Lighting the Dance


Jean Rosenthal and Lael Wertenbaker. The Magic of Light. 1972. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. Chapter 9: "To Dance in Light"
Joel E. Rubin and Leland H. Watson. Theatrical Lighting Practice. 1954. New York: Theatre Arts Books. "Ballet and Modern Dance," pp. 31-37.
Thomas R. Skelton. "Handbook of Dance Stagecraft." Dance Magazine. October 1955 to December 1956.
Lee Watson. Lighting Design Handbook. 1990. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc. "Dance," pp. 129-153.

Tom Skelton's Twelve Dance Areas | Jean Rosenthal's Basic Dance Light Plot
Lighting the Local Dance Recital

1. What is the primary difference in emphasis between lighting a dramatic production, and

In drama the primary goal of the designer is to light the actor's face. The figure on the left is front lit by one lamp located in the center of the Cove.

     lighting a dance performance?

In dance the primary goal of the designer is to reveal the sculptural qualities of the dancer's body. The figure on the left is side lit by two lamps. One mounted on a boom in the stage left entrance and the other hung on a boom in the stage right entrance. Notice the edges of the figure are well lit, but the front of the body is in shadow.

2. What is the primary light positions used in dramatic lighting?

Front light from the Cove, Balcony Rail, and First Electric.

     In dance lighting?

Side light from booms located in each side entrance.

3. If you only had twelve instruments, where would you hang them to light a play?

Six lamps in the Cove and six lamps on the First Electric.

     A dance concert?

Six lamps on three booms stage left and six lamps on three booms stage right. Each position would hold two lamps. One light would be hung 8' off the deck (head high) and the other 2' (shin buster) from the floor. The First Boom should be placed at the down stage edge of the apron, the Second in the first entrance, and the Third Boom up stage, in the third entrance.
A Basic 12 Lamp Dance Plot
of a Typical Boom

4. Who developed (or invented) dance lighting?

Most dance lighting techniques originated with the work of Jean Rosenthal (1912-1969). Shortly before her death in 1969 she wrote about dance lighting at the end of the Second World War.
Ballet was expected to be pink and pretty. The systems for lighting it were inflexible. Equipment, standard in European opera houses, consisted of first-pipe positions, a boom or tormentor, one left and one right. Supplemental lights were borderlights and strips of light above or on the sides, simply hauled in, one to twenty of them, at four feet to six or seven feet. There were a couple of what we privately called "belly-button crosslights." (Actually, they hit the crotch.) So the first ten feet of the stage was lit for visibility and available for change of color -- blue for Swan Lake, pink for Les Biches. After that there was just scenery light, flat and without depth or mood.

My system required fixed booms along the side at every entrance as a basis for flexibility and for lighting the whole stage. That made the ballets look different, which roused the ire of the European choreographers. (The Magic of Light. 1972. pg. 117-118)

The emphasis on "fixed every entrance" is mine. Most of Rosenthal's dance plots used four booms per side with two (American Dance Festival) to four (The New York City Ballet) to six (The Martha Graham Dance Company) to twelve (Ballet International) lamps per boom.

     With which dance companies was she associated?

She began working with the Martha Graham company in 1934. During her 35 year tenure she designed 53 productions. Her last work for Graham, The Archaic Hours, opened two weeks before her death. She was also the resident lighting designer with the New York City Ballet between 1948 and 1957. Works carrying the "Lighting by Jean Rosenthal" credit are still in the Ballet's repertory.

5. Who is Thomas Skelton?

Thomas R Skelton (1928-1994), one of America's most distinguished commercial New York lighting designers, taught at Yale University and the New York Studio and Forum of Stage Design. Like Jean Rosenthal, much of his work was in the world of dance. He designed for The American Ballet Theatre, The Joffrey Ballet, The New York City Ballet, and The Ohio Ballet. Like Stanley McCandless at Yale, he developed a "method" to light the dance stage which was published in the 1950's.

     When, and in what magazine, did he publish his approach to dance lighting?

