Dancer to Dancer

How to Make the Most of Stillness Onstage

Alvin Ailey AmericanDance Theater in Ailey's Masekela Langage (photo by Paul Kolink, courtesy Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater)

There's an iconic moment in Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet when Juliet sits on the edge of her bed, staring into the audience. She's completely still—thinking long and hard about her tragic situation—while the emotion of Sergei Prokofiev's score washes over her. If the dancer does it well, this dance-less scene can speak volumes.

As dancers, we tend to focus on mastering steps and speaking through movement. Yet the way we hold ourselves when we're not moving can also be a powerful way to communicate with an audience.

How can you make the most of those quiet moments onstage—and what happens if your muscles cramp, you have a crazy itch, or your mind starts to wander? We gathered tips from industry professionals to help guide you through.


Use Your Imagination

Keep your character in mind, and every pose will be infused with meaning. When Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's Jacqueline Green approaches a role that requires holding still, she thinks about her character's background, motivations, and emotional state to help project the right feeling. "If you're onstage in a role where you have to be quiet or still, it helps to understand why you're doing what you're doing. It makes it more authentic."

The cast of "Groundhog Day" (photo by Joan Marcus, courtesy Boneau/Bryan-Brown)

Another useful tool is a mime technique called suspension. Commercial dancer and choreographer Dana Wilson describes it as an exercise of the imagination. "Pretend that your body is full of an energy source or color, something that is constantly moving," she says. "Even if your body is still, there's an energy within that idea that keeps you feeling very much in motion."

Stay Active

Just because you're holding a pose doesn't mean your energy dies. "A moment of stillness has to be completely active," says Ellen Kane, co-choreographer of Groundhog Day on Broadway. "What's living inside of you has to be a fully realized thought." Several moments in Groundhog Day play with the idea of stopping time. Dancers have to freeze mid-action, as they're waving to someone or blowing a kiss, and continue to communicate fully during that phrase. "They're never allowed to shrink back into the shell of their body," Kane says. "When the freeze is over, they're released into the fruition of that thought."

Keep from Cramping

Jennifer Goggans, program coordinator for the Merce Cunningham Trust and former company dancer, remembers once having to hold an attitude front onstage for about 45 seconds. "Because I was in plié on one leg, the muscles in front of my shin and ankle would start to get tight," she says. "The leg that was lifted would get so tired." To keep from wobbling or cramping, her physical therapist suggested she make tiny movements that no one would notice. "I tried to gently come up and come down in my plié so it would help the muscle not get stuck. It was very helpful advice."

Jennifer Goggans in Merce Cunningham's "Ocean," with Daniel Squire (photo by Tony Dougherty, courtesy Merce Cunningham Trust)

Another trick to prevent cramping is to breathe deeply, like you would in yoga, so that your muscles get enough oxygen. "Use your breath and hold everything from your center," advises San Francisco Ballet corps de ballet dancer Madison Keesler, who had a tough time dancing in the corps of Swan Lake (for eight months straight!) when she was with English National Ballet. "Your feet and calves might be hurting, but you can't put your focus there. Hold your stomach and back so that you take some pressure off the lower legs."

Be Present

Each moment of stillness is different, depending on the choreography and what you're trying to convey. But the more present you are in the pose, the more successful it will be. Your commitment will keep your mind from wandering during the long holds, to a point where even a relentless itch will become secondary. "Someone who is waiting for a count is less interesting than someone who's holding still but their body is full of the galaxy," says Wilson. "That type of imagination really does cross over to an audience."

A version of this story appeared in the November 2017 issue of Dance Spirit with the title "Standing Still."

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