As dancers, we know to point our toes so our lines are more aesthetically pleasing. For this same reason, we stretch to become more flexible. We notice those who have perfected their jumps and turns. We stand straight, tuck our pelvis, and keep our eyes off of the ground – but despite strong technique, have you ever been drawn to one dancer in particular in class or on stage? Let’s talk about the sometimes-underrated elements of movement quality and dance performance that make all the difference and take your dancing from good to great.
Location of the Audience
Where is the choreography being presented? Is it on a stage? If so, is it with an audience seated only looking straight at the stage, or in a ‘theater-in-the-round’ where audience members are surrounding the entire stage? Is it for a camera? If so, for a commercial hip hop music video or a modern-style dance film? There are a variety of factors. It’s important to understand how to captivate an audience by focusing your attention appropriately for each form. To scratch the surface - on a standard stage it feels intuitive to direct your attention forward and outward, whereas with a camera (depending on the director’s wants) your focus should be on the lens.
Most of us can say we have seen the dancer with a blank face, or, the dancer who is being overly expressive to the point of inauthenticity. You would be surprised how often an audience member is not even looking at your feet, but looking at your face. It’s important to include your facial expression as part of your dance performance, which will vary based on the genre, the mood of the piece, and the choreographer’s intention. Art forms tend to bleed into one another, so while it may be outside of your comfort zone, try taking a beginner’s acting class. This may help to grasp the differences between over and under acting, as well as finding authenticity within any concept.
Technique is very important – but it is not everything.
Relationship Between Dancers
If it isn’t overtly clear, ask the choreographer what relationship you should have with the other dancers. As a choreographer, be clear to your dancers what the intention of the piece is and how that affects relationships between your performers. The concept or story will determine this. Are you strangers? Are you lovers? Are you playing various roles and characters within a whole? Is there eye contact? Step into this feeling and remember that everyone in the space works together to create the successful impact of any project or gig. If the performance is a solo, think about the invisible meaningful relationships surrounding it.
Elongating Your Movement
Has a teacher ever told you to “not cut off your movement”? This is a key element of taking your movement quality from good to great. Use up all of the space around you, reaching beyond your kinesphere. Step out as big as you can (of course while being cognizant of the other performers and keeping within the boundaries of the choreography). Extend through your fingertips. Elongate through your back. Every dance type requires a different performance quality and technique, but regardless of style, do not shorten your movements or make them smaller. It is easy to do this without realizing it. Recording and watching yourself on video makes it easier to catch which moves you may be “cutting off”. When considering ‘how to be a great dancer’, focus on the nuances within the choreography. Making all of the nuances clear is infectious to the eye, addictive, and palpable. Are there any transitional moves that take you from one point to the next? Transitions should not be lost, and viewing them as ‘simply transitions’ is like putting ingredients into a recipe without honoring the instructions. The end result will not be the same. Every movement matters – the small, the large, the fast, the slow, the subtle, even the stillness.
Similar to taking up space and finishing your movements, make sure to use timing as instructed. If a choreographer says a move takes 8 counts, then the move should not be completed at count 7, or even 7 and a half. While seemingly obvious, you may not even realize you’re an offender of this. In the same way, if a movement is to be finished by a certain count before the next, do not muddle the two together unless specifically directed to do so. Imagine if a song you like finished a lyric too quickly before the end of the beat, it would sound jarring and less fluid, or if a word lingered over to when the next line was supposed to begin. Note that dance musicality and understanding counts are different. You can know how to count and be on time with the music, but this is not the same as sustaining the movement and having musicality. One way to work on your musicality is to take a variety of styles of dance classes. It may be challenging, especially if you prefer one, but it will help you to be versatile as well.
Have you ever watched a performer with amazing head-tail connection? Their movement is literally more connected. This is the relationship between your head and your tailbone, and is often an underrated and under practiced element of movement that can make one dancer catch your eye more than another, even if you do not realize why. While this concept applies to all genres, it especially applies to the modern dancer. If you are not a modern dancer, you can always start by taking a modern class. Take what you learn and see if it applies to your genre of choice. If you are a modern dancer, try taking a class that is more floor-work intensive, as the momentum required for floor-work most often relies on head-tail connection.
Whether you are new to dance or just looking to improve, know that technique is very important – but it is not everything. A strong performer with less technique could outshine a strong technical dancer with no performance quality. And when everyone in the room has great technique, other factors come to play.