Tuesday, October 12, 2010


As dancers, our primary goal is to illustrate the music for our audiences. But also included in our job description is to transport the audience, to take them away on a journey into a lovely, magical world where they forget anything having to do with their day-to-day lives.

To be a dancer, you must have technical skill. But even superlative technique can fall by the wayside and become forgettable when a dancer doesn’t project her feelings and emotions into her performance.

A great dancer knows how to access the universal truths of the human condition… which is exactly what great actors do. Both types of artists work fully with their bodies, through character portrayal, telling a story. So in essence, as dancers, in order to really connect with the audience, we must also be actors. The main difference between the two genres is that actors make a script come to life verbally, while dancers make music come to life through movement.

Because both my parents were involved in the entertainment business, I was lucky enough to literally grow up in the theater, watching everyone from avid students to huge stars perform on a nightly basis. It taught me a lot, and I learned at an early age what worked onstage and what didn’t.

As an adult, I have also had the good fortune to make two films in the past year. To me, acting in those movies was not only a chance to get involved with another art form, but also an educational opportunity! I cannot tell you how much I have learned about performance in general from watching the other actors working. It was incredible to see how they breathed life into the roles they were playing, and to witness the transformation occur as their characters spoke the lines that had previously merely been writing on a page. They were nuanced not just in vocal inflections, but also even in their body language.

Sometimes, during the different shoots, it would be easy for me to access my emotions because I would be playing opposite someone who was so thoroughly engrossed in their character, there was no way I couldn’t react as a human being. Other times, I would be so mesmerized and carried away by watching the other actors, that I would forget my own lines… CUT!

During one shoot I needed to cry on cue and during the time leading up to that scene, I would wake up every night, stressed that I wouldn’t be able to accomplish that. The day of my crying scene came and of course I had major performance anxiety. But I shocked myself (and probably the director!) By not only crying on cue, and with real flowing tears, but doing it consistently through four takes… and it was all because the girl who was in the scene with me was such a genuine actress, there was no way I could not get caught up in the moment.

That is the level of emotion we must try to bring to our dance performances; it’s what makes the performance riveting, and not merely a series of movements; it’s what involves the audience in our piece. Some people seem to have that innate, passionate ability, while others need to work on it a little more.

Here are some thoughts on acting and dramatic technique, which can easily be incorporated into any dance performance:


Sometimes actors stay “in character” throughout an entire performance or shoot even when they aren’t on stage or in front of the camera. Dancers would do well to get into this habit too....at the very least, just before a performance.

This could be as simple as warming up completely and taking a few moments for yourself to get centered before you perform, or it could be a more elaborate preparation, depending on your piece.

Are you performing as YOU? Then don’t be afraid to let your own, off-stage personality shine through…. even if it’s quirky. The audience will embrace you if you are being genuine.

Are you performing as a character in a dramatic piece? If so, know exactly who your character is. Those “make believe” games you played as a kid can really go over-the-top here. Are you feeling happy, sad, fiery, naughty, angry or innocent? Is your character a temple dancer, a courtesan, an innocent girl, a sorceress, a cartoon character or mythological figure? Whatever or whoever it is, do it to the hilt. And remember to stay in character as you walk off the stage…. and into the dressing room…and as you come back to take your bow if there is a curtain call.


Sounds cliché, right? Well it’s not! Actors always know what is motivating their character in any given scene, and need to know your dance character’s motivation for your piece. Invent a back-story for your performance, even if you are not doing a character-driven theatrical piece that has an obvious storyline. It will help you to convey your emotions to the audience. Many dances tell a story; others do not, but there still needs to be an emotional journey. Your back-story can be a simple sentence… it can be just “all about the beauty of the music”- but it still needs to be there.


Actors use their senses and emotional memories in the context of performing scenes. Since you are performing to a musical “script”, you really get in touch with your emotions in order to be able to present the music in a way your audience will feel it. As part of your rehearsals, just listen to you music a few times, without moving, and see how it makes you feel. Chances are, what you are feeling is a universal emotion, meaning your audience will feel it too.

Your performance will definitely include physical references to rhythmic changes, different phrases or the choruses of the music, but your emotions really need to be invested as well. If the music is instrumental, let your face and gestures provide an emotional context. If you are performing to a piece with singing and words, the lyrics are already obvious, and you need to decide before hand if you are actually acting them out fully or just referencing them.

