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."

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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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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."

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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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