Dance Teacher Tips

Make ’Em Laugh: 6 tips for Incorporating Comedy Into Your Choreography

Leanne Schmidt (shown here in her piece Wonderland) is serious about comedy. Photo by Ryan Jensen.

I created the piece Melt about the art of seduction—gone wrong. During its staging at Triskelion Arts in Brooklyn, dancers in all-black pantomimed mundane household tasks, like drinking tea or ironing clothes, using each other's bodies as props. As they moved, they stared lustily at the audience, as though they were doing something seriously sexy. Then, a dancer in a janitor's uniform entered and began spritzing them with water from a spray bottle, the kind you use to train pets. “No, no! This is all wrong!" she scolded the dancers. She addressed the audience, “Is this turning you on?" They erupted in laughter. The mood shifted instantaneously. You could feel the room relax as the audience realized it was all a joke.


Though it may be outside your comfort zone, using comedy in dance can be a worthwhile exercise. It makes the art more accessible and less mysterious to viewers, and the process allows choreographers and performers to experiment with improvisation, timing and conveying an intention. And you'll probably find you enjoy getting a laugh from your audience, too.

Successfully incorporating comedy into choreography is a challenge, though. It can be hard to know how to translate a funny idea from your mind into movement. Start by being as specific as possible. If you have a vision of an absurd character, like a martian, for example, give him a few more traits. Maybe he's green, and maybe he has an inexplicable yen for eating…bananas, just for instance. It's one thing to crack yourself up with a ridiculous idea, but how do you bring the audience in on the joke? To improve my own comedic skills, I learned from comedians in classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade Improvisational and Sketch Comedy Training Center in New York City. This education, plus 10 years of trial and error as I presented and refined my own work, has helped me narrow down some basic rules to help you get started.

Rule #1: Be smart about it.

Many beginners make the mistake of thinking you have to act foolish or dumb to seem funny. This can come across as begging for a laugh. Teachers at Upright Citizens Brigade emphasize repeatedly, “Play to the top of your intelligence." If one of your dancers is going to be a green martian who loves bananas, she should be the smartest, most erudite green martian who loves bananas. Behaving like an intelligent creature is a simple trick that makes even the most absurd character more believable and real.


Rule #2: Consider your motivation.

Intention is a common topic in technique and composition classes. Movement looks more convincing and complete if there's thought and meaning behind it. The same applies to comedic situations.

As an exercise, have a dancer turn her head to look at a classmate in the studio without thinking too much about it. Then, have her pretend to be a green martian who loves bananas and that classmate across the way is eating a banana. How does the dancer's head turn change? Get specific with each scenario, and the results will be noticeable.

Rule #3: Keep it simple.

Don't over-dramatize. To show the audience a dancer is embarrassed because she ate too many bananas, she should just be embarrassed. Likewise, if you're working on a phrase where you want dancers to look confused, don't have them act confused. See if they can actually be confused. Try giving them directions in “martianese." Now do they look confused? If the intention is there, you don't need to overdo it; the message will come across to the viewer.


Rule #4: Timing is everything.

Play with your timing until you find what gets your point across. Some nights it might work best for your dancers to quickly snap their heads in a deadpan look to the audience; other nights it might be better to let it linger for a few seconds. If dancers are being true to their characters and not angling for a laugh, whatever decision they make will be the right one. Be open to improvisation during a live performance.

Rule #5: The audience is always right.

If you are diving into comedy in dance, don't keep your work a secret. You and your dancers will naturally think the piece is funny because you've been in rehearsal together joking around, pretending to be martians. Invite other people to see a rehearsal before the show, but don't give away the secret ahead of time. See if they laugh. If you have to explain the humor, it's not clear.

Rule #6: Not everyone is going to laugh.

I once presented an absurd work set to a well-known piece of classical music. In two different NYC venues—Triskelion Arts and Chen Dance Center—the piece was well-received. But when I presented it to classically trained musicians at New York City Center Studios, we bombed. If this happens to you, it is not the end of the world. Learn from it. Make adjustments and try again.

Comedy isn't for everyone. Some people take dance so seriously that there isn't any room for humor. Many have expectations when it comes to art that get in the way of experiencing a piece for what it is. All you can do is commit to your character and stay true to your intention. This will help your students (and your audience) be in the moment.

