Keeping It Natural: How to Walk and Run Onstage
When dancers audition for Paul Taylor Dance Company, they're often thrown by one particular request: to walk across the studio by themselves. “Paul can see a lot about a person by the way they walk," says Michelle Fleet, a veteran Taylor dancer. "But many people get cut at that point, because they're terrified—a walk can be so revealing."
What is it about walking and running that makes even the most talented dancers clam up? These pedestrian actions seem so simple (we do them every day!), but they're tough to get right in front of an audience. And they're important, too: Whether you're strutting through the commercial scene, running in pointe shoes or stepping out on Broadway, how you walk and run can say a lot about you and the character you're portraying. Here are the experts' tricks for keeping these "natural" movements looking, well, natural.
Don't Overdo It
Walking and running are such basic movements, it's easy for dancers to overdo them, adding dance-world mannerisms—overly pointed feet, exaggerated arm swings—that end up looking affected. “Don't be tempted to make a walk or run too dance-y," says Ryan Ramirez, a commercial dancer and “So You Think You Can Dance" alum. “Choreographers often put runs and walks into dances because they want to show humanness or vulnerability. A simple run is powerful because everyone, not just dancers, can connect to it."
Ballet dancers in particular tend to have a hard time with simple walks and runs, since they're trained to stay super–turned-out and maintain a high demi-pointe. But those restrictions can make you look stiff. Make a conscious effort to let them go. “I have to remind myself to bend my knees a little bit, and to take bigger, easier steps," says San Francisco Ballet principal Dores André.
San Francisco Ballet in Jerome Robbins' Glass Pieces (Erik Tomasson, courtesy SFB)
Use Intention and Imagery
Pedestrian steps are valuable tools because they can speak volumes about the kind of character you're trying to portray, or quickly communicate a particular attitude onstage. Big, slow struts, for example, show a sense of command; tiny, fast runs demonstrate a sense of urgency, or a spritely personality.
Think about why you're walking or running. Are you running away from someone? Walking onstage to start a variation? The right intention will help guide your movements and make them feel more natural. “If you have no purpose, that's when the steps start to look flat and stop saying anything," says David Bushman, dance captain for Chicago on Broadway. “Clarify your intention so you have the correct energy."
If it's a joyous run, for example, think about everyday situations in which you might actually run joyfully. “Remember what it feels like to run on the playground," Fleet suggests. “Your chest is open and free, like you're feeling the light of the sun shining on you." Or maybe the mood of the piece is darker, and you want to look like you're slogging through mud, hunched over and curving your back. Real-world metaphors will help you capture the feel of real-world movements.
Find Your Own Style
Remember that there's no “textbook" way to walk or run onstage. These movements should look different on everyone, and finding a signature way of doing them will help you establish your identity as a dancer. “When you see someone walk on the street, you see their personality," André says. “It should be like that onstage, too."
Watch other people—not necessarily dancers!—who have an interesting or singular way of running and walking, and study the components that make up the whole. Film yourself walking or running around the studio, so you can identify your own natural movement patterns. Figure out what it is about your gait that makes you look like you. Above all, don't neglect your walks and runs, however worried you may be about the difficult turn sequence that follows them. They're not “filler"—they deserve as much scrutiny as any other step. “Nowadays, everyone is caught up in technique and tricks," Fleet says, “but it's just as important to have the basics, like walking and running, and to be able to do them well."
Top Troubleshooting Tips!
- Be aware of your entire body.
“Maybe you have an arm that's dangling instead of being still. Don't let one component betray the whole picture," says David Bushman, dance captain of Chicago on Broadway.
- Never mark a run or walk.
“If you don't do it full-out in rehearsal, it'll show onstage," says San Francisco Ballet principal Dores André. “It's not a break from the dancing—it's part of the dancing!"
- Be thoughtful, but don't overanalyze.
“Know what you're trying to accomplish and work on it, then let it go," says Paul Taylor dancer Michelle Fleet. “Sometimes we get into trouble when we overthink things."
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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?
There's a story Kate Walker, director of dance at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas, TX, loves to tell about Emma Sutherland, who just graduated from the program. "We were watching the students run a really long, challenging piece," Walker recalls. "Several kids couldn't quite make it through. But Emma did make it all the way to the end, which is when she walked up to us faculty and very politely asked, 'May I please go throw up?' "