When Dancers Speak

December 31, 2014

After spending years in the studio honing your ability to express yourself with your body, movement can come to feel like the most natural method of communication. Yet in today’s contemporary dance field, speaking has become a necessary performance skill: More and more, choreographers are asking dancers to double as actors, spoken-word artists and onstage narrators. And as many performers find out, merging movement with sound doesn’t always come easily.


Mattocks, at far right, in Goats (work in progress), by Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar for OtherShore Dance Company. Photo by Julieta Cervantes, courtesy Mattocks.

Aaron Mattocks Big Dance Theater

As an audience member, I often find dancers talking off-putting. It feels either under-rehearsed, or that it’s not addressed as fully as the movement, almost as though it’s not being held up to the same creative standards that the choreography is. In work I’ve done with Big Dance Theater, and David Gordon, and Then She Fell, we develop the text and movement together, like a song, so the body and mind can learn them as a single unit.

I did a summer program in acting based on the Meisner work which focuses on the notion of repetition—repeating what the other person is saying to push beyond the thought of “what am I going to say next” and really focus on behavior and the physical language of communication and emotion. It helped me realize that every moment onstage needs to be a complete discovery.

Tip: To warm up I do classical voice scales, then I go through all of my lines. I don’t want the first time I say them that day to be onstage.


Bell (front) in Johan Inger’s Rain Dogs. Photo by Jim Stott, courtesy Cedar Lake.

Billy Bell Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet

One of the best things about being on “So You Think You Can Dance” is that I got comfortable with hearing my own voice—even when I sounded like a chicken that sounded like a pig. I got over the fear factor because I simply got so used to listening to myself. I’m fearless now. Of course, speaking on “SYTYCD” was different than speaking onstage because on the show we were speaking about ourselves as ourselves, not inside a character. But at Cedar Lake, most of the works use our voice, and now it’s truly a new passion for me. Dance and theater are not that far from each other.

Tip: Movements can help you remember what words are next.



Bourkas (in red dress) in and at midnight, the green bride floated through the village square… by Barak Marshall. Photo by Christopher Duggan courtesy BODYTRAFFIC.

Melissa Bourkas BODYTRAFFIC

I love public speaking and acting, so dialogue in dance is the perfect outlet. It adds another performance layer. In Barak Marshall’s and at midnight, the green bride floated through the village square..., for example, where all the women have to improvise text and I recite a “fish” recipe with a male partner, the movements can be abrasive and sharp, and as a result they inspire these brash, outlandish jokes that come barreling out of your mouth. And I also find that speech makes your movement become very exaggerated, dramatic and gestural. It’s as if you’re having a dinner party where the table is 30 feet long and you’re telling the person at the opposite end about your day. The words are not enough and the movement is not enough, but the words and movement together, that lets you tell the story.

Tip: Know that if you mess up your lines, it’s just like dance; something else will come out of your mouth in an instant.


Strassfeld (back) in Cassie Meador’s From the Desk of Rachel Carson. Photo by Paul Emerson, courtesy Dance Exchange.

Shula Strassfeld Dance Exchange

I don’t see the text as different from the movement. It is just another way of using the body; all together it says what we want to say.

The first time I spoke onstage was when I played Mother Jones—who rallied the women of a mining community to support striking miners—in Martha Wittman’s 2007 Imprints on a Landscape. My son, who is an actor, worked with me to help make my lines sound like natural speech, not “acting.” He had me listen for the cadence, and use a variety of emphases and pauses. He also worked with me on projection, and particularly on not dropping my voice at the end of sentences.

Now we talk all the time onstage in Dance Exchange, generating most of the text ourselves. Having theater actors in our mix as adjunct performers helps those of us who don’t have training. We all collaborate to create both the text and the movement, and spend a lot of time refining both.

Tip: I use tongue twisters to warm up.


Epperheimer in AZIMUTH, by Alonzo King. Photo by Margo Moritz, courtesy HSDC.

Kellie Epperheimer Hubbard Street Dance Chicago

The most awkward part of speaking onstage is trying to make it natural. As dancers, we’re used to making our movements look natural. It takes longer to get used to the sound of your own voice—I sound different onstage than in regular life, and I feel more vulnerable.

Recently, after collaborating with The Second City, the actors taught us some tricks for improvising text. My favorite is “yes, and” where you never say no, but you’re always trying to expand the possibilities for what comes next. That resonates with something I’ve learned about dancing, which is that you always want to give your partner onstage as much to work with as possible—I wouldn’t want to extend my hand out some odd way that leaves only one way for my partner to grasp it.

I don’t like listening to my voice, to be honest, but there isn’t much I can do about it. I keep trying to project more, speak clearly and be loud, while still sounding like myself, to an audience. It’s hard. But my voice is the voice that I have.

Tip: Imagine that you’re speaking to someone whom you talk with in real life.


Butler (second from left) in Bill T. Jones’ Analogy. Photo by Paul B Goode, courtesy BTJAZDC.

Rena Butler Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company

About two weeks before my first rehearsal with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, the stage manager sent me 100 paragraphs extracted from a novel titled The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald. My job was to memorize 12 paragraphs for a new work, Analogy. I was extremely nervous: Not only did I have to try new ways of moving, I was now being asked to speak, to access my brain in an unfamiliar way. I remember my heart was pounding like a djembe that first day. Up until then, my job had been only to dance. That was the career I worked endless hours for in the studio—all of the tendus and pirouettes, which for me never required anything vocal.

But after several rehearsals, I started to realize that I was making this much harder than it had to be. Performing a monologue in front of an audience is more empowering than it is scary. Once I found the rhythm of the words, it became easier to remember the text, and I started to play with the feeling of the conversation. Bill coaches us to deliver the text differently every time—it helps develop more range and build depth to your character. In trying to figure out how I would react, what I would say, I’ve found rhythm, inflection, cadence and tone in both my words and my movement phrasing.

Tip: I study the written material vigorously until I understand the dialogue between the characters, then focus on the rhythm of the phrasing.

Dance Magazine contributing writer Nancy Wozny talked  all too much in her choreography in the late ’80s and ’90s before giving it up to write too much.