Tom Skelton's "method" was published as The Handbook of Dance Stagecraft in Dance Magazine between October 1955 and December 1956. His reference to lighting equipment is out of date, but the techniques he outlines are still valid. Link to an electronic copy of the Handbook... hosted by the University of Minnesota in Duluth.

     What are his twelve "areas" of dance lighting?

Unlike McCandless' acting areas which relate to stage geography, Skelton's dance "areas" relate to a dancer's movement. For example, a ballet dancer who enters up left and exits down right would be using Area 2: The DR Diagonal. The twelve dance "areas", in order of importance (according to Skelton) are...
  1. Center Path (Lights 1 & 5)
  2. Diagonal: Up Left to Down Right (Light 9)
  3. Diagonal: Up Right to Down Left (Light 10)
  4. Center Pool of Down Light (Light 7)
  5. Center Stage Plane (Lights 12 & 13)
  6. Down Stage Plane (Lights 8 & 11)
  7. Up Stage Plane (Lights 14 & 15)
  8. Side wash: Right to Left (Lights 8, 12 & 14)
  9. Side wash: Left to Right (Lights 11, 13, 15)
  10. Front wash (Lights 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, & 6)
  11. Right Path (Lights 1 & 4)
  12. Left Path (Lights 3 & 6)
These twelve "areas" could be lit with a minimum of 15 lamps. Three in the Cove, three on the First Electric, one in the center of the Second (mid-stage) Electric, and four on each side. The four side lights would be divided between three booms: two on the down stage torm, and one on each of the center and up stage booms. Each light would need to be separately controlled. (Source: Thomas Skelton, "Handbook of Dance Stagecraft," Dance Magazine, December 1955, page 62+)

Thomas Skelton's 15 Lamp Dance Plot

7. What is the difference between a path,

A path is a pattern of light which runs from upstage to downstage. The Center Path covers the down center, center center, and up center stage areas. Paths are traditionally lit from the front with lamps mounted in the Cove and on the First Electric.

     a plane and

A plane is a pattern of light which run from stage left to stage right. The Down Stage Plane covers the down left, down center, and down right stage areas. Planes are traditionally lit from from the side with lamps mounted on booms located at each end of the plane.

     a wash?

A wash is when the full stage is lit by one group of lights. Each lamp in the group is placed so that it lights the stage from approximately the same direction.

In addition to the 12 area, 15 lamp approach to dance lighting, Skelton also wrote about color theory (Dance Magazine, January 1956) and briefly describes how to light a modern dance (Dance Magazine, March 1956), a jazz dance (Dance Magazine, April 1956), and a classical grande pas de deux (Dance Magazine, April 1956).

Tom Skelton's Lighting adapted by Jennifer Tipton for the Paul Taylor Dancers
One of the first productions I worrked at Shryock Auditorium while I was an undergranduate student at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale was a dance concert by the Paul Taylor Company. The lighting designer was Tom Skelton. The touring stage manager who adapted Skelton's design to the house equipment (12 dimmers and 12- 8" Fresnels) was Jennifer Tipton. We borrowed 6 Ellipsoidals for side lights from the Theatre department giving us a total of 18 units.

18 Unit Plot for the Paul Taylor Dancers at SIU (1963)

The two front lights were hung on box booms. The pipe ends on the the First and Second Electric were used to create a general, full stage wash. These eight units were all gelled in lavender. The three back lights on the Third Electric were clear. The center lamp on the First electric was focused into the center-center area. (I don't remember the color.) The six side lights were mounted at head height and were regelled between numbers.

8. Briefly describe Jean Rosenthal's "basic dance light plot."

Rosenthal's "basic dance plot" used between 6 and 12 lamps front of house, 13 units on the First Electric, 5 instruments on the Second, Third and Fourth Electric, and 16 lights on 8 booms. These 52 (to 58) units were controlled through 12 to 14-- 3,000 watt dimmers and 12-- 500 watt dimmers in an auxillary (or PreSet) board. House border lights and foot lights, if available, were used for general washes and cyc lights. This analysis is based on plots from the American Dance Festival (1949-1950) (a PDF file) and Page Ballet's French Tour (1950) which are located in the Jean Rosenthal Collection at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

     How many light pipes did she use?

