The most compelling dancers don't just have amazing technique. They also use their focus to draw in the audience and make their performance captivating. Be more confident and engaging onstage by avoiding these mistakes:
Mistake #1: Not Knowing Where to Look
A soft, outward gaze is best for ballet, says Kiyon Ross. Photo by Angela Sterling
Different styles of dance demand different ways of focusing—be intentional about which you're aiming for. "Having a gaze that is soft with an outward and upward projection is preferred in ballet," says Pacific Northwest Ballet School faculty member Kiyon Ross. "It immediately puts the body into correct alignment and demonstrates confidence and awareness."
Some work may require you to make direct eye contact with the audience. Many dancers struggle with this because they have been trained to gaze toward, not directly at, audience members. "If looking into the audience makes a dancer nervous, start by focusing between two people's faces, or on the back of a chair. That way your gaze is at the right level," says Texas A&M University professor Diane Bedford.
Similarly, competition dancers may debate whether they should look directly at judges. "I love when dancers look at me when I'm judging, but only if it feels natural and unforced. I am not interested in the 'wink on eight, wide eyes on one and blow a kiss on two' approach," says Maddie Kurtz, a judge with StarQuest International Performing Arts Competition and Inspire National Dance Competition.
Mistake #2: Looking Down
Avoid looking down unless it's part of your choreography. Photo via Unsplash
"Don't look down!" is a comment nearly every dancer has heard at some point. Yet it's still one of the most common mistakes students make. Often it's a sign of nervousness or self-consciousness and can be avoided by rehearsing where your focus should be.
Kurtz says she sometimes sees dancers look down to convey a sense of sass or swagger in hip-hop or jazz pieces. "This takes me out of the piece," she says. "I encourage dancers to engage the audience with a flirty side-eye instead."
Mistake #3: Not Using Your Head
Looking with just your eyes, rather than your whole head, can appear awkward. Photo via Thinkstock
When you do change your focus, make sure you're incorporating your head as well as your eyes. "When we shift our eyes without moving our heads, it looks uncomfortable," says Kurtz. "Shift the head so that the change in focus is extra-legible."
Mistake #4: Not Seeing Your Fellow Dancers
If you're dancing with others, look them in the eye. Here, Whim W'Him. Photo by Bamberg Fine Art
Ask yourself if you are really looking at your fellow performers. "I often see dancers beautifully executing material side by side, but they never once acknowledge each other," says Kurtz. Bedford points out that this is especially important if there is meant to be an emotional or narrative relationship between the dancers.
Young dancers can sometimes be self-conscious about direct eye contact, leading to giggling or downcast eyes. "I have dancers start by looking at the tip of their partner's nose, or their forehead," says Bedford. Then try pressing your hands against your partner's and looking from your hands, to your partner's eyes, and then back to your hands, until you have gotten all your giggles out. "Getting comfortable with focus is an exercise, just like tendus," she says.
Mistake #5: Relying on the Mirror
Ross suggests practicing without the mirror so your gaze doesn't get stuck there. Photo by Lindsay Thomas
Looking in the mirror while dancing can lead to a gaze that looks flat. "While the mirror is an essential training tool, it can limit the movement of the head and eyes because the gaze is fixed in one place," says Ross. "Face away from the mirror and record yourself executing a series of movements, or have a teacher or coach watch you. Try to use the head and eyes together with the arms." You can try this with any exercise from class, or with a specific piece of choreography you're working on.