Keep a Costume Scare from Turning into a Nightmare

Dealing with Costume Company Customer ServiceDuring the process of ordering, supplying, and receiving dance costumes, mistakes can happen. Costume company mistakes are a dance studio owner’s nightmare and, even if you haven’t lived through a big costume emergency, you’ve heard the horror stories.

Problems with your costume company order need to be dealt with in a hearbeat and that means working with customer service to get the best possible resolution and outcome.

Here are some tips on how you can get better customer service when calling a dance costume company:

Before An Emergency Exists

Most studios order from multiple companies. It is easy to make mistakes or misread catalogs, and information can get lost in the confusion of preparing other aspects of a performance.

Keep excellent records for each costume ordered.

Don’t wait until something goes wrong to make sure you have all the documentation needed to support your case.

Dealing With Customer Service

Gather your information and know what you need before you call.

Get your records together. Review the company’s policies on their website or in the catalog. Prepare your questions and think about what types of resolution you would be willing to accept. Do it before you dial.

Plan to take notes or even record the call (and let the rep know you are doing so).

Be casual about this. The call may be recorded by the company already, but reminding the representative that you are being thorough and keeping a record is likely to improve service. Plus, you’ll want to remember what is discussed in case the issue cannot be resolved immediately or if problems continue.

Repeat back what you hear.

To make sure there are no misunderstandings, use active listening skills and “reflect” what the representative is communicating. This means repeating and/or restating what the rep tells you in order to clarify their meaning or instructions. Customer service employees are often trained in these methods but it works both ways.

Be patient, calm, and polite.

It’s true that “the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” but there’s squeaky,  and then there’s downright unpleasant and offensive. Think about the times when someone, a parent perhaps, calls you spewing nothing but nastiness and negativity. With your defenses immediately up, would you do all you could to help this person? Probably not. You can be patient, calm, polite AND be firm in standing up for your case.

You may be stressed. Your own students and customers are counting on you to do everything you can to make things right. Having your students look their best at your show is important to you. Don’t take the mistake personally. But do get personal…

Operate on a first-name basis.

Use the customer service representative’s name. Write it down.

Call back.

Though it’s often better to stay on the line until the matter is resolved, if a costume company is large enough to have multiple representatives, occasionally you may have better luck with someone else.

Hit Reset.

If emotions are on the rise, plan something to say that will defuse the situation. I love this line from “I understand that’s your policy, but I still need your help. Let’s start over.”

Remind the rep you are human, too.

More great advice from is to turn the tables and remind the rep of your humanity. “What would you do if you were in my shoes?”

Escalate to a higher authority.

Ask to talk to a supervisor, manager, or even higher on the chain of command if things are not being satisfactorily resolved.

Try multiple channels.

Calling is not your only option. When resolution isn’t happening down one route, try another. Perhaps the costume company website has a live chat. Write a letter to the owner. Reach out to the company via their social networking profiles. Maybe even chat up a competitor and ask what they would do in a similar situation – nothing like a little competitor pressure to get things done.

Reward Good Customer Service

When your problem is handled promptly and the costume company provides great customer service, don’t forget to thank them with your repeat business. In addition, use those same channels listed above to publicly acknowledge a job well done.

Though there are no guarantees in life or in dance, good customers do tend to receive good customer service.

Have you witnessed the turn-around of what could have been a scary costume experience?

We don’t need to name names, but we’d love to hear about how you dealt with customer service in the comments!


Photo “Groundlings Spooky Groombridge” by THOR s licensed under CC BY 2.0.

History Moves: Using the Creative Process to Explore Dance History

The history of dance is far from dull and including dance history in your classes doesn’t have to be either.

When we think of learning about history, most people see lectures, thick books, and discussions about plenty of dead people. There are ways to incorporate information about the traditions of dance and the people who shaped them while relating it to the material that students may find more exciting.

Last month I provided a list of ten ways to move beyond steps, making dances that venture outside the norm of assembling favorite movement to popular songs. This enriched way of working leads to many possibilities for students to become aware of their dance heritage and the methods dance icons have used for creating dance.

