How to Dance Under Extreme Lighting

March 22, 2017

Lighting controls what the audience sees onstage and where attention is focused, so from a choreographer’s perspective, a fixed spotlight can highlight a particular dancer or movement, or create a feeling of isolation onstage. In the Broadway show The Lion King, choreographed by Garth Fagan, a fixed spot is used to heighten the emotional impact of many scenes, including one in which Simba is pursued by a pack of devilish hyenas, played by the dance ensemble. The dancers prowl across the stage and back the lion cub into a corner, where he is lit with a fixed spotlight.


When a dancer moves into a spot, he or she experiences temporary blind spots until dilated pupils can adjust to the brighter light. This temporary blinding effect could cause you to lose your balance. LaMae Caparas, a former ensemble member of The Lion King, recommends resisting the temptation to look directly into a spotlight bulb aimed at you from the house or balcony. To spot a turn, “look over or just beneath the light,� LaMae says, “otherwise you’ll be blinded [for the rest of the dance].�


Moving Spotlights

Moving spotlights give the same focusing effect as a fixed spot, but allow for a greater range of movement across the stage. In STOMP, an off-Broadway show created by Steve McNicholas and Luke Cresswell (who also designed the show’s lighting schemes), the dancers create a symphony using ordinary objects. In a number called “Hands and Feet,� each dancer performs a four-bar solo in a moving spotlight, explains cast member Stephanie Marshall. A caveat is that any movements outside of the spot are lost to the darkness—and moving with a pre-programmed light isn’t as easy as you’d think. “We have to make sure our movements fill up the lit space without being so large that we go out of the light,� Marshall says, adding that staying in the light while performing the show’s ultra-physical moves is tricky.


Cast members rely on a large number of rehearsals to develop an intrinsic awareness of both their movements and placement—otherwise, the stage can turn into a dangerous place. “STOMP is an ensemble piece, so accuracy becomes very important, artistically and for reasons of safety. Making sure that not only are you in the correct spot to brace the impact of a pole swinging at you in the air, but that you are also in the correct spot [in the light] to be seen doing this can be a challenge,� said Marshall.

Strobe Lights

If you thought strobe lights were only found at sweet sixteen parties and techno raves, think again. Strobes can create dazzling effects on stage; they can also be a huge distraction to the dancers. In David Parsons’ Caught, strobe lights create the illusion of flight. The dancer’s jumps are timed to coincide with the flashes of light so that the audience never sees his or her feet touch the ground. The preparation is intense: The dancer rehearses in a completely dark studio to learn to go through the choreography and timing without the distraction of the strobe. When the strobe is added, Parsons instructs the dancer to look anywhere onstage except directly at the strobe bulbs when they fire.


Spotting a turn onstage with strobe lights can be disorienting, and unfortunately there’s no quick-fix trick to make it easier. To avoid being thrown off, dancers must rely on a great deal of rehearsal and years of technique training. Parsons also urges dancers to not let lighting effects psych them out. “When there is harsh lighting in your eyes, [it is possible] to be comfortable with it and work through it,� he says. “You’ll be surprised with the result, but it still takes a lot of practice.�

Lights Out

Dancing in complete darkness may seem pointless, but fading the stage lights until the dancers are ensconced in total darkness, often called “fading to black,� is a technique used by choreographers to create a dramatic effect—without losing the dancers completely.


In Jerome Robbins’ Glass Pieces, performed by New York City Ballet, the stage starts relatively dark. As the corps enters and slinks across the stage, the lights first fade in from the right, seemingly travel across the stage, then slowly fade out from the left until the stage is dark again. Spotting a turn during such a dimly lit piece is as simple as looking into the audience, says NYCB corps member Taryn Wolfe. “When you are on a dark stage, it is still never completely dark,� Wolfe says. “There are always house lights down the aisles and on all the balconies, so when I have to turn onstage I always find a light in the house to spot.� Wolfe also points out that one unexpected hazard for those with stage fright is that because the stage is so dark, you can see the faces of the people in the audience.