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Acting Out


Enhance your dancers’ onstage charisma through acting exercises

By Karen White

It’s so common it’s almost cliché: A teacher spends hours drilling technique, perfecting turns, straightening lines, and cleaning up arm placements. Then, just as the class steps onstage, she yells, almost as an afterthought: “And smile!

That’s easier said than done. While some dancers are inherently comfortable onstage, smiling easily, perhaps with a dynamic personality or natural charisma, others are not. Their eyes might stare out blankly or flit about from right to left; their smiles might be frozen, or they might bite a lip or otherwise show their discomfort.

But since, eventually, all dance routines are performed before an audience, dancers need to work as hard on their onstage personalities as they do on their choreography or technique. Acting exercises can help.

Dancers who hone their acting skills are also more versatile performers, able to “emote” effectively in a heartfelt lyrical solo or add a bit of comedy to a musical-theater routine. A contemporary piece might call for dancers who are angry, or passionate, or cool; perhaps the fun quotient of a hip-hop number could be pumped up if the dancers actually looked like they were having fun.

For students at Spotlight Dance Studio, acting exercises strengthen their ability to improvise and emote and make them more versatile as performers.

For students at Spotlight Dance Studio, acting exercises strengthen their ability to improvise and emote and make them more versatile as performers. (Photo courtesy Karen White)

Adding acting exercises to a jazz or musical-theater lesson is a fun and not-too-time-consuming way to encourage dancers to use their faces and body language to best advantage. Try a different acting exercise every other or every third lesson, for about 15 minutes. If done regularly, acting exercises help dancers become less self-conscious, more confident in their performance, and more able to understand the “feeling” or “focus” of a piece.

Then, if the choreography requires some acting—whether it’s crying melodramatically over broken hearts in “Forget About the Boy” from Thoroughly Modern Millie or portraying a living doll in Coppélia—the dancers will be “ready for Broadway.”

Acting exercises for dancers
Younger children (ages 11 and under) will usually jump right into these exercises, while teens will hold back. If trying this with a class of teens for the first time, find out which students have acted in school plays or are naturally “hams,” and use them as leaders. Don’t force anyone. Usually the class will start laughing and having such a good time that even the shyest dancer will join in.

Pass the Face: A great way to break the acting ice, so to speak. The class stands in a circle and chooses a leader. The teacher calls out a facial expression such as “happy” or “sad.” The leader makes that expression, then turns to the person on her left, making eye contact (very important). When they do, that person “catches” the “face.” Continue to pass the “face” from person to person, contagious-style, until it gets back to the leader. Then the teacher calls out another expression and the game continues.

Important notes: After passing the face, the dancers must keep that expression, not drop back into their regular relaxed face. After all, a competition or recital dance can be 3 minutes long—that’s a long time to concentrate on a facial expression. No laughing, please; actors must remain “in character.”

Younger children will usually jump right into these exercises, while teens will hold back. Find out which students have acted in school plays or are naturally “hams,” and use them as leaders.

Some easy facial expressions include: happy, sad, bored, jealous, hot, tired, angry, scared, hungry, shocked. More advanced faces include: frustrated, confused, anxious, ditsy, nervous, suspicious.

Play Ball: Everyone partner up. It’s time to play ball, but of course, there are no balls in the room. One person picks up a “ball” and throws it to her partner, who must “catch” it. At first, teams can get comfortable “throwing” and “catching” whatever. Then, specify what kind of ball—is it a basketball? Soccer ball? Ping-pong ball or tennis ball? Balloon?

Important notes: Teams must hold their hands in a realistic manner—a basketball and a ping-pong ball differ greatly in size. Both players must follow the ball with their eyes, and the throwing “time” must be realistic; for example, if bouncing a tennis ball, the catcher must wait for the bounce to happen. This helps the dancers to focus and work together as a team. If they get really good at this, create two “teams” of four, put up an imaginary net, and let them play volleyball.

On the Catwalk: Pretend there is a model runway or “catwalk” in the center of the studio. The teacher is the announcer, or MC, who introduces “designer clothing” for different personalities. For example, the MC says, “And here is Kayla modeling the latest look for ‘Frustrated Mother.’ ” Kayla, then, could walk in very quickly, perhaps running her hands through her hair, pursing her lips, or shaking a fist at an invisible child. At the end of the runway she might cross her arms, tap her foot, and look at her watch, then throw her hands in the air as if the school bus is late again. When she exits the catwalk, the MC introduces the next student in line. The idea is that the dancers are modeling not clothing, but the attitude, walking style, and expression of a person who might wear that clothing.

Important notes: If the class hasn’t done this exercise before, I suggest giving them all a go at “Frustrated Mother/Father” or whatever you choose, before you switch to a new personality. It takes time for new actors to understand what you are looking for, which is using body language to create a personality. At first, they might all mimic the same movements, but there is always the one “hamasaurus” (William Shatner’s description of himself) in the room who will throw in something new or unexpected. After they’ve tried this exercise a few times, you can encourage them to “think quick” by giving each dancer a new personality when it’s his or her turn on the catwalk.

