Variations on a Theme

Recital themes open up creative possibilities—and can be super fun for everyone

The Dance Center’s Monopoly recital theme presented endless creative possibilities. The game board inspired four railroad-themed dances, including “The Little Engine That Could” and “The Loco-Motion.”
Photo by Christopher Stockman

by Karen White

To theme or not to theme? Many studio educators ponder that question when recital planning time rolls around. Some believe recital themes are limiting and shy away, while others might feel their previous attempts at themes fell flat and weren’t worth the effort.

Dance Studio Life spoke to directors of three studios who believe recital themes open up possibilities for creative approaches to music, costuming, programs, and props that otherwise might have gone unexplored.

“I love having a theme. I have a little notebook where I write down all the different themes I come up with,” Barbi Calusdian, co-owner of The Dance Center, Dedham, Massachusetts, says. “I have themes planned out for the next few years—it’s a hobby of mine.”

“We try to select songs so that a 5-year-old brother or an 80-year-old grandma can follow the theme.” —Maria Pomerleau

Lake Area Dance Center owner Maria Pomerleau says she draws focus and direction for the coming year at her St. Paul, Minnesota, studio from her theme. “I know exactly what I need to do,” she says. The theme also serves as a common bond for her students, many of whom dance on different nights and only see each other once a year backstage at recital.

Lee Newman, dance director at Stouffville Academy of Music & Dance, Whitchurch-Stouffville, Ontario, Canada, agrees. “The kids think more like a team. They see that recital is a bigger production than just their class: they are one chapter of the story we are all creating for our audience,” says Newman, who runs the studio with her husband, Tom Carter. “They get excited about what the other kids are doing and how they all fit together.”

The recital’s opening number featured dancers clad in recital tees.
Photo by Melissa Cadman

A giant prop stood in for the “Top Hat” game piece.
Photo by Christopher Stockman

Here these studio owners share the whys, whats, and how-tos of their favorite themes.



Inspiration: After deciding on Monopoly, Calusdian hunted for musical selections that played off elements of the game board, such as boardwalks, railroads, electric (company), luxury (tax), houses, hotels, jail, money, and the board’s street names and game pieces; plus related concepts such as chance, game, “shake” (the dice), and winning.


Song hunt: Calusdian and the Dance Center teachers brainstorm songs using Spotify, plus The Green Book of Songs by Subject: The Thematic Guide to Popular Music, a reference catalog that lists more than 35,000 songs by subject, such as love, countries, animals, men, women, etc.


Song sampling: “Puttin’ on the Ritz”; “You Light Up My Life”; “This Old House”; “The Loco-Motion”; “The Little Engine That Could”; “Carolina in the Morning”; “Renegade”; “Jailhouse Rock”; “Under the Boardwalk”; “Pennsylvania Polka”; “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails”; “Take a Chance on Me”; “Drive My Car”; “Shake, Rattle, and Roll”; “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?”; “No Parking on the Dance Floor”; and “Shake Your Sillies Out.” A ballet class connected to Mediterranean Avenue by dancing to a Spanish-style instrumental, and the Dancing Dads performed to “Just a Gigolo” in a number called “Mr. Monopoly.” The finale was Abba’s “The Winner Takes It All.”


“Get out of jail free” cards were personified in a “Jailhouse Rock” dance.
Photo by Christopher Stockman

Setting up the story: The show opened with two dancers playing the game, then falling asleep, on the stage’s apron. The curtain opened to reveal the game “coming to life” as other students holding giant Monopoly money props danced to “Oh Yeah.”


Props: Oversized, painted foam prop replicas of game spaces, such as “Luxury Tax,” “Chance,” and the “Go” corner space, served as backdrops. Other props, such as an oversized thimble and wheelbarrow, plus a giant fiberglass top hat from a McDonald’s Playland that Calusdian had found years before discarded in the restaurant’s trash, set the stage during related dances.


The Perfect 10

Why this theme? It celebrated Lake Area Dance Center’s 10th anniversary.


Song sampling: Every song had some connection to a number, either through the title—“Land of 1,000 Dances,” “Three Little Kittens”—or within the lyrics—“Rock Around the Clock (one, two, three o’clock, four o’clock rock).” Other songs: “1999,” “1, 2, 3, 4,” “It Takes Two,” “Two Step,” “7 Years,” “Route 66,” “Zero to Hero.” “We try to select songs so that a 5-year-old brother or an 80-year-old grandma can follow the theme,” Pomerleau says.


