Teaching Tips

How to Pull Emotion and Passion Out of Your Dancers

Teaching technique to dancers is, for the most part, straightforward. Regardless of the style—"standing leg in plié," "transfer your weight" or "find a low contracting lunge"—the cues become second nature for teachers and students. But articulating emotion and passion can be a struggle for teachers and even uncomfortable for some dancers to grasp and execute.

While some kids naturally connect emotion to their movement, (i.e. the inspiring clip below), not every group of young dancers will have the zest and mature enthusiasm to move the audience or competition judges to stand up and cheer. So how do you teach a dancer to emote?

If you're having trouble pulling the passion out of your students, here are a few ideas to help them find "the feeling" in their dancing.


Use Your Music

Choreographer Darrell Grand Moultrie strives to teach his students from a young age to understand musicality and dancing with passion. As a young dancer, he had a teacher who used soul and gospel music in class to pull emotion out of dancers, and he's stuck with this method in his own teaching. "When you want young dancers to feel, using soulful vocals and music are like an instant shot and win," says Moultrie.

Here's a video from a class at The Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Los Angeles of a group of young kids dancing with maturity far beyond their years.



Create the Emotion Behind the Story

"Everyone relates to a song or a concept differently," says Tiffany Prout-Leitao, owner of Center Stage Dance Academy. "I have students come up with their own story, so it's organic and not fake or forced. I have them listen to the song, close their eyes and not dance but see their movement and let the natural feeling come out."

Kelby Brown, who's taught for American Ballet Theatre and at conventions like The PULSE, takes a similar approach.

"To begin with, I always ask dancers to listen to their music without dancing. Just truly listen," says Brown.

He asks students to create a guide for the choreography, what he calls an emotional outline, by choosing three adjectives to describe the music. This encourages dancers to consider their senses and how those details affect the movement—visualize the space, what it smells like, what their relationship is to the other dancers or themselves, whether it's a solo and whether they're moving through a material like mud or water.

"These are all tools that young dancers need to gather, so they can have confidence in their portrayal of whatever emotion they're trying to get across to the audience," says Brown.

"If you don't feel something, then the audience won't, either," he adds. "It's our job as dancers to create that experience."

Teachers Trending
All photos by Ryan Heffington

"Annnnnnnd—we're back!"

Ryan Heffington is kneeling in front of his iPhone, looking directly into the camera, smiling behind his bushy mustache. He's in his house in the desert near Joshua Tree, California, phone propped on the floor so it stays steady, his bright shorty shorts, tank top and multiple necklaces in full view. Music is already playing—imagine you're at a club—and soon he's swaying and bouncing from side to side, the beat infusing his bones.

Keep reading... Show less
Teachers Trending
Evelyn Cisneros-Legate. Photo by Beau Pearson, Courtesy Ballet West

Evelyn Cisneros-Legate is bringing her hard-earned expertise to Ballet West. The former San Francisco Ballet star is taking over all four campuses of The Frederick Quinney Lawson Ballet West Academy as the school's new director.

Cisneros-Legate, whose mother put her in ballet classes in an attempt to help her overcome her shyness, trained at the San Francisco Ballet School and School of American Ballet before joining San Francisco Ballet as a full company member in 1977. She danced with the company for 23 years, breaking barriers as the first Mexican American to become a principal dancer in the U.S., and has graced the cover of Dance Magazine no fewer than three times.

As an educator, Cisneros-Legate has served as ballet coordinator at San Francisco Ballet, principal of Boston Ballet School's North Shore Studio and artistic director of after-school programming at the National Dance Institute (NDI). Dance Teacher spoke with her about her new position, her plans for the academy and leading in the time of COVID-19.

Keep reading... Show less
News
The author with Maurice Hines. Photo by Anthony R. Phillips, courtesy Hopkins

In March, prior to sheltering in place due to the coronavirus outbreak, my husband and I traveled from New York City to Miami to screen our award-winning documentary, Maurice Hines: Bring Them Back, at the Miami Film Festival.

Our star, Tony Award–nominated dancer and choreographer Maurice Hines joined us in Miami for the festival—stepping and repeating on the opening night red carpet, sharing anecdotes from his illustrious seven-decade career with local tap students, and holding court at a cocktail mixer with lively female fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.