Acting for the Dancer
Have you ever watched a captivating dance performance and wondered just what it was that made it so special? So intriguing and exhilarating? Have you ever asked yourself what you could do to take your dancing from good, to great, to, “Wow! Did you see that?!” awesome?
The answer is acting! Or, more specifically, the ability to perform the story of your dance on an emotional level and make the audience feel for your character. While it is always exciting to watch a perfectly executed triple pirouette or grand jeté, it is the emotion behind that choreography that makes the performance memorable. That is why a dancer doesn’t have to be the most technically brilliant or classical trained to receive a standing ovation or a million views online. When the passion that you have for your dance shines through, people will be enthralled.
So, how do you do amp up your “acting”? Do you need to make cheesy faces or be able to recite Shakespeare on a whim? No!
Acting a dance is all about two major things: figuring out who your character is and why their story is important. After you figure that out, you can then communicate this to the audience through emotional choices that work with your choreography.
The first step to figuring out your character is the 5 W’s: Who? What? Where? When? And Why? So grab a notebook and jot down some answers to these questions!
“Who?”: The question “Who?” is asking simply who you are as a character. This includes specific details like your character’s name and age, as well as your character’s feelings, passions, and who they are inside. A dancer that is acting like a silly 5 year old girl will perform differently from a dancer that is acting like an angry 80 year old woman.
“What?”: Here is where you ask yourself what is happening in your dance and what is the story that you are trying to tell the audience. Is your character in love? Suffering a loss? Celebrating an achievement? This is a natural next step after asking ourselves who our character is as a person. A dance about a princess is nice, but a dance about a princess that just found out she has to marry someone she doesn’t love is exciting! Are you just an astronaut, or an astronaut that is about to take their very first trip to the moon? If you don’t know what your dance is about, then it’s impossible for your audience to know!
“Where?”: Now we need to look at where your story is happening. While this may seem to be a simple or unnecessary step, it is actually quite important! Think about where in the world or where in the community your character is telling their story, and consider whether or not your character fits in here. A couple performing a tango in a ballroom in Argentina would be very comfortable and confident, because that dance is integral to the culture of the area and it fits the location well. But if that same dance was performed in a high school cafeteria in Nebraska, it would be completely different! So where are you dancing?
“When?”: The question “When?” asks us to consider the time in history that the dance takes place. Dance evolves quickly over time and it is very easy to see what era your story takes place in by considering the movement and physicality of that time period. Performing a 1950’s sock hop dance in a poodle skirt is completely different than performing a modern day hip hop routine in baggy pants!
“Why?”: This is the most important question of all. Up until this point, we’ve been laying the groundwork for our story. But a story isn’t interesting until the audience sees how your character reacts. If there is no emotion behind our story, then it’s just a news report! So the question “why” is really the audience asking you, “Why is this story important to the character? And why is it important to me?” If your dance is about graduating high school, then the “why” of your story could be that you are sad to see your friends go and afraid of a future alone. Or maybe you’re celebrating that your team won the big championship, and the “why” is that you are proud of what you’ve accomplished and excited to be a part of a team. Find the emotional reaction in your story, and then you’ve found your “why”.
So you’ve got your notes, you’ve answered all of the questions, and you feel confident that you know your character inside and out. Now what?
Now you take your choreography and find ways to connect the movement to the ideas! If your dance is upbeat and you’ve been given a big leap in your choreography, think about the joy your character is feeling when you execute that leap. If you’re character is anxious and you have some intricate foot work, think about each step as a different nervous thought when you hit all of those beats. Work with your choreographer to see what they were thinking when they created the choreography, and use their wisdom to expand upon your emotional choices. And, when you step on that stage, make sure that you hit the feelings behind every movement as well as the choreography.
If you’ve had fun with this exercise and would like to learn more, there are lots of ways to practice these skills. Consider taking extra classes or private lessons in Musical Theatre at the studio or at school. Audition for The Nutcracker and experience what it is like to tell a full story onstage. Or sign up for your school play, musical, or talent show!
There are also a lot of improvisation games that you can play with your friends to practice your acting. The game “Emotional Dance” can help you portray specific emotions through movement alone. Have one person sit and watch while the others improv a dance that portrays a specific feeling – happy, sad, excited, disgusted, curious, suspicious, angry, etc. It is then up to the audience member to guess what emotion each person is portraying. If they guess correctly, you win! Then take the game to the next level with “Character Dance” – all of the same rules apply, but this time portray specific characters in your dance. You could be a baby, a pop star, a dinosaur, or even Harry Potter! The sky is the limit!
What if you are practicing by yourself? No problem! You can try rehearsing your dances to different songs from different genres and see how the music changes the feeling of the piece. What about drastically speeding up or slowing down the tempo? Does that change the mood? Can you make up a dance that tells the story from your favorite book? Or your favorite painting? The best part about all of this is that there is no wrong answer! Just getting up on your feet and trying something new is guaranteed to boost your confidence and performance quality…and it’s all fun!
Being clear about the emotional journey of your character and strong in your story will make every step, jump, turn, and leap of your dance have meaning. So get out there and try some new things, and take your performance to the next level!
- Miss Lauren Coleman