Teaching Tips

4 Ways to Develop Stage Presence—in Class

Photo by Dylan Giles, courtesy of Christina Johnson

When Elizabeth Ferrell was a young student, Suzanne Farrell told her something she'll never forget. "She said she was going to paint eyeballs on my eyelids," Ferrell says, laughing, "because I was looking down all the time." Ferrell now uses the same phrase when she teaches at American Ballet Theatre Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. "Students have to make sure their eyes are open and alive, so they can communicate with the audience," she says. "It starts in the classroom."


Some dancers instinctively know how to engage an audience. For others, stage presence is a learned skill that must be developed over time and practiced in class. From encouraging simple postures to coaching nuanced facial expressions, there are ways you can help students explore how to present themselves professionally—prior to getting onstage.

"A lot of dancers rely on the mirror to do the right steps," says Johnson. Practicing without the mirror will develop confidence and prepare students for the stage. Photo courtesy of Johnson.

It's How You Carry Yourself

Tony Coppola, of the Rock Center for Dance in Las Vegas, suggests dancers consider themselves performers 24 hours a day. "Your stage presence, or carriage of yourself," he says, "is important not just within the walls of the studio—it's how you present yourself in daily life, even when you're walking into a grocery store." Good posture plays an important role in establishing body carriage. Dancers should think of projecting the energy of their chests up and forward into space, while aiming to have the longest neck possible. Christina Johnson, rehearsal director at Complexions Contemporary Ballet, might ask dancers to show off the diamonds on their imaginary necklaces, using imagery to help inspire the right feeling.

Acting classes can also help dancers feel more comfortable with storytelling and dramatic roles. "My musical theater students have a little edge over the ones who are only dancing," says Coppola. "They have a different presence and confidence."

Communicate with the Upper Body

Encourage the use of épaulement, showing how each position can translate into a different mood or feeling. "In tendu croisé, it's a proud feeling, with a wide chest and shoulders, head lifted and focus up," says Ferrell. "In écarté, the eyes are lowered or raised, and it's a different feeling—more mysterious."

Ferrell might also add a port de bras to greet the pianist or a guest in the room. "The port de bras and épaulement aren't just positions. They're communication tools," she says. "The dancers should invite the person or audience to go with them."

"Start performance opportunities small," says Coppola. Students can perform for other students in class or just for the teacher. Then, grow the audience slowly, so that when it's time to be onstage, it's less intimidating. Photo courtesy of Coppola.

Relate to the Music

To help students overcome any shyness or embarrassment over expressing themselves, Ferrell asks them to respond to the music being played for each exercise in class. "They don't have to smile, necessarily, or perform," she says, "but they should feel the different kinds of responses their bodies have to certain music." When they step forward for an adagio, for example, Ferrell suggests they take a soulful approach. In a petit allégro, the dancers should have attack in their legs and show energy in their facial expressions. "It's a different feeling completely," she says.

A pianist can help by playing music that students know and love. If you don't have an accompanist, download songs or find CDs that might inspire emotion in your class. "Find a song that the kids really relate to, and then their pliés will become a performance," says Ferrell.

Make the classroom a safe place for students to express themselves. Photo by Dylan Giles, courtesy of Johnson.

Remember the Eyes

Dancers should use their eyes to connect with other dancers and the audience. "If they want us to focus on their pointe work, or if it's a romantic feeling in an adagio, then a downcast gaze is OK," says Ferrell. "Otherwise, we want to see their eyes." Standing at barre, dancers should look beyond the person standing in front of them. When in arabesque, the focus must go past the fingertips. "It's the same in center," she says. "They should look beyond the mirror, so they don't get that vacant look that kids can sometimes get."

Occasionally, dancers may overdo their facial expressions. "I remind students that the performance is not for their dentist," says Coppola. "They can't have a forced smile." If dancers continue to exaggerate or appear insincere, Coppola will have them repeat the dance with no expression at all. Then, with each run-through, he will allow them to slowly add a little more. "Exaggeration is such a bad habit," he says. "It could affect their careers down the road."

Facial expressions should instead be a genuine response to a feeling that's happening inside. "Dancers have to be honest, real and in the moment," says Johnson, thinking of advice that Alvin Ailey used to give his dancers. "Then they can use real-life experiences to inform their movements." She likes to incorporate this idea early in class, even at barre, encouraging dancers to be aware internally and externally through each exercise. "Class is a practice in performing," says Johnson. "Dancers should approach every combination as choreography that could be done onstage."

Julie Diana was a principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet and Pennsylvania Ballet. She and her husband Zachary Hench now direct Juneau Dance Theatre in Alaska.

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"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.


Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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