Five disaster scenarios and their antidotes

Students in Queen City Ballet's "Nutcracker"

When it comes to the big show, most studio and school directors pride themselves on being as organized and in control as a four-star general to keep things from running off the rails. But from costume mishaps to little angel meltdowns to tech snafus, disasters of any size and scale can strike during the run-up to a production. What are the biggest hurdles a director faces when putting together a performance, and what can you do to keep things on track?

Lights Out

“I’ve been doing this for a long time, and it doesn’t necessarily get easier,” says Campbell Midgley, who has run Queen City Ballet in Montana for 12 years. “I keep doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result, so I guess I’m insane!”

Midgley, who calls herself a Nutcracker masochist, is among the legions of dance directors who will embark on holiday performances this month. Usually, she says, she feels like her dancers are well-prepared—it’s the technical side of things that gives her the willies.

She recalls one terrifying show in which, an hour and a half before curtain, the lighting director lost all of the cues they had labored over for hours. “I was thinking we might as well do the show in the parking lot,” she says ruefully.

Midgley remembers flying by the seat of their pants, quickly setting some basic cues that they could use through the show, and from there, as she puts it, they winged it. “It was the most stressful thing I have ever done in my life,” she says.“Literally, after the show, it felt like I and the lighting guy had just given birth.”

Midgley advises making sure you take good notes while going through the tech rehearsals. She makes up meticulous cue sheets for each show, which come in handy for shows like Nutcracker that are produced every year. “I’ll write down to the minute if it’s an eight-second grow, or a zero-count,” she explains, “and if it’s recorded music I’ll note in the times. I’m a freaking perfectionist—I put it all into an Excel spreadsheet.

“And I always have two copies of the music,” she says, adding that even with all the preparation in the world: “It’s still live theater, and live theater comes with uncertainty.”

Backstage Drama

After 30 years of Nutcrackers, Kathleen Sinclair of Ballet Yuma in Arizona has been staging the production for so long, she almost can’t remember those early days when they were still figuring out how to manage the chaos.

Her number-one priority is making sure she has a terrific person backstage overseeing everything—and with 75–90 children involved in the show, not to mention a score of company dancers, that can be no mean feat. “You need a superwoman down there,” she says, “someone who can organize the volunteers, take care of the children’s room and keep everything going smoothly. When you have one of those, you don’t have to worry about what’s happening on that side of the production, and you can concentrate on what’s happening onstage.”

Sinclair recruits 15 moms and dads to work backstage and tries to keep her key people from one year to the next. “I’m always looking for someone who has leadership qualities, who can take charge and problem-solve,” she says. “I’ll try to move them up into a more supervisory position. That way, I know if a problem comes up backstage, they’ll handle it; they can figure it out without coming to me about every little eyelash.”

Problems can range from the minor to the serious. Keeping even a few rambunctious young boys under control can be difficult. One year, Sinclair’s son slid off a staircase bannister while playing around and had to be medevac-ed to Phoenix with a head injury.

“I tell the boys that story every year,” she says. “That bannister is still there in the theater, but that story scares them and we never have a problem. They take their time walking down the stairs.” Now, she and the volunteers make sure that the boys stay corralled in the dressing rooms. “We put DVDs and video games in there to keep them occupied,” she says, “and they sit in that room really happily.”

Dressing

Clockwork precision is what makes a seamless production possible for the California Academy of Performing Arts in Moraga, California. Over 20 years, veteran artistic director Joan Robinson Borchers has honed a system to get 200 kids to the right place at the right time.

CAPA performs in a local high school theater with a dressing room that accommodates the older girls who dance the major roles, as well as “Snow” and “Waltz of the Flowers.” But there’s no room backstage for the hundreds of bon-bons, angels and candy canes to wait to go on, much less get dressed and made up. So larger groups of kids in CAPA’s Nutcracker dress in a multipurpose room in one of the high school’s other buildings. In a kind of “in the hole, on deck, at bat” system, parent volunteers are assigned to keep the dancers on schedule, walking them over to the theater at the appointed time.

“In the dressing rooms, they have the lineup of exactly when the dances happen in the show, and how far in advance they have to get to backstage,” Borchers says. “If the show starts at 7 pm, and there’s a dance that occurs at 7:50, the dancers have to be backstage by 7:45, and they know when they have to leave and how long it takes to walk across the drive to get there. We have that all down to a science.”

If that sounds like a painstaking level of detail, perhaps it’s because that system is simple compared to what they have to do during the weekday student matinees when the high school’s multipurpose room isn’t available. For those shows, the dancers dress and get made up at the dance studio half a mile away from the theater, and then rented buses shuttle them at the appointed times to the theater and return them after they are done. “It’s a huge, complex operation that requires enormous parental cooperation to make it work,” she says. “But it does work.”

