Streamlining recitals for everyone’s benefit
by Joseph Carman
A recital that feels longer than Wagner’s operatic Ring Cycle would make anyone want to sprint for the exits. Regrettably, many dance studio owners have learned that lesson the hard way. Poorly planned transitions between numbers, backstage chaos, vanishing dancers, sound glitches, and adherence to the impossible idea that all of a studio’s numbers could fit in one show conspire to create a long and winding road to the final curtain.
“Our shows were getting to be about three and a half hours,” says Natalie Bass Meyers, owner-director of the Academy of Christian Arts, which serves 320 students at locations in Scott and Layafette, Louisiana. “Nobody wants to sit through hours upon hours of a recital. We found that through the overall experience, people were sharp and impatient.” So she started producing much shorter shows. “Ultimately we did it for crowd pleasing,” she adds. “Everyone loved it. I’ve had not one complaint.”
That concept sounds smashing. But how do you abbreviate stage time and still showcase all your students? Won’t someone get shortchanged? And isn’t the recital what kids have been working toward all winter and spring to put their best feet forward? Some levelheaded dance studio owners have shared their thoughts and wisdom on shaping leaner, cleaner recitals.
“We achieve our time goal by being a well-oiled machine backstage with volunteers who have dancers lined up ahead of time and ready to get on the stage.” —Deena Roming
Family-friendly formatting matters
Among the most popular recital templates are those featuring preschoolers in their own mini-recitals. When Shawna Storm Seale, owner of Footnotes Dance & Fitness, opened her studio in Lewiston, Idaho, nine years ago, she had only 60 students and the recital presented no problems. She decided four years ago, after enrollment increased (she now has 270 students) to put the kids under age 6 in their own short recitals.
“Now we have five mini-recitals with 8 to 10 dances [each],” she says. “The parents like it because the show lasts 35 minutes and then they’re done. We present them on the hour, so people can leave and then the next round of people comes in.” She also foregoes dress rehearsals for these shows, so that restless children aren’t sitting backstage for long periods while others perform.
To help parents understand what their youngsters are working toward, each mini-recital includes one dance from an older group of students. For her non-preschool students, Seale presents one comprehensive recital, roughly two hours long, without intermission.
For both of her studios, Meyers produces four recitals on one day, including two for preschoolers that run an hour and 15 minutes each and feature 24 dances per show. Each preschooler number is limited to 2 minutes and 30 seconds. Initially, Meyers wondered who would want to sit through an hour and 15 minutes of preschoolers. But there were plenty of takers. “People with preschoolers don’t mind at all,” she says, because those parents seldom come expecting a professional show. The consensus: generally parents with preschoolers are there to see their own kids and other preschoolers in a short recital.
Shawna Storm Seale decided four years ago, after enrollment increased, to put the kids under age 6 in their own short recitals.
Each of Meyers’ recitals is color-coded, from orange to blue, to prevent confusion. “We found people remember colors better than numbers, letters, or a class name,” she says. “Their recital tickets are also that color.”
Additionally, divvying up the recitals means there is no trouble fitting family and friends into the 1,600-seat auditorium for the show they want to see. “With four shows, the most people we have [per show] is 1,000, so we’ve got 600 seats to spare,” she says. “When I had the limited seating issue, it was stressful for people, especially with Aunt Sue on the waiting list.”
Each of Meyer’s four recitals features the academy’s 20-member dance competition team at the top of the show. When they’re done, says Meyers, “Guess what they can do? Help with the little kids backstage!” Assigning competition kids that task gives them a sense of responsibility and teaches them how to work backstage. “I sold it to the parents as a bigger learning experience for those kids. No one complained,” she says.
At In Motion Dance Center in Martinez, California, owner/director Deena Roming managed 430 students at her last recital showcase in June. Like other directors, she has chosen for the last 12 years to produce five smaller recitals in one day as opposed to one sprawling show. Each group recital lasts around an hour; they run every two hours, with the first beginning at 9 a.m. and the last starting at 5 p.m. This allows audiences and students to enter and exit on time.
Nonetheless, Roming has her own divide-and-conquer style: she presents a cross-section of all her students, ages 2 and a half to 18, in each recital, and spends hours coordinating siblings and families. “Our software, Studio Director, allows us to run reports and have sibling lists at our fingertips,” says Roming. “I then try and distribute [siblings] into the same show. I can never accommodate every family, but I can for the majority.”
“Nobody wants to sit through hours upon hours of a recital.” —Natalie Bass Meyers
The 70 In Motion Dance Center competition team kids perform both competition routines and numbers from regular technique classes. All the competition team members kick-start the five shows by dancing the opening number. Roming doesn’t allow time-eating solos in the recital, opting only for group numbers.
However Faith Price, owner of Grace Arts in North Chesterfield, Virginia, makes an allowance for the competition team. “We do have solos, duos, and trios for the competition kids, but we assign those to one show only,” she says. That show, however, still includes other dancers. With 450 students in total, she features three shows with mixed age groups at 90 minutes each. The competition team performs the same opening and finale number at each show.
Backstage logistics—who’s on first?
Just as real estate is all about location, recitals are all about planning.
“We achieve our time goal by being a well-oiled machine backstage with volunteers who have dancers lined up ahead of time and ready to get on the stage,” says Roming. “My crew orchestrates every detail, from prerecorded music and intros to ushers making sure everyone is seated five minutes before showtime so we can start on time. I have a schedule to keep to.” Her backstage team is on headsets with her throughout the show, to keep the communication smooth and the timing tightly managed. As part of the competition team’s obligations, at least one parent of a competition dancer is required to volunteer backstage or behind the scenes.
Conversely, Meyers has no dance moms backstage. “We love our moms, so it has nothing to do with that,” she says. “But my feeling is, you guys paid for your kids’ dance education. We want you to sit and enjoy the show.” And the competition kids do the heavy lifting.
“We do have solos, duos, and trios for the competition kids, but we assign those to one show only.” —Faith Price
With long recitals, Meyers found that the most stressful aspect of dressing room organization wasn’t changing the younger kids in and out of costumes, but keeping them entertained. “That went away when we shortened the show,” she says. “They have no idle time. They go dance, come undress, re-dress, and then go home.”
Seale’s dance instructors work backstage at her shows, aided by some parents. The teachers, who have specific divisions of labor, keep lists with the dancers’ names and pictures of the costumes for each number. Because the recital is located in a high school auditorium, the changing area is in the cafeteria behind the stage. Each group is assigned to a table for organizational clarity.
Meyers, who acts as primary stage manager at her recitals, hands each member of her backstage staff a two-sheet template with comprehensive information about the show’s routines. She also uses glow-in-the-dark numbers onstage so kids can quickly find their designated spots—even the 3-year-olds. “They’ve had those numbers all year in the classroom, so the kids know what number they start on,” she says. “They come out of the dressing room in that order.” The average time for a blackout is five to eight seconds, allowing one group to leave and the next group to take its place.
That’s the ticket
Some studio owners, like Roming, sell advance tickets online for reserved seating. “General admission didn’t work for us,” she says. “We had families that stood in line for hours waiting to enter the theater to get the best seats.” Studios sometimes sell tickets both in advance and at the door. Other studio directors, like Seale, don’t charge for tickets at all. No matter the method, it’s important to make sure there are enough front-of-house volunteers to answer questions and direct traffic.
Producing a successfully succinct recital doesn’t mean chopping it like a bad haircut. It does entail planning. But with preparation and thought, recitals can make most everyone happy—and certainly less impatient.
Designing just the right recital for clients can take years of experience. The studio owners we spoke with shared what has worked for them:
- Don’t try to please everyone, and don’t allow parents to dictate how recitals are run. “I have learned that I understand the needs of my clients and do what is best for the majority,” says Roming. “I do not let someone’s specific needs trump those of everyone else.”
- Find a theme that makes the recital feel more cohesive and that helps viewers feel as though time is flying by. Seale has her musical theater class put on short skits throughout the recital. Past themes have included British music artists and The Wizard of Oz. “We tie things together so there is a little story running through it,” she says. “It makes it more entertaining and bearable for some people.”
- Do preschoolers’ grooming at home. “We don’t think it’s important at that age whether they have a ponytail or a bun,” says Meyers. “They [just] come with hair and makeup done.”
- Don’t focus on showcasing all your favorite numbers. “The parents aren’t really there to see the best of what you have—they’re there to see their kids,” advises Price. “So instead of prioritizing the flashy numbers, just make sure everyone is seen equally.”
- Remember that the recital is part of your business. “We need to remember to balance our artistic creativity and love of children and dance with a solid business foundation,” says Roming. “That balance is key for a successful event.”
Former American Ballet Theatre dancer Joseph Carman writes about the performing arts for numerous publications. He received a BA in journalism from The New School in New York City and lives in Palm Springs, California.