Teaching Tips

6 Strategies to Boost Performance Quality From Your Dancers

Molly Heller's Very Vary. Photo by Duhaime Movement Project, courtesy of Heller

University of Utah professor Molly Heller choreographs works that demand 100 percent commitment from her dancers. Her most recent piece Very Vary saw her cast of six speak, scream, laugh, cry and make a range of radical facial expressions in movement that was technically challenging, dynamic and highly expressive.

Getting that level of commitment from your dancers isn't easy, especially when it comes to facial expressions and vocalization. Heller shares six ways that she brings out excellent performance quality in her dancers. Try them with your students.

1. Draw emotion from real experiences by asking questions. Heller prompts her dancers with questions like "What is something you fear?" or "What is something you're good at?" The dancers then develop a response and Heller shapes it. "People ask me, 'How do you get them to cry?'" she says. "But they're not really performing those emotions. You are witnessing them move through those emotions."

2. Think of facial expression as an extension of the body, rather than a theatrical element.

3. Use outside sources. "Sometimes we'll look at a music video or a video of another performance genre, and we'll learn the facial expressions from the video," says Heller. "For example, one of the performers learned the facial expressions from a Ludacris video. I took that and put it in a totally different context."

4. Focus on the eyes, feet and hands. "I have found that facial expression comes from accessing the nuance in the effort of the hands and feet," says Heller. "The eyes are like another body limb that reaches out into space and receives information." Heller does eye training with her students—working with focused or blurred eyes, opening up peripheral vision and working with intimate, social and long-distance focus.

5. Work with imagery.

6. Develop a partnership with the music. "The music or the sound is both influencing you and you are directing it," she says. "Even if it's a prerecorded sound, imagine that you are triggering the music just as much as it's partnering you."

Get inspired by these excerpts from Heller's Very Vary.

Higher Ed
Getty Images

As we wade through a global pandemic that has threatened the financial livelihood of live performance, dancers and dance educators are faced with questions of sustainability.

How do we sustain ourselves if we cannot make money while performing? What foods are healthy for our bodies and fit within a tight unemployment budget? How do we tend to the mental, emotional and spiritual scars of the pandemic when we return to rehearsal and the stage?

Keep reading... Show less
Teachers Trending
Cynthia Oliver in her office. Photo by Natalie Fiol

When it comes to Cynthia Oliver's classes, you always bring your A game. (As her student for the last two and a half years in the MFA program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I feel uniquely equipped to make this statement.) You never skip the reading she assigns; you turn in not your first draft but your third or fourth for her end-of-semester research paper; and you always do the final combination of her technique class full-out, even if you're exhausted.

Oliver's arrival at UIUC 20 years ago jolted new life into the dance department. "It may seem odd to think of this now, but the whole concept of an artist-scholar was new when she first arrived," says Sara Hook, who also joined the UIUC dance faculty in 2000. "You were either a technique teacher or a theory/history teacher. Cynthia's had to very patiently educate all of us about the nature of her work, and I think that has increased our passion for the kind of excavation she brings to her research."

Keep reading... Show less
Clockwise from top left: Courtesy Ford Foundation; Christian Peacock; Nathan James, Courtesy Gibson; David Gonsier, courtesy Marshall; Bill Zemanek, courtesy King; Josefina Santos, courtesy Brown; Jayme Thornton; Ian Douglas, courtesy American Realness

Since 1954, the Dance Magazine Awards have celebrated the living legends of our field—from Martha Graham to Misty Copeland to Alvin Ailey to Gene Kelly.

This year is no different. But for the first time ever, the Dance Magazine Awards will be presented virtually—which is good news for aspiring dancers (and their teachers!) everywhere. (Plus, there's a special student rate of $25.)

The Dance Magazine Awards aren't just a celebration of the people who shape the dance field—they're a unique educational opportunity and a chance for dancers to see their idols up close.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.