In this post, I imagine I’m trying to discuss an almost untenable concept. I’ve been thinking about it lately as I’ve had to take some breaks from lessons with my teacher because of being out of town. I’ve also been contemplating it because of recent experiences at dance events or even discussing DWTS with “non-dancers.” I’ve even had several discussions about it and I realize it’s something that many people have trouble comprehending.
It’s such a vague idea, I’m not sure I can label it exactly, but here goes: emotional connection. What exactly is this beast of an idea?
Now, I’m not trying to discount what I’ve said earlier about technique and practice … because they are the foundations for dancing — or any kind of art. There must be tools in the toolbox for any performer to utilize. But perhaps we’ve all seen some kind of performance that was technically amazing and yet something was lacking? There was nothing about that performance that made the audience feel they should invest themselves emotionally into what was taking place. Or maybe we saw a performance and it seemed so over-the-top that we found ourselves distancing our emotions and just watching the spectacle unfold in a curious sort of way.
In a previous post, I talked about engaging all of our senses when we dance. But I wanted to take this post a little further. I want to talk about “put-on” or “fake” emotion when dancing. We’ve all heard the idea — fake it till it’s real. Perhaps you’ve heard of laughter yoga, where the instructor gets everyone to begin with fake laughter until it actually becomes real — and how cathartic and healing this process is?
I’ve had people come up to me and say things like, “I wish I had your emotion out there dancing.” or “girl, I wish I could sell it like you do — you look like you’re having so much fun.” or “You have so much confidence out there.” “I’m just so scared, I can’t do that.”
Now, my normal response to this is “thanks, of course you can. We love to dance, don’t we?” or something about the fact that I was in theatre for so many years and that helps.
All this is true, but what I’d like to say to them is this: You DON’T want my emotion. Trust me. First of all, I have way too much of it and it’s something that once unleashed is difficult to put away. But, more importantly, you don’t want to feel each dance the way I do. That’s the first step towards looking like a “fake” performer. No one can tell you exactly how you should feel about each dance. That’s something you must discover on your own. It is the rare person who spends money, time and effort in the ballroom world and doesn’t love to dance. And the beauty is that we will all show our own “emotion” in different ways. That’s great — no robots needed on the dance floor please! The key is honest, real, meaningful “emotion” with each type of dance that you do. And this does change depending on many factors: the music, the atmosphere where you’re dancing, your partner, your costume, etc.
I think some people mistakenly believe that there is a technique for displaying believable emotional appeal when performing. They think it’s a certain smile or how they shake their hips or shimmy that tells the audience what they’re feeling in the cha cha, for example. Wrong. It’s not the shaking of your hips that makes the audience connect with you, it’s your “intentional feelings” behind the shaking that they can connect with. The audience can logically appreciate your ability/skill to demonstrate Cuban hip motion. But they are not going to “feel” connected emotionally with you unless they are able to identify with an emotion that you are genuinely experiencing.
Simply put: if you love to dance, focus on that, not on showing it to the audience. (We’ll get it.) If that certain song makes you feel sassy, then just enjoy that emotion in your dancing — don’t try to demonstrate to the audience that you’re sassy. (We won’t believe you and in some cases we’ll feel awkward or sorry for you if it seems you are trying too hard.)
Trying to label the “feelings” and insist that your teacher should show you how to do it and fix your problem of nerves will only end badly for both parties. The teacher will get frustrated trying to find a solution to your problems and you will get frustrated because your teacher can’t give you the answer all tied up in a neat box with a ribbon.
Now, maybe your issue is that you’re feeling these emotions and yet you’re too embarrassed to show them. Sounds pretty normal to me. In our society/culture we don’t value people being demonstrative in public with their raw emotions — lack of emotion equates strength. (Don’t get me started on that topic.) But think of this, when you do witness someone showing strong emotion when dancing, do you think? — “How dare they reveal that on stage in front of this audience? I sure wish that girl would quit enjoying the rumba so much!” The answer is obviously no. The only time we seem to be critical of that is when it seems fake or put on. Real emotion moves us too! (Have you watched Derek Hough dance? Seriously.)
All this is really for the student who wishes to perform in front of an audience. Obviously, in your home you probably dance like a goddess and your pets are your un-critical, adoring public. Becoming comfortable with showing emotion in front of an audience isn’t easy and does take practice, but can be done.
Here are some thoughts:
1. Don’t compare your emotional appeal with someone else’s. Only you can show you the best. Beginning to change starts in changing how you think. Stop those comparison thoughts right now!
2. Focus on your dance and how it makes you feel, not on how you think you’ll be perceived by the audience.
3. Take criticism from your instructor for choices you make to show your emotion with an open mind. You may feel like the song calls for wild abandon, but your flailing arms are bound to knock your teacher to the floor. I used to get offended when my teacher would tell me to smile during our rehearsal time and show the audience that I was enjoying myself. I haven’t had problems with showing emotions in front of an audience in a few years (thanks to theatre background). But, he doesn’t understand that about me. He was putting me in the same category as the rest of his students when it comes to showing emotional connection. Finally, I asked him why he would say that to me — when I had failed to show emotion in front of an audience? He didn’t have an answer and I think I finally realised he was just trying to lighten my very serious focus during practice. But, eventually, you learn to distinguish the times when you’re focused to get your technique correct and when you’re dancing for an audience.
4. Practice showing how you feel while dancing in less threatening situations: at home in your living room or social dancing with friends. I use social dancing at the studio to experiment all the time. Sometimes things work and sometimes they don’t … but, if you’re having fun dancing with your partner, no one seems to care.
5. Learn to laugh at yourself. If you mess up, it’s OK, try again. Haven’t you watched DWTS or something like that? How many times do you see the dancers (even the professionals) mess up or even fall when rehearsing? Have you never seen an athlete fall on the field or an actor mess up their lines? Don’t be so hard on yourself! We all mess up. The key is to keep going and brush that off. If you have kids, don’t you tell them the same thing?
We are all emotional beings. The trick is allowing ourselves to show these emotions. They will be at different levels and shown in different ways. I know I didn’t really talk about fear — it can cripple you emotionally — maybe I’ll talk more on a later post about that. We tend to only want to show how we feel when we know we’re in a safe, non-judgemental environment. That’s just the way it is. So, start small if you have to. Turn on some of your favorite music. Go ahead and let the movement and music show you how to move across the living room. Don’t think about anything else except just having fun expressing how you feel with dance. Repeat as much as possible. Then, maybe try it social dancing. Just keep at it. Don’t try to force yourself to feel something. It’ll come. Just enjoy the process.
“Mathematics was hard, dull work. Geography pleased me more. For dancing I was quite enthusiastic.”
— John James Audubon