Dance Lighting Introduction

A guest post from Lucas Krech, a Lighting Designer with a passion for lighting dance performance. An great introduction to dance lighting that looks at some history, theory and the use of side light in particular.

Dancers live in light as fish live in water. The stage space in which they move is their aquarium, their portion of the sea. Within translucent walls and above the stage floor, the lighting supports their flashing buoyance or their arrested sculptural bodies. The dance is fluid and never static. Designing for the dance has been my most constant love. I have designed the decor as well as the lighting for a good many ballets and I have installed the basic systems with which I have worked in dance repertory. If I leave anything to posterity, it will be, I think, most importantly in the field of dance lighting. My extraordinary good fortune was that I came along at a point in time when Martha Graham was creating and when Lincoln Kirstein was backing George Balanchine to create new and fresh uses of the ballet form. ~~Jean Rosenthal, The Magic of Light

Dance Lighting
Dance Lighting

Lighting the Dance

These first few sentences are perhaps all one needs to understand the dance. The rest is style and historical aesthetics. “Dancers live in light as fish live in water.” If you have ever seen a truly first rate dancer glide across the stage effortlessly and with infinite grace, you know what this means. The relationship between a dancer and their light, between a choreographer and their lighting designer, is unique among artistic collaborations. Perhaps the closest analogy would be the relationship of the composer to their conductor. So much of dance, even when dealing with classical story ballet, comes down to the lighting that one must almost unlearn everything you know about lighting in order to learn how to light for the dance.

Dance lighting is unique among performance disciplines in large part because dance is concerned first and foremost with movement. While in all performance mediums our focus is on bodies in space, it is the dance where we focus on where and how that body moves. Perhaps there is a large sweeping arc of an entrance that spirals to center for a pirouette where our dancer is joined by a partner who then jaunts about the stage with her. In short, we are concerned with the whole stage and the quality of movement rather than where someone is standing for such and such a monologue.

My background and training as a designer is in modern ballet and post-modern dance. The following essay is written primarily from the perspective of designing for modern dance forms. While many of these principals can be applied to classical ballet and some post-modern styles, those forms are not the focus as they demand their own unique approach.

For the purposes of this essay I am assuming the use of a conventional modern dance space. This typical dance space has several wings, perhaps four per side, with a boom placed in the center of each just out of sitelines. Sidelights are hung on the booms and point straight across stage. These low hung units allow for color changes between pieces in repertory and allows the entire stage space to be filled, with very few lights. The wings and dance floor are black and there is often a white cyc in the background. Should the cyc not be used for a particular piece, there is a black curtain immediately downstage of the Cyc.

The Angles of Dance

Because our interest in dance is based first on movement, the lighting must be grounded in an approach that seeks out interesting ways to reveal that moving body. While in a play, where our concern is dialogue and plot, we focus on faces through the use of frontlighting. In dance, to show off the musculature and movement, we rely primarily on sidelight positions.

While sidelight is a primary tool in dance lighting, at a more basic level the use of different angles in dance is often treated in a more minimalist or poetic manner than one finds in a play or musical or television. While in a play or television, you might have a key light that is brighter than the myriad other lights used in the scene, for a dance, you might only have that one light or a very few lights from a tightly controlled palette of angles.


The sidelighting conventions for dance developed out of the twin needs of a body’s movement in a kinesthetically focused art form and a touring repertory. As such this system was devised to achieve the maximum variety in lighting looks with a minimum of instrumentation.

The first lighting position to consider are the shinbusters or shins. As you might infer from the name, these are lights hung at or about shin height. They are typically elipsoidals with shutter cuts taken off the floor and focused to head height at the centerline. With these, it becomes possible to brightly light the dancer without illuminating the floor. The effect is one of making the dancer appear to float as if by magic.

After the shins, the next most important position are the head highs, or heads. These are lights hung at or just above typical head height. They are also focused to centerline, but unlike the shins they do not cut off the floor. While the light does graze the floor, the effect is minimal and allows the dancer to be brightly light while keeping a minimum of notice on the floor

These two positions are so fundamental to dance that many designers, should they find themselves in severely limited situations, would utilize only them. This system of sidelighting was developed by american designer Jean Rosenthal and is covered in more detail in her seminal text The Magic of Light.