In Melt, I made the choice to have a dancer speak directly to the audience because I wanted them to know that we knew we looked weird, that the dancers' attempts at sexiness were entirely tongue-in-cheek. That's how I broke the tension and let them in on the joke. You will find what works for you. Keep playing, keep being real and don't slip on any banana peels. DT

Leanne Schmidt directs NYC-based Leanne Schmidt and Company and has performed in the Triskelion Arts Comedy in Dance Festival. She has presented her Comedy Improvisation for Composition workshop and received commissions for funny work at universities and dance venues across the country.

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
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
Just for fun
Via Instagram

Happy Father's Day to all of the dance dads in the world! Whether you're professional dancers, dance teachers, dance directors or simply just dance supporters, you are a key ingredient to what makes the dance world such a happy, thriving place, and we love you!

To celebrate, here are our four favorite Instagram dance dads. Prepare to say "Awwwwwwwweeeeeee!!!!!!"

You're welcome!

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

If you're a studio owner, the thought of raising your rates most likely makes you cringe. Despite ever-increasing overhead expenses you can't avoid—rent, salaries, insurance—you're probably wary of alienating your customers, losing students or inviting confrontation if you increase the price of your tuition or registration and recital fees. DT spoke with three veteran studio owners who suggest it's time to get past that. Here's how to give your business the revenue boost it needs and the value justification it (and you) deserve.

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 Teachers Trending
Margie Gillis (left); photo by Kyle Froman

Margie Gillis dances the human experience. Undulating naked in a field of billowing grass in Lessons from Nature 4, or whirling in a sweep of lilac fabric in her signature work Slipstream, her movement is free of flashy technique and tricks, but driven and defined by emotion. "There's a central philosophy in my work about what the experience of being human is," says Gillis, whose movement style is an alchemy of Isadora Duncan's uninhibited self-expression and Paul Taylor's musicality, blended with elements of dance theater into something utterly unique and immediately accessible. "I want an authenticity," she says. "I want to touch my audiences profoundly and deeply."

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

Teaching arabesque can be a challenge for educators and students alike. Differences in body types, flexibility and strength can leave dancers feeling dejected about the possibility of improving this essential position.

To help each of us in our quest for establishing beautiful arabesques in our students without bringing them to tears, we caught up with University of Utah ballet teacher Jennie Creer-King. After her professional career dancing with Ballet West and Oregon Ballet Theater and her years of teaching at the studio and college levels, she's become a bit of an arabesque expert.

Here she shares five important tips for increasing the height of your students' arabesques.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo by Jennifer Kleinman, courtesy of Danell Hathaway

It's high school dance concert season, which means a lot of you K–12 teachers are likely feeling a bit overwhelmed. The long nights of editing music, rounding up costumes and printing programs are upon you, and we salute you. You do great work, and if you just hang on a little while longer, you'll be able to bathe in the applause that comes after the final Saturday night curtain.

To give you a bit of inspiration for your upcoming performances, we talked with Olympus High School dance teacher Danell Hathaway, who just wrapped her school's latest dance company concert. The Salt Lake City–based K–12 teacher shares her six pieces of advice for knocking your show out of the park.

Keep reading... Show less
Getty Images

Q: I'm looking to create some summer rituals and traditions at my studio. What are some of the things you do?

A: Creating fun and engaging moments for your students, staff and families can have a positive impact on your studio culture. Whether it's a big event or a small gesture, we've found that traditions build connection, boost morale and create strong bonds. I reached out to a variety of studio owners to gather some ideas for you to try this summer. Here's what they had to say.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Sam Williams and Jaxon Willard after competition at RADIX. Photo courtesy of Williams

Self-choreographed solos are becoming increasingly popular on the competition circuit these days, leading dance teachers to incorporate more creative mentoring into their rehearsal and class schedules. In this new world of developing both technical training and choreographic prowess, finding the right balance of assisting without totally hijacking a student's choreographic process can be difficult.

To help, we caught up with a teacher who's already braved these waters by assisting "World of Dance" phenom Jaxon Willard with his viral audition solos. Center Stage Performing Arts Studio company director Sam Williams from Orem, Utah, shares her sage wisdom below.

Check it out!

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Dance studios are run by creative people with busy schedules, who have a love-hate relationship with props and sequins. The results of all this glitter and glam? General mass chaos in every drawer, costume closet and prop corner of the studio. Let's be honest, not many dance teachers are particularly known for their tidiness. The ability to get 21 dancers to spot in total synchronization? Absolutely! The stamina to run 10 solos, 5 group numbers, 2 ballet classes and 1 jazz class in one day? Of course! The emotional maturity to navigate a minefield of angry parents and hormonal teenagers? You know it!

Keeping the studio tidy? Well...that's another story.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox