How to Help Your Dance Students Improve Their Performance Skills

Have you ever watched a dancer who was just stunning technically – extensions to to the ear, super coordinated, gorgeous use of weight and space, incredible jumps and turns – but just doesn’t make you feel anything? It happens all the time, especially in the age of TV competitions and Instagram. Some people may believe that performance quality is innate, that you either “have it” or you don’t, but I disagree. I think that performance skills are something every dance teacher should work on with their students, and I have seen with my own students that these skills can improve with practice. Making time to work on performance quality in dance class or rehearsal is an important part of dance training.

Here are 5 of my favorite activities to help your dance students improve their performance skills.

how to help your dance students improve their performance skills

1.) Emotion Check-In – In addition to performance skills, I am a firm believer that social-emotional skills should an important part of of dance education. When students are tapped into their own emotional life, they are better able to perform authentically in their dancing. This game is a simple way to both get students in touch with their emotional life, and help them embody emotions through movement.

At the start of class, ask students to create a shape inspired by how they are feeling at that moment. Encourage them to think of the many ways that they can embody and express the emotion: how they use level, space, and shape; the expression on their face; the amount and kind of energy in their body. Invite them to share their shape with the group, and have others guess the emotion being shown.

Repeat this exercise after class, asking the dancers to reflect on how their mood may have changed while dancing. Help them create a transitional movement to make a simple dance that combines both shapes. How do they need to change their performance within the dance to embody both emotional qualities?

Bonus tip: Find more Introduction Games to build community in your dance class here!

2.) Facial Warm-up – Did you know that there are 42 muscles in the human face? How often do you think to warm any of them up in class or before performance? Honestly, it wasn’t something I thought of until recently. As dancers, sometimes we simply aren’t used to making our facial muscles work alongside our other major muscle groups. When you include exercises for the face in class, you can help your students remember that using their face is an important part of the art of dance, whether the choreography calls for drama, excitement, sadness, or minimal expression. Ideas include:

  • Raising, lowering, and wiggling the eyebrows
  • Moving the lips and jaw by opening and closing the mouth, smiling and frowning, pretending to chew, scream, growl, etc.
  • Wiggling the nose.
  • “Smiling” with the eyes a la Tyra Banks.
  • Making exaggerated expressions of emotion with the face – the bigger and goofier, the better!

Bonus tip: When starting this activity, have dancers be in their own space, facing away from one another and the mirror. This helps them to explore the movement without fear of judgement. As they become more comfortable and confident, have them practice in the mirror and eventually facing a partner to gain confidence using their face and displaying emotion in front of others.

3.) Character Cards – The primary objective of this activity is to get students embodying a range of nuanced performance qualities through the portrayal of a complex character in their dancing. You will need several sets of index cards, arranged by category, with at least 1 card in each category for each student in the class. On the first set you will list one character per card, on the second one emotion per card, and on the third will one location per card. 

Students should be encouraged to move as their character throughout the activity, not mime or gesture like them. To assist with this, have a discussion about the movement quality associated with each character, emotion, and location before starting the activity. For example, ask the students how the character of a cowboy would move: using a wide stand, with a convex (puffed out) chest, an in-your-face attitude, and a strong, tough, and proud movement quality. Students should engage in movement (organic or known technical elements) that embody these qualities, not do cowboy gestures like gunslinging, cow roping, etc. For the emotion sadness, ask the students how they might move if they are feeling glum or depressed: heavy, weighted, downward actions in a slow or lethargic tempo. For the location of the moon, ask the students how astronauts move: floating, weightless, without the pressure of gravity.

The most simple version of this activity involves each dancer taking one character card and using it as the inspiration for their improvisation. To build complexity, add an emotion and/or location card – the cowboy is feeling sad, or the cowboy is on the moon and feeling sad. Students can perform the same character card or combination of cards in a group, or each student can choose their own card(s) and perform individually. For added fun, have the students observe one another and invite them to guess the dancers’ character, emotion, and/or location. 

