Performance Planner: Viva Las Vegas!

Kristin Lewis is a writer in New York City.

 

Thinking of channeling the over-the-top glamour of Las Vegas for your next show? Here are ideas for six numbers that are sure to give you a full house!


#1 Royal Flush

Theme: a high-stakes game of poker

Genre: jazz

Song: “Money” by Pink Floyd

 

Set the scene with a dark stage and a spotlight on a poker table with chips placed upstage center. Use a haze machine to create a smoky atmosphere. Dress your dancers in tuxedos, and give them fake cigars and martinis (use plastic martini glasses from party supply stores; for olives, spray-paint marshmallows green, stick them on toothpicks and glue to the glasses). Start the number in silence with one dancer dealing the cards to the others seated around the table. The players take the cards and stare at each other with perfect poker faces before placing their bets. Then the music starts and the action around the table begins. Generate movement and gesture ideas by having dancers improvise to the following words and phrases: folding, bluffing, casting chips, calling, winning, full house, placing a bet. To represent holding a hand of cards, students can make the number four, palm facing in. Have students check out the World Series of Poker on ESPN as well as the poker scenes in Funny Girl and Casino Royale for inspiration.


#2 Wedding Chapel

Theme: couples jetting off to Vegas to get hitched

Genre: tap/swing

Song: “Chapel of Love” by the 

Dixie Cups

 

For this number, the tackier the sets and costumes, the better. Prom supply companies like Stumps Prom & Party (www.stumpsprom.com) and Anderson’s Prom (www.andersonsprom.com) are good sources for finding garland, arches, murals and other decorations. Place an arch upstage center with a podium underneath. The dancer portraying the chaplain should walk onstage with an old-school cassette player, stand beneath the arch and click “play” as the song begins. The rest of the class can play different couples eloping. Give each pair their own distinctive look and personality. (For example, score laughs by pairing the tallest and shortest dancers in your class together.) During the verses, couples should parade in line to the chaplain, who can hand each bride the same veil and bouquet and pronounce the couples man and wife through mime. During the chorus, all the couples can dance together.


#3 The King

Theme: Elvis impersonators

Genre: creative movement

Song: “Hound Dog” by Elvis Presley

 

Pay homage to Vegas’ distinguished tradition of Elvis impersonation and dress your youngest dancers as the King, complete with wigs and sunglasses. The choreography can be simple (jazz squares, step-ball-changes, passés and port de bras), but be sure to include a few of Elvis’ signature hip swings, collar pops and arm-swinging guitar strums. It may take a while to teach, but the audience’s oohs and aahs will be worth the effort. (You’ll find several clips on YouTube for inspiration.) For additional Elvis-inspired numbers, consider portraying the different eras of his life. Examples include “Jailhouse Rock” Elvis and Elvis joins the Army. 


#4 Nightclub Entertainment

Theme: glamorous, over-the-top Vegas showgirls

Genres: pointe, lyrical jazz, duets or contemporary ballet

Song medley: “Copacabana” by Barry Manilow (pointe), “Taking Chances” by Céline Dion (lyrical jazz), “Red Roses for a Blue Lady” by Wayne Newton (duet), “Wind” from Cirque du Soleil’s Zumanity (contemporary ballet)

 

Use this showgirls-themed number to work in many different styles of dance, with songs from Vegas entertainers past and present. Play up the theme with a glittery backdrop, and glam up dancers with elaborate headdresses (think Ziegfeld Follies), body glitter and rhinestones galore.

 

Start the medley with a bright, sensual pointe number to Manilow’s “Copacabana.” For a technical challenge, choreograph the whole piece so that dancers never come off pointe. They can walk, turn and strut—all sur le pointe. (Remind them to stretch their feet, Achilles tendons and calves before and after.)

 

For the next number, a lyrical jazz piece set to Dion’s “Taking Chances,” choreograph movement that also “takes chances.” Incorporate daring lifts into the piece, (if you don’t have boys, have the girls lift each other), complicated turn sequences (such as fouettés into à la seconde turns into back attitude turns into aerials) and death-defying jumps and tosses. If you want to be over-the-top and you have enough vertical space on the stage, incorporate trampolines. Dancers can toss each other from one trampoline to the next, as if flying.

 

Darken the stage and use a spotlight for a romantic waltz duet, “Red Roses for a Blue Lady” by Wayne Newton. Tell your two dancers to imagine they are a singer and pianist “dancing” together. Outfit your boy in a tuxedo and your girl in a glamorous dark red evening gown and ballroom shoes.

 

End the medley with a contemporary number set to “Wind” from Cirque du Soleil’s Zumanity. This is the time to showcase your most advanced dancers’ technical skills. Cirque is known for pushing physical boundaries. Do the same with your students, whether it’s feats of flexibility, crowd-pleasing turns and jumps or partner acrobatics.


#5 The Casino Floor

Theme: out-of-towners hit the slots

Genre: tap

Song: “Pocketful of Money” by Jens Lekman

 

The rhythm and sound of the taps should be modeled after the sound of coins hitting the slots. Choreograph upper-body movement after the concepts of pulling back the lever on a slot machine, winning, losing and dropping coins. Costume dancers like stereotypical out-of-towners, with safari hats, fanny packs, cameras and Hawaiian-print shirts.

If an advanced class is performing this number, try using casino coin cups. Have each dancer carry a cup during the number and incorporate tapping them against each other, on the floor and “drumming” on them into your choreography for an additional layer of synchronized sounds.


#6 What Happens in Vegas...

Theme: a bring-the-house-down finale

Song: “Viva Las Vegas” by Elvis Presley

Genre: jazz

 

End the show on a fun note with a jazz number that gets the audience tapping their feet and clapping their hands. Use the entire cast if possible, and outfit them in the same style, but in different colors according to level. Use summery shades that evoke the desert, like burnt orange, bright yellow and flame red. For an inexpensive option, purchase colored T-shirts and have dancers pair them with black leggings or dance pants. You can even have everyone wear sunglasses. Not sure what to do with the class clown? Why not enlist him or her to perform as the sole Elvis impersonator during this number. Or, if time permits, round up a group of outgoing students to play a number of Las Vegas notables, like Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra and Liberace. Rain faux dollar bills on the stage at the very end. DT



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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

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"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

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"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

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Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.


Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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