Earlier this year, Ashley Green and Michael Hall—senior dancers at Columbia City Jazz in Lexington, SC—were performing their duet, Redemption, at a 24 Seven Regionals competition. It’d already been a long day, and they were tired. Near the end of their performance, disaster struck: Michael’s leg gave out during a lift and both dancers ended up on the ground. But in the blink of an eye, Ashley made their fall look intentional. “She got up, looked at him as if he’d wronged her, and exited without him,” recalls CCJ artistic director Dale Lam. “Her recovery worked so well that they changed the routine, took it to Nationals that way and won!”
In their duet, Redemption, Ashley Green and Michael Hall used an onstage flub to their advantage. (Photo courtesy Dale Lam)
For 17-year-old Ashley, stopping the piece to deal with the fall wasn’t an option. “When things go wrong, I just keep moving and try not to show it on my face,” she says. “No matter what, you have to make it work.”
Having that never-quit mentality can pay off, but the mantra of “The show must go on,” especially in the face of onstage calamity, is easier said than done. Whether it’s a glitch in the music, a costume that comes undone or a partner who drops the ball (or drops you!), here’s how to handle the most unfortunate of performance circumstances.
Music malfunctions are all too common, especially for competition dancers who are often playing their songs on new devices at each event. When you’re onstage by yourself, turning to your improv skills when the music skips or stops may be enough to save you. But staying in sync in a group number is tricky when you don’t have the music on your side. Lam has her dancers practice combinations without music, so they learn to keep time by breathing together. “You can stay on the rhythm by noticing the beat of feet on the floor and listening to each other’s breath,” she says. Lam has also seen dancers in musical theater numbers save the show by singing their music during a technical glitch. “They were so connected to the song, and the audience loved it,” Lam says. “When things go wrong, you can get upset or you can do something totally unexpected. And in the latter case, the audience will be forgiving.”
So will the judges. Professional tapper Melinda Sullivan says that, when judging competitions, she’ll never take off points for a mishap that’s outside of a dancer’s control—as long as it’s handled well. “At New York City Dance Alliance this year, I remember thinking one group number was great, but then there was an announcement that the number was running again because they’d performed the whole piece to the wrong music,” Sullivan says. “Since they stayed committed, I had no idea!”
When costumes rip or come untied, dancers have a choice to make: Should they fix it onstage, make a quick exit or let it be? Choreographer Stacey Tookey remembers the first time she had to make this tough call as a teenager, when a halter top came untied completely. “I unfortunately opted to continue dancing while holding my top up for the whole routine,” Tookey says. “But now I know that if you’re really exposed, it’s OK to leave the stage.” This is especially true for a group routine: Ducking into the wings to fix a costume calamity might pull less focus than trying to retie a top mid-routine. If you can, exit and reenter during formation changes, when the audience is less likely to notice. Keep a sewing kit handy backstage in case you need to make last-minute repairs or adjustments.
While props can add an extra spark to a number, they’re an inevitable performance hazard—you know someone is bound to drop something. But what happens if you’re the culprit? Lam says retrieving your fallen prop is usually the smartest option, especially if there’s a risk of someone tripping on the item or having to dance around it. “Everyone in the audience will be distracted by the prop on the ground for the rest of the piece, so stay in character and pick it up,” she says.
Tookey agrees: “Odds are you’ll need to use the prop later, so try to fix the situation and get back on track as fast as possible,” she says. “But if the prop goes flying and rolls into a back corner, don’t run across the stage.” If your prop is truly out of reach, carrying on empty-handed is a wiser choice. And if you see someone else’s abandoned prop on the ground, it might be worth taking a second to kick it offstage to prevent a face-plant.
You may remember 2 Steps Away, one of Tookey’s duets for Kathryn McCormick and Jonathan “Legacy” Perez on “So You Think You Can Dance” Season 6. But did you know it included an onstage mishap? “Legacy was supposed to give Kathryn’s leg a slight pull in arabesque, but he pulled so hard she landed on her butt,” Tookey says. “Kathryn got up and kept going so seamlessly that even I didn’t notice the mistake!” (No one else noticed, either—the routine earned Tookey her first Emmy nomination.)
Being able to carry on when a fellow dancer messes up—or messes you up—is a skill that really comes down to mind-set. “A mistake can be distracting and throw you off,” Sullivan says. “But I love the statement ‘strong and wrong.’ If you make a bold choice and keep it moving, the audience won’t know the difference.” Confidence, Sullivan notes, is key when you’re improvising to cover someone else’s error—or your own.
