator of how well your recital matches you: When you sit in the audience, are you having the time of your life?

Don’t break the bank
Defining your business is an ongoing process and does not need to be done in one day or even a year. In fact, small changes work best. Start with what needs the most work. Take your time. Say you change the art in your studio. How does it feel? Was it a good move? If you are on a tight budget, hold off on buying that snazzy new couch for your lobby and do something simpler, like adding new photos to your website or changing an old ad. Think of this as a fun and creative project. Talk to your faculty about your ideas and ask them for theirs. Get feedback from friends, and notice how parents and students respond to any changes you make.

Which advice to use?
By all means, keep reading articles and attending workshops on business and marketing strategies. We can’t come up with ideas all by ourselves, and it makes sense to listen to experts. It’s what you do with the information that counts. When you reach for the pen at the bottom of your very large dance bag because you can’t wait to write down an idea and try it, that’s a good indication that it’s a good fit. When your first impression is “I would never do that,” that’s a good indication that it’s not for you—or at least not yet. Always ask yourself how an idea can be modified to fit your goals.

Defined for success
A well-defined business acts as a lighthouse, shining your bright light in the direction of just the kind of students you will love teaching. You have created a beacon of your strengths and individuality. Dance is a huge world, large enough for myriad dance studios, all offering quality dance education. There is no one perfect model for an ideal dance studio and there will never be. Celebrate your diversity and give yourself permission to teach dance to your own beat.


From Silver Screen to Studio


How studio owners use dance videos as teaching tools

By Heather Wisner

“Which movies can I show him to get him interested in dance?” This urgent query came from a friend of mine with a 4-year-old son shortly before they headed off to San Francisco’s Ethnic Dance Festival. After wracking my brain (Billy Elliot? Too mature. Singin’ in the Rain? Too long. Hmm . . . ), I turned to studio owners to find out what videos they liked to show to different age groups and which videos best served a particular purpose. Most teachers like to add interest to their lessons with visual aids, of course, and dance teachers are no exception. Based on the responses I got, you could say that studios use dance videos in service of the three Is: introduction, instruction, and inspiration—or in some cases, all three.

As an introduction
Very young children sometimes find it helpful to see examples of movement while they’re still getting their own limbs under control. And as many teachers have found, music and visuals can sometimes capture children’s attention and jog their memories as well as, if not better, than spoken instruction.

“For my 3-year-olds, I sometimes use clips of The Wiggles—great if there are little boys in the class,” says Maria Jacobs, owner of Valley Forge Dance School in King of Prussia, PA. “Besides a Captain Feathersword number, I like ‘Five Little Ducks’ to teach them how to drop out of a dance one by one. I use ‘Five Little Ladybugs’ for the same reason, and the children love the song. It gives everyone a chance to sit down and refocus, and one picture is worth a thousand words.”

Among studio owners, the most popular videos for young children range from Shirley Temple films to animated shorts featuring Angelina Ballerina, the dancing mouse. “I would suggest any Shirley Temple movies for the young ones who love to tap and sing,” says Dana Loving-Sparks, owner of In-Step Dance and Performing Arts Center of The Woodlands and Conroe, TX.

Rhonda Foote, director of Rhonda’s FooteWorks in Syracuse, NY, agrees: “I also use The Wiggles and Mary-Kate and Ashley’s ballet video for little kids’ dance camps. Shirley Temple is a big hit with them, too.”

“Shirley Temple movies—she’s awesome,” says Melinda Shaner, artistic director of the Conservatory of Dance in Silver City, NM. “The Barbie dance movies are not too bad and the kids love them.” Although Barbie’s producers have taken a bit of artistic license with storytelling, Shaner says, the videos are a great introduction to classical music and dancing.

One director finds that videos also help put young dancers in the mood for class. “The all-age–friendly top film, as far as I am concerned, is Tales of Beatrix Potter, which uses The Royal Ballet,” says Nancy Whyte, head of Nancy Whyte School of Ballet in Bellingham, WA. “Children and adults of all ages adore this film. The children in my studio sit and watch videos before class time arrives, and this is my number-one choice for the younger classes especially.”

As instruction
Older children, especially those with good attention spans, can benefit from videos in two important ways: They can see examples of the work they’re learning and absorb some dance history and context in the process.

“For our June recital we’re doing excerpts from Coppélia, which we’ve never done before,” says Jacobs. “I have several videos—Kirov, Australian Ballet—that I’ve been showing so they better understand the mazurka, a character dance. I’ve also shown Anna Pavlova in The Dying Swan so that they get a sense of dance history. I have a biographical movie of Anna Pavlova which I may show during lunch breaks in our daytime summer intensive.”

Lori Pryor, artistic director of Dance Foundations in Columbia, MD, draws her instructional videos from a large collection of musical classics and modern professional productions. “Some of the studio’s favorites are Give a Girl a Break, You Were Never Lovelier, Singin’ in the Rain, My Sister Eileen, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and Oklahoma!” she says. “We most often watch them during dance camp at lunchtime, but I have taken breaks in classes to show a particular video section if we are learning something from that show.

“I have also shown the students professional videos for the same purpose: No Maps on My Taps, Tap, LaVaughn Robinson’s Dancing History, Tap Heat,” Pryor continues. “I also show videos in our waiting room in advance of a guest artist: Gus Giordano’s work before [his daughter] Nan visited, Frank Hatchett, Fosse before Andy Blankenbuehler came, Dancemaker and Wrecker’s Ball from Paul Taylor before Liz Walton visited. It’s been so helpful for them to see the work before they do it, since many are visual learners. . . . During our ballet intensive we watch at least one ballet and study it and discuss it.”

