Jazz pants, warm-ups, leotards and sweatpants—the dancer’s everyday uniform is designed for ultimate comfort in class. Onstage, however, all bets are off. From a very young age, dancers learn all about the annoyances of itchy straps and pokey sequins. As your students progress in their training, they may be asked to perform in complex costumes that require special preparation, whether they’re working with contemporary choreographers in college, or dancing in your annual recital.

To help you prepare them for the challenges ahead, DT talked to Karin von Aroldingen, ballet mistress and former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet; Elizabeth Auclair, principal dancer with Martha Graham Dance Company; and Trey McIntyre, artistic director of Trey McIntyre Project, to find out how they coach dancers to adapt to the challenges of unwieldy designs and use them to enhance their performance instead. The following tips and ideas hold true for all performers—those dressed to the nines or dancing in nothing at all.

Tip 1: Start early. If you envision complex costumes for your piece, meet early and regularly with your costume designer to develop a common vision, discuss concepts and begin sketching out ideas before you set the dance. Be sure to keep each other apprised of changes along the way. McIntyre, who has created works for Houston Ballet, Stuttgart Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, among others, says, “You have to make certain you’re on the same page with the designer from the start.”

Tip 2: Create a prototype. Ask the designer to make a rough version of a major costume piece as early in the rehearsal process as possible. The choreographer and dancer can begin working with the piece as dance phrases are forming, and the designer can troubleshoot the construction of the final design. This way, if you’re planning for a series of grande battements, your dancers aren’t caught in tight pencil skirts—unless restricted movement is the flavor of the piece.

Tip 3: Develop a partnership with the garment. Dancers often compare the experience of working with complex
costume pieces to developing a relationship. “As the Siren in [Balanchine’s] Prodigal Son, I came to see that long velvet train as a partner,” notes von Aroldingen. “Learning the way the fabric moves, and how its weight shifts as you become wrapped up in it, is much like learning the way someone else dances with you.”

Auclair had a similar experience learning to dance in her 15-yard, 10-pound skirt in the solo Specter–1914, the opening section of Graham’s Sketches from Chronicle. “I realized that I am really dancing a duet with this skirt,” she recalls. “I had to study the way the fabric reacted to movements I’d initiate and allow it to respond in its own natural way.”

Tip 4: Observe and respond. Dancers can begin working with a new (or existing) costume piece in much the same way as they would start a conversation: Initiate a series of movements in the costume and see how the material reacts. Then begin a dialogue with the fabric to determine a sense of its “personality,” and an idea of how various movements and dynamics elicit the desired reactions.

Choreographers and designers should participate in this process in order to make observations from the outside that the dancer can’t see. This will help determine if adjustments are needed to the piece’s construction, or if slight changes to the movement might be helpful.

Tip 5: Help foster ownership of the garment. Costuming should give dancers a sense that they are wearing something that their character might own, rather than something someone else has put on them. This approach lends a more organic feel to dancers’ relationships to their costumes—and allows them to treat the costumes as extensions of the characters.

McIntyre helped one of his dancers make this connection: “Alison Roper, who dances the personification of Death in my piece Go Out, had trouble adjusting to changes in the second version of her dress [after working with a prototype],” he says. “When I suggested to her that the struggles she was having with the dress were a part of her character, something clicked. She began to see that long billowy skirt, and the power and force of the bodice, as physical manifestations of the internal conflict—Death seeing how fragile and precious life is, but [feeling] conflicted because it’s her job to end it. Alison then started using the dress in new ways that conveyed both how brutal and horrific Death is, but also how tender and almost motherly it can be sometimes, too. That all added dimension and personality.”

McIntyre went through a similar experience himself in collaboration with renowned designer Michael Curry, who created a skirt made of bamboo rods for McIntyre’s Spirits. The piece didn’t really start to take on a life of its own, he says, “until I could connect with the costume as a part of myself, and speak through it to explore the images of spirituality and dreams that were the motivators for the work.”

Tip 6: Take time to explore. It’s easy to think that simply because one dancer has worked with a costume that another dancer can just step into it and use it the same way—especially if the former dancer has been doing the role for years. Yet it’s not that simple. Leave plenty of time for new dancers to explore working with a costume piece that has already been created for an existing role.

“When I’ve learned roles like Spectre and Lamentation in the past, I’ve had great coaches who’ve helped me understand how they worked with those costumes,” says Auclair. “I’ve also had the luxury of watching them perform these works over a number of years, and had plenty of time to work with the costumes before going onstage.”

That’s not the case currently as she prepares to premiere in “Medea’s Dance of Vengeance” in Cave of the Heart this fall. “I’ve had much less time to work with the spider dress that Isamu Noguchi made for Medea. I’ll get coaching, and from there, I’ll have to trust that watching those dancers before me was great instruction—seeing the way they worked with the piece and how they allowed it to inform their character.”

Tip 7: Pass on knowledge. Coaching from a dancer who has already performed a work is often key in helping a new performer figure out how to work with tricky costume pieces. When teaching the Siren’s role to new ballerinas, von Aroldingen says, “There are always questions, but you can’t really tell someone how that train works. You can’t tell them how to use it in becoming the character. You have to demonstrate—sometimes many times.” This relationship is essential in order for the new dancer to be able to operate the costume in a manner that is faithful to the original choreography, and doesn’t detract from the movement phrasing set by the choreographer.

“Mr. Balanchine always knew that we would find the way that was right for us to do a role while remaining honest to the choreography,” von
Aroldingen remembers. “He gave us that room, and while I may demonstrate something a number of times, eventually I let the dancer have room and time to figure it out for herself.” And, she notes, “You’ve never learned all there is to know about a costume or the character. I’m still learning.

Eventually, after you’ve performed something long enough, you start to understand. You start to feel like it’s right. That’s when you know you’re getting there.” DT

Joshua Legg is a technique instructor and rehearsal director for Harvard University’s Dance Program. He holds an MFA in dance choreography and performance from Shenandoah University.


Many dance company directors panic when considering grant applications, certain that there’s some secret everyone else knows about the best way to get funds. The truth is, there is no great secret. The most successful grantseekers win grants because they incorporate grant applications into their annual strategic funding plan, and they realize that a methodical approach to grantsmanship actually helps them build a stronger, more stable dance company. Not only is that an exciting prospect, it’s a fairly easy one to achieve. With a little patience and elbow grease, you’ll find grantmakers who will fund new choreographic projects, community outreach programs, collaborations with musicians and visual artists, and sometimes even facility expansions—it just depends on their mission.

Get Organized

Too frequently, company administrators think about grants at the last minute—just before the deadline—and then go into a frenzy trying to complete and submit a proposal in time. Before you start looking for your first grant, make sure you do the following: First, find a fiscal sponsor. If your company does not have IRS 501(c)(3) status, most foundations require that you form an affiliation with an organization that does. There are numerous arts organizations nationwide that will act as fiscal sponsors for both companies and individuals; these organizations generally require a written agreement and charge a small fee (usually no more than five percent of any funds they accept on your behalf).

To find a fiscal sponsor, start by contacting larger regional grantmakers or arts organizations. Chances are good that if they don’t regularly act as fiscal sponsors, they know of an organization that might be interested in working with you in your area. When you find potential sponsors, interview them and see what kinds of mentoring or assisting they can offer you. Don’t be afraid to shop around for an organization that is interested in your success. Some organizations see this relationship as an opportunity to help strengthen your dance company (or individual career) as well as the arts in general by helping you make smarter business decisions. Once you have secured a sponsor, keep copies of your affiliation agreements or 501(c)(3) letters handy, as grantmakers will want to see these.

You will also need to keep detailed files and records with all of your financial and administrative information. For example, maintain up-to-date records of expenditures and adjust your budget as you bring in new funds or encounter unexpected shortfalls. Be sure to have copies of your IRS 990 forms handy in case grantmakers want to see them, too. In terms of administrative paperwork, there are several areas that you need to have covered:

-Keep updated bios of anyone associated with your dance company, from board members to office staff and dancers. As you experience resignations or hire new employees and board members, update the bio files immediately. Also, it’s important to keep track of the ethnic and gender diversity among your board members, office staff and dancers, so that you have that information available if a grantmaking foundation inquires.

-Build a portfolio and/or an archive by maintaining extra copies of performance programs, photographs, videotapes and press clippings or reviews.

-Start a calendar that includes all of your performance and board meeting dates and any other significant dates for your company. Then, add grant application due dates and site visit dates (if a grantmaker wants to visit you). If you receive a grant, be sure to add due dates for any final reports required by the grantmaker.

-Designate a grants manager and ensure that the individual has regular access to copies of all of the documents listed above. One of the biggest problems grantseekers often encounter is tracking down this basic information at the last minute, which can cause more stress than any other part of the application process (except, of course, for waiting for an answer to your request for funds).

Do Your Homework

Now, the question is: Where can you find grant-giving organizations? There is an incredible array of grant foundations across the U.S., and a wealth of resources available to help you find the right one. Some of those resources are costly, but colleges and larger public libraries often have subscriptions to grantmaker databases, publications and related books. Check these locations before buying or subscribing to anything.

The internet is an invaluable tool for grantseekers, with hundreds of sites offering information on grantsmanship and specific grantmakers. Most major foundations, and many regional or local ones, have their own websites. Visit those sites and see what the organization says about itself. Read the mission statement, funding priorities, annual reports and lists of past grant recipients to see if your program seems compatible with the grantmaker’s interests. Most grantmakers also make grant guidelines and applications available on their websites.

Once you have pinpointed several possibilities, see if any of your colleagues have dealt with those organizations and ask about their experiences. While such foundations are there to help the arts thrive, some are much easier to work with than others. If you’re just getting started in forging relationships with grantmakers, look for ones that are interested in working with new or emerging companies and artists. Chances are they aren’t merely interested in funding art, they are also committed to helping you grow your business experience in the field.

The Application Process

After you’ve decided on a grantmaker, reread what is required of grant applicants. Some grantmakers may require an initial letter of inquiry or a phone inquiry. These serve to introduce you and your work to the organization, after which it will determine whether to request a full proposal. If you are invited to submit a proposal, or if no introduction was required, spend a few days reviewing the application and become familiar with all of its components. If there are elements you don’t understand, make a list and call the appropriate contact person at the foundation. Be direct and ask all of your questions in one phone call. Don’t call multiple times or ask questions that are already answered in the guidelines—annoying the staff will not serve you well.

Next, gather copies of all the background material you’ve been updating (the budgets, bios, videos/DVDs, etc.), and start  assembling your application packet. As you write your narrative, address every item or question asked. Jump through every hoop; never assume that something doesn’t apply to you. If there is an application form, use it, no matter how ridiculous it seems. Include every detail and item requested, but not one thing more. The fastest way for grantmakers to identify strong competitors is to see who followed the directions in the application.

There is no great mystery to writing a grant narrative (the part where you describe your company and your work), as you should already have a clear idea of your company’s identity and goals. Remember, you are writing a business proposal here, not the Great American Novel. Most grant applications ask straightforward questions, so you don’t have to ponder what to say. Just answer the questions, honestly and accurately, describing your work and the impact it will have. Use language that is clear, consistent and concise and that is appropriate for business communications, and proofread carefully to avoid embarrassing typos. Grantmakers want to see that you make a worthy contribution to dance, and that you are running a company on sound business practices. That’s it. Those are the merits on which you are ultimately judged.

Finally, send out your application early. Don’t wait until the last possible minute, so that you end up overnighting it to make the deadline. Send the number of copies requested, in the order requested, and bound with the requested staples or binder clips, etc., to show that you respect the grantmaker’s process. Make sure to keep a copy for your records for future reference (and in case your package gets lost in the mail).

The Waiting Game

Don’t panic when the phone doesn’t ring. Be patient. Decisions can take months. You may check in to make certain your application arrived on time, but then you should relax. Don’t call the grantmaker again until at least 10 days after the date specified in the grant application.

If a site visit, such as attendance at a performance or showing, is requested, be accommodating and don’t lose touch with your contact person. If something unexpected happens and your performance is cancelled or relocated, call him or her immediately. Neglecting to inform the representative of a change in plans can reduce your chances of obtaining your grant. Your best bet is to stay organized and update your calendar constantly.


You got the grant. Now that you have all that money, what are you going to do with it? Well, you’d better do exactly what you said you’d do. If something happens and you find you need to alter your project slightly, that’s probably okay. If, however, you need to make major alterations to your initial plan, you should check in with the organization to ensure that your proposed changes are acceptable before you spend the money.

After your performance or project, be certain to follow up with a report to your grantmaker. Just as it had application guidelines, it probably has reporting guidelines as well. Send in the exact information requested, and file the report on time. This will help you maintain a great relationship with the grantmaker and allow that grantmaker to consider you for future funding. Also, remember to report any grant income on your next IRS 990 Form (or 1099 if you are an individual artist).

You’ll probably find that after you have been through the first application cycle—gotten organized, done your research, scheduled events and deadlines, applied for and won a grant—it will be pretty clear how grantsmanship can be a catalyst for your company’s financial well-being. Not only are they a source of income, but when properly managed, grants can encourage fiscal responsibility in the overall management of your dance company by forcing you to budget and stay organized. That increases the viability and sustainability of your company. And, when you make the practice of good grantsmanship (and overall good financial management) a regular priority, you actually have more time and energy to focus on your art form. What could be better than that? DT

Boston-based freelance writer Joshua Legg holds an MFA in dance choreography and performance from Shenandoah University, and has 10 years grantsmanship experience working in dance and social justice organizations.





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