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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We have a different sort of challenge this week. Are you ready?
As dancers, we have a intimate relationship with the floor. It’s what we dance on. We worry about it when we perform. Is the stage flat? Is there water or glass or somebody’s popped beads on it? Is it clean? What type of floor is it: wood or stone or asphalt? It gives us our support and literally IS our stage.
As belly dancers, we have a complex relationship with the floor. Some of the most impressive and entertaining parts of belly dance are done on the floor. Sword work, back bends, Turkish drops… But some dancers will never go to the floor, because it is illegal for them to dance there, or because of the costume they are wearing, or because it’s a hookah bar and who knows what’s been spilled down there… !
And then there is the floor, our security blanket. When we concentrate, we stare at the floor. When we are shy, we stare at the floor. When we are not confident, we stare at the floor.
Dancers, when we are performing, the floor should NEVER be more interesting than our audience.
Yes, there are times when it is okay to look down, at the floor. Character pieces, or a particularly inwardly focused taxim, or as an accent, or a hundred other reasons. But you need to acknowledge your audience at some point. The floor should not be more interesting.
So what’s the challenge?
Beginners: It’s hard not to look at the floor when you are concentrating, but this week, you are going to try. When you are drilling, or when you are practicing a new or difficult move, don’t look at the floor. Instead, find a particularly interesting painting on your wall, or look out your window at something across the street, anything to get the chin off your chest and your gaze out towards your imaginary audience. Do this everyday, every time you drill. Check in once and awhile and see if you are keeping that chin up!
Intermediate: When is a good time to look at the floor? And how do you do it right? It’s time to ask your teacher! Find ways to look at the floor without seeming to stare at it. BUT, always remember to look up again. Looking at the floor conveys certain emotions (sadness, contemplation….think of any others?) but not if you look at it throughout your whole piece. That conveys only this: fear and lack of confidence. Not what we’re going for (well, yes, there might be some pieces, but there are other ways to convey fear than staring at the floor your whole dance). And keep this in mind: it’s not just your chin that needs to stay off your chest. Your eyes need to look up too.
Advanced: If you are performing at this level, you really should know to keep your eyes and your chin up. No audience wants to watch a professional dancer staring at the floor. Watch videos of yourself this week. Are you looking at the floor? Are you meaning to look at the floor? If so, try the previous exercises to help. Also, build your confidence. As apes, we find it difficult to stare at people’s faces–especially people we don’t know–for very long. It’s rude, and it’s also a dominance game. As women, we may have been trained to never stare at people, especially men, as it’s an invitation, pleasant or otherwise. While we don’t want to stare people down in a performance (okay, maybe sometimes!) we do want to be able to make eye contact, look at our audience, and feel confident. Go to your trusty mirror and try looking at yourself. Do you make weird faces? Does it get hard to gaze into your own eyes? This week, concentrate on building your confidence and making sure you are comfortable looking at your audience and making eye contact.
I hope you have been enjoying your belly dancing challenges! Here’s your next one!
First of all, what is stage presence? Basically, it’s how you act on stage. Do you look at the floor or at the audience (or OVER the audience?) Is your posture correct or are your shoulders hunched? Do you look nervous, or are you smiling and having fun? It’s not necessarily WHAT you are doing on stage, but HOW you are doing it.
Beginner: Before you rebel on me and run away screaming about not ever performing, think on this: I never wanted to perform either, and now look where I am!! I wish I had started on stage presence at this stage of my dancing career, rather than later on. When you FIRST start learning is the BEST time to learn stage presence. Even if you think you will never, ever, ever, ever get on stage, try to cultivate stage presence. How? Smile. When practicing your drilling, think of smiling. Don’t frown, or stick your tongue out, or stare at yourself in the mirror like you’re trying to start a fire. Relax and smile. Check your posture. Are your arms out or sagging down into T-Rex land? Is your chin back and up or are you staring at the floor? Your challenge is to try checking every 16 counts or so at first, just a check-in with your body to make sure everything is still where it’s supposed to be. If it’s not, stop dancing, reset, and begin again.
Intermediate: Now is when you will start to think about performing in front of friends and family, perhaps at a student hafla at your studio, or at a casual festival in front of a supportive audience. And now is when you will really need to start to learn how to perform in front of people. Your first performance will be terrifying. But you can get through it! You know your choreo (or your combinations), so now start to think about everything else. When practicing, remember the most important parts of belly dancing stage presence: relax, smile, and make sure your posture is good. Your chest should be up and lifted, and your knees bent. That will also help you relax and make your shimmies and other hip movements bigger and stronger. Don’t look down to your audience if you are on a raised stage. Look out, keeping your chin up. And practice that way! That’s your challenge: make sure you check in every 16 counts or so for posture, where you are looking, and what your face is doing.
Advanced: There’s nothing worse than a technically beautiful dancer with no stage presence. You NEED to connect with your audience. Smile at them. Draw them into your performance. Take their breath away. This is a hard technique to learn (one that I still struggle with!), but there are things you can do to help. If you are on a raised stage, you’ve been told never to look your audience in the eye, and that’s usually the case. But once and awhile, look down at one of them. Make eye contact and pour your performance into your eyes. Even if only one audience member walks away thinking, “Wow, she really connected with me…” that’s perfect. Some of the most intense performances I’ve ever seen was where the dancer stared me down, almost to the point where I was uncomfortable, and then seemingly danced JUST FOR ME. Of course she really wasn’t dancing only for me…there were hundreds of others watching. But the other audience members will also see that connection and be riveted to their seats, wondering if you will dance just for them next. In your practice, always check the basics, of course–posture, facial expression, your character–but also pay attention to how you project yourself in your dance. It’s still important to smile during practice so that you get in the habit of it, but also think about how you come out onto the stage, how you exit, and the personality you are trying to project. Are you being silly, or sensual, or flirty? Is the piece dark or sad or slow? Learn to project those emotions so that anyone watching you feels those same emotions. Your challenge: grab a friend or loved one, put on your headphones (so they can’t hear the music), and have them guess what emotion you are trying to portray (the music often gives it away). Ask them if they felt it, too, or if they just saw you dancing to silence. For an even greater challenge, have them try to guess the song!
Stage presence is a toughy, so keep going with it. Try the exercises at least once a day, and always try to stay aware of HOW you a performing, not just WHAT you are performing. Happy dancing!