For competition dancers, nailing turns and mastering jumps are just part of what judges score. Because many competitions give equal weight to stage presence and technique, your focus in the studio needs to be balanced between practicing the moves and rehearsing something more elusive-performance quality.
What makes for a great performance? Christopher Smith, director of Hollywood Vibe, emphasizes that dancers must commit to the story they are trying to tell through dance, connect to the music and express feeling through movement: "In every city we go to, we see these wonderful diva dancers, but if they can't perform, we can't give them the top score." When defining stage presence, judges often refer to the whole package-smile, energy and showmanship. For them, winners are dancers who can whisk audiences away to magical places and have them on the edge of their seats, while making all of it look as easy as brushing your teeth. The best way to instill performance quality is practice-and lots of it. Here are some award-winning techniques to help even your most inexperienced dancers reach their performance peak.
Talking to your students about stage presence is the first step. No matter how young your dancers are, if they are going to set foot on a competition stage, they should be able to appreciate a successful performance. Michelle Colon, a competition judge who founded Starz Studios in Casselberry, Florida, says, "When I'm teaching, I'll show examples and ask, 'Does this look like I'm coming from a real or fake place?' I do this with my dancers to help them gain perspective."
Start by pinpointing the choreography's emotional intention. In order for dancers to communicate the meaning of the piece, they need to know what's at the heart of it. This doesn't mean that every dance has to have a story line, but it does mean that its intention or purpose has to be identified before a group can successfully project the emotions judges are looking for.
Be aware that one quick conversation right before your dancers go onstage isn't nearly as helpful as multiple discussions held throughout the rehearsal process. As they learn to analyze what they are experiencing and why they are choosing to project certain emotions, they will begin to take ownership of their performances and their group stage presence will become stronger. Dianna Jones, director of Jean Leigh Academy of Dance in Denham Springs, Louisiana, also points out that although each dancer will bring a unique interpretation to the choreography, the overall message needs to be cohesive. Before starting and while working on a new piece, periodically sit down with your dancers as a group and do the following:
*Listen to the music and discuss what emotions it conjures up for each dancer.
*Come to a consensus about the piece's intention. Get everyone on the same page, using similar emotions and personal experiences to drive the performance.
*Master Artists - Bring in famous works for your students to discuss. Have them watch professional dancers from multiple genres and talk about the differences between their performance qualities.
*Improvisation Conduct mini-improvs on different emotions and words. Let students experience what it feels like to do movements in a serious lyrical number with a different intention like "dizzy" or "goofy," or give each dancer a piece of candy and have the group dance the different textures.
Creating a Safe Space
Dancers need to feel supported when exploring the emotional side of dance. When they are comfortable, they will be more willing to try new things and push through their embarrassment and shyness. It's up to you to create an environment that is conducive to exploration. To ease their anxiety, try providing regular in-studio performance opportunities. With plentiful stage experience, students will be confident and comfortable during competition. In addition, a supportive studio atmosphere will help students feel more at ease while developing performing skills. To this end, stay accessible to your dancers in the studio and foster personal relationships between students.
During rehearsals, use positive reinforcement while building your students' emotional range. Instead of criticizing what isn't working, point out the parts of the dance in which their emotions are being communicated clearly and discuss how to extend that through their entire performance. In addition, give new students time to speak about their anxiety. Stage fright and fears of failure can be calmed when students hear other dancers' personal stories.
Keeping It Real
It's important to choose age appropriate themes so that dancers will have an easier time relating to the subject material. You're not going to get a positive result from trying to get too much emotion from a 10-year-old. They can't project a life experience they've never had or are too young to understand. That's why it's best to keep routines fun and light with your younger dancers, and leave the heavier lyrical numbers to your more advanced performers.
Also keep in mind that a topic can have different meanings depending on students' ages. If the choreography calls for the dancers to project freedom, it's important to understand that freedom to an 8-year-old is different than freedom to a 16-year-old. When provided with opportunities to connect their own ideas to movement, young dancers develop stage presence faster and more completely. Don't force it. If they're having trouble relating, find ways to connect the piece to their everyday lives.
Steer Clear of Fake Facials
Don't be afraid to give your dancers the artistic freedom to express the emotions of the piece in their own ways. "Nothing you can choreograph is better then genuine emotion," says Jones. "Genuine joy is better than spastic expression."
By continually encouraging stage presence, you will help your dancers experience a more seamless transition from practice to performance, while cultivating their confidence as artists. Be sure to encourage your dancers to practice as though they are performing all of the time, not just before a show or competition. Their warm-up, center work and across-the-floor combinations can double as performance practice. By making it a part of your students' dance training, showmanship can evolve along with technique. It's the complete package that takes home the title.