Michelle Chassé sees it often: expressive, energetic dancers whose personalities shrink as soon as they are asked to speak. “When I'm auditioning people, I can tell a lot about their confidence level just in how they speak to me," says Chassé, musical theater dance chair at The Boston Conservatory. “I think people don't realize that in an audition I'm just as interested in who they are as people," she says. “I might ask, 'Are you having a nice day?'" All too often, the dancer's discomfort speaks more loudly than her words.
It makes sense. In class, dancers spend hours fine-tuning their ability to communicate silently. They spend little, if any, time exercising their vocal strength, so an imbalance develops: expert movement skills with no spoken skills. “They're so used to expressing themselves in one way, that asking them to do it in a different way is asking them to speak a different language," says Al Blackstone, New York–based theater dance choreographer and teacher. He says speaking skills can directly affect a dancer's ability to emote. “I've found that students who are able to communicate through conversation are more able to communicate through movement. Anything that encourages them to be evocative and confident is going to directly affect their dance abilities."
And developing this skill will take a dancer beyond the stage. Speaking skills are necessary for nearly any profession. Even professional dancers must speak in interviews, at dance talks and at events. But despite the need, this is an area where dancers face some of their greatest fears and insecurities.
One of the most effective ways for dancers to build verbal confidence is by taking voice and acting classes outside of their dance training. But there are ways that dance teachers can bring vocalization and breathing exercises into everyday technique class, encouraging students to become vocal participants in the classroom, while still adhering to the discipline and structure of dance.
Learning to Breathe
“A lot of times, dancers don't breathe," says Chassé. She forces dancers to find their breath in warm-up by having them sing along to the song that's playing. She does this during abs, when many people are tempted to hold their breath. “One of the hardest things for dancers is to let their bellies out a little bit—it feels like they're doing something wrong. But that's exactly what you have to do to fill it with air."
Dancers spend so much time adhering to strict discipline and rules in dance classes that they sometimes neglect the artistic development of a unique sense of self. Even if they have a strong personality, they may not feel they have permission to bring it into class. “My philosophy is to link the fun, bubbly person outside of the classroom with the person inside the classroom," says Blackstone. “I ask myself, how can you take the happy-go-lucky child and incorporate that into the performance, while also having rules of a dance class?"
Blackstone opens his class with a breath: an audible exhale (like a sigh). He adds a verbal exhale partway through the warm-up when the dancers can make any sound they want. He also leads an exercise in which students wander through the studio space and introduce themselves to other dancers. “We're linking the idea that when you're in the classroom you don't lose all sense of identity," he says.
Throughout class, he frequently asks questions and asks dancers to respond verbally. “A little can go a long way," he says. “I'll ask, 'What do you think this step means?' Often I don't get much response at first, so I'll say, 'Susie, what do you think?' There are no wrong answers. I encourage them to talk to me, and they get used to using their voices in the classroom."
Ballet dancers can have a particularly hard time with verbal confidence, since their studies are often the most disciplined and quiet. At Dallas Ballet Center, a portion of the curriculum called Stage Presence addresses this. Students perform skits. One week, dancers will read a story aloud; the next week, they will write and read their own short story (fiction or nonfiction) to their peers. The objective, says studio director Brent Klopfenstein, is to involve the audience with their words, facial expressions and emotions. Not only are they building verbal confidence, they are learning an integrated approach to character development.
Slate Your Name
Teach dancers to present themselves at auditions.
- Al Blackstone has dancers, ages 7–18, slate their names when he breaks them into groups. They stand in a straight line and announce which group they'll be in: “Hi, my name is _____, and I'll be in group ___."
- Michelle Chassé tells dancers to practice saying their names and a little about themselves in front of a mirror. They can film it (not holding the camera) to see if they like the way they appear. “A lot of times, they'll be playing with their shirt and not realize it," she says. At The Boston Conservatory's Musical Theater Dance Intensive, students get feedback on their vocal presence and body language in the mock audition. “We watch them walk from the door to the center of the room and say their names. We tell them what our first impression is, just based on this."