Dancers often strive to stand out from the ensemble. But dancing together—matching other dancers in movement style, timing and energy—is an equally important and equally challenging skill, and one that, after months of training at home, might need a tune-up.
"Group work is very human," says Denise Vale, senior artistic associate at the Martha Graham Dance Company. "It's a commitment from the individual to immerse themselves in the group but retain their individuality." Use these tactics to become a better team player for compelling, powerful group performances.
Watch Each Other
Observing how other dancers approach choreography can help you absorb their movement style. Since it can be difficult to watch them in real time, Rhonda Malkin, a coach who has trained 51 dancers who've become Rockettes, takes videos at the end of her classes and rehearsals that dancers can take home to analyze whether they're dancing as a unit.
Amanda Smith, a Dance Theatre of Harlem company member who teaches teen dancers at the DTH School, also suggests watching other dancers' movement during moments in class when you're not actively dancing. "Pay attention to your fellow classmates while they are going across the floor or in center, and find something that you admire, and say, 'Let me try that arm,' " she says.
Refine Your Focus
Staying aware of your fellow performers while you dance—while also directing your focus where the choreography requires it—means developing what Vale calls "the inner-outer focus." "When you're staring straight out, you're not seeing to the side of you," she says. "You have to practice this inner focus. It helps you feel what's behind you and helps you see peripherally. As you're looking out, you're also looking in—it's a sophisticated way of focusing."
This starts in rehearsals, by using the mirror wisely. "The biggest challenge that I have seen for students taking lots of Zoom classes is that they have to get used to the mirror again," says Malkin. She suggests that dancers avoid staring straight at themselves in the mirror and instead use it to scan the room as they dance.
When it comes to dancing together, timing is paramount. Malkin emphasizes counting the music as soon as it's given to you. If the rhythm doesn't come naturally, listen to the music while standing still and picture yourself doing the choreography, or count and clap out the rhythm exactly the way the music sounds. "It's taking a step backwards and making sure you understand where the beat lies," she says.
Wait until you and your fellow dancers know the music backwards and forwards before you begin focusing on dancing together, Malkin suggests. (This is especially important in an audition setting. If the dancers around you aren't following the correct musicality, do the phrase as it was taught instead of dancing with them.)
Depending on the type of choreography, getting creative with your timing can create a more dynamic group energy. "Once you know what you're trying to do within those musical phrases, then you are free to go with it and the dancer behind you is free to do the same thing," says Vale. "I would love it if dancers would challenge each other in their movement arrival and musicality."
Breathe Out Loud
"The breath is the poetry of keeping people together," says Vale. At the beginning of working on a piece, she recommends dancers breathe out loud so they can hear each other. Breathing audibly onstage can be distracting, she says, but during rehearsal it can help refine the group dynamic so that dancers are breathing together naturally and subtly once the curtain rises. "If the breath is shallow, it's not sharing itself with the other dancers, and it's really hard to connect," Vale says.
Dancing in unison doesn't have to mean stifling your identity as a dancer—in fact, your individuality can be essential in bringing out the best of the group. "It takes a huge amount of commitment emotionally and intellectually to make it work so it doesn't look like it's a machine," says Vale. "I believe in Martha's idea that out of the group comes the individual, and from the individual comes the group, and I believe first in the individual."
Just like many dancers swear by connecting with their partner backstage before a big pas de deux, the same can apply for a dance that involves group work. At DTH, this looks like a tendu circle, where dancers squeeze each others' hands to feel their energy. "That really helps us in group ballets," says Smith.
When it's time for your entrance, be sure your group has planned exactly how you'll move from the wings to the stage, so that you're dancing together immediately, says Vale. This is especially key on an unfamiliar stage. "There's a collaboration in the wings for dancers to understand how to arrive musically on the stage together," she says.