IMAGE Blindfolded dancers in a group IMAGE

Photo by George Joch / Courtesy Argonne National Laboratory.

To recap:

Concert Dance, to me, is determined by process – the ways movement is inspired, how it is developed, edited, and finally presented. The style of dance is irrelevant in many respects; it is all about the intent and the journey, which lead to the product.

Let’s draw on those same ten ideas to outline two ways to practically include dance history lessons while going about the usual business of making dances:

A: For a single artist’s view, I have chosen modern dance heavy-weight Merce Cunningham whose development of his own technique, innovative ways for crafting dances, and pushing the boundaries in dance technology provide ample opportunity to explore many aspects of dance.

B: If you are more interested in covering a variety of artists, here is a sampler of artists that have made interesting decisions during the work they’ve created.

1. Choosing Content.

Find content with enough depth that it can be explored from multiple angles, voices, and perspectives.

Merce Cunningham: Creating dances “about” the movement potential of the human body, the potential of movement within an established movement vocabulary

George Balanchine, founder of New York City Ballet: Balanchine’s choreography is known for its visual relationship to the musical score. Balanchine’s early work included direct narratives (Prodigal Son, The Nutcracker), his later work revolved around identifiable themes without demonstrating a clear plot (Agon, Serenade). In this sense, Balanchine offers three different ways in which content can be explored.

2. Choosing Genre.

Which style of dance best suits the idea or concept you are presenting?

Merce Cunningham: Modern Dance choreographer whose movement relates well to other types of dancers. This example allows for the discussion of how technical concepts are experienced differently or similarly based on styles of dance. Example: Cunningham’s use of spine, port de bras, and weight shift can be compared similarly to classical ballet and yet very differently to other types of modern dance such as release technique.

Twyla Tharp, versatile choreographer with major works in post-modern (Eight Jelly Rolls, The Fugue), contemporary ballet (When Push Comes to Shove, Sinatra Suite), and musical theatre “jazz” (Hair, Movin’ Out).
If any choreographer epitomizes versatility, it is Twyla Tharp. Working from a strong personal point of view, Tharp relies heavily on technique and the fundamentals of movement and thus can easily relate to many kinds of dancers and audiences.

3. Choosing Movement.

Is the idea behind the piece best represented by technical movement, gestural movement, or a combination?

Merce Cunningham: Again, creating within an established movement vocabulary, Cunningham explored possibilities physically first but later in his career used a computer program, Dance Forms, to inspire new movement threads before teaching them to his dancers.

Bill T. Jones: a self-proclaimed liberal artist. This is a choreographer who masterfully ebbs and flows between codified and gestural movement based on what the piece needs. Please note, when looking for video samples be sure to preview before watching with students. His work takes on many topics and some are more suitable for high-school aged dancers and older.

In jazz, Bob Fosse offers a rich example of stylized movement vocabulary that allows each piece to look different while still reflective of the Fosse trademark swag.

4. Choosing structure.

Dances don’t have to be choreographed from beginning to end. Try creating large movement phrases that can be ordered in different ways, layered in contrasting movement, or fragmented.

Merce Cunningham: The pioneer of chance operation as a choreographic device, Cunningham created methods such as rolling dice to determine the order of movement, order of works within a concert, and other production elements.

Explore the range Romantic, Classical, and Neo-Classical ballet to discuss structuring story and structuring movement. Martha Graham offers great examples of how to structure these principles as well as movement for solos or large groups.

5. Choosing sound.

Does the piece need music or could it be danced to text, silence, or unconventional sound?

Merce Cunningham: search out his collaborations with John Cage or the use of dueling stories in How to Pass, Kick, Fall, and Run.

Pearl Primus, a modern dance choreographer and anthropologist: Primus created Strange Fruit, set to the poem of the same title by Lewis Allen. This is also a nice example of how dance can be used to discuss other subjects such as the African-American experience within American culture.

6. and 7. Choosing alternate methods for coaching ideas and movement within rehearsal.

Find the unison in intent rather than (just) the unison of performance.

Watch choreographers rehearse their dancers in A Lifetime of Dance about Merce Cunningham and Dancemaker, about Paul Taylor.

Check out Daniel Nagrin‘s book, The Six Questions: Acting Technique for Dance Performance.

7. Choosing production elements.

What kind of showing is best? How important are costumes? Lights?

Merce Cunningham and collaborators believed dance, music, and set design should co-exist in space and time rather than depend upon one another.

Explore choreographers such as Anna Halperin, Doug Varone, and Liz Lerman and their use of site-specific dance. Google site specific dance for a long list of artists (and video samples of their work) creating this way both in the past and in the present.  Although site-specific dance does not necessarily mean outside, here is article that offers valuable information on non-traditional performance spaces.

8. and 9. Choosing your value system and Choosing your method for reflection.

What determines good v. bad? How do you measure the success of the process as well as the success of the work?

Consider re-evaluating how you talk about choreography. Some interesting reads on this are by Larry Lavender (Dancers Talking Dance) and Liz Lerman (Critical Response Process: A Useful Method for Getting Feedback On Anything You Make from Dance to Dessert).

The artists listed here are a mere sampling of a larger pool of artists that relate easily to any and all of these segments of the creative process. Many of the artists listed are established modern dance choreographers, however, there are a great many choreographers from ballet and jazz worlds also working within the concert dance philosophy and developing interesting creative processes, too.

In developing lesson plans, realize how important it is for students to SEE dance and include opportunities to do this.

The newly available Jacob’s Pillow Interactive, dance company websites, clips from Youtube, PBS broadcasts available for purchase, or materials available through your library should make much easier than even a few years ago.

Here are some additional ideas for teaching the History and Evolution of Dance, and for leading students through the process of making their own dances.

How do you explore dance history in your classes?
What recommendations for source material would you add to those above?

The Nutcracker: Unwrapped

Hand-torn snow. 7,000 lbs of it.

Houston Ballet’s current version of The Nutcracker, choreographed by Ben Stevenson, premiered in 1987. And ever since, what falls from above in the Land of Snow is what designer, Desmond Heeley always wanted: Crepe paper, because of the way it looks, reflects the light and most importantly, because of the way it falls. Hand-torn because its densely textured surface makes it impossible to cut layers of paper without sticking and clumping.

For the first few years, volunteers from the Houston Ballet Guild and the HB staff donated several days in the weeks before The Nutcracker opened to sit and tear paper into snowflakes, but over the years a new method was developed using spools and special blades. Now a crew of four can tear several layers at once more efficiently over a period of 2 weeks.

About 200 pounds of snow fall during each snow scene, after which (during intermission) the snow is swept up and placed in special boxes to be cleaned. The used snow is carefully sifted and cleaned to be used again in another show. About 30 minutes before curtain on each performance day, the snow bags are refilled with either new or newly cleaned snow that will majestically fall to the stage, to the delight of the Houston Ballet audience.

IMAGE The Nutcracker Sugar Plum Fairy tutus and Soldier costumes in wardrobe storage. IMAGE

The Nutcracker Sugar Plum Fairy tutus and Soldier costumes in wardrobe storage.

Repair. Rebuild. Remake. Repaint.

Snow isn’t the only thing that’s reused and recycled in The Nutcracker, which is produced season after season for more performances than other ballets in the Houston Ballet repertoire.

According to HB’s Production Director, Tom Boyd, who has been part of its production team from the start, there have been the expected subtle changes in choreography over the years. But everything else has remained very close to what was originally conceived by Stevenson and Heeley. Even costume fabrics and trims, which endure the wear and tear of hundreds of performances, are replaced only with the best possible match to the original design.

Dressing the Cast

When asked which Nutcracker costume is her personal favorite, it seems an easy answer for Houston Ballet’s Wardrobe Manager, Laura Lynch. “The Snow Queen,” she pronounces. “Love that tiara.”

One-hundred and thirty costumes appear in a single Nutcracker performance. But if you break it down to the individual clothing pieces, like collars, petticoats, and more, the wardrobe department maintains over 650 items, not including tights, facial hair or wigs.

Because The Nutcracker is performed every year, the show’s costumes hang in the back wardrobe room at Wortham Theater Center all year long so that Wardrobe may continually restore and rebuild as necessary in the costume shop at Houston Ballet’s new Center for Dance (the largest professional dance company facility of its kind constructed in the United States).

IMAGE The Sugar Plum Fairy's Costume tagged by Wardrobe IMAGE

Sugar Plum’s costume tagged by Wardrobe and ready to go. Photo: Casey Ayala/Art Institute of Houston North

The Wardrobe department uses a dancer’s most current measurements to rebuild costumes and depends upon the fitting process to determine if Nutcracker costumes must be rebuilt or altered. Costumes are generally not re-fit on dancers who have performed the role previously, so it may surprise those visiting Wardrobe during Nutcracker preparation that seemingly there’s not much going on with the show. However, the department is always working on other productions as well. This season, you’d see costumes for the one-night-only Jubilee of Dance, photo shoots, Cinderella (opening in February), and academy performances.

How does Wardrobe keep track of all the measurements, alterations, and other costume details?

“LOTS OF ORGANIZATION,” exclaims Lynch. “We use an extensive inventory system to keep track of which costumes belong together. We also have a numbering system in all costumes to assist in charting who wears which costume.”

If you’re producing your own Nutcracker this year, Ms. Lynch has some tips: “Stay on top of keeping things clean. Spot cleaning and hand washing are very important and if left to wait will certainly damage the costumes.” She recommends you have a system in place and “stay the course.”

Making Theatrical Magic

In the second act of HB’s The Nutcracker, flying chef-angels zip across stage. Tom Boyd recalls the origins of this unique feature: “The idea came from the fact that Act 2 is the Land of the Sweets and the designer, Desmond Heeley, was quite interested in answering the question, that a child might ask, ‘Where do all the sweets come from?’ So, Desmond decided there should be bakers and cooks and some of them would be flying. And, if you look at the chandeliers you will see flying cooks on either side. Ben liked the idea so much, he decided to expand the concept with dancers flying to open the Act.”

According to Tom, the dancers rehearse the basic positions and timing in the studio as part of the regular rehearsals for many weeks prior to moving into the Wortham. When the flying rig apparatus has been installed in the theater, the dancers are called to be fit in their harnesses and work with a flight coach until they feel comfortable being in the harness and off the ground. Then, they rehearse the flying sequence to piano music with all the flyers, the flight coach, the stagehands (each flyer requires 3 each), stage managers, and artistic staff needed during the actual show. Throughout the entire run of The Nutcracker, the flying sequence is also rehearsed onstage during Intermission for the comfort and safety of the dancers and crew alike.

IMAGE Sketch of The Nutcracker set design by Desmond Heeley. IMAGE

The Nutcracker set design by Desmond Heeley.

Though flying takes a great deal of coordination, it is the extremely complicated transition from the Battle Scene to the Snow Scene that Boyd describes as the most technically challenging. “The house scenery has to move off and fly out, with the enormous tree, and in its place is revealed the Land of Snow. This transition involves the entire stage crew, with 7 people pulling lines on the fly-rail, and 11 people moving scenery off-stage. Both stage managers are involved in calling cues, timing the moves to the music and the entire company of dancers are either running offstage, running onstage, or quick-changing costumes to be onstage.” All in a matter of seconds.

What are the essentials for staying organized and keeping The Nutcracker running smoothly?

“It helps to have very good archived records of how the show hangs, what is involved from scene to scene, how many people are required to do what,” says Boyd, “but, the most important element of all is to have highly skilled, dedicated, experienced people putting it all together. And, we are fortunate to have an outstanding production staff, stage crew, and wardrobe staff who all know that we have a duty to present this amazing company of brilliant dancers with the highest production value possible, whether it’s The Nutcracker or any other performance.”

So you want to be a…

During the 1980’s Boyd made the leap from dancing to managing productions and scenic design. If you’re planning to make a similar leap, Boyd says to pay attention to all that is going on around you. “Our audience sees only the tip of the iceberg when attending a performance, but as members of an arts organization we have the opportunity to understand and be involved with the entire infrastructure,” he explains.

“Find out what the other departments do, how they contribute to the final product. Any single performance and audience experience is the result of hundreds of people doing so many different things. Not only could you encounter interesting career options, you have an opportunity to capitalize on the experience you already have.”

Similarly, Laura Lynch, says the path to becoming Wardrobe Manager for a large ballet company requires experience. Lots of it, working in all aspects of Wardrobe. “I have a theater degree and have been working professionally in costuming for 27 years,” divulges Lynch. “I’ve done everything from stitching, patterning, cutting, dying, crafting, painting, shop supervising, freelance design, traveling with Broadway productions to community theater. To rise to the top hard work, good work ethic and a passion for what you do are necessary.”

In addition to supervising in HB’s wardrobe and costume shop, she has also designed costumes. If you’re a dancer with a passion for ballet fashion, Lynch says, “Research! Everything, from fashion to theater.” She explains that exploring museums and art history are two great ways to research and learn, and that paintings offer an enormous wealth of fashions throughout history. “Get involved and keep learning new skills,” Lynch encourages.

Of course, what Nutcracker feature would be complete without a few stories from those who’ve seen it all?

I couldn’t help but ask Boyd about something a little mouse told me: That HB used to stage an elaborate “Nutty” Nutcracker for audiences at the close of the run.

“The Nutty Nutcracker was a tradition for a number of years,” explains Boyd. “It was a way to close out a very long season of The Nutcracker performances, and to let the dancers and audience have some fun within a very traditional framework.”

“I think my fondest memory was when Drosselmeyer brought out his trunk of dancing dolls to entertain the children, and pulled out Lauren Anderson dressed as Tina Turner doing her signature song, ‘Proud Mary’,” he recalls. “That one was so popular, she made several cameo appearances in subsequent shows, even when it made no sense, just for the fun of it.”

Last year on Dance Advantage, corps member Madison Morris, shared her favorite wardrobe malfunctions involving rats. Lynch recalls a year when one of the rats’ ears came unglued and was barely hanging on to the head. “Lots of flopping about… luckily the rat was done for that show and we were able to re-glue for the next show.”

Boyd says so many things happen behind the scenes, most if not all unseen by the audience, that it’s hard to pick one thing that he can look back on and laugh at. “The ones I remember weren’t funny when they happened, and unfortunately, they really aren’t funny in retrospect. Oh, I guess they are just a little bit. But, each little hiccup in the otherwise smooth running of a show, is a reminder that there is an enormous level of detail that needs to be constantly monitored in a show like this and one can never, ever take it for granted or think you can phone it in.”

He does relay one instance of flying gone wrong: “The flying cooks are supposed to meet at center and hold hands until they are flown off to their respective sides of the stage,” he says. ” Well in this performance, the stagehand in charge of traveling the flyers to their marks went so far past his mark that instead of stopping at center stage, the dancer from stage left went past the one from stage right, and they spun around each other getting their flying cables hopelessly entangled. So, they were just stuck together center-stage, 15 feet above the floor, staring at each other.”

Oh no, what then?

“When the stage manager realized they were not going to untangle themselves, he instructed both sets of crew operating the flying rig to travel the flyers off stage right until they were in the wings.” To a round of cheers from the audience, of course.

Featuring breathtaking scenery and costumes by Tony Award-winning designer Desmond Heeley, Houston Ballet’s The Nutcracker is ideal for introducing children to the power and beauty of classical dance, and a delightful way for the entire family to ring in the holiday season. Thirty-three performances run November 25 – December 27, 2011 in the Brown Theater at Wortham Theater Center in downtown Houston. For tickets call 1-800-828-ARTS, or visit

More of The Nutcracker Behind-the Scenes:

Houston Ballet’s The Nutcracker By the Numbers
CultureMap goes Art & About and wants to know…
Team Sugar or Team Snow?
Art and About: Culture Bro and Culture Sis hit the Houston Ballet and learn all about the Nutcracker

Watch this video on YouTube.