Here are several examples for each category. You can also encourage students to make up their own ideas, which you can list on cards to add to the rotation.

    • Character: cowboy, astronaut, firefighter, knight, court jester, queen/king, superhero, wizard, witch, Olympic athlete, mad scientist, angel
    • Emotion: sad, angry, happy, elated, surprised, glum, annoyed, aggravated, bored, excited, eager, devastated, worm-out, fed up, joyful
    • Location: on the moon, under the sea, in a jungle, on a busy city street, in a haunted house, on a roller coaster, floating in space, trapped in quick sand

Bonus tip: Use these cards when practicing recital or competition choreography to encourage the dancers to find new qualities in their performance. Once students explore different qualities using the cards, remind them of the original choreographic intent and encourage them to find the character and emotional quality that best enhances their performance of it.

4.) Musical Improv – The purpose of this activity is to help students connect with and respond to different kinds of music in their improvisation. You will need a playlist with wildly different selections of music: jazz, classical, different kinds of world music, percussion, pop, standards, new age, etc. The range will help students find new qualities to embody and express in their dancing. 

The dancers start laying on their back, completely still. If you are able, dim. the lights. Encourage dancers to close their eyes if they are comfortable doing so. Play a selection of music for about 30 sections, inviting the dancers to listen deeply but remain still. After about 30 sections, ask the dancers to start moving as if they were the music. They can practice trying to embody the sounds of different instruments, the melody and harmony, or the emotional qualities that the music invokes within them. 

Direct the students to start moving with just one body part, still lying on the floor. As the music continues, invite them to start moving with more body parts, then move from the low level to the mid and high levels and begin traveling through space.  If at any point you sense they are making random movement choices, not those directly related to the music, have them go back to the floor and listen in stillness for a while.

Bonus tip: Help your student set goals related to performance and artistry – and meet them – with The Holistic Guide to Goal Setting for Dancers.

5.) Party Quirks in Motion – If you are an actor or have any theatre training, chances are you have played Party Quirks! The primary purpose of this activity is to help students embody a character’s specific attitudes, qualities, and “quirks” – only in this “dance” version, we do so without words! A bonus is that this game also enhances students’ observation and communication skills. 

This activity is performed in pairs, with or without an audience. One dancer starts as the party “host.” In the acting version of the game, they would busy themselves with improvisational tasks related to preparing for a party before and after the “guest” arrive. You may choose to have the host simple observe instead.

The guest is either assigned a character, or allowed to create their own. They must think of the way this character would move: what level would they move on, how much space would they take up, what kind of pathways would they travel, what kind of energy would they use, what body parts would they move, how would their movement initiate, and what expression would they have on their face. When they “arrive” at the party by entering the dance space, they must move entirely like that character. Students should be encouraged to move as their character throughout the activity, not just mime or gesture like them. 

As the guest is dancing, the host will try to guess who their character is. They can ask questions, based on what they see, to help them who the character is. For example, if the guest is moving in a way that is lethargic with low energy, the host may ask, “Are you feeling well?” “Are you exhausted?” “Are you overworked?” The guest will respond to these questions in movement only. When the host has an idea of who the character is, they can say their guess aloud and the guest can respond yes or no.

    • Some character ideas include: an insomniac who hasn’t slept in several days, an overly excited gymnast who just won the Olympics, a student who is super nervous about a big test coming up, a superhero who has just saved the town from an evil villain, an evil villain who has just had his plan to destroy the town defeated by a superhero, almost any character from literature
    • You can also play this game with the guest portraying an emotion rather than a complex character. Some ideas include: sad, angry, happy, elated, surprised, glum, annoyed, aggravated, bored, excited, eager, devastated, worm-out, fed up, joyful

Bonus tip: Stay tuned for The Holistic Collection of Dance Improvisation Activities for more great games that help your dance students improve their performance skills!

Visit my Resources page for tools that support a holistic teaching and creative practice. Keep in touch by signing up for my quarterly newsletter, or join me on Facebook at The Holistic Dance Teacher.

 


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