Tune in to “So You Think You Can Dance” any given week, and it’s not flawless technique or stellar training that the judges are raving (or ranting) about. Instead, it’s typically a dancer’s essence and performance level that concern the judges. “Performance is everything, especially when you consider that people might not understand what it takes to do a grand jeté or incredible partnering piece—so you may be knocking yourself out for nothing,” says Tyce Diorio, a regular choreographer on the show. “What people do understand is someone who knows how to feel the music and translate the choreography into a special, important performance.”
Also fueling that intangible “it” quality is having the confidence to deliver those memorable performances. Limited self-belief can often translate to lack of connection and result in performance killers, like lack of expression, no eye contact and/or inhibited movement. So how can teachers effectively boost this ever-elusive yet essential quality?
Detach from technique
Los Angeles–based teacher/choreographer Mandy Moore attributes information overload to many young dancers’ lack of confidence onstage. “So much importance is put on technique and execution that some of them have forgotten about the entertainment side of dance,” says Moore. “With 5,000 fouetté turns and switch leaps, it’s no wonder they don’t have time to smile or perform, because they have so much on their minds.” To relieve some of the pressure, Moore suggests holding a regular “free-form fun class where it’s not all about technique and tricks” during which kids can let loose and express themselves. She also recommends putting separate focus on performance and execution in order to not overwhelm dancers.
Provide a purpose for movement
Much as actors must find their “motive,” many dancers can benefit confidence-wise from connecting movement to motivation. According to Diorio, the use of imagery can be especially effective with children. “When I’m teaching a junior class, I try to approach it in a way that’s both physical and emotional,” he says. “I’ll say, ‘This step should feel like Skittles—taste the rainbow!’ Ten-year-olds understand that language, and that feeling translates to an honest performance. It’s about taking on the whole world, and it lights up their faces.”
Moore agrees. “I try to find movement with intent—the who-what-when-where-why of it—and that connects in their brain,” she says. “As a dancer, I always found that I was better with things that had a reason, even if it was just to make people smile. It’s about creating energy and planting a seed in a dancer’s head.”
Utah-based Center Stage Performing Arts Studio owner Kim DelGrosso also employs this technique—with a slight twist. “We’ll take a number and dance with different emotions the whole way through—they love it,” she says. “They might have to do the number mad, then shift to an excited or scared feeling and really define what that means.” To further illustrate the point, DelGrosso will often read children a story in a monotone voice and then read it again animatedly. Says DelGrosso, “The children are enraptured and understand the difference [in how to communicate]. We look at dancing as a silent language.”
Fine-tune your criticism
Part of cultivating confidence is helping dancers grow. So how can teachers deliver criticism that serves rather than shrinks self-esteem?
“I’m not mean, but I don’t sugarcoat,” says Moore. “We as teachers get afraid to go the distance with kids, because we’re in a day and age where everyone is afraid to go too far. When you force kids to face their fears in a place where they feel nurtured but are being held accountable, they end up being so much better for it.”
Diorio understands the power of criticism all too well, having once been told by teachers at his performing arts high school that he would never succeed in the dance industry. “A lot of dancers want to give up because of how tough people can be, but toughness builds character—and character in performance is everything,” he says. Yet he cautions that it’s crucial not to be tough just for the sake of doing so: “It’s like salt and pepper: You mix the good with the not-so-good. Find your balance of mixing constructive criticism with encouragement; evaluate what you’re saying and whether it’s truly for the benefit of the dancer.”
Capture lightning in a bottle
Center Stage’s DelGrosso believes that the childhood years are prime time to instill lasting confidence in performers. At her studio, dancers as young as 4 years old can join performance companies. “Encouraging pint-size dancers to perform enables them to apply their natural confidence,” she says. “I find that the young ones haven’t yet had a lot of negative input; most of them have an innate confidence and understanding that they are wonderful,” says DelGrosso, whose studio has trained rising stars Julianne Hough and Chelsie Hightower. “We make sure that the teachers who work with these impressionable dancers are the very best I have.”
To further boost confidence, DelGrosso hosts a special boot camp every year right before National finals. (The studio attends numerous competitions, from L.A. Dance Magic to NUVO.) Not only do the dancers get to try out other disciplines like yoga and Zumba, but DelGrosso uses this time to focus on mindset. “I bring in motivational speakers and confidence-builders—people who work on sharpening the mental edge,” says DelGrosso. “We also have a candlelight ceremony where each girl reads an inspiring quote from a dance master.”
Moore maintains that focusing on love of dance can organically lead dancers to love themselves. “It’s most important that dancers believe they are valid, worth it and have something to give,” she says. “Otherwise, they won’t be able to exude that something when they get onstage. As dance teachers, the biggest thing we can do is foster a love of dance. That will give them the confidence to get up there and share it.” DT
Jen Jones is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.
Photo: Tyce Diorio (by Joe Toreno)