The challenges of unconventional performance venues

A student performs outdoors on the Stanford University campus.

Imagine a group of your students surging through a sculpture garden, the sunlight glancing off their limbs. A breeze floats leaves across the grass, and the dancers roll and tumble after them.

And then, without warning, the irrigation system kicks on and sprinklers shoot water in all directions, flattening the leaves, soaking the dancers and drowning the choreographer in despair.

A similar situation did, in fact, happen to Diane Frank, a dance lecturer at Stanford University (and one of the 2011 Dance Teacher awardees). It made her realize just how much she had to account for when preparing a performance in an alternative space—the irrigation schedule, for one thing.

While performances in a wide range of venues (or non-venues) can expose your students to significant challenges and hazards, they can also create unforgettable adventures. How can you prepare? By gathering as much information as possible, using it to prepare your students as thoroughly as possible and coming prepared for contingencies.

 

Step 1: Gather Information

Jana Belot, owner of the Gotta Dance studios in New Jersey, regularly takes large groups of students out for all types of performances. "We've performed on baseball fields and at bar mitzvahs, tea parties, fashion events, cancer walks—even Ellis Island," she says. "Basically, anywhere there's people." Over the years she has learned that the more questions you can ask the event sponsor up front, the better your chances of success.

"Two years ago," she says, "we hired a full-time project manager and event planner. And at that time we realized we needed a list of questions." The three-page list ranges from the fairly obvious, "What will the floor be? What will we use for a sound system? Will the stage be marked?" to the more detailed, "What chaperones are needed?" and "Will we eat lunch on the bus?" And, she says, "One hundred percent of the time we preview the site and meet with the person in charge."

Joan Hope MacNaughton, who owns Leggz, Ltd., in Rockville Centre, New York, has also led students through an endless variety of performance situations. "There are a lot of variables that you have to take into consideration," she says. "Most importantly, get your stage size and make sure that it's going to work for you. If it won't, don't accept the job—because there's nothing worse than putting on a bad show. Nobody cares whether or not it's your fault; all they're doing is looking at your performance and saying, 'Oh my gosh, that studio was horrendous. Who were they? Let's not ask them back again.'"

 

Step 2: Prepare Your Students

Frank created a course at Stanford titled Figure/Ground: Site-Specific Dance Performance in Outdoor Environments. "You have to let your students know what it means if you're dancing on grass," she says. "Then you have to build movement that can be danced on grass." The students, she emphasizes, can only be as prepared as the teacher is. And location-appropriate choreography is important when it comes to your dancers' safety, too. If you know they'll be dancing on a hard surface like concrete, for example, limit the number of jumps to protect your students' joints.

MacNaughton recommends taping out unconventional stage sizes on the studio floor for rehearsals, so that students learn how to fit their movements into small or unusually shaped spaces. If they'll be performing on concrete, she takes them outside to rehearse on the sidewalk, so they can get accustomed to a surface with no give. If it'll be a tennis court, she takes them to a local court to experience the total lack of slide.

 

Step 3: Prepare for Contingencies

Once you've asked the important questions and prepped your students, you'll need to plan for the unexpected. Weather and dancing surfaces are two big concerns. MacNaughton always asks her dancers to bring several types of shoes, for example. If the stage turns out to be too slippery for tap shoes, she'll put her tappers in sneakers. If it's too risky for pointe, she'll have them use ballet slippers. Belot follows her gut instincts: "If it's sunny, do we add sunglasses? Sometimes that's adorable, but sometimes it's cheesy. Can we work with the weather? We do this Santa number in a parade, so one year we bought red hats, red scarves, red legwarmers that the students wore over their regular costume to stay warm." Cute in a parade? Yes. Cute at a more serious event? Probably not.

Sometimes, you just have to know when to throw in the towel. MacNaughton tells the story of a performance on an outdoor stage, on a day with pouring rain. The stage was slippery, but her dancers gave it a shot for one number. "They were soaking wet," she says. "They had white dance pants on; the dance pants turned black because the dye ran from the tops, which were black, onto the white bottoms. The dancers were troopers, but it was beyond what you could even realistically expect." She pulled them out of the rest of the show.

But most often, your preparation and your students' dedication will pay off in cheers and applause. As Frank puts it, "The value of doing site-specific work is that it places dance in situations that allow us to both see and think of dance differently. You're fostering a fresh take on the world." DT

 

Lea Marshall is producer/assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University's Department of Dance and Choreography and co-founder of Ground Zero Dance.

 

Top 10 Questions to Ask Before You Go

From the list compiled by Jana Belot, owner of the Gotta Dance studios in New Jersey:

1. Have I previewed the site?

2. Have I met with the person in charge?

3. Have we purchased insurance for the event?

4. Do we have all permission slips and/or photo release forms signed

5. Do we have emergency phone numbers for all of the dancers?

6. What will the sound system be?

7. What will the floor be?

8. What shoes will the dancers be wearing?

9. What will the lighting system be?

10. Have I planned for inclement weather?

 

 

Photo: a student performs outdoors on the Stanford University campus; by Tony Gautier, courtesy of Diane Frank

Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Jerome Capasso, courtesy of Man in Motion

Finding a male dance instructor who isn't booked solid can be a challenge, which is why a New York City dance educator was inspired to start a network of male dance professionals in 2012. Since then, he's tripled his roster of teachers and is actively hiring.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

You've got the teaching talent, the years of experience, the space and the passion—now all you need are some students!

Here are six ideas for getting the word out about your fabulous, up-and-coming program! We simply can't wait to see all the talent you produce with it!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Todd Rosenberg, courtesy of HSDC

This fall Hubbard Street Dance Chicago initiates an innovative choreographic-study project to pair local Chicago teens with company member Rena Butler, who in 2018 was named the Hubbard Street Choreographic Fellow. The Dance Lab Choreographic Fellowship is the vision of Kathryn Humphreys, director of HSDC's education, youth and community programs. "I am really excited to see young people realize possibilities, and realize what they are capable of," she says. "I think that high school is such an interesting, transformative time. They are right on the edge of figuring themselves out."

Keep reading... Show less
Getty Images

Q: What policies do you put in place to encourage parents of competition dancers to pay their bills in a timely manner?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo courtesy of Kim Black

For some children, the first day of dance is a magic time filled with make-believe, music, smiles and movement. For others, all the excitement can be a bit intimidating, resulting in tears and hesitation. This is perfectly natural, and after 32 years of experience, I've got a pretty good system for getting those timid tiny dancers to open up. It usually takes a few classes before some students are completely comfortable. But before you know it, those hesitant students will begin enjoying the magic of creative movement and dance.

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Photo via @igor.pastor on Instagram

Listen up, dance teachers! October 7 is National Frappe Day (the drink), but as dance enthusiasts, we obviously like to celebrate a little differently. We've compiled four fun frappé combinations on Instagram for your perusal!

You're welcome! Now, you can thank us by sharing some of your own frappé favs on social media with the hashtag #nationalfrappeday.

We can't wait to see what you come up with!

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Original photos: Getty Images

We've been dying to hear more about "On Pointe," a docuseries following students at the School of American Ballet, since we first got wind of the project this spring. Now—finally!—we know where this can't-miss show is going to live: It was just announced that Disney+, the new streaming service set to launch November 12, has ordered the series.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo by Tony Nguyen, courtesy of Jill Randall

Recently I got to reflect on my 22-year-old self and the first modern technique classes I subbed for at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley, California. (Thank you to Dana Lawton for giving me the chance and opportunity to dive in.)

Today I wanted to share 10 ideas to consider as you embark upon subbing and teaching modern technique classes for the first time. These ideas can be helpful with adult classes and youth classes alike.

As I like to say, "Teaching takes teaching." I mean, teaching takes practice, trial and error and more practice. I myself am in my 23rd year of teaching now and am still learning and growing each and every class.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Misti Ridge teaches class at Center Stage Performing Arts Studio. Photo by Arlyn Lawrence , courtesy of Ridge

The dance teachers who work with kids ages 5–7 have earned themselves a special place in dance heaven. They give artists the foundation for their future with impossibly high energy and even higher voices. Enthusiasm is their game, and talent is their aim! Well, that, self-esteem, a love for dance, discipline and so much more!

These days, teachers often go a step beyond giving tiny dancers technical and performative bases and make them strong enough to actually compete at a national level—we're talking double-pirouettes-by-the-time-they're-5-years-old type of competitive.

We caught up with one such teacher, Misti Ridge from Center Stage Performing Arts Studio, The Dance Awards 2019 and 2012 Studio of The Year, to get the inside scoop on how she does it. The main takeaway? Don't underestimate your baby competition dancers—those 5- to 7-year-olds can work magic.

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Patrick Randak, Courtesy In The Lights PR

The ability to communicate clearly is something I've been consumed with for as long as I can remember. I was born in the Bronx and always loved city living. But when I was 9, a family crisis forced my mom to send me to Puerto Rico to live with my grandparents. I only knew one Spanish word: "hola." I remember the frustration and loneliness of having so many thoughts and feelings and not being able to express them.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Courtesy Just for Kix

As a teacher or studio owner, customer service is a major part of the job. It's easy to dread the difficult sides of it, like being questioned or criticized by an unhappy parent. "In the early years, parent issues could have been the one thing that got me to give up teaching," says Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a teacher and studio owner with over 43 years of experience. "Hang in there—it does get easier."

We asked Clough her top tips for dealing with difficult parents:

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox