Dance Training

These 5 Details Can Make Or Break Your Performance

#3: Know where your focus should be, and commit to it. Photo by Erik Tomasson

As a dancer, you spend hours looking at yourself in the mirror perfecting your lines, and try time and time again to fit one more rotation into your pirouette. But stop for a second, and think about what you admire in other performers. Sure, your favorites probably have nice facilities and can pull off great tricks. But there's something else that makes them sparkle onstage.

That's because dancing is all about the details—the way you connect movements, how you hold your hands and the way you walk onstage, for instance. “It's about how you inhabit the steps," says Linda Kent, who teaches modern dance at The Juilliard School. “Because guess what: It's a performing art. Why are you dancing? To be a good little machine? One hopes not." These details can bring out your artistry in new ways—and have the power to make or break your performance.


#1: Transitions

Kristin Sudeikis says transitions can help build a sense of anticipation. Photo by Lauren Volo

The most individual dancing happens within the connections from one movement to another, but dancers often forget to give proper attention to these transitional moments. “I don't want to see a step," says Kent. “I want to see the impulse."

“So often we're focused on what the final picture looks like," says Kristin Sudeikis, who teaches contemporary jazz at Broadway Dance Center. “But the reason we're interested is because of everything that leads up to that." Build this sense of anticipation by playing with your timing and musicality.

Sudeikis says dancers have particular trouble transitioning from left to right. “I sometimes think of the tide of the ocean—you drop down and in before you switch to go another direction." Thinking about things like your arm placement and turnout can help you maintain control. Remember that the audience can see you, even if it feels like a small moment.

#2: Hands

Tina LeBlanc suggests thinking about how your character would hold their hands. Photo by Erik Tomasson, courtesy SFB.

Hands can be the most expressive part of the body, so pay attention to what every part of your extremities looks like, including your wrists, knuckles and fingertips, says Sudeikis. Fixing a bad habit doesn't always start with the hands themselves, though. “You want to be aware of them from the spine, to the shoulder blade, through the bicep, tricep and elbow," she says.

It can be difficult to find a happy medium between energized and relaxed, and to adjust your approach for different pieces. “Think of your hands for each role: If you were doing Giselle, you would want them to be softer. If you were doing Swan Lake, you have to feel those wings right to the end of your fingertips," says San Francisco Ballet School's Tina LeBlanc.

#3: Focus

For Linda Kent, even the slightest shift in focus can change the meaning. Photo by Todd Rosenberg, courtesy Juilliard.

Onstage, your eyes can communicate as much as your entire body. “They can be dropped by a quarter of an inch and it can say something totally different," says Kent. “You want your sternum lifted and your eye level above the horizon a little bit so we can see you."

But focus isn't just essential when you're looking at the audience, says Sudeikis. Think about how you engage with the dancers around you. “Don't look past the person to your right, even if you're not making eye contact with them," she says. “Look at their shoulder or pick out another specific point so that you really see something."

Like most details, this is something that can be practiced in the studio. Know where your focus should be at all times, and think about what kind of energy you should be expressing, whether soft, intense or somewhere in between.

#4: Walking and Running

Don't forget to run with your whole body. Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy MCB

When done carelessly, traveling onstage can be one of the most distracting parts of someone's dancing. How you approach walking and running should be different for every genre and piece. Obviously, running in pointe shoes will feel very different from doing it barefoot; but it also depends on whether you're dancing Paul Taylor's joyous Esplanade or a heavy Graham piece.

"It's all about the weight transfer," says Kent. "As you give weight into one foot, you're taking it from the other, and you want to make it seamless." Don't forget about the rest of your body, though. Using your shoulders and back effectively, like leaning into a series of runs, can completely change its look and feel.

It helps, too, to think about how your character would run. "Juliet is going to look different running than Aurora," says LeBlanc. The same goes for abstract pieces. If you have to create a character in your head to help clarify how they would travel, do so. And stay in character until you're offstage, adds LeBlanc. "One of my pet peeves is seeing a dancer's energy drop before she is out of sight. You should exit like you're running the length of a football field."

#5: Bows

Bows are the last thing the audience sees—so make them good. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor

A piece isn't over until you leave the stage, but bows are often left unrehearsed and unrefined. "You see this incredible piece and then the bows are kind of messy," says Sudeikis. "It immediately takes the sophistication of the work to a different spot, and you're doing yourself a disservice."

How you bow is going to depend on what you're doing. Of course, if you're bowing during a ballet after a variation, you should stay in character. But other styles may call for something a little more "human." Think about being yourself, and expressing genuine graciousness for the applause you're receiving. Thoroughly rehearse your bows. Are your feet all the way together or hips-width apart? Are you trickling through your spine or staying more formally stiff? Define your finish, so you can leave it all onstage.

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Dance Training
Jealousy is normal—it becomes a problem when it affects your dancing. Thinkstock

A classmate lands the role you wanted. Another dancer is always earning compliments from the teacher you can never seem to please. The dance world is full of opportunities to feel envious—and according to psychologist Nadine Kaslow, that is completely normal.

"To say you shouldn't ever feel jealous is unrealistic," says Kaslow, who works with dancers at Atlanta Ballet. "But when you become driven by it, rather than focusing on doing your best to improve, that's when it turns harmful." Luckily, there are ways to channel this negative emotion into positive growth.

1. Feel It

Don't be ashamed when envy strikes. Instead, acknowledge and process how you're feeling. Photo by Matthew Murphy for Pointe.

"In dance, it can seem like the grass is always greener," says Erin Fogarty, a teacher and director of programming at Manhattan Youth Ballet. "If you're a jumper, you wish you could turn. If you're long and leggy, you wish you could jump. People progress at different paces."

There's no reason to be ashamed when envy strikes. In fact, it's better to acknowledge your feelings than to ignore them. "Bottled-up emotions can be dangerous," Fogarty says. Unresolved jealousy can consume you, affecting how you view yourself and interact with your peers. You might experience physical side effects, such as excess muscle tension. Your artistry can even suffer when you're closed-off emotionally.

You can't move forward until you honestly assess and accept your state of mind. "Sometimes I encourage people to write down how they're feeling," Kaslow says. "They might discover something else at the root of the jealousy: They're hurt, angry, betrayed or humiliated. Those feelings need to be dealt with as well."

But remember: Pausing to validate your emotions isn't the same as wallowing in them. "It's fine to take a day to be mad, especially if you don't feel like you can be in the studio without coming undone," Fogarty says. "Then you have to get back to work."

2. Talk About It

Opening up to someone about how you're feeling can help you move forward. Photo by Kevin Laminto via Unsplash

After you've admitted your feelings to yourself, consider talking to a parent, teacher or close friend. Look for someone who will listen and perhaps share their own experiences, without encouraging the negative impulses that can accompany envy. "The wrong person could feed your jealousy instead of helping you understand it," says Elizabeth Petrin, who teaches at Bobbie's School of Performing Arts in Newbury Park, California. "You want someone who can build you up and offer advice."

What if the friend you usually turn to is the person you're jealous of? Taking the time to recognize your friend's excitement can start to pull you out of your rut. But, Kaslow warns, "smiling and pretending everything's fine when it's not often comes across as phony" and can damage your relationship. "Being honest and vulnerable—'I am happy for you, but I'm also really disappointed right now'—can heal your wounds."

If your dance environment has started to feel toxic, ask a teacher to facilitate a class or company discussion. "If people are constantly being negative about their own achievements or making friends feel bad for succeeding, it creates distance," Petrin says. "When you're no longer holding each other back, everyone can improve."

3. Use It

Use your jealousy as motivation. Photo by Hector Gamboa, Courtesy Petrin

Acting on jealousy can be a problem—if your response is to say nasty things about your peers or to engage in sabotaging behavior. But there are also ways to use envy for good. The key is to focus on yourself, instead of on those around you. "If someone is doing something well, and I think about how I might adopt some of that, that's motivating," Kaslow says. "If I'm so focused on them that I lose sight of myself, that's counterproductive."

To come up with a game plan, get specific. "Is what you're jealous about something you can fix?" asks Petrin's choreography partner and fellow teacher Mandy Korpinen. You may not be able to change how you're built—or what a choreographer is looking for—but you can improve your strength, flexibility, stamina and work ethic.

Of course, there's a delicate balance between homing in on your growth and beating yourself up. If you have a tendency toward self-criticism, find ways to boost your spirits. "One of my teachers growing up made me write three things I was good at on the mirror in my room," says Korpinen, "so every morning I was reminded of my strengths."

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