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.

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