At every competition or performance, there’s always one dancer who stands out—for all the wrong reasons. She has strong technique and a nice facility, but her exaggerated facial expressions are less than winning. Her mugging makes everyone feel uncomfortable.
Inauthentic stage presence—whether it involves a bunch of awkward faces or a single stiff, pasted-on smile—is one of the most common problems plaguing young dancers. “Phony performances turn people off,” says Stephanie Wolf Spassoff, director of the Rock School in Pennsylvania and a judge for Youth America Grand Prix. “If it looks tense or artificial, it’s not fun to watch.”
As teachers, it’s easy to get caught up in the technical side of things and to forget about coaxing meaningful performances out of students. To battle this epidemic, start in the studio, where students can develop their own sense of style and experiment with different approaches. With some positive encouragement, you can rein in the muggers and get shy dancers to loosen up.
Make It Feel Natural
Jennifer Owens and Julie Jarnot of Artistic Fusion Dance Academy in Denver start by giving students roles that suit their personalities: The fun-loving girl gets the sassy solo, and the more reserved girl dances the lyrical solo. By assigning the dancers parts that come naturally, they don’t have to pretend to be something they’re not.
Jarnot then tells her students to perform as if they’re having a conversation with someone. “When you’re just talking,” she says, “you don’t exaggerate your face, or you look crazy.” She has the students watch videos of their performances and, if necessary, gently points out moments that look unnatural. She asks them questions like, “If you were really having fun, would you have your mouth open and your face strained?”
Martin Fredmann, artistic director of the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC, and director of the Japan Grand Prix Junior Ballet Competition, suggests breaking down each movement and talking about motivation. “Ask the student why her face looks a certain way at a particular moment,” he says. “What is she thinking about?” You can also talk to your dancers about the work they’re performing, the characters that populate it and its history. If they’re playing a part, they should understand who it is they’re trying to be. “You have to be true to the character you’re portraying to give an authentic performance,” Fredmann says.
Draw Out Their Inner Performer
Some students are shy or so preoccupied with technical challenges that they can’t muster more than a frozen smile onstage. Christy Wolverton-Davis, owner of Dance Industry in Plano, Texas, thinks that these dancers need a little help to feel at ease. When her students are about to rehearse, she dims the lights in her studio to create a more intimate setting—one in which shyer dancers will feel less embarrassed about expressing real emotions, which helps them delve deeper into their roles. Later, they’ll be able to transfer those discoveries from the rehearsal studio onto the stage.
Counterintuitively, a bit of peer pressure can help, too. “I also make the students watch each other,” Wolverton-Davis says. “Once they see their peers opening up, they all feel more comfortable—they see the power of real artistic expression, and how it can be done.”
Jarnot and Owens shower shy students with praise and encouragement. If the dancers feel good about what they’re doing, they’ll be less likely to look stiff and restrained. “With the little ones,” Jarnot says, “I’ll dance with them, acting big and silly so they feel more comfortable and confident about taking risks.”
Encourage all your students to dance to express joy, the beauty of the music and their love for the art. These feelings will inspire natural performances. “Kids think that faking emotions and mannerisms will convey a message,” Fredmann says. “But it’s much subtler than that, and it’s our job to tell them so.”
What Not to Do:
* “Don’t choreograph faces, like a-e-i-o-u,” says Christy Wolverton-Davis. Every student reacts to music in a different way. Telling them what faces to make will only discourage them from showing their own personality.
* Don’t focus on smiles alone; the eyes are most expressive. “The bulk of a dancer’s energy comes from eye contact,” says Jennifer Owens. “If they’re contorting their faces and squinting, they’re not able to fully engage and really make a connection with the audience.”
* Avoid saying things like, “Smile! Look pleasant!” These directions will only inspire forced expressions. Instead, talk to your students about how the audience should feel while they’re dancing. Stephanie Wolf Spassoff will say, “No matter how well you dance, if the audience doesn’t feel included, they won’t see your joy.”
* Wish the students “good luck” or “merde” before a show, but don’t leave it at that. Say “enjoy” or “share your love of dance,” Spassoff suggests. These words inspire more heartfelt emotions.
Julie Diana is a principal dancer with the Pennsylvania Ballet. She has a BA in English from the University of Pennsylvania.
Photo: Even very young dancers, like these students from the Kirov Academy, can give engaging, honest performances. (by Paolo Galli, courtesy of Kirov Academy)