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Dance Videotapes at Risk

Download the PDF Version of Dance Videotapes at Risk (1.38 MB)

As creators of the most ephemeral of the performing arts, today’s dancers and choreographers mainly rely on the use of videotape to document their works. Whether someone records a modern dance rehearsal, a tap workshop, a classical ballet performance, or a folk or ethnic community dance, videotapes provide the most stirring and enlightening, and often the only, documentation of the event. Sadly, however, the videotape medium may be almost as fleeting as the live performance captured on it, because of two vulnerabilities—deterioration and obsolescence.

To slow the deterioration of a videotape collection, both storage conditions and handling procedures must be carefully considered. Some individuals and organizations choose to place their collections in an established library or dance archive, where they can take advantage of staff expertise and a proper storage environment. If such a move is impractical or undesirable in your situation, however, adopting basic conservation practices can help minimize both the risk of loss or of damage at your own facility.

The problem of obsolescence may seem even more daunting, since rapidly changing technology threatens one videotape format and playback system after another with imminent extinction. This brochure outlines some basic steps you can take to safeguard and preserve your collection in the face of these various, ongoing challenges.

In your enthusiasm to proceed with this important work, do not act in haste. Sometimes more harm is done by inexperienced, though wellmeaning hands, than by neglect. Start slowly and educate yourself to avoid irreversible blunders. If you find that your on-site expert recommends something different than stated here, get a second or third opinion. Professionals do not always agree on “best practices,” so you need to determine what is best in your individual case.

You will probably be unable to follow all of our recommendations because of inadequate space, staffing, or financial resources. The conditions outlined below are merely goals toward which to work. Do what you can, as you are able to, and continue to keep these issues “on the front burner.” It is essential to the dance community and to our nation’s cultural heritage that videotape preservation remains an institutional priority.


Before beginning any preservation work, you need to familiarize yourself with your collection. If you are not sure which formats you are holding, try to identify them. For a concise overview, see Sarah Stauderman’s Video Format Identification Guide ( Other sources of format information are listed at the end of this brochure.

Your next step is to inventory your videotapes. The inventory, or shelf list, is a written list that delineates each item by title, format, number of copies, and whether it is an original or a copy. Take information from the outside of the container or cassette shell—do not play back any tapes to conduct the inventory. For large collections, where resources are insufficient to conduct full inventories, you may need to group tapes according to series, performance, or another unifying property, still carefully listing the number of items in each group.

Armed with a good inventory, a collection caretaker can start to inspect the tapes item by item, or, depending on the number of tapes, on a survey or sampling basis. These minimal steps will help to profile the collection’s physical condition, giving you a reasonable basis for the number of tapes and formats that need preservation. You can then estimate processing and copying costs for funding purposes.

The following instructions for videotape care are divided into three critical strategies:

  1. Improving Storage Conditions;
  2. Safe Handling and Playback; and
  3. Copying and Reformatting.

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