Controlled Chaotic Movement

From flailing arms during an onstage “freak-out” to flying leaps ending up flat on the floor, a seeming loss of control can bring new energy and surprises to a lyrical routine. (Remember Natalie Fotopolous’ stunning and emotional solo to Leah Andreone’s “Lamentation” on season two of “So You Think You Can Dance”?) Chaotic, out-of-control movement is a mainstay in lyrical, because the genre focuses on telling a story—often one that deals with over-the-top emotions such as love, loss and heartbreak. So how can you pull off these crazy moves without looking sloppy? Try these ideas in your next lyrical routine.

Move out of your comfort zone. The illusion of dancing “out of control” doesn’t mean you actually are out of control. “It’s more about finding a freedom of expression and moving big,” explains Jana Hicks, a contemporary dance instructor at NYC’s Dance New Amsterdam and Steps on Broadway. Push your limits so you feel a little uncomfortable, but don’t think you need to break any bones to achieve this effect. Spontaneous doesn’t mean dangerous.

Technique first. Reckless, off-balance moments look best—and are safest—when performers have the training to pull them off: “There’s a fine line between controlled chaos and chaos,” explains Joelle Martinec, lyrical instructor with Tremaine Dance Conventions. “The technique must be there to support the choreography.” Knowledge of proper alignment is key: A dancer needs to know where center is before she can move away from it.

Play in rehearsal. “I try to get dancers to allow themselves to fall more, to be more off-balance in transitions,” says Hicks. “It takes a lot of letting go and trusting yourself to take chances.” Build up your confidence by taking risks offstage first. If you know where your weight is headed in an out-of-control move, you can perform that last-minute catch-step to save you from falling for real.

Use your head—not just your face—to convey emotions and to complete lines. A disengaged head or neck can ruin the visual effect of otherwise striking movements. “When dancers allow the weight of their head to become part of their movement, it makes the fall look real and emphasizes the emotional element,” says Hicks. This goes for your eyes as well: Direct your gaze so that it’s part of the body line—or not, depending on the choreography—to intensify the emotional quality of the piece.

Counterbalance skewed steps. “Opposition is a great way to execute off-centeredness,” Martinec explains. If the left side of the body is dropped, then the right side must be lifted to counterbalance the weight shift. Employ this skill to work on difficult sustained layouts or turns with unusual arm and leg positions.

Use your limbs in transitions. Choreographically, you can find a sense of chaos even in simple walking transitions. “Incorporate your extremities while keeping your core engaged,” says Joaquin Escamilla, a lyrical jazz instructor at L.A.’s EDGE Performing Arts Center and Urban Jamm Dance Conventions. Give yourself an image to work with: Pretend that you’re traveling through water or a swarm of insects.

Take it to the floor. “I love movements out of nowhere,” says Martinec. Shock the audience by landing a jump low to the ground and immediately plunging to the floor, or insert a jazz dive into a transition before popping right back up. Quick level changes add spontaneity to any moment.

Change direction. “Defy what your body normally wants to do,” says Martinec. If you’re accustomed to stepping out to the right after a turn combo, try going left. This way, you train your muscles to catch you out of any step—becoming a better dancer, while also taking the audience by surprise.
Mix up jumps. When jumping, a small change can have a big impact. Throw your head back on a regular jeté to create a blind landing. Or work with turning leaps, rolling to the floor to incorporate momentum into a long, rapid phrase. Bookending leaps with unusual preparations and landings can also keep you—and the crowd—on edge.

Blur boundaries. Don’t be afraid to depart from ballet and jazz ideas. Embrace modern dance’s off-center spirals and release moves. And don’t stop there: Use the core movements of African dance, the expressive pedestrian qualities of mime or the “in the moment” surprises of krumping. Lyrical dancers can tap into any number of diverse performance genres when they step into the realm of the unexpected.

Learning how to control your body through chaotic choreography can come in handy in just about any genre. Take these tips and leap out of your comfort zone.


Laura De Silva is a freelance writer whose work has also appeared in Dance Teacher and Décor and Style magazines.
(From left) Darriel Johnakin, Diego Pasillas, and Emma Sutherland (all photos by Erin Baiano)

Congratulations to Dance Spirit's 2019 Cover Model Search finalists: Darriel Johnakin, Diego Pasillas, and Emma Sutherland! One of them will win a spot on Dance Spirit's Fall 2019 cover. Learn more about the dancers on their profile pages, and then vote for your favorite below. You can vote once a day now through July 15.

We also want you to get social! We'll be factoring social media likes and shares into our final tallies. Be sure to show your favorite finalist some love on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, sharing their profile pages and using the hashtag #DanceSpiritCMS.

Cover Model Search
Photo by Erin Baiano

Imagine attending American Ballet Theatre's prestigious NYC summer intensive, training among classical ballet legends. Imagine taking the stage at New York City Dance Alliance Nationals, competing against some of the country's best contemporary dancers. Now, imagine doing both—at the same time.

Welcome to Madison Brown's world. This summer, she's in her third year as a National Training Scholar with ABT, while also competing for NYCDA's Teen Outstanding Dancer title. (She's already won Outstanding Dancer in the Mini and Junior categories.) The logistics are complicated—ABT's five-week intensive overlaps with the weeklong NYCDA Nationals, which translates to a lot of cabs back and forth across Manhattan—but Maddie is committed to making the most of each opportunity. "I love contemporary and ballet equally," she says. "While I'm able to do both, I want to do as much as I can."

Maddie has an expressive face, endless extensions, and a quiet command of the stage. She dances with remarkable maturity—a trait noted by none other than Jennifer Lopez, one of the judges on NBC's "World of Dance," on which Maddie competed in Season 2. Although Maddie didn't take home the show's top prize, she was proud to be the youngest remaining soloist when she was eliminated, and saw the whole experience as an opportunity to grow. After all, she's just getting started. Oh, that's right—did we mention Maddie's only 14?

Keep Reading Show less
Cover Story
Amblin Entertainment

Steven Spielberg's much-anticipated remake of West Side Storychoreographed by Justin Peck, and starring a bevy of very good dancers—is in production, hooray! And that means it's finally time for us to get a look at the film's cast members in character. Let's break down the first photo from the project.

Keep Reading Show less
Dance News

Video

mailbox

Get Dance Spirit in your inbox

Giveaways