Tips for Documenting and Preserving Your Dances

By Mary Wegmann


The ephemeral beauty and spontaneity of live performance is what draws many of us to dance, and also what challenges choreographers who want to leave a lasting legacy of their work. Tangible remnants of dance come in the form of programs, reviews, video recordings and choreographic notes. These items are often thought to be as temporal as the dance itself, and are stacked in closets and lost in cabinets as choreographers move on to create new works.

In the short term, better dance documentation can aid in the rehearsal process, grant applications, publicity and building an audience. It can also allow for dances that have fallen out of repertory to be reconstructed, support the growth of dance scholarship, and aid in legacy creation for companies and choreographers. With a few small steps, the materials you already produce throughout the process of creating and presenting a dance can contribute to your personal archive and provide a lasting record of your choreographic work.

Here are some steps you can take to preserve your dance legacy:

1. Make a list of all the different types of records you create during the dance making and performance process. Which items provide the most insight into the process, performance and cultural impact of your work or the mission of your company? Begin to collect and save these items in a safe place.

2. What aspects of the process, performance and cultural impact of your work are not represented in the types of documents you already produce? The creative process of creating a dance, the most difficult aspect of dance to document, provides a valuable context for the work. Consider incorporating additional methods of documentation to build a more complete record of your dance, like:
– Recording rehearsals and coaching sessions
– Saving notes
– Journaling
– Conducting oral histories with those involved in the performance
– Recording audience responses
– Setting up Google Alerts to save online mentions of the dance or company

3. When creating video documentation of your work, think about and plan for how the video will be used. Will it be edited for promotional use? Will it be used to reconstruct the dance at a later date? Is it to capture the performance? Each of these functions of video requires different angles, lighting and direction. Talk to your videographer about your intentions for the recording before filming.

*Even if you expect that video documentation will only be used in-house for reconstruction or documentation, obtain clear permissions from dancers and other rights holders so you have the flexibility to use the documentation in other ways in the future.

4. Make Preservation, Master and Access copies of DVDs. The Preservation copy should not be used for viewings or duplication. This copy will ensure that you have a high quality, undamaged copy of the recording in your archive. The Master copy can be used to create duplicates, and Access copies can be used for viewings and to send with grant applications.

5. LABEL EVERYTHING, especially photographs and video recordings! Include information such as the name of the piece, the performance date, where it was performed, the names of the dancers, the name of the photographer or videographer and other collaborators, and whether or not any copyright restrictions exist for use of the photograph or video. Don’t forget about your digital files, which need clear file naming as well (see #9).

6. Create digital backups and store them in several locations. Important paper documents and photographs can be scanned and saved digitally. Files can be uploaded online and saved onto additional hard drives that are stored somewhere other than your office or home.

7. Especially for material that you don’t have digital versions of, be sure to store your documents, photographs and videos in a cool and dry location with limited exposure to unnecessary light. Make sure items are not on the floor or under water pipes as they can be easily damaged by flooding and household pests. When possible, use archival or acid-free storage containers.

8. Avoid the use of tape, rubber bands, rubber cement, staples and paper clips when possible. These types of fasteners can stain and damage paper and photographs over the long term.

9. Organize your documents and videos in a way that makes sense to you. You might want to keep everything associated with one work together in the same computer file or box, or you might want to keep like items together organized in chronological order. Whatever your system, consistency is the most important factor in maintaining your organizational system and knowing where to find necessary documents.

And finally,

10. Don’t save everything! Not every record, video or photograph you create needs to be saved forever. Save only three copies of programs, posters, reviews and other multiples.  Whether you are dealing with administrative or financial records that need to be saved for a specific amount of time, or creative records that have accumulated over the years, think about the unique value of the document and how it represents your work. If you don’t think that the information it contains might be valuable to you or scholars in the future, recycle it!

Additional Documentation and Preservation Resources:
Dance Heritage Coalition
Library of Congress Family Treasures:
Library of Congress Digital Preservation:

This article appeared in the March 2013 issue of In Dance.

Mary Wegmann is an archivist interested in the documentation and preservation of time-based art. She received her MSIS from the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin, and works as a Project Archivist with the Dance Heritage Coalition and with independent artists and performers in the Bay Area to preserve their work.