Of course, even with all that organization, mishaps can happen. “Many years ago, we had a girl—a brilliant dancer, but a real airhead,” says Borchers. “She came out as the Sugar Plum Fairy with no tights on.”

To ensure that the kids make it onstage with all their costume pieces on, Borchers and her wardrobe volunteers instituted a clever system that works especially well for quick changes. “Each dancer has two shopping bags each with their names written on them,” she says. “In one is the costume they have to get into, with the pieces arranged in the order they’ll need to put it on. The other bag is empty, and it’s where they put what they take off. It’s a great way to not have a pile of costumes backstage and kids running around saying, ‘I can’t find my shoes,’ or ‘Somebody took my headpiece.’”

Partnering

“You can’t do it all by yourself,” says Jane Venezia, director of the Stage Door Dance Studio and its performing company, Central Washington Dance Ensemble, in Ellensburg, Washington. “The parents have to be on board from the beginning, to serve on committees and help with props and scenery, makeup, supervising the dancers, selling tickets. Once they agree it’s a family project, you have your support team.”

This year, the ensemble is partnering with the Central Washington University on their first full-length production of The Nutcracker. “We’re able to use their theater and tech crew to run everything,” Venezia says, adding that the connection also helps alleviate the perennial challenge of finding guys to dance. “They have a dance minor program, and I’ll sometimes be able to get a couple of guys who are musical theater majors to do simple partnering.”

Like many directors, Venezia has everyone hunting in nooks and crannies to find boys for The Nutcracker. “We have one teacher whose son is on a soccer team. She went to a team meeting and asked if any of the boys would perform in the party scene. They can move—and change direction fast,” she says with a laugh. “It adds a different dynamic to the production.

“Another family has two sons who took hip hop and we recruited them,” she adds. “There’s less of a stigma to it because it is Nutcracker. They get to be boys and they don’t have to wear tights.”

Shortage of Boys

Bonnie Schuetz, who directs Boni’s Dance & Performing Arts Studio in The Woodlands, Texas, has neatly solved the man-shortage problem while also finding a way to make things easier on her littlest dancers. In her year-end recitals, she choreographs “Daddy Dances” for the 2- and 3-year-olds.

“Their mommies rehearse with them,” she explains, “then we do two or three weekend rehearsals where the dads come in. The group might start out onstage on their own, and the daddies come out halfway through the number. They’ll partner them—maybe the dad will go down on one knee and the little one will hold a hand, walk around them and end sitting on his knee. Or they might do a fish, or the daddies lift them and do shoulder sits.”

At the end, Schuetz says, the fathers pick up the little ones and take them offstage, which winds up being both adorable and practical, since it helps reduce the chaos of trying to organize the children backstage.

“They don’t really dance much, but it’s a neat experience for those daddies,” she says wistfully. “Sometimes I’ll have guys come up to me afterward and say, ‘I want to be in the classes where the daddies dance with the daughters.’”

Schuetz also uses dads in her senior ballet partnering classes where she might have two dozen girls and not enough boys. “I’ll teach them very simple things, a finger turn, a penchée, a promenade. They might get a little bit of pirouettes,” she says. “Dads love it, and the moms come and watch from the window.”

And the fathers get to play one more role as the girls get to the advanced level. “My seniors, they’ve all done the daddy dances, and so when they perform their senior choreography, afterward these 18-year-olds finish,” she says, choking up a little, “and their daddies come and escort them off the stage.” DT

Mary Ellen Hunt, a former dancer, now a teacher, writes about dance and the arts for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Photo by Kaitlyn Broderick

The Conversation
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy of Hightower

The beloved "So You Think You Can Dance" alum and former Emmy-nominated "Dancing with the Stars" pro Chelsie Hightower discovered her passion for ballroom at a young age. She showed a natural ability for the Latin style, but she mastered the necessary versatility by studying jazz, ballet and other forms of dance. "Every style of dance builds on each other," she says, "and the more music you're exposed to, the more your rhythm and coordination is built."

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

Running a dance studio is a feat in itself. But adding a competition team into the mix brings a whole new set of challenges. Not only are you focusing on giving your dancers the best training possible, but you're navigating the fast-paced competition and convention circuit. Winning is one goal, but you also want to create an environment that's fun, educational and inspiring for young artists. We asked Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a studio owner with over 40 years of experience, for her advice on building a healthy dance team culture:

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Via Instagram

Happy Father's Day to all of the dance dads in the world! Whether you're professional dancers, dance teachers, dance directors or simply just dance supporters, you are a key ingredient to what makes the dance world such a happy, thriving place, and we love you!

To celebrate, here are our four favorite Instagram dance dads. Prepare to say "Awwwwwwwweeeeeee!!!!!!"