Lake Area Dance Center’s 10th anniversary provided the impetus for The Perfect 10 recital theme. Songs featured numbers in either their title or lyrics, such as “Rock Around the Clock” (here).
Photo by Benjamin Zvan

Song hunt: Pomerleau thinks that searching for appropriate songs for different ages and classes through iTunes and Google exercises her creative muscles. Teaching assistants—who are always up to date on the hottest tunes—participate through a contest where the entries with the most song ideas and the most song ideas chosen for the recital both win gift cards. “I make the selections, but if I put it out there that I’m struggling to find a song for a group or level, my staff is also happy to help,” she says. “There’s lots of collaboration.”


Fun tie-ins: In-between voice-over announcements in the style of Dancing With the Stars MC Tom Bergeron and judge Len Goodman provided a through line for the recital and connected to the “perfect 10” idea. (DWTS acts are judged on a scale of 1 to 10.)

The idea of prerecorded themed announcements stems from Pomerleau’s first recital, when she needed to create time for her then-tiny student body to change costumes between back-to-back numbers. Scripted with a humorous touch, announcements are professionally recorded by two voice-over artists (a former teacher and her husband) and include the first names of the students in the next dance—who take the stage when they hear their names, keeping the show flowing smoothly.


The Perfect 10 kicked off with a production number called “The Countdown.”
Photo by Benjamin Zvan

Guessing game: Pomerleau announces her themes at Thanksgiving. Until then, students and families make guesses based on photos of each class’ costume (labeled with the dance’s name), which she hangs in the lobby. “I don’t totally lay it out—I’m pretty sneaky about it,” she says. The excitement continues with a social media contest where clients can vote for their favorite recital logo design.


Newman’s Café

Idea impetus: Costume trends often serve as inspiration for Stouffville Academy’s recital themes, but it was a song—“Food, Glorious Food” from the musical Oliver!—that sparked the idea for Newman’s Café. “There’s so much energy in that song,” Carter says. “We knew it would be a great way to open a show.”


“Three Little Kittens” in The Perfect 10.
Photo by Benjamin Zvan

Why a theme? Newman says themes with a narrative or easily grasped concept engage audience members, expose students to unfamiliar music, and encourage teachers to look beyond their comfort zone for songs and concepts.


Song hunt: Faculty and students are welcome to make suggestions, but the couple usually finds songs by searching applicable words online and looking through their iTunes catalog—so much easier, Carter says, than scouring used record stores for appropriate titles, as they used to do.


Costumes: Costumes don’t have to be literal representations to effectively communicate a theme. For the dance number “Popcorn,” students wore red-and-white-striped skirts and white, puffy-sleeved blouses to mimic an old-fashioned movie theater popcorn container. Period swing costumes created the feel of a ’30s malt shop for “Rootbeer & Licorice.” “We would never put a dancer in a hot dog costume,” Carter says. “Students, especially the young kids, have certain expectations of what a dance costume is.”


“It Takes Two” in The Perfect 10.
Photo by Benjamin Zvan

Fun tie-ins: All Stouffville Academy recital programs and tickets play off the show’s theme—a passport (program) and boarding passes (tickets) for Around the World, for example. The Newman’s Café program/tickets resembled an old-fashioned diner menu and the check. Carter creates the designs in Illustrator and Photoshop, then has items professionally printed.


A closely guarded secret: Parents and students eagerly turn to the back page of the recital program—that’s when they’ll learn what the following year’s theme will be. Because the reveal has become such a big deal, Carter says, “there is no turning back” from a theme that doesn’t work. “We have to go into each announcement confident that we can find the music and costumes we’ll need.”


Advice: Select themes with a narrative, timeline, or concept. For Newman’s Café, all dances corresponded to various meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert, and drinks). Everyone knows different songs—or has different tastes in music—“but if you are moving a story along, people are generally OK with it,” Newman says. “If we can engage them in the story, they will want to watch other dances—not just the dances featuring their children.”


DSL editor in chief Karen White, a former newspaper reporter and freelance writer, has taught dance in private studios and choreographed musicals since age 17 and has no plans to stop.