Performing Outside the Box

To keep the focus on technique, students forgo costumes at the Asheville Academy of Ballet and Contemporary Dance’s annual spring showcase.
Photo by Chris Cooley

Year-end alternatives to the traditional dance recital

by Bonner Odell

Annual dance recitals are near-sacred rituals in the dance world. They’re milestones for young dancers—opportunities to showcase their progress, work with their classmates as a team, and hone their performance skills. But recitals can also be stressful and expensive for studio staff and families alike. For studios, the full-scale version usually requires renting a costly theater, choreographing dozens of separate dances for each class, and selecting and ordering hundreds of costumes. Families must process lengthy information packets and reminder emails, pay costume fees (often several if their child is in more than one dance), and navigate the pressure to purchase recital products that can quickly add up. (“But Mom, all of the other dancers ordered recital pictures/T-shirts/DVDs/flowers!”)

In the interest of sharing alternative formats that still meet student performance goals, Dance Studio Life spoke with three schools that have crafted end-of-the-year events to impress without the stress.

“The students know they will have fun learning a dance and not have the stress that might be part of a big production.” —Annette Pettigrew

Asheville Academy of Ballet and Contemporary Dance, Asheville, North Carolina

This 60-year old institution in the Blue Ridge Mountains holds an annual all-ages spring showcase that lasts just one hour. Academy owner and CEO Ann Dunn has never been keen on the traditional recital and all of its trappings, but, she says, she does enjoy “the idea of showcasing the accomplishments, sweetness, and brilliance of the students in an annual communal gathering to remind us all where we started when we were 3, where we ended up by graduation, and the way in which we are a community.”

Instead of a traditional recital, Shawl-Anderson Dance Center students ages 7 to 9 perform in small shows at the studio.
Photo by Brian Smith

The performance starts with Creative Movement students ages 3 to 6, then progresses through each level of ballet up through pointe. Modern, tap, and jazz classes follow by level. Each piece runs just 90 seconds or less and demonstrates what the students have been learning in class. Students do not work on the recital pieces until the end of the year, when the showcase dance becomes the center-floor part of class. Participation in the showcase is voluntary, so students who choose not to participate still receive a full class. Senior solos, rehearsed outside of class time, are scattered throughout the event, and the only bow is at the end, when the whole studio dances onto the stage.

Village Dance Studio puts on a full-scale recital every other year and a much less formal showcase of classes on the off years. Participation in either event is optional.
Photo by Traci Broman

To keep the showcase focused on technique, students do not wear costumes, with the exception of senior soloists. Female ballet students wear black leotards and wraparound skirts; their male counterparts wear black tights and white T-shirts. Modern students wear all black. Occasionally, teachers will opt to add a headpiece to the standard attire. Dunn’s approach to costuming is influenced by her studies with George Balanchine, Martha Graham, and Merce Cunningham in the 1960s. “The time for costumes was not the annual studio showcase but was, rather, professional performances for which costumes were designed,” she says.

Parent Laura Sturgill finds the approach refreshing. “You are able to see the progress your child is making, because they are wearing classic dance clothes that allow you to see how their bodies are moving,” she says. “Sometimes extravagant costuming is what catches your eye instead of the dance itself. Having moved here from other studios, we have a closet full of costumes that were worn only once.”

Pared down though they may be, the performances still elicit emotion, Dunn says: “Our [showcase] is a simple, yet joyful, celebration of our students’ year-long work. I am 70 years old and have been teaching since 1964. I still cry every year when I see the pride, delight, discipline, beauty, strength, and grace these young people demonstrate. They fill my heart and break my heart at the same time.”

“It is not about perfection, but a celebration and a giving back to those who have supported them in their dance classes.” —Katie Kruger

Village Dance Studio, Whitestown, Indiana

This mother-daughter enterprise, which has been in business for 39 years, puts on a full-scale recital every other year and a much less formal showcase of classes on the off years. Participation in either event is optional. Enrollment numbers are comparable, with both events typically featuring between 200 and 250 students in ballet, tap, hip-hop, jazz, modern, pointe, creative dance, tumbling, and music and movement for 3- and 4-year-olds.

In a studio adjoining the classroom where the school’s small shows are held, Shawl-Anderson Ballet 1 students prepare to perform; most of their costumes are hand-made by teachers or teen dancers.
Photo by Brian Smith

“The reason for not doing a big recital every year,” says studio founder Annette Pettigrew, “is that the dance technique is so important, and to take class time to rehearse a dance means often the technique suffers.” The approach appears to be working; Pettigrew estimates that more than 20 Village Dance students have been accepted into college dance programs since its founding, and at least a dozen have received dance scholarships.

The off-year showcase takes place at a local high school theater (where the biannual recital is also held), but has no dress rehearsals, special lighting, or scenery changes. Dancers participate in one of three showcase performances over the course of a Saturday. All dance genres are showcased in each of the three performances. The first two last an hour each, and feature mostly dancers under 12, with a few pieces by older ensemble dancers to show the younger students what’s possible with further training. The third performance is for dancers 12 to 18 and lasts an hour and a half.

The studio provides simple costumes that may be used twice by classes in the same genre at different show times, and tickets cost only $10.

For the staff, says Pettigrew, preparing for the May showcase takes about a fourth of the class time after January to work on a simple dance. Sometimes the teacher or the assistant leads the dance onstage for younger students. “The students know they will have fun learning a dance and not have the stress that might be part of a big production,” she says.

“Sometimes extravagant costuming is what catches your eye instead of the dance itself.” —Laura Sturgill

Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, Berkeley, California

Asheville Academy’s showcase celebrates students’ dance accomplishments.
Photo by Traci Broman

The founders of this 59-year-old Berkeley institution, Victor Anderson and Frank Shawl, felt that the goal of dance education was to build technique and creativity without the distraction of performance pressures. “The students are considered to be in training,” says youth program director Katie Kruger. “But because dance is a performance art, there is a place for performances and learning how to be a part of them. This idea lends itself to our tiered approach by age.”

The school runs programs in ballet, modern, hip-hop, and contemporary jazz for approximately 550 students. For its youngest dancers, ages 2 to 6, the school holds an open class on the last day of the semester, with the teacher explaining the goal of each exercise. “Performing in the studio eliminates the need for younger students to add theater-level backstage etiquette to all the other new things they are learning,” says Kruger. “They are often just as nervous or excited for these open classes as the older kids are for the stage.”

Students ages 7 to 9 perform in one of two small shows at the studio: the staff creates a white-box look with 12 hanging theater lights connected to a simple light board and curtains drawn over the mirrors. Viewers sit in folding chairs, and the students use the studio next door as their greenroom. The teacher works with the students to create a dance using combinations from class as well as their own movement, and speaks before each show. Each dancer is allowed to invite two audience members, and no tickets are required.

The Village Dance showcase and recital each feature 200 to 250 students.
Photo by Chris Cooley

Students ages 10 and up perform in a theater at a nearby college. This event resembles a more traditional recital with three 60-minute shows of 11 classes each, spread over the course of a Saturday. “It is not about perfection, but a celebration and a giving back to those who have supported them in their dance classes,” Kruger says. “The students learn how to dance onstage with a cyclorama, wings, [and] lights; how to be backstage; listen to a stage manager; share a dressing room; prepare costumes and makeup; and how to bow properly.” The school’s Youth Ensemble and advanced teen classes hold their own separate 90-minute performance at the theater on different days.

Costumes for all ages are made or compiled by the studio or the families. Some classes hold a costume-making day to paint shirts or creatively cut skirts; others have students bring clothes from their closets in keeping with a unifying theme. Most of the costumes for the 7- to 9- year-old ballet students are handmade by teachers or volunteer teen dancers. “In an urban community like ours with vast socioeconomic differences,” says parent Lisa Rinella, “it’s a respectful and inclusive decision not to require the dancers to purchase anything.”

All three of the schools offer additional performance opportunities throughout the year, ranging from young choreographer nights to nursing home performances to fall showcases. Clearly, when it comes to pairing budding dancers with audiences, the possibilities are only as limited as one’s imagination. And dance educators are in no short supply of that.


Bonner Odell has served as editor of In Dance, a lecturer at California State University–East Bay, and a teaching artist for Luna Dance Institute. She holds an MA in dance from Mills College.