courtesy of
Dance Magazine

first published
February 1957

PREPARING A RECITAL:  Ideas for Sets and Props

     The main emphasis of a recital must be to demonstrate the student development, but at the same time it is possible to present a theatrical production so colorful and interesting that Suzy’s aunt and uncle will enjoy the whole program, not just the little tap routine she does with ten other seven-year-olds.  Most teachers are anxious to present a sparkling production, I’m sure, but their dreams slowly de-materialize when they discover how expensive it is to rent big drops that will be appropriate for each number on the program.

     When they are preparing a recital most teachers make the mistake of planning and doing the choreography before they plan the sets, costumes, and props.  That is the most desirable way for a big company, of course.  But the lo-budget recitals should have everything planned at once to achieve a stage that sparkles with sets that otherwise might have been eliminated entirely.

     Ingenuity is much more important than elaborateness.  Look around your studio and see what’s there that might be interesting to use on the stage.  I’m looking around my studio right now.  There’s an old-fashioned hat-rack that I picked up in a second-hand store for a dollar.  It’s got a couple of umbrellas and a coat hanging on it.  Now if that hat-rack was painted white . . . and it had a couple of pink umbrellas on it . . . and it was sitting in the middle of the stage . . . and two girls come out in pink plastic raincoats over white leotards and took the pink umbrellas for an “April Showers” number . . . maybe I could get another hat-rack and two blue umbrellas and two more girls in blue raincoats . . . and the pink girls could dance in a pink spotlight and the blue girls could dance in a blue spotlight, and then they could swap umbrellas and dance in each other’s spotlights . . . etc.

     How else could that hat-rack be used?  It would be high enough to be a maypole if the dancers were short . . . or it could be a white palm tree for a south seas number if a couple of palm leaves were cut out of white cardboard and tacked on top . . . or it could be a fancy candelabra simply by painting it with a fifteen cent bottle of gold paint and glueing [sic] white candles  (made out of cardboard tubes – the kind that come in wax-paper rolls or mailing tubes) on each arm . . . several of these candelabras and a throne chair ( a fancy old chair painted gold) could turn the stage into an elaborate ballroom . . . or the hat-rack can be “an apple tree on the farm” if a few green paper leaves are tacked on the top and a few real apples are hug from it by string . . .

     A gimmick like a hat-rack could be used as a theme for a whole program . . . say there are twelve numbers on the program and each one is based on a month of the year . . .

     What else is around the studio?  There’s a hoop that came off a barrel . . . three or four hoops could be painted different colors and suspended by black thread next to the backdrop . . . wouldn’t mean anything in particular but it would be an interesting pattern behind the dancers, especially if the choreography used lots of circles . . .  or hoops could be carried by the dancers and used in various ways . . . how about a costume that has the hoop suspended from a belt by strings like an old-fashioned hoop-skirt minus the skirt . . . and she could carry a parasol made from an old umbrella with all the cloth cut out leaving only the metal frame.

     You could do a whole set, or a series of sets, using the same theme . . . picture frames without pictures, chairs without seats or backs, tables without tops, door and window frames without doors and windows . . .

     Lathe is very useful for making odds and ends.  Lathe is long strips of wood about ¼ inch thick and from 1 to 6 inches wide.  You can buy it at a lumber yard for a few cents a foot.  It’s a simple matter to cut it in various shapes and arrange it on the floor to look like the outline of houses, trees, fences, etc.  A strong glue like Sobo will dry in a few minutes or an hour and when you stand the finished project you’ll find you have a charming se-piece that is strong enough to last through several performances.

     Wire from a hardware store, too, can be fashioned into many interesting shapes.  Get the kind of wire that bends easily by hand and tape or sodder [sic] it together where it crosses itself.  You can make an old-fashioned sofa from a plain bench by bending wire in the shape of a fancy sofa-back and fastening it to the back of the bench.  A stool can become an ice-cream chair by adding a wire back.  (Naturally this kind of furniture is not strong and cannot be leaned on.)  Hand props like teapots and kerosene lamps can be stylized interestingly with wire by making only their outlines.

     What else is in the studio?  There’s a round rug . . . put it on the stage and it might look like the center ring of a circus, especially if there were some balloons hanging overhead and peanut-vendors and clowns running up and down the aisles of the theatre.  If you’re doing a big circus number the tight-rope walker would find it hard to walk on a real rope lying on the stage floor, but it would be easy to walk on a white gauze bandage . . . Gauze bandages can be used for lots of things . . . they come in an assortment of widths and lengths from any drug store . . . they can be tied to a batten overhead and swooped to look like the edge of a curtain . . . or they can be hung straight up and down to look like a post (tape the bottom to the floor).

     There’s a step ladder . . .  it can represent a mountain . . . or the upstairs of a house (as in “Our Town”) . . . it can be turned sideways and have a few green leaves tacked on to become a tree where the dancer in the owl mask can sit . . . lay it on its side and you have a fence . . .

     In the back of the studio is an orange crate full of books.  Wooden orange crates are easy to get . . . they can be painted all sorts of different colors and pled up like baby’s blocks . . . if different sides of the crates were painted different colors they could be used as the basic theme for many sets.

     I don’t expect any of these ideas to appeal to you.  I use them only to demonstrate how you can get ideas for your recital just by looking around your own studio.  And look around the theatre you’re going to use.  It may have props, scenery, drops, platforms, and furniture that may give you ideas too, especially if it’s an old theatre used in vaudeville days.

     Don’t be ashamed of using inexpensive items.  What counts is your own taste and ingenuity.  A coat of paint can make even a step-ladder look like a specially designed prop.

(more next month)