Dance Teacher Tips

Say It, Don’t Plié It: Exercises to Help Dancers Build Verbal Confidence

Students at The Boston Conservatory's Musical Theater Dance Intensive practice singing and learn how to introduce themselves at auditions. Photo by Max Wagenblass, courtesy of The Boston Conservatory

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."

Developing Presence

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."

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
Sponsored by Harlequin Floors
Burklyn Ballet, Courtesy Harlequin

Whether you're putting on a pair of pointe shoes, buckling your ballroom stilettos or lacing up your favorite high tops, the floor you're on can make or break your dancing. But with issues like sticking or slipping and a variety of frictions suitable to different dance steps and styles, it can be confusing to know which floor will work best for you.

No matter what your needs are, Harlequin Floors has your back, or rather, your feet. With 11 different marley vinyl floors available in a range of colors, Harlequin has options for every setting and dance style. We rounded up six of their most popular and versatile floors:

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 not prepared, studio picture day can be a real headache. But, if done right, it can provide you with gorgeous photos that will make your students and parents happy, while simultaneously providing you with marketing content you will be able to use for years to come.

Here are five tips that will help you pull off the day without a hitch.

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 YouTube

In its 14 years of existence, YouTube has been home to a world of competition dance videos that we have all consumed with heedless pleasure. Every battement, pirouette and trendy move has been archived somewhere, and we are all very thankful.

We decided it was time DT did a deep dive through those years of footage to show you the evolution of competition dance since the early days of YouTube.

From 2005 to 2019, styles have shifted a whole lot. Check them out, and let us know over on our Facebook page what you think the biggest differences are!


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 Teacher Tips
Photo courtesy of Koelliker

Sick of doing the same old stuff in technique class? Needing some across-the-floor combo inspiration? We caught up with three teachers from different areas of the country to bring you some of their favorite material for their day-to-day classes.

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health

Q: I have a very flexible spine and torso. My teachers tell me to use this flexibility during cambrés and port de bras, but when I do, I feel pain—mostly in my lower back. What should I change so I don't end up with back problems?

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
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


Get DanceTeacher in your inbox