How-To

6 Strategies to Boost Performance Quality From Your Dancers

Molly Heller's Very Vary. Photo by Duhaime Movement Project, courtesy of Heller

University of Utah professor Molly Heller choreographs works that demand 100 percent commitment from her dancers. Her most recent piece Very Vary saw her cast of six speak, scream, laugh, cry and make a range of radical facial expressions in movement that was technically challenging, dynamic and highly expressive.

Getting that level of commitment from your dancers isn't easy, especially when it comes to facial expressions and vocalization. Heller shares six ways that she brings out excellent performance quality in her dancers. Try them with your students.


1. Draw emotion from real experiences by asking questions. Heller prompts her dancers with questions like "What is something you fear?" or "What is something you're good at?" The dancers then develop a response and Heller shapes it. "People ask me, 'How do you get them to cry?'" she says. "But they're not really performing those emotions. You are witnessing them move through those emotions."

2. Think of facial expression as an extension of the body, rather than a theatrical element.

3. Use outside sources. "Sometimes we'll look at a music video or a video of another performance genre, and we'll learn the facial expressions from the video," says Heller. "For example, one of the performers learned the facial expressions from a Ludacris video. I took that and put it in a totally different context."

4. Focus on the eyes, feet and hands. "I have found that facial expression comes from accessing the nuance in the effort of the hands and feet," says Heller. "The eyes are like another body limb that reaches out into space and receives information." Heller does eye training with her students—working with focused or blurred eyes, opening up peripheral vision and working with intimate, social and long-distance focus.

5. Work with imagery.

6. Develop a partnership with the music. "The music or the sound is both influencing you and you are directing it," she says. "Even if it's a prerecorded sound, imagine that you are triggering the music just as much as it's partnering you."

Get inspired by these excerpts from Heller's Very Vary.

Dance Buzz
PC Break the Floor

Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.

"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."



The Boy Factor doesn't just have to do with competition scores: It's how we treat boys throughout their dance education. "We idolize the boys," says Ashley Harnish, a teacher at a competition studio. "We build entire dances around one boy, and we teach them that we need them more than we need the girls."

On the surface, The Boy Factor is flagrant sexism. But what's really behind the phenomenon? "So often, young male dancers are bullied because our culture says that dance is for girls," says a second national competition adjudicator. "This stigma pushes some judges to reward boys by scoring them higher than their female competitors." The Boy Factor also stems from a simple fact: There are far more girls than boys in the dance world.

"Judges see boys as valuable commodities," says Marissa Jean, a staff member at Broadway Dance Center's new building for children and teens and a teacher at several competition studios. "To encourage their career in dance, judges will throw a little extra their way. It could be placing them in the top ten or giving them a special award. They nurture them a bit more than the girls."



But by trying to retain more male talent, are we suggesting to girls that they are less valuable to the dance world than boys? "There's so much about this getting into these kids' psyches," says Childress. "Like, 'Oh the boy will beat me no matter what.' How do we teach self-worth knowing that you're going up against a boy, so what's the point?"

The Boy Factor is a product of and a contributor to the culture that sends the few men in dance up the glass escalator: "Many boys growing up in the dance world are not told the word 'no' often, so they tend to climb the professional ranks more quickly than the women," says Jean. We often bemoan the absence of female leadership in dance, but the damage is already done if we've taught young women that their gender determines their value to our community.

So what can be done about The Boy Factor? First, we could change how we encourage boys to continue dancing. Instead of empowering young men by devaluing young women, we could work as a community to dispel the culture of toxic masculinity that discourages boys from pursuing dance in the first place.

But it also falls in the hands of judges and teachers. "We need to increase awareness," says the second adjudicator. "A lot of us judges don't realize what we are promoting and the messages we send through our scoring and awards. If enough of us band together, I think we can make a difference so that this part of our field is less toxic."

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