This practice seems especially popular at studios that produce a Nutcracker. “For older children, I use the prior year’s video of our Nutcracker ballet when we start rehearsing every fall,” says Jacobs. “It motivates the children who are in the video to want to do even better this year, and it helps the new performers come up to speed quickly.”

Adds Shaner, “I think that this year I will require my Nutcracker cast to watch one or two versions of Nutcracker.”

In addition to serving as learning tools for new steps and combinations, videos can help students think about creating steps and working in different styles, says Loving-Sparks, who shows A Chorus Line, Grease, Fosse, Chicago, and Cabaret to her advanced students. “I use the movies’ scenes in musical theater, jazz, and Broadway dance classes,” she says. “I let the kids watch the scenes and then they come up with different ways of [creating] choreography themselves. [Film] is good to use in choreography classes as well. It gives them a feeling of pride and accomplishment, of trying something new and exciting.”

As inspiration          
One reason that dancers of all ages return to dance on film is the inspiration they draw from seeing performers at the peak of their technical and artistic powers. Many studio owners and teachers use videos to show their students important dancers throughout history and changes in dance styles over time.

Older children can benefit from videos in two important ways: They can see examples of the work they’re learning and absorb some dance history and context in the process.

“Because we are an old studio with much history, I feel strongly about educating the new generations about the classics. Not all students have parents that danced, therefore many of them have never heard of Fred Astaire,” says Kim Brokaw, owner of Jill Mallory Studio of Dance in Miami, FL. “We work hard to stay current with our music and choreography styles, but try to still let them know how it all started. Last year we found a funky remake of Singin’ in the Rain by Mint Royale, but I made them all watch Gene Kelly dancing the original. They loved it! I think 1 out of 18 had ever heard of him. We even have kids now who have never seen movies like The Wizard of Oz.”              

Melanie Hedden-Perron, owner of Rising Star Performing Arts in Waterdown, Ontario, Canada, likes to show her students old MGM musicals and That’s Entertainment. “We have used clips to introduce our students to the great dancers of the past so they have a connection to the past,” she says.

Shelly Beech, owner of Art of Motion Dance in Bartlesville, OK, also likes That’s Entertainment videos. “They are too long to watch in one sitting but have great production numbers and show a nice history of the movie musical,” she says. “I have also used videos from Biography. It’s a great way to educate dancers about the roots of dance.”           

Videos can also serve as “a great teaching tool for the history of dance and the changing of styles,” says Linda R. Kalnen, an instructor at Southeast Dance Academy in Wilmington, NC. “The studios I’ve previously owned have found movies and video to be useful tools. A picture tells a million unspoken words.”

Bettijane Grey-Robinson, director of Commonwealth Dance Academy in Walpole, MA, believes that dance videos can also help students relate to their peers in other parts of the world. “A good movie for preteens and teens interested in serious ballet is The Children of Theatre Street,” she says. “It is about girls and boys accepted into the Leningrad ballet academy [Kirov] in Russia. Although it shows the dance students participating in formal ballet classes, it also shows them as real youngsters who sometimes are late to class, tease each other, get homesick, or have fun.”

In some cases, videos can help further a school’s mission as well. “We operate a grant-funded program for local schools called Express the Positive,” says Foote. “Our goal with this program is twofold: to introduce fine arts to students who may not otherwise have the opportunity to find out about them, and to build self-esteem and positive self-expression through the arts.”

Not all students will respond to all videos, of course, so it’s important to choose wisely and recognize when something isn’t working. Diane Abraham, a co-owner of the Dance Studio of Wakefield in Massachusetts, found that her students didn’t relate to Fame and found West Side Story too long.

Another concern is when to show the videos: Some teachers have a movie night, while others show videos during lunch breaks, before and after class, or in class. “I don’t want to take away from class time, where they need to build their technique,” says Jacobs, although she does feel compelled to make dance films available to her students. “If more dance movies were on TV, inspiring children to pursue the art form for its beauty, perhaps I wouldn’t feel the need to show them myself. The only problem I’ve encountered is some parents looking askance when they see my class sitting on the floor, watching a brief video on our classroom’s TV. I don’t see this as an issue, but I usually explain the what and why to them.”

Ultimately, when students (and parents) understand what can be gleaned from watching dance videos, everyone benefits. “Everything old is new again from a child’s perspective,” Foote says. “If it is in your possession and is age appropriate, they will watch, absorb, and enjoy.”

Dance Films Reference List

Here are some of the dance videos that studio owners across the country suggested for use in class, based on genre and age-appropriateness. We’ve added a few films for good measure. To add your favorites, email or write to Jeff Warzecha, Dance Studio Life, 10 South Washington St., Norton, MA 02766. 

Young dancers (up to age 6)
Angelina Ballerina
Any movie with Shirley Temple
Barbie in The Nutcracker
The Tales of Beatrix Potter
Any movie with The Wiggles
Mary Poppins
Zoe’s Dance Moves
Happy Feet

School-age children and preteens (7–12)
Give a Girl a Break
You Were Never Lovelier
Singin’ in the Rain
My Sister Eileen
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers

That’s Entertainment series
The Wizard of Oz
42nd Street
White Christmas
Busby Berkeley productions (Yankee Doodle Dandy, Gold Diggers of ’33, etc.)
The Children of Theatre Street

Center Stage
A Chorus Line
Step Up
Sweet Charity
White Nights
The Turning Point
Billy Elliot
Stomp the Yard
All That Jazz
Funny Face
An American in Paris
You Got Served
High School Musical
West Side Story
On the Town

Instructional/historical videos
The Nutcracker (various versions)
Company videos (Martha Graham, Mark Morris, Alvin Ailey, Paul Taylor, Gus Giordano, Savion Glover, ballet company videos)
Biography series
Ballets Russes

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