Through the use of low angled sidelighting like this a designer may fill the entire stage space with light using as few as 8 or 10 lighting instruments. In a touring situation where venues range from having large compliments of lighting fixtures to incredibly limited options, this system allows the basic integrity of the design to be maintained in virtually any performance space. I discuss the implications of designing in repertory for tour in more detail here.

While Shins and Heads are the two primary angles utilized in dance, larger companies and dance venues will have a much more extensive lighting system for their home season if not also on tour. A more expanded low boom might have Low Shins, High Shins, Mids, Low Heads and High Heads. Classical ballet companies will also have high booms, typically in a pink and a blue that hang at 3-4 meters above the stage floor. Pipe-ends and other high-side lights may also be employed.

Other Angles and Lighting Options

Dance may begin with sidelight, but that is not to say that other options are unavailable to the designer. Backlighting, toplights, frontlight and foot lights should all be considered part of the designer’s tool kit. In addition to all these, lighted drops and cycloramas play a critical role in dance lighting.

Backlighting and top lighting often play a very prominent role in dance. Because the primary lighting angles keep the majority of light on the dancer and off the floor, the floor is left relatively dark. From this place, the designer has at their disposal any combination of overhead lighting positions to design shadows and patterns on the floor itself. Through the use of color, texture, shadow angle, and intensity, the designer can cause the dancer to appear to traverse entire worlds, while merely crossing the stage from down-right to up-left.

The use of a cyc in dance, or painted drops in ballet, can be quite effective as well. The color variety afforded by a three color cyc can give limitless variety to a designer when combined with the color options in the low booms.

Beyond the Basics and a bit of History

The advent of modern dance brought with it several changes that would rock the dance world and significantly impact the lighting designer in the process. The first was the elimination of toe shoes and ballet slippers. While not directly impacting lighting, this did lead to radical new explorations of form and movement, thus shifting the aesthetic center of the field. The second change, and one directly relevant to lighting, was the elimination of scenery.

With scenery gone, or relegated to a few gestural sculptures, lighting no longer had to contend with pesky walls that would block it. This freed the lighting designer to use whatever tool they saw as necessary to light the dance. It also shifted lighting to a more primary role in the creation of a visual space.

Lighting now had double duty of creating mood and atmosphere as well as setting. Lighting as scenery is commonplace in the dance world today. Be it through the use of toplight boxes, texture and color, or a partially obscured cyc, there are limitless ways to define the dance space architecturally with light.

Dance, in many ways, allows light to exist in its purest form. With little to no scenery and a focus entirely upon lighting a body in space, the medium lends itself to the poetic essence of what stage lighting can be. While theatre production can use quite a number of lighting instruments and angles to construct the various looks, dance is often content with a few clean, clear, simple gestures. Dance is an opportunity for the lighting designer to let their inner poet run free. To take light as a formal art and dance on stage with the performer. The lighting designer constructs the aquarium wherein a dancer may swim in their light.

Images are courtesy of Lucas Krech. The main photograph is copyright Julie Lemberger.

7 thoughts on “Dance Lighting Introduction”

  1. Pingback: Lighting Your Choreography: Essential First Steps
  2. Pingback: Interesting Reading Material #2 – Mixophrygian – An audio/visual experiment
  3. This is a great article! Ive always been a fan of side lighting for performances but never fully understood why until now!
    Thank you so much :)

  4. Pingback: Stage Lighting Basics for Dancers and Choreographers • Je Ballet - Lovers of All Things Dance
  5. Pingback: Personal Project Research – Alfie Sissons
  6. Would love to have the link to your essay. The link in the article is not working.

    “For a more detailed exploration of lighting floors, see my essay here.”

  7. Hiya. Checked this out and don’t seem to have the info on where the original link pointed to or even if it still exists. Worth dropping Lucas an email via his site. :-)

Leave a Comment