10 Steps to More Expressive Dancers
I had a breakthrough moment during my first year teaching jazz that led me to come up with 10 strategies to increase dancers’ expressiveness. Developing an expressive physical voice and the self-confidence to use it will make your students better dancers and more confident people.
Coaxing dancers to convey emotion and intent with their bodies as well as their faces can be difficult. One of my students in my first year of teaching consistently danced with beautiful technique but no expression. I pushed her with relentless enthusiasm. This went nowhere. I finally told her I wouldn’t push anymore but that I felt she would not continue to improve until she could break through this barrier. In the next class, she danced with more expression than I could have imagined possible.
Expression is a choice. A dancer can consciously decide to perform fully and expressively, although it does take courage to dance from the heart.
At that moment, I saw that expression is a choice. A dancer can consciously decide to perform fully and expressively, although it does take courage to dance from the heart. I believe what makes expressiveness difficult for many young dancers is the fear of being vulnerable.
The following year I became a studio owner and soon realized that many of the dancers at my new studio also struggled with expressiveness. Determined to help them open the doors that confined their emotions, connectedness, and full engagement with the movement, I developed 10 strategies to help with expressiveness. Some exercises focus on the face because I have found that facial movement can help pry open the door to full-body expression.
1. Story hour. Tell the dancers a story to help them identify and connect with the emotions or meaning a choreographer is trying to convey. For example, when I was choreographing a dance to “Last Place” by Jonathan Jones, about a person who is disappointed with life, I told the dancers about an episode of the TV show Undercover Boss, in which a woman worked at a sporting equipment store during the day and slept at a homeless shelter at night.
“Imagine how that would feel,” I said. “You are that woman and you can’t see a way to make your life better. Go!” and I started the music. The dancers’ shocked reaction made its way into the dance—the first spark of expression. It took more stories and several more classes to get them to connect every time, but now they do it without any prodding from me.
Sharing your own personal stories can work even better. When I was working on a dance to “Don’t Give Up” by Peter Gabriel, I told the students about a friend I had in high school who developed a life-threatening eating disorder. I spent hours listening to her and encouraging her not to give up. I assured the kids that she’s doing well now and asked if any of them had friends with overwhelming problems. Everyone nodded, caught up in the story and how it related to their own lives.
“OK,” I said, “you are listening to your best friend and giving her all the love you can. You are telling her not to give up. Go!” The dance became more loving and compassionate than I could have hoped. It became the story I was trying to tell.
2. “Nobody’s home” game. Ask your assistant to stand in the front of the room and raise her hand every time she sees someone dancing without expression. This feels like a game to kids. I’ve found that it has helped my 6- to 11-year-old students transition from a thinking approach to a performance approach. When my students look like they are thinking hard, I say, “You know the dance now. Trust that you know it. Be confident. It’s time to add your confidence and your smile!”
3. Pep talks. Motivational talks help. I tell my dancers that there is no such thing as a dancer who doesn’t affect an audience’s response to a dance. Every dancer contributes to or detracts from the dance. I also often say, “The steps are nothing without you.” When I want dancers to more fully embody the music, I tell them to imagine the music pouring out of their bodies.
4. Fake it till you make it. Have very blocked dancers use facial expressions to convey emotions that fit the movement they are doing. (I help my dancers by having them mirror the expressions on my face.) Even an exercise like this—one that simply asks them to make faces—can be scary for the most expressiveness-challenged dancers, but it can be a good
5. Face time. With dancers sitting in a circle, play the music for the dance you’re working on. Ask dancers to show in their faces what they’re hearing in the music. You can sit in the circle too, so dancers can follow along if they’re hesitant or don’t know what to do. I’ve seen dancers break through by doing this only once.
I only do this when I am asking the dancers to convey a more complicated emotion than happiness. If you do this with the dances that require smiling, the dancers who are not blocked will overdo it with cliché facial expressions that aren’t related to the movement.
6. Learning by example. Single out and praise a dancer who is dancing with particular expressiveness. You can also have him perform for the class.
7. Smile tag. I tell beginning 6- to 12-year-old dancers who don’t remember to smile that their dance is a happy one (because it usually is), and that it’s important for them to look happy while they dance it. As they rehearse I inspect each one’s facial expressions. The dancers think this is hilarious and usually laugh. They treat this as a game and don’t want to be caught not smiling. The bonus is that the smile is coming from a real place.
8. Rewards. Incentives can inspire even very reticent dancers to be more expressive. In one ensemble dance, I gave a solo to a dancer and told her that if she couldn’t convey feeling while dancing the part, I would have to eliminate the solo. I told her I wanted her to have the solo, but she had to earn it. She wanted to dance the solo badly and infused her dancing with much more expression.
Another girl in class shut down whenever she thought people were watching. I told her I would move her to the next level when I could see her being expressive every time we ran the dance. I’ve made it easier for her to work on her expressiveness by not obviously watching her or calling attention to her. She’s making progress and I feel confident that she can go even farther.
9. Freeze dance. Use improvisation. I play this game with my 6- to 12-year-old students. Put on a piece of music and say, “Dance like you are the happiest person ever!” Dancers make up their own movements until you stop the music, at which point they freeze. Then say, “You are the angriest person ever!” Call out a range of emotions. This gives kids an opportunity to spontaneously use both their faces and bodies to express emotion. And they love doing it.
10. Musical theater. Musical-theater dances work well to coax out expression because dancers have to act while they are dancing. My students and I discuss the backgrounds, motivations, and emotions of the characters they are playing. Sometimes I ask the dancers to lip-sync or sing the words to the musical-theater piece to help them connect the words and the meaning. I have found that it is difficult
to ignore the meaning of a song when you are singing.
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