Stage combat, the choreography and performance of battle, is a craft - and it is everywhere! You may have never thought about it more deeply despite frequent exposure to it. Of course, it’s on television and in movies, but it’s also in musicals like West Side Story and Newsies, in plays like Macbeth, and even in ballets like Romeo and Juliet. It is common for art forms to cross paths and to blend, as well as to aid one another. How then, can a dance performer or choreographer benefit from training in stage combat?

Torre Edahl has trained in ballet, contact improv, jazz, modern, and tap among other styles. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Dance and has professionally worked as a dancer and actor, but is an all-around movement artist, with training in acrobatics, aerial arts, Commedia Dell’Arte, stage combat, tumbling, and pro-wrestling. You name it – she’s done it!

The Society of American Fight Directors (SAFD) currently recognizes eight weapon styles. Torre is currently certified in Smallsword, Unarmed, and Knife. The other five styles are Single Sword, Broadsword, Quarterstaff, Rapier and Dagger, and Broadsword and Shield. The weapons are different, but in ways they are similar and inform each other. The more styles you absorb, the easier it is to understand. 

Why, as a dancer and creative, might you consider cross-training in an activity that feels so…different? Exposure to stage combat can elevate the way you approach dance performance and choreography.

Unlike in dance, you cannot improvise during stage combat if you forget a movement.

Intentional Choreography

Fight choreography heavily focuses on character work, digging deep into questions like, how would this character act in this moment? And how would this particular character react back? It is not simply emotions that need to be evoked. The intention behind every single movement matters. In a stage fight, it is also essential that the entire audience can see what is happening between the characters. Next time you’re in the studio creating, consider the intention of every movement and of every moment. Why are you doing this movement? Why are you creating this moment? Then, consider your performance location and whether it will be on a stage, or outside, or in the round. At which angle does the magic happen? If an entire segment was turned to face another direction, would it be more interesting? How will these movements read from each audience member’s point of view? Review what certain moments look like from all angles.

Working Within the Performers’ Bounds

The absolute most important factor of stage combat and fight choreography is safety. All bodies work differently, and everyone has a different skill set. As a performer, you need to know what you are capable of doing. As the choreographer, recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of your cast is vital. If a person’s left hand is their dominant one, do not make them work their weapon with the right. Many dancers have experienced performing tricks, turns, or even lifts on their non-dominant leg. Since training in stage combat, Torre strives to pinpoint the uniqueness of each dancer when setting a piece. With the intention for a piece clear in your mind, try to let go of certain movements that are not as strong as they could be, or simply not working. This is a common occurrence for a choreographer. You can choose to force a movement knowing fully well that this dancer has other strengths that can be highlighted better, or, for the overall greater good of the piece and the cast, you can adjust it. How can this movement work for body type A, B, and C? If a lift is not sticking after multiple rehearsals, does it need to be that lift at all? Think of some feeling and action words you want to emote from this lift, and change it accordingly. This way of thought can help you from feeling stuck in your choreography.

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Staying in Character During Mistakes

Though Torre’s performance experience in this field is not yet extensive, she hasn’t forgotten choreography mid-performance in any acts she’s done thus far. She shares that if this were to occur, unlike in dance, you cannot improvise during stage combat if you forget a movement (not in the same way). Stage combat is very precise, and any type of improvisation could put your partner at risk for injury. The SAFD uses a concept called the Cue-Reaction-Action Principle (“crap” for short - not kidding), and according to SAFD’s website, it is “a basic stage combat principle/process used to achieve a safe and dramatically effective sequence of events.” Torre describes it as similar to the idea of call and response. The more you practice with your partner, the timing between the cues becomes shorter and shorter, making the scene look more natural. If a cue is missed or not received, you cannot respond with your next movement. “If I jump, and I don’t see you plié, I know I have to bail. If you don’t react, I don’t act.” You become so engaged because of all the built-in eye contact and “crap” moments, and if your partner ends up two feet to the left, you have to adjust. “You do not drop the performance. You think of your character. How would they back away and regroup? Breathe and remember where you are. If I completely forget phase B, I will start the cue for phase C."

This concept can be applied to your dance performance in the instance that a phrase is forgotten. Of course, improvisation is more acceptable in this environment (which is much better than freezing like a deer in headlights). During this improv, however, it is beneficial to be cognizant of your character and vibe of the piece.

Partnering Work 2.0 and Expanded Creativity

Torre approaches the performance and choreography of partner work differently since beginning her stage combat training. As mentioned above, working within a performer’s bounds is an important aspect of successful partnering. She has also been introduced to new ways of weight sharing: how to flip someone and control how they land, where to place your hands to more safely take a fall, how dancers can support each other’s weight and then throw it in the opposite direction, how we can grab and hold on but then slip and fall off, among many other transitions!

Recently, one of Torre’s choreographers expressed wishing to depict violence, without quite knowing how to do so. Torre suggested a trick she learned from stage combat training. While seated behind her partner, she makes a smack gesture in front of her partner’s face with her right hand. Simultaneously, her partner turns her head to the left while Torre smacks her own chest with her left hand (unseen from the audience’s angle) to make the sound of a smack. The end result is an impactful moment.

Torre’s mind has been opened to new ways of movement, even outside of the partnering realm. She thinks deeply about space holds, as well as reading intentions and reacting. She loves incorporating floor work into her choreography. How do you hit the ground when you fall? Can you twist when you fall? Can you rise back up as soon as you fall? Can you jump and spring out of it?

The intention behind every single movement matters.

Advice for the Beginner

Start just by taking classes! You can train in the order of whichever workshops and certified teachers are available in your area. Torre started with Unarmed, the discipline most similar to dance. The movements start in a way that will feel familiar, however, they end very differently. This may feel strange on your body, and perhaps you’ll want to just dive head first into a weapon style.

The only aspect of Torre’s training that she would change, is wishing she wasn’t so hard on herself during the first few classes. While this is a common human experience, it’s no secret that dancers especially can be extra critical of themselves. Compared to a non-dancer taking stage combat for the first time, a dancer has the advantage of having body/spatial awareness and already being accustomed to picking up and retaining choreography. Despite that, it is important to remind yourself that this is a new way of moving and to give yourself grace.

By morphing you into a more diverse performer with additional skill sets to improve your chances of hire, introduction or mastery of stage combat can only strengthen you as a dancer. The knowledge learned will change the intention with which you perform, choreograph, partner, and explore new possibilities.