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.

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