Rio Anderson doesn't let herself dwell on mid-performance mistakes (photo by Sandy Lee, courtesy Rio Anderson)
Most importantly, don’t let a mishap psych you out. Rio Anderson, 17, from San Francisco, CA, remembers having to recover from a fall at the Youth America Grand Prix Gala in Indianapolis. “The hardest part was that I spent the rest of the piece worrying that I messed up,” says Rio, who currently trains at The Royal Ballet School in London. “Now I try not to get caught up thinking that every performance has to be perfect. As a dancer, you have to assume that things will go wrong, but you’ll be able to deal with them as they come.”
Stage presence is the secret sauce you bring to your dancing: It makes every moment more delicious. But it’s not easy to nail down the recipe. “In auditions, I’m scanning a whole room full of dancers performing the exact same steps, and the ones who stand out have a special quality,” says Warren Carlyle, the Tony Award–winning Broadway choreographer and “So You Think You Can Dance” veteran. “There’s a luminescence to them. But it’s hard to say what it is definitively.”
Some lucky performers are just born with presence. “It can be a gift, like being a natural storyteller,” says tap virtuoso Anthony Morigerato. But while he believes stage presence is difficult to teach, he does think it can be discovered. “You can definitely improve by getting feedback in rehearsal and evaluating past performances,” he says. Here’s your guide to going beyond the steps and really moving audiences.
Sara Mearns as Odette in Peter Martins' Swan Lake (photo by Paul Kolnik, courtesy NYCB)
Perform with Your Whole Self
Stage presence is so hard to define because it’s a complex combination of many things: expression, emotion, a dialogue between you and the audience. An all-purpose smile tacked on as an afterthought is never going to cut it. “Stage presence isn’t just on your face,” says Sara Mearns, a principal dancer with New York City Ballet, who’s often praised for her passionate interpretations of iconic roles. “It’s your whole energy, from the very first step you take onstage.” To project that energy outward, she says, “you have to genuinely feel emotions, not just plaster them on. And you have to be comfortable with yourself to pull that off.”
Get Your Story Straight
If you’re having trouble connecting with the audience, start by analyzing the story or intention of the piece you’re performing. Well before you walk onstage, you’ll need to understand what the choreographer wants to say and how you can carry that message through the movement. “In rehearsals for the Broadway show After Midnight, I made the performers verbalize the story the choreography was telling,” Carlyle says. “In many cases, that made it much clearer in performance.” When Morigerato is judging at NUVO Dance Convention, he sees a lot of dancers who need to clarify this intent with their instructors. “If the performers don’t understand what the choreography is about, that negatively impacts their ability to capture my attention,” he says.
If you’re dancing a classic work, Mearns suggests researching its history, which might help you connect with the movement. “Recently, I was rehearsing George Balanchine’s Élégie,” she says. “To prepare, I read about how he created it for ballerina Suzanne Farrell, and how she performed the piece when he was dying”—a powerful backstory to draw from.
Not performing in a story ballet or a musical? You can always make up your own character arc. Kaelynn “KK” Harris, a member of the 8 Flavahz Crew, thinks about taking on a persona in every performance, “whether it’s sexy, hard, hip or girly,” she says. And she works on that character from the very first rehearsal. “In the studio, dance full-out, the same way you would perform, including facial expressions,” she says. “You want it built into your muscle memory.”
Follow the Music’s Lead
Another great way to bring more vitality to your performance is through the music. “Frequently, my interpretation of choreo-graphy is based on the meaning of the song it’s set to,” Harris says. If that song has a music video, she’ll mine it for information about tone and mood. “The goal is to make the vocal artist’s message come to life in the movement,” she says.
Try mapping out the music’s high and low points and echoing their energy in your dancing. “I think the best thing you can do is put on your headphones and listen,” Morigerato says. “Find the dynamic contrasts and try to match them. If you hear joy, put that in your expression. When the music goes full-throttle, amp up your energy.”
At competition, Morigerato adds, some dancers perform everything at full volume, regardless of the feel of the music, because they want to impress the judges. Remember that moments of quiet intensity can be just as captivating. “Performing is like telling a crazy story at lunch with your friends,” Morigerato says. “You emphasize some parts and deemphasize others, using the tone of your voice to make the story better. The dynamics of your dance need to change like that, too. Over-the-top energy the whole time is like yelling in someone’s face. If you include moments of subtlety when the music is hushed, the audience will lean in—and then, when the music intensifies, you can hit the floor, like, bang! That brings the dance to life.”
Find Your Inspiration
Morigerato urges dancers to watch a different dance video every day for inspiration. “Find clips of masters like Fred Astaire, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines,” he says. “If you’re a tapper, don’t just watch tap. Watch ballet or musical theater, and find something that speaks to you in each style.” The more dancers you watch or study, the more you’ll have to inspire you onstage.