Some personalities include: Queen of England, Head Cheerleader, Mad Scientist, Class Valedictorian, Supermodel, Super Jock, Slacker Dude, Hip-Hop Gangsta, President of the United States (believe it or not, that one’s tough!), New Kid in School, Miss America, Secret Agent Man, Disney Channel TV Star, and Teenager in a Horror Movie.

Hooray for Hollywood: Teach the class an easy few counts of eight—loose steps like runs, jazz squares, chassés, or three-step turns. Keep the arms simple or give no arms at all. Then you, the teacher, become Cecil B. DeMille. Explain that the dance is going to be featured in a new movie you are filming, called Jungle Beat. Have them do the steps again, but as if they are in a hot, steamy jungle. They are free to add movements, such as wiping sweat from their brows, crumpling from the oppressive heat, or perhaps flailing about with their arms as if brushing vines out of the way.

Then, Mr. DeMille changes his mind—the movie’s now called Arctic Ice. Now the movements might include wrapped arms and shivers, blowing on cold fingers, and chattering teeth. Then Mr. DeMille might want to film Fun at a Slumber Party. Dancers should do the steps as if they’re having fun with friends—happy and joyful, a little silly and giddy.

The possibilities for “movies” are endless: Among the Clouds, The Noodle and Spaghetti Ball, Underwater Ballet, When Robots Attack, Lovesick and Lonesome, Dancing on Hot Coals, Toddlers’ Revenge, Zombie High School Musical.

Important notes: For beginners, ask the dancers for ideas before they move: “Now, when you’re underwater, how would you move? Slowly, float a bit. Right. What’s in the water? Waves, bubbles—right.” Then keep a sharp eye out for students who are doing something creative; point it out and share it with the class. “Look, Katie just came up for a breath of air! That’s really good!”

Happy Birthday: Stand in a circle. The leader picks up an imaginary box and hands it to the next dancer. It’s that dancer’s birthday, and he must open the box and show the rest of the class what’s inside. Of course, since there’s no box and no gift, the student must “show” the invisible gift through mime. This doesn’t have to be complex; if the gift is a watch, he “puts on” the watch, checks the time, and maybe runs out the door as if late. If it’s a basketball, he dribbles a bit, then shoots. How about squeezing into a sweater and then looking at yourself in the mirror? Putting an iPod in your pocket, placing the ear buds in your ears, then dancing to the music? Have the rest of the class guess what the gift is. Once someone has guessed successfully, that person hands a birthday gift to someone else.

Important notes: This is for a class with some acting experience or one that has advanced past the previous exercises. This exercise calls for improvisation—the teacher is not telling the dancers what to do; they have to use their own imaginations to decide what the gift is and how to “use” it in a realistic way.

Night at the Museum: Choose one person to be the museum curator and another to be a visitor. Everyone else stands in the center of the room. The teacher puts on some music and the center dancers jump and move about. When the music stops, they freeze in an interesting position. The curator then leads the visitor through the “museum” and points out the statues, giving them names that somehow fit their poses. For example, “Here is our Olympic athlete statue” for someone who looks like she’s running; or “Here is our supermodel statue” for someone posed like a model. The “statue” then comes to life and moves about before re-freezing. Curator and visitor move on to the next statue. When finished, choose a new curator and visitor.

Important notes: This is everyone’s favorite (perhaps because of fond memories of “Freeze Dance” from preschool days). Encourage the curator to be wildly creative in her naming—everyone can’t be “ballerina statue.” Encourage the dancers to use appropriate facial expressions.

Most important note

Have fun! Acting is freedom; it’s individuality; it’s letting loose and being wild and crazy and creative. If that doesn’t sound like your dancers, don’t panic. Everyone has this ability somewhere inside—remember how much these same students loved to be butterflies when they were toddlers. Be patient, and in time their stage personalities will shine.

Things to Keep in Mind

  • You (as the teacher) will have to set the example. Don’t expect the students to jump around the room like monkeys while you stand in the corner with your arms folded. If you ask them to try something, be ready to do it first.
  • There is no right or wrong. Look for good examples and point them out: “Wow, Mary, you look so cold you are making me feel cold!” Encourage creative ideas and discussion. (“Now, if we want to act cold, how would we show that?”)
  • Some dancers, struggling for years to exactly reproduce a teacher’s movements, have never had an opportunity to be creative on their own. Be patient and positive.

There are oodles of books on acting games for children, which, of course, are heavily weighted toward exercises that involve talking. Still, many of them include plenty of good physical exercises that work for dancers. Here are a few to try:

  • On Stage: Theater Games and Activities for Kids by Lisa Bany-Winters
  • 101 More Drama Games for Children by Paul Rooyackers and Margreet Hofland
  • Acting Games: Improvisations and Exercises by Marsh Gary Cassady

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