"Making Every Act Count: A Dancer’s Guide to Performing on Stage" by Anne Luben on dnaceplug.com

Most dancers will agree, the best part about what we do is performing on stage. You don’t become a dancer if you’re afraid to stand up in front of a crowd and show them what you can do! And though you can never truly know what will happen on stage, you can plan ahead to make sure that you’re as prepared as possible. Here are some key points to think about as you work to develop your stage presence.

Class: Your Most Valuable Tool

Dancers are required to do a lot - in addition to keeping our bodies in peak physical condition, we also have to make sure our brains are working at their maximum potential as well. In order to absorb choreography, we first have to see it, understand it, and memorize it by translating it into our bodies. And we have to do that over and over again!

Nowadays, many dance classes are structured to involve some sort of choreography aspect, usually at the end of the class. Here’s a tip: use that time as a chance to give your brain a workout. The more you practice this ability in class, the faster you’ll be able to pick up the movement in rehearsal. What’s the best way to work on that? Well, the first step is to figure out what sort of strategy works best for you. 

There are numerous ways to process choreography. Let’s break it down into two main groups: the “big picture” approach, and the “zoom-in” approach.

Take our quiz to see what kind of a learner you are by checking the boxes that apply to you: 

  • You want to see the entire combination, top to bottom, before you start to learn it. 
  • You map out things in your head directionally. For example, you think: “I do something downstage right, then turn to upstage left, then to that floor thing back to center.” 
  • You see things as an emotional arc
  • You would prefer to move forward and get through the combination, even if you don’t feel like you have every step perfectly. 

If you said yes to any of the above, you’re probably a “big picture” learner.

  • You are detail oriented.
  • You prefer to learn the choreography in small chunks. 
  • You want to repeat these smaller chunks often, making sure that you have every movement correct before you move on. 

If you said yes to any of the above, you’re probably a  “zoomed in” learner.

Perhaps you checked boxes in both columns! That’s okay too - we all learn differently. The most important thing is that you know what works for you. 

Now that we’ve given you a way to approach choreography, dive in! Once you have defined your formula, put it into practice. I can guarantee you will come back to your process and refine it again and again. Dance is an art form that requires constant discovery, so stay true and stay open. Perhaps you can get together with a group of friends to exchange choreography (remember - community always comes first!). A studio filled with friendly faces is a safe environment to build on before you head back to class or into an audition. The sooner you can look at a new piece of work & analyze the best way for you to memorize it, the faster you can embody it and perform on stage. 

Stage Presence

There’s just something about a dancer with a strong presence. You know the one - they walk onto the stage like they own it. Your eye gravitates to them, and you can see that they’re not caught up in what comes next - they’re living in each moment. They’ve done exactly what they’re doing onstage in rehearsal - full out, 100%. They do this for more than just themselves - from a choreographers perspective, they need to see the extent of your ability before you hit the stage as well. They cannot just assume - and neither can you! - that you will bring the goods when it’s show time.

Become the dancer that everyone wants to watch by developing your stage presence in class and rehearsal. Remember, the studio isn’t just a place to hone your technique - it’s a space for you to prepare for what you will do onstage. If you mark every run-through, how do you think your body will respond during performance? You can’t expect your instrument to perform at its full potential if you don’t push it. Sure, there’s a time and place for marking (especially when you’re beginning to learn something). But if you’re going to run something, really RUN it. You’ll build stamina and confidence in the movement, giving you more time to develop your performance quality. 

Use Your Eyes

As dancers, it’s very important for us to observe other movers around us and apply it to our own movement. To be clear, I’m not saying that you should try and imitate anyone else - after all, there’s only one you! But it is important to learn from others. Of course, it’s always wonderful if you are able to see a professional company. But if you think about it, you are surrounded by people who can teach you all the time. Look around during class, during rehearsal, during competitions and performance. Who catches your eye, and why? What are they doing that makes them stand out? What can you learn from them and implement into your performance approach?

Keep an eye on your choreographer - their reactions will help you figure out what is working and what isn't! Here's what So You Think You Can Dance top 10 dancers Chelsea Hough & Evan Debenedetto have to say about the benefits of observing the choreographers approach to get the best out of you for your performance:

Dancers are trained to be attentive. So, use what you know! Analyze, analyze, analyze. Is it the way that she transitions from movement to movement, never throwing anything away? Maybe it’s the way he uses his plié, or how she really utilizes her focus. Whatever it may be, figure out how to translate that into your own body and apply those same qualities to your own unique style and way of moving. There is no one right technique, just the one you build that works best for you.

Nerves

No one is above nerves! Not even Twitch!

Let’s talk about nerves. It’s a real thing - everybody gets nervous! And everyone handles stress in different ways. Again, it’s all about you and knowing your mind and body. What does your body need to help calm nervous energy? For many performers, it helps to have a pre-show ritual. Having a defined set of tasks can help calm your mind so you can focus on the task at hand. For example, here’s what I do before each of my performances: 

  1. Makeup check (Did I forget mascara? Is my eyeliner smeared?). 
  2. Lipstick check (there’s nothing worse than going onstage with lipstick on your teeth!).
  3. Costume check (I have a strange fear that there’s always a hole in the back of my costume, so I always have a buddy check before we head into the wings!).
  4. Last minute stretch (for me, my hamstrings are always tight, so I do a few roll downs and forward folds to make sure my body is ready to go). 

What does your body need before a show? Write it down and tuck it in your dance bag, or tape it to your dressing room mirror. It will eventually become second nature, and the calmness of that ritual will help clear your mind before each show, so when you go onstage, you can enjoy doing what you love to do - performing on stage.

After the Show

Your post-show ritual is just as important as your pre-show ritual. You just went out onstage and gave it everything you have, and you need to honor your body’s hard work! And though it may be tempting to run out and have a celebratory dinner with your friends, take a few minutes to show your body gratitude. Do a bit of a cool-down stretch (your sore muscles will thank you tomorrow!). And most important of all - let whatever happened onstage go. Nothing will ever go perfectly, and that's okay! (Don't beat yourself up - dance isn't about getting it right!). There will always be something that you could have done differently, so make sure that you leave everything on the stage!

Become the dancer that everyone wants to watch

So, let’s recap. Taking time in class to analyze your learning style and push your body to its limit is going to help you develop a stronger stage presence and deepen your technique. Pay attention to the skills of those around you, and take advantage of them by observing their strengths and implementing them into your own practice. Develop a pre- and post-show routine that will ensure you are performing at your maximum potential. And, most importantly, trust yourself! In the words of Aretha Franklin - “Be confident in what you’re doing. If you’re not going to be confident, you might as well not be doing it.”

photo credit: Vadim Fomenok

About the author

Anne Luben has performed works by notable choreographers such as Donald McKayle, Bill T. Jones, Jiri Kylian, Idan Cohen, Alex Ketley, and Summer Lee Rhatigan, among others.