Nancy Wozny, aka Culture Sis, aka dancehunter, and Joel Luks, aka Culture Bro, go behind the scenes at the Houston Ballet to learn why Ben Stevenson’s version has been a hit for 24 years.

Creative Process: 10 Ideas for Moving Beyond the Steps

I view dance as THE liberal art.

When working within the concert dance realm, we combine movement with music, acting, and principles of visual art while exploring topics in other academic disciplines. This helps provide meaning behind each motion and informs the process by which we create.

When I hear some K-12 (and studio) dance educators talk about the works they and their students present, I often feel they are missing what I consider to be my favorite part of teaching- getting kids to think about real things in real ways. This should include the field of dance.

IMAGE A winding path cuts through a grassy park IMAGE

“The road of life twists and turns and no two directions are ever the same. Yet our lessons come from the journey, not the destination.” - Don Williams, Jr. --- Photo by Ian Sane

But what if your career has never ventured into professional dance performance? What if your college dance experience only explored a small number of methods in making dances? What if your understanding of process means little more than practicing dances over and over until they are “performance ready”? What does “performance ready” even mean?
Concert Dance, to me, is determined by process- the ways movement is inspired, how it is developed, edited, and finally presented. The style of dance is irrelevant in many respects, it is all about the intent and the journey, which lead to the product.

If this idea is new to you, here is a ten-step list of how to engage in a process. The order of these events could certainly be played with, as could the methods for determining these events. [Read more…]

Approaching Choreography for Musical Theatre

Dancers, dance teachers, or students, you may at one time or another find yourself choreographing for amateur (or even high school) theatre. participated in community productions as a child and in my adulthood, I consider it a wonderful opportunity for people from all sectors of the public and workforce to come together and work toward a common goal, as well as an occasion to bring a variety of plays and musicals to local residents that may not otherwise attend live theatre.

If you are a dance teacher or choreographer, it can also be an opportunity to showcase your skills to a wider audience than which you encounter within your local studio or dance company.

Approaching Choreography for Musical Theatre

When approaching choreography for musical theatre, it is important that the strategy differs from that of a recital dance production.

This may seem obvious but it happens sometimes that teachers or students new to choreographing musicals tackle the job in this familiar way. I’d like to offer an  approach to this particular creative process by looking at the various components of choreography for the stage and suggesting tips for effective preparation and collaboration. I hope that it will smooth the process for those new to creating movement for a musical production.

The Script

Read the script. A few times if possible, so that you really get a feel for plot, its characters, and how and why the musical numbers fit within the text. (If you’ve seen the musical, don’t rely on that particular interpretation. There may be drastic differences.)

Know the show inside and out. It will make your job easier in the long run! Imagine how things might look on the stage. Take notes on what you visualize, particularly as it relates to the musical numbers.

The Score

Photo: Paul Keleher

Photo: Paul Keleher

Study the score (not just the libretto). A copy of the piano, or rehearsal, score typically includes the vocal line and  the essentials of underlying music – this is very helpful to choreographers.

Concepts and terms you’ll need to understand:
  • Multiple Staves– A staff is 5 lines in a group, usually with a clef symbol on the left. In a theatrical score each ‘voice’ or instrument is likely to have its own staff. These staves are connected by brackets to show what is being played/sung at the same moment.
  • Basic Notation and Time Signature – Note/rest values and how they are counted within the context of the measure/time signature. Understanding rhythm as it’s shown on the page.
  • Common “Mood” Indicators – Symbols and words used in notation that indicate volume, tempo, and dynamics of what you will hear.

Get a copy of the Broadway soundtrack. If you can, try to follow along in your copy of the score. Keep in mind that these will probably NOT be identical. Make note of these changes, if you can.

Discuss with the Musical Director any cuts he/she is making within the score. Long dance breaks can be excruciatingly long with amateur dancers – it’s okay to suggest not taking that second repeat!

The Staff

Hopefully in the first production meeting, the Stage Director, Musical Director, Choreographer, and Set/Lighting Designer(s) will be present to discuss the overall vision/direction for the show which is ultimately decided by the Stage Director.

