Performance Planner: From Screen to Stage


The Golden Age 

Movie musicals reached a zenith in the first half of the 20th century with the rise of Hollywood icons like Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly. Discuss with your dancers how these performers—the first triple-threats—popularized the genre, what made them captivating and how students can incorporate their trademark moves into their performances. For the first act of your show, create a tribute to these artists. Use a cyc that allows for gobos and video projections. 

An American in Paris

Open your show with a number inspired by this 1951 classic, starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. It has one of the longest uninterrupted dance sequences in the history of cinema (13 minutes!). For the number, string together songs from George Gershwin’s score, such as “Embraceable You,” “Wonderful” and “Our Love Is Here to Stay.” Like the film, showcase ballet, tap and musical theater dance. Set the scene with a simple Parisian gobo.

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm

Next, put your little ones front and center with a montage of classic tunes from this 1938 film, starring Shirley Temple and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. This number will give you a chance to shine the spotlight on creative movement and beginning jazz and tap students. Since the movie is about Rebecca’s surreptitious mission to make a radio broadcast, incorporate vintage microphones and speakers into your set. For “An Old Straw Hat,” dress dancers in straw hats and overalls, and give them watering cans. For “Come and Get Your Happiness,” opt for sailor dresses and saddle shoes. Finally, get extra use out of your Nutcracker soldier costumes with a number to “Parade of the Toy Wooden Soldiers.” 

Small Town Girl, Flying Down to Rio, Singin’ in the Rain

Give every student a chance to be a star, and end this section with a production number that pays homage to screen legends. Organize it like an Oscars ceremony, with a podium and golden statuette, and project video excerpts onto the cyc. Research each star’s iconic roles and dress dancers accordingly. For instance, tap virtuoso Ann Miller in Small Town Girl would wear a short royal blue dress with fringe and matching heels and dance to “I’ve Gotta Hear That Beat.” Pair up two dancers to be Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in a glamorous forehead-to-forehead dance inspired by Rio’s “The Carioca.” Cast a leggy ballet dancer as Cyd Charisse to channel “Broadway Rhythm Ballet” number from Singin’ with a sultry green dress, choker and cropped black wig.  

Raise the Roof 

Many notable dance numbers take place on rooftops. Use a generic skyline backdrop or gobo to set the scene, and rent or build rooftop scenery to run across the back of the stage. Alter the mood and time of day of each dance by changing the lighting. 


Evoke this 1992 movie musical about a group of young newspaper peddlers who fight a wage cut in turn-of-the-century New York City with energetic fancy floorwork, soft-shoe tapping and unpredictable jumping sequences to “Once and for All” from the movie soundtrack. Dress your jazz, musical theater or tap dancers in pageboy caps, knickers, argyle socks, suspenders and tank tops. 

Moulin Rouge!

Recreate Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor’s sweet soiree on the roof of the Moulin Rouge to the sounds of “Elephant Love Medley.” Darken the stage to create a nighttime effect with red-tinged lighting. The look should be glamorous. Cast two advanced lyrical, jazz or ballroom dancers to play the leads—your boy can wear a tuxedo and your girl can wear a red halter evening gown. Create additional parts with a corps of cancan dancers. Capture the opulent feel of the film with glitzy accessories, over-the-top stage makeup and high-powered turning and kicking choreography for the corps. Your lead pair should move more softly, with gentle lyrical lifts, ballroom dancing and plenty of romantic dips. 

Mary Poppins

Replicate the “Chim-Chim-Cheree” number from the 1964 film about London’s favorite nanny. Use chimney sweeps for props; make them yourself (or enlist students to help) by spray-painting brooms black. Jazz dancers can wear black pants and button-ups, and smudge their faces with charcoal-colored eye shadow.  

In the Studio

In this section, celebrate films that dramatize the life of a dancer. Create a studio scene with portable barres and mirrors placed upstage right and left. If the theater has a piano, ask if you can use it as a prop for this section. (Extra points for live accompaniment!)  

The Turning Point

Challenge your advanced ballet dancers with the rehearsal scene of Romeo and Juliet. Use music from Sergei Prokofiev’s score to stage the balcony pas de deux. Dress your dancers in 1970s-style leotards and wrap skirts in neutral shades, and have them put up their hair in French twists. 

Center Stage

Create a mock rehearsal that features an arrogant choreographer who keeps stopping to rant and rave, a corps of obedient but confused ballet dancers and a snobby ingénue. Outfit everyone in leotards and practice tutus; your lead could wear a bright color. The choreographer can don general gym attire, or be more sinister with a cane and formal dance teacher attire. “Adagio for a Ballet Class” by Dmitry Polischuk creates an authentic score. 

White Nights

Pair up your ballet  and tap dancers for a battle of technique, inspired by the competition between Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines in this ’80s classic. The battle can include successive pirouettes and fast tapping. 


Who can forget Jennifer Beals’ audition scene? Ask parents to play snooty judges for this retro jazz number set to Irene Cara’s “What a Feeling.” Set up a record player and judges’ tables with water glasses and scattered papers. Go all-out with ’80s high-cut leotards, legwarmers, big hair and step-ball-changes. Dress the judges in glasses and stodgy suits with shoulder pads.   

Hit the Dance Floor 

For the final movement of your recital, celebrate onscreen moments that take place in social settings. This will make the audience feel a part of the show and conclude on an upbeat note. 

Saturday Night Fever

Go to the disco with “You Should Be Dancing’” by The Bee Gees! Position jazz dancers around the outside of the stage to create the effect of a dance floor, and use a disco ball and colored strobe lighting. Dress students in bell-bottoms, glittery button-ups, slinky dresses and heels.   

Save the Last Dance

Follow up the disco scene from the last number with a hip-hop club number that includes a few crowd-pleasing mini-battles. Allow advanced hip-hop dancers a few counts of eight to freestyle to “You” by Lucy Pearl, featuring Snoop Dogg and Q-Tip. Outfit students in trendy urban looks.  

Dirty Dancing

Bring back the entire cast for a production jazz number that evokes the feel-good ending of Dirty Dancing with “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life.” Have dancers enter the stage by coming down the aisles of the theater. You can even bring up the house lights and drag a few willing audience members onstage and into the aisles to join in.  DT

Kristin Lewis is a writer in New York City.  


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