Dance Teacher 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.

The Conversation
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy of Hightower

The beloved "So You Think You Can Dance" alum and former Emmy-nominated "Dancing with the Stars" pro Chelsie Hightower discovered her passion for ballroom at a young age. She showed a natural ability for the Latin style, but she mastered the necessary versatility by studying jazz, ballet and other forms of dance. "Every style of dance builds on each other," she says, "and the more music you're exposed to, the more your rhythm and coordination is built."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Harlequin Floors
Burklyn Ballet, Courtesy Harlequin

Whether you're putting on a pair of pointe shoes, buckling your ballroom stilettos or lacing up your favorite high tops, the floor you're on can make or break your dancing. But with issues like sticking or slipping and a variety of frictions suitable to different dance steps and styles, it can be confusing to know which floor will work best for you.

No matter what your needs are, Harlequin Floors has your back, or rather, your feet. With 11 different marley vinyl floors available in a range of colors, Harlequin has options for every setting and dance style. We rounded up six of their most popular and versatile floors:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Lani Corson. Photo by Royce Burgess, courtesy of Corson

Aerial work is growing in popularity in the dance world these days. Don't believe us? Check out this Dance Magazine article! If you're a studio owner who didn't grow up with aerial training (let's face it, how many of us really did?), then you may be feeling a little apprehensive about what to look for when bringing on a new aerialist faculty member. You know exactly what you want from your ballet teachers, your jazz teachers, your tap teachers, heck—even your tumbling teachers! Aerial, however, is a whole other ballgame.

To help you feel confident you're bringing in a teacher who is safe for your dancers, we sat down with Lani Corson, NYC aerialist, circus performer, adjunct professor at Pace University and teacher at Aerial Arts NYC, to get the inside scoop on exactly what you should be looking for.

Enjoy!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Insure Fitness
AdobeStock, Courtesy Insure Fitness Group

As a teacher at a studio, you've more than likely developed long-lasting relationships with some of your students and parents. The idea that you could be sued by one of them might seem impossible to imagine, but Insure Fitness Group's Gianna Michalsen warns against relaxing into that mindset. "People say, 'Why do I need insurance? I've been working with these people for 10 years—we're friends,'" she says. "But no one ever takes into account how bad an injury can be. Despite how good your relationship is, people will sue you because of the toll an injury takes on their life."

You'll benefit most from an insurance policy that caters to the specifics of teaching dance at one or several studios. Here's what to look for:

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Dance teachers have a lot of strengths (communicating corrections, choreographing gorgeous movement, planning excellent recitals, cleaning technique—just to name a few) but when it comes to interior design—talent isn't exactly a given. So when studio owners remodel or build, worrying about the decor can feel a little overwhelming (you've got just a few too many other things to worry about, don't you?).

No need to fear! In 2019 we have Pinterest, which shows us all the latest trends we should know about. To help you make the best design decisions for your studio, we've compiled a list of public Pinterest pins we think you'll love.

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Bill Johnson, Courtesy Just for Kix

Running a dance studio is a feat in itself. But adding a competition team into the mix brings a whole new set of challenges. Not only are you focusing on giving your dancers the best training possible, but you're navigating the fast-paced competition and convention circuit. Winning is one goal, but you also want to create an environment that's fun, educational and inspiring for young artists. We asked Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a studio owner with over 40 years of experience, for her advice on building a healthy dance team culture:

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Unsplash

Is dance a sport? Should it be in the Olympics? They're complicated questions that tend to spark heated debate. But many dance fans will be excited to hear that breaking (please don't call it breakdancing) has been provisionally added to the program for the 2024 Summer Olympic Games in Paris.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by World Class Vacations
David Galindo Photography

New York City is a dream destination for many dancers. However aspiring Broadway stars don't have to wait until they're pros to experience all the city has to offer. With Dance the World Broadway, students can get a taste of the Big Apple—plus hone their dance skills and make lasting memories.

Here's why Dance the World Broadway is the best way for students to experience NYC:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Vanessa Zahorian. Photo by Erik Larson, courtesy of Pennsylvania Ballet Academy

At the LINES Ballet Dance Center in San Francisco, faculty member Erik Wagner leads his class through an adagio combination in center. He encourages dancers to root their standing legs, using imagery of a seed germinating, so that they feel more grounded. "Our studios are on the fifth floor, so I'll often tell them to push down to Market Street," says Wagner. "They know that they should push their energy down to the street level." By using this oppositional force, he says, dancers can lengthen their bodies to create any desired shape.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

After years of throwing summer parties at your studio, you're likely fatigued by coming up with themes and event details. You want your students to have a good time, but you're also up to your eyeballs in choreography and costume decisions.

Never fear! We've come up with party themes and activities to do during the event. Delegate tasks to your teachers and office managers, and voilà! You have a stress-free party ready to go.

Have a blast, people!

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Thinkstock

Q: I recently returned to a modern dance class after a long absence. While I didn't feel any acute pain at the end of class, the next morning I could barely walk from the soreness in both my Achilles. What can I do to fix this?

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Q: I'm trying to think of ways to maximize studio space and revenue during the summer. What has worked for you?

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox