How to Actually Make Your Movement Look Effortless
Efficient movement is easy to recognize—we all know when we see a dancer whose every action seems essential and unmannered. Understanding how to create this effect, however, is far more elusive. From a practical perspective, dancing with efficiency helps you to conserve your energy and minimize wear and tear on the body; from an artistic point of view, it allows you to make big impressions out of little moments, and lasting memories for those watching.
So much struggle and determination goes into your training that it can be difficult for early-career dancers to recalibrate their priorities toward simplicity and ease, says Laurel Jenkins, freelance performer and Trisha Brown Dance Company staging artist. "Your aesthetic might shift, and you might have to find new things beautiful." Mastering the art of effortless movement requires a new perspective and a smart strategy—on- and offstage.
Use Your Transitions
As a teenager, New York City Ballet principal Anthony Huxley had an "aha" moment watching former NYCB principal Peter Boal demonstrate combinations. He learned from Boal how to guide his weight and momentum out of each step in ways that would help him begin the next one. Half the power necessary to execute a movement could be borrowed from the one before, and so on.
Anthony Huxley, photo by Paul Kolnik
"You'll make your transitions as easy, clean and fast as they can be by taking everything you don't need out of your dancing," says Huxley. This includes being unnecessarily fixated on specific shapes. Unless the choreography demands that you show a balance or stillness, "don't even worry about it. You'll just end up wasting time."
Dancers used to watching themselves in the mirror can develop the habit of looking straight ahead. But to achieve a feeling of effortlessness, it's essential to use your eyes onstage. "Release the neck so the head can move freely and the eyes can see," Jenkins suggests. "Making decisions based on what you see generates an easy, casual aesthetic. When this happens onstage, it's a sign of maturity—I'm drawn in and I want to know more."
Laurel Jenkins, Photo by Vincent Beaume
Do It Again
Use rehearsal run-throughs to sort your material and determine when to step on the gas, and when to coast, advises Huxley. "The first time I run something, I always give everything 100 percent, which wears you out both physically and mentally. That's not a pleasant experience, to feel like it's impossible to keep going."
Dancer and choreographer Jodi Melnick is fond of repetition as a tool that helps her understand a movement's essence. Each time she repeats a step, she relearns it and reexperiences it, "recording it physically and connecting with the sensation of it," she says.
Jodi Melnick, Photo by Stephanie Berger
Enough Is Enough
Movements have "sweet spots" when it comes to the amount of muscular engagement and release needed. Pause to ask yourself how much force you're using and, more often than not, you'll find there's some you can spare. "I often think about this as the balance between tension and attention," says Melnick.
"I'm a weakling, really," she says. "I don't have that explosive, muscular strength—it's all in direction and follow-through, like playing pool or throwing darts."
"The idea of release is not collapse—it's actually poise," Jenkins explains, "and by doing less, the dancer is a magnet for the audience's focus, rather than trying to capture the audience's attention. I think of it like a cat, that dynamic stillness it has before an attack—that awake poise, ready for decisive action."
In the middle of one of New York City Center's cavernous studios, Misty Copeland takes a measured step backwards. The suggestion of a swan arm ripples before she turns downstage, chest and shoulders unfurling as her legs stretch into an open lunge. She piqués onto pointe, arms echoing the sinuous curve of her back attitude, then walks out of it, pausing to warily look over her shoulder. As the droning of Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto's mysterious "Attack/Transition" grows more insistent, her feet start to fly with a rapidity that seems to almost startle her.
And then she stops mid-phrase. Copeland's hands fall to her hips as she apologizes. Choreographer Kyle Abraham slides to the sound system to pause the music, giving Copeland a moment to remind herself of a recent change to the sequence.
"It's different when the sound's on!" he reassures her. "And it's a lot of changes."
The day before was the first time Abraham had seen Copeland dance the solo in its entirety, and the first moment they were in the studio together in a month. This is their last rehearsal, save for tech, before the premiere of Ash exactly one week later, as part of the opening night of City Center's Fall for Dance festival.
Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.
"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."
Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.
Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:
Dancers are understandably obsessed with food. In both an aesthetic and athletic profession, you know you're judged on your body shape, but you need proper fuel to perform your best. Meanwhile, you're inundated with questionable diet advice.
"My 'favorite' was the ABC diet," says registered dietitian nutritionist Kristin Koskinen, who trained in dance seriously but was convinced her body type wouldn't allow her to pursue it professionally. "On the first day you eat only foods starting with the letter A, on the second day only B, and so on."
"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.