Of course, if you are a belly dancer and your music has words being sung in a different language, you really need to find out exactly what the song is saying! I once witnessed a dancer performing what she thought was an Egyptian love song, so she was acting out the “lost love” quite dramatically. The only problem was that the song was not about love at all- and she was performing to an ethnic audience who spoke Arabic and understood the words. The lyrics of the song were so opposite of what she was portraying, her dance became an unintentional comedic parody. As she went through her romantic histrionics onstage, the audience was practically rolling in the aisles! What she took as raw emotion in the song was basically a series of vocal calisthenics. Luckily, these days, there are many translations for popular Arabic, Turkish, Persian, and Armenian songs on line.


Stage actors and screen actors alike sometimes tend to speak a little more slowly than anyone would in “real life”, to insure that the meaning of their words has a chance to sink in and not get lost. They also enunciate very clearly. Translated into a dance performance, a dancer could incorporate a similar technique by really paying attention to the pauses in the music, and not trying to cram in a movement to every beat. Reign yourself in, dance a little more slowly and allow your audience to savor and enjoy every movement you make. Also allow yourself to actually finish each movement fully, before moving on to the next one.


Actors usually have a director to set their marks and actions so that the stage or movie lights will showcase them to their fullest advantage. As dancers, we are not always so privileged. Take advantage of your tech rehearsals to figure out where the best lighting on the stage is, and if need be, tailor your performance so that you are dancing where the lights are the hottest. Make sure to be nice to your lighting technician- it’s worth it! Even if you do not get a full tech rehearsal, or are not dancing in a theater, you should scope out your performance area and make sure you know what the lightest and darkest parts of your “stage” will be, and know where to dance so the audience will be able to see you.


For actors in the theater, keeping one’s back to the audience for extended periods of time is anathema. It is not always this way for dancers- sometimes it can be very dramatic to begin a piece facing away from an audience. Use your best judgment on this, but know that onstage, there are very definite concepts of positive and negative space. Positive space is audience-inclusive; negative space is not. Depending upon your performance and the feelings you are conveying, you will be utilizing positive and negative space.

Many actors keep their bodies presented flat front to the audience, but in dance, our bodylines are different, and we are usually not static, but in constant motion. Facing dead on front is not usually a dancer’s most flattering angle, three-quarters usually is. But you can still direct your face towards the audience, thereby “including” them. Also coming down towards the front of the stage and actually making eye contact is an excellent way of engaging your audience. And while actors often worry about being upstaged by other actors, dancers don’t usually face that problem. Don’t however, “upstage” yourself by blocking your face- or some lovely hip work- with your arms …remember to rehearse the best angles for your arms, and to only hide your face if it’s intentional!


To master their craft, any actor who wants to learn about portraying “the human condition” will observe people constantly with the sharp eye of an anthropologist. They study everything from vocal inflections to posture; from hand gestures and nervous tics to the way other people walk. They also watch a lot of movies, and plays, and observe other actors.
As a dancer, for your character work, it behooves you to study “real people”. It’s also absolutely necessary to see as much dance as you possibly can- both live and recorded performances. Don’t limit it only to the genre (or genres) of dance you perform, and don’t limit it only to strictly professional performances. There is something to be learned from every dancer you see, whether it’s divinely inspiring or even if that something you learn is just “what NOT to do”!


Whether there are cameras rolling or not, as a professional courtesy to those you perform with, be as quite as possible when others are on stage. This means backstage in particular! In the dressing room, as in the audience, before the performance has started, turn your phones and handhelds off. All you should be hearing is what’s going on under the lights, and the audience reacting to what they are seeing.


At the end of your performance, or if there is a curtain call, give the audience heartfelt gratitude for their time and admiration and take a bow… you deserve it!


  1. So, so, so well put! Nothing is more frustrating than watching a Music Box Dancer, technically perfect but devoid of emotion.

    And thank you again for mentioning the "quiet on the set", which includes visually being unobtrusive to the performer on stage.

  2. Thank you so much for putting this up, Your Highness!

    We're having a dance recital very soon and I'm going to share this with everyone in the production (dancers, lighting/sound technicians, videographers and photographers).

    And as for the "Think Slow" part... I'm really taking it close to my heart. In the past, whenever I saw a video of me dancing, I'd always curse myself for being too frantic. I've been working so hard to achieve the perfect kind of slowness and I hope it'll show in the next performance.