How to Prepare Students for a Winning Dance Recital

As I write this it’s autumn and the leaves are falling.  I am preparing my students for our winter showcase.  As soon as it’s over, I will be rolling right in to preparing them for our end of the school year performance in June.  We are always preparing for a performance.  I have found that it keeps my students excited and focused, and increases my student retention.  However, if I was disorganized in my approach and preparations, 2 full shows per year could burn out my students, their parents, my faculty and me.  

When I made the decision to add a winter showcase to our yearly lineup, I wasn’t sure that it wasn’t going to kill me.  However, with every task balanced out on a well-organized rhythm calendar and some clear strategies for preparing my students, parents and teachers, it has been one of the best things I have ever done for my studio.  Here are some of the ways that you can prepare your students for dance recital success leading up to every show.

Have a Solid Curriculum

The success of every dance step begins at the preparation.  The success of every dance studio performance begins with a strong, organized and developmentally appropriate curriculum that provides clear concepts and clean technique across levels.

Choreograph to the Curriculum

With an appropriate curriculum in place, we have a framework of skills that students at each level should be predictably proficient in.  Our choreography must sync with our curriculum.  While we as dance teachers might get a great deal of pleasure from the creative endeavor of putting together the cutest preschool recital dance ever known to man, we have to prioritize the success of our students over our own creative high.  It is the purpose of our choreography to create a win for our dancers, not accolades for ourselves.  And, yes, of course, it can still be super cute. Use the steps, skills, concepts, and complexity that are already solid for each level.

Communicate Choreography Clearly

Remember the old computer saying, garbage in garbage out?  Well our young dancers are no different than a computer being programmed incorrectly if we don’t present our choreography clearly.  Without a clear organized presentation of the dance, we will get back the same mess that was put forth.  Take time to choreograph and practice the execution and communication of the steps before you are in front of your class teaching them.

Start Early

Start working on your dances fairly early in your season so that you don’t end up having frantic cram sessions as your recital approaches.  This also ensures that you don’t have to take up tons of your class time working on routines so that you still have time to teach your curriculum. 

Make Cleaning Fun

When it’s time to tidy up the dance, don’t make it a drag.  Create some fun around cleaning your dances.  I like to do a 5 Week Countdown to Recital Awesomeness for ages 5 and up.  We use a sticker chart to focus on perfecting one aspect of our dance each week leading up to our show, including knowing the dance and doing it with awesome arms, fabulous feet, a super smile, and putting all that together in a star performance.

Teach Good (SAFE)  Backstage Behavior

Don’t wait until you arrive at the venue to express the importance of staying quiet and keeping your hands to yourself backstage.  Prepare your students by practicing “being backstage” before you get there.  For very young dancers that have no frame of reference of what recital day and dress rehearsals will be like, I read books in class like Penny Prima, It’s Showtime by Joe Naftal and My Dance Recital by Maryann Cocca-Leffler.  We also practice what backstage will be like.  We turn off the lights, line up quietly with our hands to ourselves and listen carefully for when we are told to take the stage.  I ask that all of my faculty members cover the following information in an age appropriate manner with all of their classes to ensure that students stay safe and that we have a quality show.

  • Keep your hands to yourself.  Backstage can be a dangerous place.  Touch nothing.
  • Stay behind the tape line that will keep you out of the sightline of the audience.
  • Be VERY quiet.
  • No running.
  • No gum.  No beverage except water.  
  • Listen to the adults that are there to help you.
  • Stay with your group.  No wandering around backstage.

What if Something Goes Wrong

I personally can’t say that in all of my years of dancing, I ever had what I felt was a “perfect performance”.  It’s important for dancers of all ages to have some tools to deal with surprises or mistakes onstage.  With preschool and kinder age groups we cover what to do if someone else gets on your spot.  Simply find another spot and keep doing the dance.  With older students it’s important for them to know how to carry on if they miss a step, lose an accessory, fall down, or just feel nervous.  One strategy that I suggest to students that helps with the nerves and the quality of the performance is to train themselves in class to really actively listen to the music.  That’s pretty easy in class while they are dancing as a group.  However, it gets much trickier when we are nervous.  I see it when I have them perform their dance alone in front of their classmates.  They get nervous and just do the dance as fast as they can.  They literally are not hearing the music.  Our brain seems to shut off access to our ears and all we hear is our inner voice freaking out.  If, through intentional practice, we can train our brain to stay connected to the music we can block out the stress.  By blocking out the stress we can dedicate our precious brain power to remembering our steps, and by keeping the music our mental focal point, we can stay together in our timing.

Teach Dancers With Costume Changes How to Be Organized

For dancers with costume changes, especially quick changes, recitals can become an exercise in logistics.  (What a great skill for our students to be acquiring, by the way.)  Take some class time to help them organize themselves.  Show them how to list  their dances and how much time they will have for costume changes.  Talk about how to organize the shoes, tights, costumes and accessories for quick access without frantic searching.  Emphasize the importance of changing first and chatting later.  Teach them to help one another.  

When The Day Arrives

I don’t expect perfection from my students on showday.  I want them to feel the joy of performing.  I want them to feel beautiful and special in their costumes.  I want them to be empowered and emboldened by taking a chance and overcoming their nerves.  I want them to leave the theatre looking forward to working toward the next recital day.  I know which kid is still going to turn the wrong way even though I had her practice it a million times.  I know which preschooler will just stare at the audience and not do their dance at all.  There won’t be any changing those realities at this point, so I greet my dancers with a word of encouragement.  I tell them they look beautiful and that I am already proud of them no matter what.  They have worked hard all season, and today is the reward.  It’s time to go out on that stage, listen to their music, do their best and have fun.

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