Four pipes on 7 to 8 foot centers.


Eight booms, four stage left and four stage right. One boom was placed in each entrance. Each boom held two lamps -- one Fresnel and one Ellipsoidal. Both units were head high.

     How many circuits of front light?

Four, a warm and a cool full stage wash from the front-of-house (Box Booms, Balcony Rail, or Cove) and a warm and cool wash from the First Pipe.

     Side light?

Six per plane, three stage left and three stage right. Each side had a high side light (pipe end), and a mid torm (7 to 8 feet above the deck) warm and cool cross light.

     How many pools of down light?

Twelve. Three pools (Left - Center - Right) in each of the four planes. Because the pools were individually controlled by a 500 watt dimmer in the auxillary board, each down light could be used as a special as well as part of a wash.

     Which instruments could change color and focus between numbers?

The eight boom mounted lamps on each side of the stage could be re-gelled between pieces. The pipe mounted instruments could be re-colored between programs.

9. What was her basic color palette?

Rosenthal tended to use a limited number of basic tints from the Brigham catalogue.
  1. Brigham 2: Flesh Pink
  2. Brigham 17: Special Lavender (sometimes called Suprise Pink)
  3. Brigham 29: Steel Blue
  4. Brigham 62: Light Scarlet (also known as Bastard Amber)
This group included two warms (Flesh Pink and Bastard Amber), a neutral (Special Lavender), and a cool (Steel Blue). Tom Skelton adds ...
Any three of these four colors ... coming from different angles will collectively flatter all costumes and all makeups. That's a pretty big statement but I think it is pretty well time-proven. Furthermore, these four colors are sufficiently different to permit a color range for mood value; the non-used colors then are dimmed to provide only a little light to fill in the shadows. ("Handbook of Dance Stagecraft," Dance Magazine, January 1956)
In addition to the four basic tints, both Rosenthal and Skelton developed a set of "special effect colors." These included
  1. Brigham 9: Dubarry Pink for "weight and passion"
  2. Brigham 27: Light Blue for a stark cool blue and "stylized moonlight"
  3. Brigham 40: Light Green Blue for "mysterious unatural effects."
  4. Brigham 50: Light Lemon or...
  5. Brigham 51: Medium Lemon for "stylized sunshine"
  6. Brigham 57: Light Amber for "impressionistic sunshine"

Brigham color is no longer available. A near match in Roscolux or Lee might be...

Brigham Roscolux Lee
B2: Flesh Pink R33: No Color Pink L153: Pale Salmon
B9: Dubarry Pink R36: Medium Pink L110: Middle Rose
B17: Special Lavender R54: Special Lavender L136: Pale Lavender
B27: Light Blue L141: Bright Blue
B29: Steel Blue R65: Daylight Blue L165: Daylight Blue
B40: Light Green Blue L116: Medium Blue Green
B50: Light Lemon R07: Pale Yellow L103: Straw
B51: Medium Lemon R12: Straw L101: Yellow
B57: Light Amber R15: Deep Straw L104: Deep Amber
B62: Light Scarlet R04: Medium Bastard Amber L152: Pale Gold

Alternative colors were determined with GelFind.

10. What instruments did she use in her "basic dance plot?"

11. What changes did she make in the "basic side light plot" for the New York City Ballet (1948-1957) the Ballet International (1944) and Martha Graham Dance Company (1936-1969) ?

These three companies, which had larger production budgets, used more lighting instruments. This additional equipment was normally installed in the side light positions. Below is a table of how these circuits were distributed.

New York
City Ballet
Martha Graham
Dance Co.
High Side
@ 20'
1 Circuit 1 Circuit 4 Circuits 2 Circuits
Mid Torm
@ 12' - 16'
4 Circuits 2 Circuits 4 Circuits
Low Torm
@ 8'
2 Circuits 2 Circuits 2 Circuits
@ 2'
1 Circuit
Total 3 Circuits 5 Circuits 8 Circuits 9 Circuits

Traditionally each circuit represented a color wash. Only the Low Torm and Shin units were available for color changes. The color for the Mid Torm and High Side systems were fixed. A three color system was usually Pink, Blue and Lavender. Bastard Amber was added in a four color system. The High Side lights were either hung on ladders, 20 foot booms or on the ends of the electric pipes. Rosenthal's 1948 and 1963 plot for the Martha Graham Company can be viewed on-line at The Lighting Archive.

12. What approach do I use to light the local dance recital?

Most designers have faced the challange of lighting the local dance recital. These productions tend to have a large cast, often over two hundred, which will present many short three to four minute pieces choreographed to a wide variety of music -- from John Philip Sousa through Michael Jackson to Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky.

Typically, there is a limited amount of rehearsal time on stage. The dancers (students) normally arrive the morning of the first performance. Each class is allotted twenty minutes to a half hour. During this period, they may run through the number twice. A few of the dancers may even be in costume. But this rehearsal is always out of sequence. Late afternoon we will have the one and only run through / dress rehearsal. It is at this point the designer discovers he has two "blue" numbers back to back. He has only three to four minutes to create another look and save it to memory. This rehearsal stops for no one.

I tend to use four systems to build my basic recital plot.

  1. A three color (Pink - Blue - White) front wash from the Ceiling Cove,
  2. A two color side wash from both stage left (Pink and Blue) and stage right (Bastard Amber and Blue),
  3. A 3 x 3 grid of No Color down lights, and
  4. A three color (Red, Blue, and Green) full stage down / back wash from the center and upstage electric.
I tend to use the down and back lights to accentuate the colors of the costumes and separate the dancer from the background, the side lights to mold the dancer, and the front light to fill in the shadows to keep the Mom and Dads happy.

An Example:
The Aberdeen Recreation and Cultural Center's (ARCC) 2003 Dance Recital

PreSchool: I Look in the Mirror

The Aberdeen Recreation and Cultural Center's (ARCC) 2003 Dance Recital contained 41- 2 to 4 minute acts performed by a cast of over 400 students ranging in age from pre-school to adult. The 2 hour, 15 minute (with intermission) performance included presentations by students enrolled in Modern, Ballet, Jazz, Pointe, Tap, Clogging, and Swing.

The seventy three instrument plot included...

  1. A five color (R02: Bastard Amber, R:26: Light Red, R33: No Color Pink, R67: Light Sky Blue and R80: Primary Blue) Front Wash from the Cove,
  2. A two color (R34: Flesh Pink and B67: Light Sky Blue) full stage Side Wash from stage left and
  3. A two color (R01: Light Bastard Amber and R67: Light Sky Blue) full stage Side Wash from stage right,
  4. Nine Pools of White Down light in a 3x3 grid.
  5. A pair of Booms in the down stage plane with Three Side lights -- High (R51: Surprise Pink) , Mid (R26: Light Red and R21: Golden Amber) and Shin (White) -- plus a PinSpot for the Mirror Ball on each, and
  6. A three color (R120: Red Diffusion, R121: Blue Diffusion and R122: Green Diffusion) full stage Back / Down Wash from the Second and Fourth Electric.
My prime consideration when distributing the 73 units (21 Ellipsoidals, 19 Fresnels, 16 PARCans, 14 Scoops, 2 PinSpots and a Mirror Ball) was to efficiently, and effectively, light the 48' wide by 40' deep stage space. A couple of comments: I used PARCans with 1000 watt Wide FLood (WFL) lamps for the Light Red and Primary Blue Front Wash because two units would provide full stage coverage and the scoops on the Fourth Electric did double duty -- they not only provided a full stage Red, Blue and Green Wash, they also (after being reflected off the back of the Third Border) lit the Sky Cyc.

For the most part, the 41 looks in the show (one per dance) were developed by combining three submasters -- a full stage Blue Wash, a full stage Pink Wash and Nine Pools of White Downlight. Link to the Light Plot (PDF), Hook-Up Chart (PDF) and additional photographs of the ARCC Dance Recital 2003

Ballet IV: The Lamb of God

E-mail questions and comments to Larry Wild at
Created March 1999; Last updated: April 12, 2012
© 1999-2012 by Larry Wild, Northern State University, Aberdeen, SD