Face Value

A performer’s facial expressions often play a large role in transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary. Along with boosting entertainment value, they can enable the audience to relate to a piece. “The dancer is usually trying to convey a story, and every story has an emotion,” says Tre Armstrong, a hip-hop instructor and choreographer and judge for the Canadian version of “So You Think You Can Dance.” “When your face embodies the emotion of a story, you engage the audience in your performance and pull them into your world.”

No doubt about it: Facial expressions are an integral part of any dancer’s toolbox, but where do you draw the line between what’s natural and what’s overdone? Has the animated “A-E-I-O-U” approach gone the way of the dancing dinosaur? According to Becky Ewing, co-owner of Torrance, California–based Fusion Dance Studio, the answer is yes. “Winking or twisting your face during every other move is almost distracting,” says Ewing. “When a dancer’s face is just off the charts, it makes it difficult to focus on their lines or movement.”

So how can dance teachers guide students toward organic and engaging self-expression? DT spoke with several instructors to find out what works and how to achieve it.


Encourage dancers to draw from within.

Say good-bye to artificial or plastered-on smiles—authentic emotion is the driving force behind believable facials. Leslie Tyler, owner of Leslie’s Dance Emporium in Osceola, Creston and Greenfield, Iowa, encourages dancers to let their passion for their artform drive their facial expressions. “I urge them to give their whole selves to the routine—not just smiling because you’re supposed to smile, but dancing from your heart and letting that show,” says Tyler. “I believe facials are a huge part of what the judges look for during competition.”
Armstrong agrees that judges do place strong emphasis on facials. “We have to feel the dancer enjoying it and believe that what we’re seeing is real,” she says. “At the end of the day, everything has to be genuine.”

Practice makes perfect.

It almost seems like a Catch-22: Although it’s ideal for facial expressions to happen naturally, they sometimes come most readily through repeated practice. “A lot of times, especially with older kids, they’ll say, ‘Oh, I’ll just do it when I’m onstage,’ but in reality, they do what’s practiced and in their muscle memory,” says Dana Bailey, who owns Dana’s Dance Studio in Southlake and Keller, Texas. “They need to practice it in the dance studio before it will happen onstage.”

Armstrong advises dancers to experiment at home. “I tell them to go in front of a mirror and practice extreme emotions—sadness, joy, anger,” she says. “If they’re willing to play, they can loosen up their muscles and see what looks good and what doesn’t.” To help students feel less self-conscious, Bailey sometimes turns the lights down or has them turn away from the mirror when focusing on facials.

Every face has its place.

Not surprisingly, the tone and energy of a piece should play a large part in determining what’s appropriate. “I address facial expressions piece by piece,” says Tyler. For instance, last year, her competition team did an upbeat number called “Strut,” which called for sassy, confident attitudes—while this year’s routines range from a “Hot Chocolate” tap number to a lyrical “Wild Horses” piece. Says Tyler, “‘Hot Chocolate’ will require very over-the-top expressions, while ‘Wild Horses’ is more reverent and about letting your love of dance shine through.”

Genre is also a determining factor for what works and what doesn’t. Broadway-themed jazz pieces may call for larger-than-life expressions, while the same ones feel contrived in contemporary pieces. Age should also come into play: “Grade-school kids can more easily get away with big facial expressions than high school kids,” says Tyler. “However, in a big production number, I think anything goes: the wilder, the better!”
Yet Armstrong is quick to caution teachers from encouraging students to go too big. “As a judge, I don’t enjoy over-the-top facial expressions,” she says. “It’s almost like I have to mentally disconnect the face from the body [in those instances].”

Explore the lyrics and the story of the piece.

Attaching meaning to the choreography can often provide useful direction for dancers. At Dana’s Dance Studio, Bailey and her students listen to the music and discuss what the lyrics mean to them. “We’ll ask them, ‘How does it make you feel? Show me in your face and in your dancing the emotions that the music brings out in you,’” she says. “They learn that it’s not just about dancing steps.”

Ewing has also found success coming up with narratives to which young dancers can relate. According to Ewing, a recent piece involving a storyline about losing your best friend really resonated. “We talked about the story behind the piece and how it drove the emotions and facials that came out of the dancers,” she says. “The audience doesn’t have to know your story—it just has to move them or touch their heart in some way.”

Engage the audience through eye contact.

On the competition stage, the old proverb “the eyes are the window to the soul” is particularly true. According to Tyler, making eye contact with the judges and audience is crucial to creating a memorable connection with them. “This gives the audience a moment to experience the thrill and joy and passion of the dancer through his or her eyes,” she says. And that’s a gift worth giving. DT

Jen Jones is a freelance writer and certified BalleCore instructor in Los Angeles.

Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"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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Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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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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