courtesy of
Dance Magazine

first published
August 1956



     Because follow-spots can provide a great deal of actual illumination, they are very useful in auditoriums with little or no equipment.  They can be focused to cover the whole stage and substitute for front lighting, or they can follow the soloist who would otherwise be a little too dark.

     The follow-spot can be most useful in classical ballet if it is not too bright, and actually serves as a charming theatrical convention to assure the audience that this really is a theatre with live dancers.  The follow-spot operator must be very skillful and needs several rehearsals or some sort of an inter-communication system with the stage manager.  Otherwise, the “following” will be both tragic and comic if the spot lags behind or jumps ahead of the dancer who makes a sharp turn.

     The follow-spot should not attract attention to itself by its brightness.  Rather, it should be in such relation to the rest of the lighting that it appears to be only the radiance that a great dancer carries at all times.

     For modern dance it can be used for emphasis, if it has a color that contrasts with the rest of the lighting.  For purpose of emphasis in a specific work, for example, the dancer may be watching others dance.  If he has a spot on him he will be better able to compete with the moving dancers, who would otherwise draw all of the audience’s attention.

     If several follow-spots are available, an interesting device is to light the dancer’s body in dark blue, for example, and use just a pin-spot in another color on his hands (for Broadway-type mudras) or his feet or face or whatever is the important focus point.  Or, with several spotlights, each dancer can have his own spotlight in some special “character color” (for dancers with a circus or commedia del arte theme).  Or a single follow-spot can be used as a partner to the dancer; or, as for Escudero’s Zapateado solo, I pin-spotted just his feet and left the rest of the stage in darkness.

Light Blindness

     Many dancers have trouble with their balance and directions because of low spotlights which are in their range of vision and blind them momentarily.  To avoid this the dancer must always remember to “look at the eyebrows” of the spotlight rather than at the eye.  That is, he must set his focus slightly above the spotlight.  Furthermore, the light angle is then more flattering than if he looks directly at or below the spotlight.

     Dancers who ordinarily wear glasses are particularly bothered by light blindness.  It is essential that such a dancer remove his glasses at all lighting rehearsals, and for as many rehearsals before that as possible, so that his eyes can adapt to stage lighting without getting the unfortunate glassy stare.

Working With Lights

     Lucky is the performer who intuitively knows how to work with lighting.  So often the dancer would look better and his movements would come across better if only he raised his head half an inch or changed his floor pattern six inches to left or right.  The ability to “feel” the light when it is on you can be acquired, of course, and an experienced dancer knows when his movement requires the “hot spot” for emphasis and when he should stay out of the “hot spot.”  But he also knows that to pass completely out of the light and return to it can steal the audience’s eye from something that might be more important elsewhere on the stage.

     It’s the lighting designer’s job to have the dance area properly lit (most dancers will be very cooperative about making minor adjustments in spacing).  But then it’s the dancer’s job to stay in the light.  Sometimes a small piece of tape on the floor will help locate various sign-posts to keep him in the designated area.  The dancers should not hesitate to ask the stage manager to mark the floor.  During rehearsals the dancer can also acquaint himself with various things around the stage – pieces of scenery, the angle of specific drapery, or the line from the exit lights, etc. – so that he will be better able to keep to the floor plan.

Bring Up the Whites

     A common lighting device at the end of each section of a classical ballet is to raise the intensity of the lighting, and thereby raise the intensity of the audience’s applause.  It is perfectly ethical (because the more the audience applaud, the more they enjoy the performance) providing it is properly timed so that the audience is not aware it has happened.

     Unfortunately, only practice can teach exact timing, but it must occur either in the split second that the dancers exits and just before the audience start the gasp that is followed by applause or in the split second that the dancer enters so that the change happens on a moving dancer, rather than on an empty stage or on a dancer who has just finished moving.  Otherwise, it will be an obvious as the vaudeville trick of “bring up the whites” (when the white footlights are brought to full quickly at the end of each number).

     The lighting for curtain calls should generally be in the same mood as the dance itself, but brighter.  Many follow-spot operators have retained the vaudeville habit of pulling the gelatine out of the follow-spot for the bows.  They succeed in making the bows brighter, but the sudden change to white light “de-glamorizes” the costume and adds ten years to the puffing, sweating dancer.


     “Milking” means taking more bows than the applause warrants.  The best that can be said for it is that it is a very dangerous sport.  Nothing is more embarrassing to the dancer or to the audience than to be caught “milking.”  It is much wiser to leave the audience wanting another bow.  If the house lights are on a dimmer, many stage managers bring the house lights up to half after several bows so that the audience can keep applauding for another bow if they really want it or can stop, and no one need be embarrassed,

     Some dancers prefer to “kill the applause” in favor of a minimum number of rehearsed bows.  The easiest way to stop applause is to bring the final curtain down slowly or to put the house lights on full; but the stage manager, who puts the house lights on full too soon when more bows are really warranted, will make the audience annoyed and, at the same time, will advance to the top of the dancer’s “gray list.”

     If there are many ballets on the program, many dancers feel that it is wise to “milk” the bows after the first and second dances simply to “warm up the audience” in order that they will get more enjoyment out of the remainder of the performance.  The dancer can do his own “milking” by the way he times his bows. And his attitude as he takes them, or he can leave it up to his stage manager.  The stage manager can “milk” by not opening the curtain until the applause has reached a certain level and then opening and closing it very quickly for several bows; by raising the lighting intensity slightly for each bow; by leaving the front lights on the curtain but the house lights our; or by bringing the front lights on as though the curtain is about to open and them waiting for the applause to start up before opening the curtain.

(to be continued next month)