Good communication starts with how you speak
By Serena Greenslade
Most dance teachers have to talk—a lot. You communicate regularly with children, parents, business associates, and adult learners, to name a few, and among them are the young, the old, the polite, the funny, the argumentative, and the easygoing. Some of that communication happens by email, texting, or social media, but when you’re in a dance studio your voice is all you’ve got. It has to be clear and it has to be heard.
The way you talk influences the way other people think of you and how they react to you. If your communication and elocution skills are poor, then your pupils, parents, or business associates might assume (incorrectly) that your knowledge of dance is similarly poor. This doesn’t mean that all successful dance instructors are extroverts who love to talk; it merely means that they know how to get the best from their voices.
As an educator, you must share your experience and knowledge with your students, and your voice must hold their interest. And good communicators must be as good at listening as they are at speaking. Listening to what your pupils are saying makes it easier to respond. You can’t give an intelligent answer if you don’t listen to the question.
How you use your voice will also determine how effectively you are able to share your experience with your students. For example, if you vary your voice’s power, pace, and pitch, it will sound more interesting and enthusiastic. If you have a habit of saying “um,” “like,” or “OK,” try thinking it instead. This will make your speech sound clearer and more decisive.
When speaking to your students’ parents, it’s important to listen to them and acknowledge what they are saying by nodding and smiling, making sure they sense that you’re not waiting for them to pause so that you can jump in. Look at people when they are talking to you—turning away while you are listening gives the impression that you don’t care what they’re saying. (You might be able to listen and work at the same time, but doing so seems and actually is impolite.)
And when you speak with parents or non-dancers, avoid using too much professional jargon. If listeners don’t understand the content of your speech, they’ll only ask more questions.
Energy and expression
A monotonous voice will not motivate anyone. If you sound interested and excited, your dancers are more likely to perform with enthusiasm and energy as well. Changes in pitch, pace, and power will help avoid a monotone. To practice, take a short sentence and then change the pitch of each word in turn.
Remember, too, that facial expressions do much to communicate meaning and emotion. Children especially often find it difficult to tell from words alone if someone is serious, happy, or angry. Consequently, they need to be able to see your facial expression more than most adults do. Also, when talking to a child, make sure that it is the child you are talking to. This may seem obvious, but the sound needs to be directed at them, not over their heads or toward the ground.
Power and pitch
While enthusiasm is important, having a powerful voice means you don’t need to shout to command attention. Teachers with weak voices may give the impression that they don’t want to be noticed or that they lack confidence in their abilities. Develop a resonant, more powerful voice by practicing humming. Humming exercises the resonators, and resonance gives the voice power. Try saying the following sentence and hold all the “m” sounds as humming.
“My mommy made me dance the samba,” should sound like “Mmmmmmy mmmmommmy mmmade mmme dance the sammmmba.”
Nervous or angry people tend to speak in high-pitched voices; to come across as confident and calm, lower the pitch a little. You still need to sound enthusiastic, though, so vary the pitch, power, and pace of important words and phrases. For example, if you were to say, “You nailed that pirouette!” you would want the word “nailed” to stand out so that your enthusiasm carries over to the student. The words that need to stand out do not have to be spoken any louder, just with a variation in inflection or pitch. Sometimes, pausing before or after an important word is all that is needed.
Open your mouth
Too many people speak with a partially closed mouth. For people to hear the vowel sounds in your words, your mouth needs to open wide. The farther away your dancers are from you, the wider you’ll need to open your mouth. Try dancing the jive without moving your legs—it can’t be done. Likewise, words can’t come out of your mouth if it’s not sufficiently wide open.
We all imagine that we open our mouths much wider than we actually do. Get a mirror and try saying the following sentence out loud: “The jive is a lively dance.”
While practicing your speech, for every “eye” sound (as in “jive” and “lively”), your mouth should be open wide enough to put three fingers vertically between your teeth. (During everyday speech it’s two fingers.)
Another advantage of opening your mouth is that it will slow down your speech. When speech is too fast, it is more likely to be unintelligible. After each new instruction, you need to pause to let the learner take in what you have explained, to think and react. Observe listeners’ responses (which may include seeing them attempt the movement again); this continuous feedback will allow you to assess whether they have understood what you have explained.
Good articulation requires you to use the five organs of speech: the tongue, lips, teeth, hard palate, and soft palate. Usually, to make a clear consonant sound, two of these parts need to touch.
The ends of words are particularly important. Words like “point,” “feet,” and “head” need to have the final consonant sounded by letting the tongue touch the roof of the mouth. The “l” in words like “ballet” and “heel” also need to be heard; again, the tongue should touch the roof of the mouth. Remember not to shorten “ing” on the ends of words to “in”—the “ing” sound does not end with the tongue touching the roof of the mouth the way the “n” sound does. Exercise your lips and tongue like you would any other part of your body. The simplest and easiest way is to make funny faces.
Since you have to speak over music at times, your speech has to be particularly clear—which means consonant sounds need to be especially sharp and clear. Open your mouth wide to let the sound out and direct the words toward your students. If you have practiced humming to increase your voice’s resonance, you will never have to shout.
Serena Greenslade, a resident of the U.K., teaches adults and children to speak clearly and confidently. She gained an ANEA in speech training in 1994 and an FVCM (Hons) in speech in 2014.