Don’t be afraid to draw from your own life, too—it’s one of the best ways to tap into authentic emotion. If you’re dancing a mournful solo, think about moments when you’ve felt sad and alone. If you’re performing a joyful piece, channel the glow of your happiest memories. As you develop your craft, you’ll find that your personal experiences will shape your performances more and more. “I’m doing some of the same repertory now that I did when I was 19, but I definitely don’t perform it the same way 10 years later,” Mearns says. “Just living helps strengthen your presence onstage, and your emotional connections to movement. The experiences I’ve had in the last decade have changed everything about the way I dance, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”
Yesterday marked the two-month anniversary of my move to the Big Apple. So, needless to say, I still have a long way to go toward becoming a real-life New Yorker. (Although, I'm totally OK with keeping some small-town girl in me.) I've learned the subway system. I'm (semi-)fluent in "the grid." I've even grown to love my itty-bitty apartment. But one thing I'm still learning: how to take full advantage of the abundance of dance in this city. I'd say it's a pretty awesome problem to have.
One thing I've learned is that any time you have an opportunity to see a performance featuring works from multiple choreographers, GO. Collective performances are an awesome way to get exposed to lots of different artists. Chances are, there will be some you love, some you're just meh about and others that make you a little mad. Or not...maybe you'll love all of them! Either way, you'll be getting a sense of what you like and what you don't like (which is so important in NYC where it's impossible to see every dance company and freelancer).
That's why I'm really excited for The Gratitude Project, a collective performance by New York based choreographers, including Wes Veldink, Al Blackstone, Tracie Stanfield and Jessica Hendricks. The theme is expressions of gratitude (perfect for this time of year, eh?), and all proceeds go to the Breast Cancer Awareness Campaign through the American Cancer Society.
The performance is November 17th at 7pm at the Salvatore Capezio Theater at Peridance. Click here for tickets, and check out this promotional video:
My momma always said, "Collective performances are like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get."
Mallory Butcher proves that covering up and being sexy aren't mutually exclusive. (by Simon Gerzina)
Whether you’re dancing backup for Beyoncé or trying to wow the judges at Nationals, working it in a sexy way is something professional and competitive dancers must master. But knowing the difference between sassy and inappropriate is essential: Not only is it key to maintaining your artistry, but going overboard makes the audience uncomfortable. Here’s how to navigate that line successfully.
A positive attitude bolstered by self-esteem is the first step. “I always emphasize the idea of ‘being a queen,’ ” says Joey Dowling, master teacher, choreographer and veteran of both stage and screen. “There’s a grand sophistication to the sexiness of holding yourself well. People want to see dancers who are pulled together and have a ‘Look, don’t touch’ quality.”
CHOOSE YOUR MUSIC CAREFULLY.
The music you dance to can keep your performance fun and cute—or it can push it into inappropriate territory. Pay attention to lyrics. Any song with blatant, suggestive words or themes should be off-limits.
Though midriffs and booty shorts are commonplace at competitions, think about whether they’re the best choice for the character you’re portraying. Choose the outfit that best accentuates your assets and line, not just what you see other girls wearing. A good rule of thumb: If it looks like it’s from Victoria’s Secret instead of a dance store, try something else.
DON'T TRY TOO HARD.
If you want your improv to have an edge, don’t just take the most obviously “sexy” approach. “A slow shoulder roll or a bevel is much more alluring than grabbing yourself or grinding,” Dowling says. Robin Antin, creator of the Pussycat Dolls, adds: “Dancers use their bodies in a way that’s naturally appealing, so when I choreograph, it’s all about that physicality, energy and athleticism, not about trying to be sexy.”
Musical theater and commercial dancer Mallory Butcher says tapping into your girly side is another great way to ensure you don’t go too far. “There should always be a level of innocent playfulness when it comes to dancing sultry choreography,” she says. “Don’t demand attention in an aggressive way; allow the audience to enjoy your experience.” Antin agrees: “It’s all about dressing up, having fun and being empowered.”
TONE DOWN YOUR FACE.
Though exaggerated facial expressions are sometimes encouraged in competition pieces, they can also be misconstrued. And staring down the audience can be seen as aggressive, which is the opposite of your goal. Instead, go back to the idea of playful energy. “Smirks, half-smiles and cool nods of acknowledgment are so effective,” Butcher says. “Showing you’re having fun is the sexiest.”
Trying too hard to act older than you are often reads as unnatural. Butcher remembers competing solos about love and relationships before she’d ever experienced those things herself, and wishes she’d stuck to topics she knew more about. “Think about what works for where you are in life and what actually means something to you,” she says.
If you’re not sure where you stand on the line between sexy and vulgar, ask for help. Parents, coaches and teachers are great sounding boards. They can help you tweak a section of over-the-top choreo or find a better song. In the end, if you feel comfortable with the choreography, music and costume you’re presenting, odds are you’re in good shape.
Kids Cafe Festival 2012 (by Tom Rawe)
Hey New Yorkers, want a sneak peek at what being a college dancer is really like? You're in luck! Dancewave invites high school dancers to Long Island University next weekend (March 2–3) for an introduction to all things college dance.
Two showcases called Kids Cafe Festival Goes to College will include performances from college dance departments across the country (plus local high school dancers). Participating colleges include Ohio State University, Eugene Lang College: The New School for Liberal Arts, Hofstra University, Marymount Manhattan College, Slippery Rock University, The College at Brockport, Indiana University, University of Michigan, Connecticut College and Temple University. Phew!
Intrigued? Click here to buy tickets.
And if you want to learn more about these dance departments before seeing them in action, head to DanceU101.com for a searchable database of more than 600 schools!
Wendy Whelan (by Henry Leutwyler)
Principal Dancer, New York City Ballet
“One of my most memorable performances took place at the Palais Garnier in Paris in 2008, alongside dancers of the Paris Opéra Ballet. I danced the ballerina role in the second movement of George Balanchine’s Symphony in C. It took a lot of mental preparation for me to get ready for that moment—dancing this monumental role at probably the most famous opera house in the world, where Symphony in C actually had its premiere in 1947.
On a more personal note, my childhood ballet teacher was a dancer with POB. She was the first person who believed in me. She told me I had the potential to make something of myself as a dancer. I proudly danced that performance of Symphony in C in her honor. I still have my pointe shoes from that night. It’s the only pair of shoes I’ve ever saved from a performance.”
(Courtesy LINES ballet)
Alonzo King LINES Ballet
“One performance that remains clear in my memory was in Vaison-la-Romaine, in the Provence region of France. LINES danced there at an ancient open-air amphitheater. We were performing a collaboration with some of the Shaolin monks, and the feeling of being onstage with them, with ancient columns and worn bricks surrounding me and constellations in sight whenever I looked up, was overwhelmingly beautiful.”
(L to R) Jennifer Di Noia, Afra Hines, Nathan Peck
Ghost: The Musical on Broadway
“My most memorable performance was my Broadway debut in Wicked in 2006. Growing up I was primarily a dancer—I didn’t sing or act. So doing Wicked on Broadway opened a whole new world to me. Now I’m in my third Broadway show, and I love it.”
Megan Branch (courtesy Celebrity Dance Competitions)
“Last summer, I competed for the last time at West Coast Dance Explosion Nationals with my studio, Dance Connection 2. I improvised my solo, and it placed in the top three. It was a little nerve-racking knowing I would be on my own the next year pursuing my dance career, but it felt really good to take the stage that last time and give it my all.”
Kenny Wormald (far right) with Timberlake (second from left) and dancers
“When I was performing on tour with Justin Timberlake, we did a show in Boston, MA, at the TD Banknorth Garden. I’m from Boston, and just a few years prior to the performance, I’d been back home in my living room trying to learn JT’s choreography. To return to my hometown performing with my favorite artist in the world was amazing. It taught me that anything is possible!”
Alicia Graf_Mack (by Andrew Eccles)
Alicia Graf Mack
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
“I performed Memoria this last New York season—it’s a piece choreographed by Alvin Ailey that I have loved since I was young. Memoria takes its lead dancer on a journey: She hears calls to go to heaven and ascends to another world. Groups of dancers move around her for much of the piece, so it feels like you’re dancing in a swirl of light. It was my first season back after not dancing for three years because of a knee injury and arthritis, so the plot of transcendence was close to my heart.”
Jacalyn Tatro (Michele Welsh/Inspirations Photography)
Student, Inspire School of Dance in Naperville, IL
“Last year, I performed a dance called ‘The Lost Soldier’ at New York City Dance Alliance Nationals. Because it was on the Fourth of July, I felt a deep connection to what soldiers go through. I think all of us were able to move people in the audience even more than we usually do at competitions.”
Melinda Sullivan (center) (by Richard Termine)
“This past October, I performed with the New York Song & Dance Company at the Career Transition for Dancers Gala in NYC. I was featured as a vocalist and tap dancer in a number called ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin.’ I looked into the wings during the performance and saw Chita Rivera sitting there, smiling at us. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m singing and dancing for one of the world’s greatest song and dance women!’ After the show I had the chance to meet Chita. We had an exchange I’ll never forget. She was just like, ‘Do your thing, girl!’ ”
Hefa (left) and his brothers on the "DWTS" set
“Recently, my brothers and I performed a piece that I choreographed on “Dancing with the Stars.” To share that moment on the stage with my brothers—to be on TV in front of thousands of people with the people I love most—was so beautiful to me. The energy was kind of spiritual; it almost brought tears to my eyes.”