No matter how I used to encourage them to change up their facial expressions, many of my students only smiled when performing. When I asked them to experiment with different nuances and emotions in class, they would become self-conscious and visibly uncomfortable; onstage, they had difficulty connecting with their audiences. I decided to use musical theater as a teaching tool.
I start by choosing a musical that my dancers can relate to, such as Annie for elementary-school-aged students or Bye Bye Birdie for teens. In class, I explain the show’s synopsis, introduce characters, and hand out a lyric sheet to one of the show’s production numbers. Focusing on this production number, I ask my students how they would feel if they were in a similar situation, and we discuss the emotions of the characters.
Next, I play a video clip of that production number. I ask the students to identify which emotions the performers conveyed and how they were able to recognize them. Were the emotions conveyed only through facial expressions or did the movement quality also play a part? I then teach level-appropriate choreography inspired by that production number, and we practice performing it with the same emotions and facial expressions we noted in our discussion.
There are endless musical theater shows and songs that can be used for this exercise. I choose from recent shows as well as older shows that my students might not be familiar with. It is also important to select numbers that illustrate different emotions.
Here are some examples: “It’s the Hard-Knock Life” from Annie (frustration, sadness), “Bye Bye Birdie” from Bye Bye Birdie (wistful), “I Hope I Get It” from A Chorus Line (nervous, hopeful), “Footloose (Finale)” from Footloose (joy, excitement), or “The Mob Song” from Beauty and the Beast (fear, anger). —Debra Danese
Debra Danese is a full-time teaching artist who holds multiple certifications and degrees in dance.