A whole new month! A whole new week! Time for another challenge!
I’ve blogged about this before, but I thought this would make another good topic for the weekly challenge. What is stage presence? It’s the command you have of your audience as a performer. It’s not about just getting up on stage and dancing. Stage presence is your character, how you present yourself, how you interact with the audience, and then…way down the list…what techniques you are doing and how you are doing them.
I hear it a lot — and I agree with it — that many professional dancers would much rather watch other dancers having fun (even if the technique is so-so) than a mechanically perfect dancer whose head could be screwed off and replaced with another and there would be no difference. To put it a little harshly, if you are dead from the neck up, then you might as well not even be there. If you aren’t having fun, the audience isn’t having fun. If you aren’t feeling the emotion or character you are trying to convey, then the audience won’t get it.
Dance isn’t just about what awesome techniques you can do. It’s about the performance. That’s what we do, we perform. I’ve blogged a lot about creating characters and challenges for adding drama to your performances. If you are new to the weekly challenge, try out one of those maybe this week. Or, take a peek at this one:
Beginner: Again you may be telling yourself (or shouting it at the screen) that you have no interest in performing, and that is totally, totally fine. However, this is the perfect time to start learning how to perform, not just do movements. Don’t wait until your technique is solid and you are chomping at the bit to perform to try to learn these skills (if you do decide you want to perform). These skills are like any other: they take time and practice to master. Starting now will only help you in the long run, and they are fun anyway. This week, while you are drilling or practicing your combos, try imagining yourself on a stage. Don’t get nervous, because you really aren’t on stage! But think about what it would be like: the lights shining in your eyes, you in that beautiful costume, performing to your favorite song. What sort of character are you? It doesn’t have to be anything complex, just think about who you want to be on stage. Do you want to be Dina or Randa? Pretend you are Zoe or Rachel! (a caution here: don’t compare yourself to these dancers, for that way lies frustration and disappointment. Instead, just imagine you are them, and project what you think of as essentially Dina or essentially Rachel onto your own skin*). Do this every day you practice, and maybe mix it up a little!
Intermediate: Whether you perform with a student troupe or not, this really is the time to make sure you are starting to get performance skills practice in your regular practice. It’s more than just smiling on stage. Smile while you practice, or project whatever other emotion your teacher has told you to try for that performance (fusion troupes often have other emotions, but it’s perfectly okay to just be happy). And we’ll take it a step further. If you are supposed to be happy while you are performing, start thinking about things that make you happy. Yes, you are trying to remember choreography, but hopefully you have practiced it enough your body could do it while you were sleeping. And being too nervous before a performance can sabotage your memory. Relax and think of something happy while you practice. It will make your smile genuine instead of the plastered on, “I’m-really-nervous-and-would-rather-be-somewhere-else-but-I’m-here-so-SMILE!” smile. If happy isn’t your emotion, then use whatever it is while you practice. If sad, think of something sad (but don’t make yourself cry! You don’t want to smear makeup on stage!). If angry, get angry.
Advanced: I watch a lot of belly dance because I enjoy it. But too often the piece I enjoy the most is the one that is off-the-wall, silly, or just plain fun, not the technically perfect one. Or maybe it’s the truly imaginative one, or the different, unusual (maybe even avant-garde) one, regardless of technique. Yes, technique is important. But so is stage presence. You should be practicing stage presence just as much as your technique. Imagine how wonderful it would be to see an engaging, fun, AND technically perfect dance! Use the previous exercises to improve your stage presence this week. But the most important challenge for you this week is this: make a commitment to working on stage presence not just for this week, but for the rest of your career. Every day this week, look in the mirror when you practice–drills or choreo–and try to find that character, that spark, that bit of silliness or fun or scary, and work it into the stage persona. Will it to come out and make a home in your dance practice. Nurture it this week, and make a promise to it that you will continue to do so, forever and ever.
*There has been some discussion about copy-catting and finding your own style recently. I wanted to add here that I do not think it is okay to copy other dancers’ styles. However, this is a perfectly valid exercise for new dancers. It’s not about copying their style, but about learning how to perform a character, and most dancers, even new dancers, will know these famous dancers only as “characters” not as someone to “copy” or “steal” from. There is a caution here, too, though for newer dancers: while it is okay, in the beginning, to try on new styles and characters, it is important to remember that you are not Rachel Brice or Dina. Use them as inspiration for your own style, when you get to that point.
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Last week we worked on journaling a character for our belly dancing. We talked about the deepest parts of our personalities, those emotions that are our core. For the advanced dancers, we also talked about creating a character for our dance persona to project–a character on top of a character. Let’s expand on that!
Dancing your character
This week’s challenge is going to be a lot like the one we did on expressing emotion back in May (this one). In that challenge, we worked on smiling, or expressing an emotion or two, while we danced, not just with our faces, but with our movements. This will be similar, but different.
Beginner: Find a few of those emotions your journaled about last week. Maybe you brainstormed a move or two that went with that emotion. If not, that’s fine. Try it now. Many of these emotions aren’t pretty–remember that we tried to dive deep into our core selves. That’s okay, you can start with the easy emotions, the less-complex parts of yourself, for this exercise. So, what movement says happy to you? But beyond that, think about if that movement makes you happy. Do you love doing mayas? Can you express that when you dance them? Of course, the emotion doesn’t have to be happy–that just might be easiest because (at least for me) belly dance movements tend to be “happy.” What does this have to do with your character? You are building a repertoire of movements that you can pull out when you are trying to express an emotion, and in order to genuinely emote, you need to know how to access that emotion through your movement, not just your face. Translating emotion into movement is the core of creating your dance character. Don’t worry if your core character isn’t happy. If you dance angry (and there’s definitely room for that, depending on your piece), then go with that. There are no wrong answers. Every day this week, work on those core emotions, and what movements you can do with them. Dance them and see if they work. Save the deeper, stronger, more difficult emotions for later. But do keep them in mind.
Intermediate: You are pretty much going to do the same thing this week as the Beginner students. But think outside the box a little more, and think more about personality, not just emotions. Don’t just think shimmy = happy. Think about what your character is thinking and feeling when she shimmies. Is there a way you can make each movement you do fit your character? Still translate, still think about how you can express your emotions, your character, through your movements, but think about ALL of your movements. How can you make your shimmies angry or sad? This may be a little tough, but give it a try every day this week. Play with it. Journal it.
Advanced: Last week we thought about having your dance character–whether it was you or your mask dancer–actually express, or become, another character. In other words, if your normal dance persona is flirty, cute, bubbly, and playful, how would that other person create a piece that was, say, angry? Can your bubbly dance self dance angrily? Is there a need? Maybe. Think about all the music we dance to. Many of us fall into the trap of not really caring what the lyrics are saying (because there aren’t any, they are in Arabic, or maybe we just aren’t taking them into account). But, especially if the song is in Arabic, there may be parts of the song that do get angry, or sad, or longing. Many of these songs may not be suitable for dance, but many of them are. Do you really want to be smiling, perky, and happy when the singer suddenly starts singing about how happy she’d be if her beau hadn’t left her? Usually the music will clue you in, but not always. Instead of suddenly becoming a whole different person for that section, try having your bubbly self express that sadness or anger. There is a difference! People have more than one emotion, and so dance personas can have more than one as well. Don’t just think of your dance persona as a bag of emotions, where one at a time gets pulled out for each song and then put back when you’re done. A fully realized persona will be more complex than that. So this week, work on that. Journal, choreograph, whatever you need to do, in order to stretch and deepen that dance persona.