October 2013 | Seamless Show Strategies

Photo by Paul Antico

Photo by Paul Antico

Planning and running a tight show
By Ryan P. Casey

For many dance teachers, the greatest reward at recital time is seeing the infectious grins of their students as they show off a year’s worth of hard work. But the fact that the performers are enjoying themselves does not mean that audience members are equally delighted. Even the most enthusiastic dancers and dynamic choreography lose their charm when viewers spend too much time in their seats. What should be an entertaining, high-energy event can become a disjointed, four-hour affair with parents questioning the tuition they pay and relatives constantly glancing at their watches.

A two-hour recital is perfect. Three hours is the maximum that any human can take. —Michele Ribble

A recital is a complicated and stressful undertaking, no matter how many years you’ve been in business. Yet it is a significant event and achievement. Your students and their families and friends deserve to be treated to a high-quality production, one that demonstrates the professionalism and integrity with which you run your studio, and leaves your customers and audience wanting more. Many dance studio owners have developed strategies to ensure such memorable, seamless performances.

Tell a story

A smooth backstage system in which everyone at everybody dance! has a specific job allows the onstage production to soar. Photo by Paul Antico

When planning your recital, “having a theme or storyline to follow makes the experience more engaging for the audience,” says Carol Zee, 42, artistic director of The Gabriella Foundation. Since 2005, this nonprofit organization has operated dance-themed Gabriella Charter School in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. These students, from kindergarten through eighth grade, have an hour of dance every day and perform in their own year-end recital.

For 14 years, the Foundation has also delivered high-quality dance education to underserved Los Angeles youth through a separate, afterschool program, everybody dance!, in several locations throughout the city. Last season, the program’s annual performance, based on The Wizard of Oz, included more than 500 dancers.

“The audience enjoys watching a story unfold, and the students like knowing they are playing a specific part in the show,” Zee says.

“It’s important that the audience is familiar with the story, which contributes to their enjoyment and keeps their attention,” says Cheryl Cusick, 47, the owner and artistic director of Narragansett Performing Arts Center in Narragansett, Rhode Island, for 22 years. Integrating students from both recreational and career-oriented programs, she develops her recitals around a well-known tale such as Peter Pan, The Lion King, or Cinderella.

“The first half of our show is a rendition of that story,” Cusick says. “Our older company dancers are cast as the main characters. They often work with our youngest dancers during their classes and perform as a part of their routine. These lead roles tie each scene together as the story progresses. The second half is based on the theme, but not in a story format, allowing teachers to come up with eclectic and contemporary pieces to a variety of song selections.”


Recitals at Rhinebeck Dance Centre are designed with a “perfect” running time of two hours in mind. Photo by Kathy Cassens

Cusick says having young dancers perform early in the show is ideal. “They can arrive and leave early, which makes it easier for them and their parents,” she says. “If I do have a younger age group in the second half of the show, they are always within a few numbers of intermission, so it remains an early night for them.”

Zee, who incorporates more than 400 Gabriella students into annual recitals, also accommodates young dancers by putting them in fewer performances.

“Our pre-ballet and level-one students dance in only one performance, while the other students dance in all four shows,” she says. “This gives our more advanced kids additional performance experience and keeps the baby/beginner dances to a minimum. They’re cute, but the audience doesn’t need to see 10 ‘baby’ routines over the course of a night.”

Brandon Rios, artistic director of Old Dominion Performance Arts Studio in Waynesboro, Virginia, notes that interspersing various disciplines is as important as alternating age groups and levels. Old Dominion is in its 14th season; it offers dance and martial arts instruction to about 150 students.

“Keep the show as varied, dynamic, and entertaining as possible,” says Rios, 29. “Jazz, lyrical, hip-hop, contemporary, tap, babies, competition—switch it up. This also helps with quick changes. The studio director and I often make a spreadsheet of who is in what dance, cut it into strips, and lay them out to ensure that there are enough dances to accommodate costume changes. These rosters allow us to see who is in each dance and make sure they have minimal back-to-back pieces.”

Jennifer Prete, 43, who has run Jennifer Prete School of Dance in Charlestown, Rhode Island, for 13 years, also considers costuming and undergarments when determining the order of her show. “I make sure tights can be layered on the dancers,” she says. “Pink tights for ballet are on top and light suntan tights for jazz are underneath, for instance, which makes it easier for the people who help them change.”

“We always have big opening and closing numbers for the shows,” says 39-year-old Nancy Stanford, the owner, director, and sole instructor at Nancy Stanford School of Dance. Located in Clarenville, Newfoundland, Canada, the school has offered recreational classes since 1999. “This gives the show a true ‘performance’ feel and anchors everything,” Stanford says.

Backstage flow

Vital to presenting a polished, professional-looking show is securing adequate backstage assistance. Staff and volunteers can help with quick changes, organize groups, supervise dressing rooms, and do other tasks to keep the show moving along.

“I have a runner who gets my groups lined up in the hallway four or five groups ahead,” says Prete. “Stage managers have lists with children’s names, or each child is designated a number so they can get in order. Younger students hold hands while they’re waiting so they stay in line.”

“Have specific backstage jobs for your staff: stage manager, on-deck supervisor, quick-change supervisor, stage left headset, stage right headset, dressing room monitors,” Zee says. “Make sure you have enough headsets for all key people so everyone can stay in communication throughout the show.”

“Your helpers backstage and in the dressing rooms should not be related to the performers,” says Michele Ribble, 56, artistic and executive director of Red Hook, New York’s Rhinebeck Dance Centre. “Students can act up in front of their parents, and parents can fuss excessively over their children and worry about watching them onstage rather than helping them get ready. An outsider who doesn’t have a personal relationship with the dancers can keep them focused on what they need to do.”

“Having a lot of experienced backstage volunteers is critical,” says Prete, 43. “They should get memos and checklists ahead of time so they know the groups they are in charge of and what the costumes look like, where accessories go, and what color tights are to be worn.”

“Our students have 90 seconds between classes to change their shoes and be ready for the next class,” says Rios. “If they can get in the habit of changing quickly at the studio, they will be able to do it come performance day.”

“Take time to teach your students, especially younger ones, how to preset their props, complete quick changes, and behave backstage,” Zee says. “They should know to stay focused on what’s happening onstage, to stay clear of the wings and out of the way of dancers who are exiting, and to be mindful of the space around them, because it’s dark.”

Onstage flow

Experienced backstage helpers ensure that Jennifer Prete School of Dance performers have their accessories in hand – or on their heads. Photo by Catherine Smith Johnson/The Artistic Edge

Keeping everything flowing onstage is as important as a smooth-running backstage operation. Too many pauses or speeches between numbers or long breaks for set changes impede the momentum of the show and make audiences restless.

“As one group is exiting, the next is entering,” Zee says. “I require all dances to enter from stage right and exit stage left. The curtain doesn’t open or close once the show starts. You have to keep it moving.”

“I suggest blackouts between numbers,” Cusick says. “I only use curtains prior to a large ballet piece or a routine requiring a set of any kind.”

“I run smaller group routines in front of the curtain while my stage manager presets the next act, a larger group, behind it,” Prete says.

“Our teachers often have their routines enter during the last eight counts of the previous song, either walking on or doing choreography,” Rios says. “The dancers who just finished exit to the beginning of the next tune, which minimizes the need for blackouts.”

When there are many students and routines to include, maintaining smooth transitions from one number to the next helps to minimize the show’s length. “Have a time limit for each dance,” Zee says. “For beginner or younger students, no more than two or two and a half minutes. For older and more advanced dancers, three to three and a half minutes maximum.”

“I don’t allow all my team pieces in the show, although I will allow one piece that represents each company or ensemble,” Ribble says. “A two-hour recital is perfect. Three hours is the maximum that any human can take.”

Experience pays off

These dance studio directors agree that experience, and the sometimes difficult lessons learned by trial and error, have been their best teachers.

“We’ve changed venues over the years,” says Cusick. “We’ve attempted to put on a production at local high schools, but found that although it was more convenient travel-wise, we gave up some of the professional quality we pride ourselves on. We’ve opted to stay at our college theater, 40 minutes away—and it’s air-conditioned! There is nothing worse than melting through a show for two or three hours; people can’t wait to leave.”

“We got a very positive response when we shifted our productions into storytelling mode,” Zee says. “The audience has more enjoyment if they’re watching a story unfold.”

“Often, I will invite a guest group or other local artists to perform in my show,” says Ribble. “The dads in the audience especially appreciate a different twist, such as fencers or karate students, and it’s great entertainment. We once invited the West Point Academy Cadets to do a drill, and a belly dancer once brought snakes!”

“Although I think it’s important to change with the times, it’s just as important to acknowledge when something works,” Cusick adds. “Consistency works well; people appreciate knowing what to expect from year to year. A professional performance is your best marketing tool.”