Stage Director

Discuss each musical number individually with the director. You may not be responsible for every number in the production as not all may require your choreographic skills – this will need to be determined.

What to discuss:

  1. Where the actors will be at the top (or beginning) of the musical introduction.
  2. Where the actors should end up physically at the conclusion. (The director may not yet have answers for this but this information is important for creating seamless transitions in your choreography. Knowing it sooner rather than later is always helpful as you create choreography)
  3. How the characters have been affected or changed by the conclusion of the song. Does it move the plot forward?
  4. Your interpretations of the musical style and how this affects movement quality. (Do you see it as athletic? A soft shoe? A Fred & Ginger-style number?) And, your feelings about what types of experience or abilities the actor should have. (Be prepared to adapt these once the chosen actor is in place).
Musical Director

Work closely with the Musical Director on song tempos (what works best for the song, dance, and singers). Remember, when creating choreography that the movement should not inhibit the vocalists ability to sing what’s required (particularly in solo work). Use dance interludes and/or a dance ensemble to show off big, “dance-y” choreography.

If you don’t read music, you will be relying on the director or pianist to make a recording (with appropriate cuts) of the music for the purposes of creating choreography. Unless you have a rehearsal accompanist, this may also prove useful during choreography practice.

Discuss and stay informed regarding the set design and be persistent about your spatial needs. I’ve often found myself with a smaller-than-originally-planned space in which to squeeze a 40-member cast for a full-company production number. Sometimes even the best-laid plans must be adjusted. Politely ask designers to keep you informed of these changes.

The Movement
Photo: Matt P.

Photo: Matt P.

Research social dances of the time period in which the musical is set and find ways of incorporating these into your choreography.

Try improvising to explore and find movement. At this stage the music you use for inspiration does not need to be music from the production, just something that gets ideas flowing. Once you have a vocabulary of movements for the character(s) or event, try drawing from that vocabulary to create the dance.

Familiarity with the Broadway or movie choreography of the musical can prove very helpful. For more than just ethical reasons, it is not a good idea to copy or recreate it movement for movement. One, your actors probably do not have the same skill set as the actors in a professional production and, two, the choreography will lack integration with the rest of the show. Look and then leave it! The overall impression of the professional version will likely stay with you, helping you to create something that is reminiscent of the original yet uniquely your own.

Create variations on a theme and don’t be afraid to re-use movement. Many novice choreographers make the mistake of creating one long string of new movements. Just like in music, the audience enjoys recurring motifs and patterns.

Keep things simple, particularly in large group numbers. Use a core group of capable dancers, if you have them, for more intricate or spectacular choreography and use a lot of every day movements and gestures for others.

Consider how you use the stage space — create floor patterns, have actors interact and move around/with each other, and use the set. You wouldn’t believe how many amateur or high school productions I’ve seen that feature dancers lined up and facing forward during each musical number.

The Talent

Great musical theatre choreography does not necessarily require complex movement or staging. Much of the time, great theatrical choreographers are marked by their ingenuity. In many cases, a community theatre is made up of individuals without any formal dance training. If this reflects your situation, you must be able to work with what you’ve got.

Get your actors’ input. Whether it is relying on them to come up with a few gestures, allowing them to try different things and make choices, or drawing from their thoughts on the show or their characters, they will appreciate the collaboration if you are clear with instructions. Just like in classes for young children or beginners, be wary of giving directions that are too “open-ended.” Actors may also benefit from improvisational exercises to develop movement for their characters.

Communicate with the director about your actors’ needs throughout the rehearsal process. Community theatre participants will generally require more rehearsal than you might anticipate. Also, I’ve found that some actors really appreciate rehearsal notes that they can take for home practice. Be generous and be patient, providing extra help if you are approached.

What are your experiences with Community Theatre or choreography for musicals?
Have you choreographed productions with professional actors? How is this different from an amateur setting?
How does choreographing a show for high school students differ from community productions?
What did I leave out? You are welcome to add tips or your thoughts on the process below.