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Insure Fitness
AdobeStock, Courtesy Insure Fitness Group

As a teacher at a studio, you've more than likely developed long-lasting relationships with some of your students and parents. The idea that you could be sued by one of them might seem impossible to imagine, but Insure Fitness Group's Gianna Michalsen warns against relaxing into that mindset. "People say, 'Why do I need insurance? I've been working with these people for 10 years—we're friends,'" she says. "But no one ever takes into account how bad an injury can be. Despite how good your relationship is, people will sue you because of the toll an injury takes on their life."

You'll benefit most from an insurance policy that caters to the specifics of teaching dance at one or several studios. Here's what to look for:

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

If you're a studio owner, the thought of raising your rates most likely makes you cringe. Despite ever-increasing overhead expenses you can't avoid—rent, salaries, insurance—you're probably wary of alienating your customers, losing students or inviting confrontation if you increase the price of your tuition or registration and recital fees. DT spoke with three veteran studio owners who suggest it's time to get past that. Here's how to give your business the revenue boost it needs and the value justification it (and you) deserve.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by World Class Vacations
David Galindo Photography

New York City is a dream destination for many dancers. However aspiring Broadway stars don't have to wait until they're pros to experience all the city has to offer. With Dance the World Broadway, students can get a taste of the Big Apple—plus hone their dance skills and make lasting memories.

Here's why Dance the World Broadway is the best way for students to experience NYC:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Margie Gillis (left); photo by Kyle Froman

Margie Gillis dances the human experience. Undulating naked in a field of billowing grass in Lessons from Nature 4, or whirling in a sweep of lilac fabric in her signature work Slipstream, her movement is free of flashy technique and tricks, but driven and defined by emotion. "There's a central philosophy in my work about what the experience of being human is," says Gillis, whose movement style is an alchemy of Isadora Duncan's uninhibited self-expression and Paul Taylor's musicality, blended with elements of dance theater into something utterly unique and immediately accessible. "I want an authenticity," she says. "I want to touch my audiences profoundly and deeply."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Teaching arabesque can be a challenge for educators and students alike. Differences in body types, flexibility and strength can leave dancers feeling dejected about the possibility of improving this essential position.

To help each of us in our quest for establishing beautiful arabesques in our students without bringing them to tears, we caught up with University of Utah ballet teacher Jennie Creer-King. After her professional career dancing with Ballet West and Oregon Ballet Theater and her years of teaching at the studio and college levels, she's become a bit of an arabesque expert.

Here she shares five important tips for increasing the height of your students' arabesques.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo by Jennifer Kleinman, courtesy of Danell Hathaway

It's high school dance concert season, which means a lot of you K–12 teachers are likely feeling a bit overwhelmed. The long nights of editing music, rounding up costumes and printing programs are upon you, and we salute you. You do great work, and if you just hang on a little while longer, you'll be able to bathe in the applause that comes after the final Saturday night curtain.

To give you a bit of inspiration for your upcoming performances, we talked with Olympus High School dance teacher Danell Hathaway, who just wrapped her school's latest dance company concert. The Salt Lake City–based K–12 teacher shares her six pieces of advice for knocking your show out of the park.

Keep reading... Show less
Getty Images

Q: I'm looking to create some summer rituals and traditions at my studio. What are some of the things you do?

A: Creating fun and engaging moments for your students, staff and families can have a positive impact on your studio culture. Whether it's a big event or a small gesture, we've found that traditions build connection, boost morale and create strong bonds. I reached out to a variety of studio owners to gather some ideas for you to try this summer. Here's what they had to say.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Sam Williams and Jaxon Willard after competition at RADIX. Photo courtesy of Williams

Self-choreographed solos are becoming increasingly popular on the competition circuit these days, leading dance teachers to incorporate more creative mentoring into their rehearsal and class schedules. In this new world of developing both technical training and choreographic prowess, finding the right balance of assisting without totally hijacking a student's choreographic process can be difficult.

To help, we caught up with a teacher who's already braved these waters by assisting "World of Dance" phenom Jaxon Willard with his viral audition solos. Center Stage Performing Arts Studio company director Sam Williams from Orem, Utah, shares her sage wisdom below.

Check it out!

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Dance studios are run by creative people with busy schedules, who have a love-hate relationship with props and sequins. The results of all this glitter and glam? General mass chaos in every drawer, costume closet and prop corner of the studio. Let's be honest, not many dance teachers are particularly known for their tidiness. The ability to get 21 dancers to spot in total synchronization? Absolutely! The stamina to run 10 solos, 5 group numbers, 2 ballet classes and 1 jazz class in one day? Of course! The emotional maturity to navigate a minefield of angry parents and hormonal teenagers? You know it!

Keeping the studio tidy? Well...that's another story.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox