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It’s the Little Things
Small details can have a huge impact on your performance.
Juliet’s pedestrian movements should differ from Aurora’s. Here, Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Ansa Deguchi and Brian Simcoe in Romeo and Juliet. PC Blaine Truitt Covert, Courtesy OBT
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.
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.
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.
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.
Walking and Running
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.”
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.
One of the biggest myths about ballet dancers is that they don't eat. While we all know that, yes, there are those who do struggle with body image issues and eating disorders, most healthy dancers love food—and eat plenty of it to fuel their busy schedules.
Luckily for us, they're not afraid to show it:
Looking for your next audition shoe? Shot at and in collaboration with Broadway Dance Center, Só Dança has launched a new collection of shoes working with some pretty famous faces of the musical theater world! Offered in two different styles and either 2.5" or 3" heels, top industry professionals are loving how versatile and supportive these shoes are! Pro tip: The heel is centered under the body so you can feel confident and stable!
When I wrote about my struggle with depression, and eventual departure from dance because of it, I expected criticism. I was prepared to be challenged. But much to my relief, and horror, dancers from all over the world responded with support and stories of solidarity. The most critical response I saw was this one:
"Dance isn't for everyone."
This may as well be a mantra in the dance world. We have become entrenched in the Darwinian notion that the emotionally weak will be weeded out. There is no room for them anyway.
Growing up in a family-owned dance studio in Missouri had its perks for tap dancer Anthony Russo. But it also earned him constant taunting, especially in high school.
"There was a junior in my sophomore year health class who was absolutely relentless," he says. "I'd get tripped on my way to the front of the classroom and he'd say, 'Watch out, twinkle toes.' If I raised my hand and answered a question incorrectly, I'd hear a patronizing 'Nice one, Bojangles.' "
What does a superstar like Carlos Acosta do after bidding farewell to his career in classical ballet? In Acosta's case, he returns to his native country, Cuba, to funnel his fame, connections and prodigious energies back into the dance scene that formed him. Because of its top-notch, state-supported training programs and popular embrace of the art of dance, Cuba is brimming with talented dancers. What it has been short on, until recently, are opportunities outside of the mainstream companies, as well as access to a more international repertoire. That is changing now, and, with the creation of Acosta Danza, launched in 2016, Acosta is determined to open the doors even wider to new ideas and audiences.
There's so much more to the dance world than making and performing dances. Arts administrators do everything from raising money to managing companies to building new audiences. With the growing number of arts administration programs in colleges, dancers have an opportunity to position themselves for a multifaceted career on- or offstage—and to bring their unique perspective as artists to administrative work.
While Solange was busy helping big sis Beyoncé give Coachella its best performances of all time, an equally compelling project was quietly circulating on Instagram:
New York City Ballet continues its first year without Peter Martins at the helm as our spring season opens tonight.
When he retired at the start of the new year, we plunged headfirst into unknown, murky waters. Who would the new director be? When would we know? Would we dancers get some say in the decision? Who would oversee the Balanchine ballets? Who would be in charge of casting? Would a new director bring along huge upheaval? Could some of us be out of a job?
In the world of ballet, Arcadian Broad is a one-stop shop: He'll come up with a story, compose its music, choreograph the movement and dance it himself. But then Broad has always been a master of versatility. As a teenager he juggled school, dance and—after the departure of his father—financial responsibility. It was Broad's income from dancing that kept his family afloat. Fast-forward six years and things are far more stable. Broad now lives on his own in an apartment, but you can usually find him in the studio.
Bales of hay, black umbrellas, bicycles—this Midsummer Night's Dream would be unrecognizable to the Bard. Alexander Ekman's full-length, inspired by Scandinavian solstice traditions and set to music by Mikael Karlsson, is a madcap celebration of the longest day of the year, when the veil between our world and that of the supernatural is said to be at its thinnest. The Joffrey Ballet's performances mark the seductively surreal work's North American premiere. April 25–May 6. joffrey.org.