Standing Out As A Dance Performer

Dance can be a powerful, life changing art form… when your audience feels it deeply.

By Francisco Gella, Chief Creative Officer

“To stand out as a dance performer, you must first stand out as a human being we can believe and relate to. You have to be real.”
– Francisco Gella

I never would have been a dancer if it hadn’t been for one spectacular dance performance in 1992.

During the spring quarter of my freshman year at the University of Washington, I was struggling. I was bored solving mundane math problems in my differential equations class – the same type of left-brained work I was doing in most of my major-required classes. I was accepted into the university on a full academic scholarship with the intent of majoring in Aerospace Engineering (it pleased my parents). Too many late nights of studying forced me to question whether I wanted to spend the rest of my life building planes and spacecraft. As it turned out, I WAS interested in making things; I hadn’t yet discovered just how different those creations would be from my field of study at the time. “Taking flight” would take on an entirely different meaning for me.

Being done with something frees up space to fill that emptiness with things that matter to you. 

– Francisco Gella

I began to explore other classes at the encouragement of an academic advisor. It turned out that one of the first, an Art 101 class, excited my innate sense of curiosity. Soon after that I took my first formal dance class – ever. I registered for Dance 101. I grew up training in gymnastics, so I loved the idea of doing something physical. My right brain was having an awakening that semester: I knew I couldn’t continue on the path toward becoming an engineer.

During that spring semester, I attended my first dance concert. I was completely taken by the entire show, but one work in particular captured my soul. It completely changed my life. The choreographer was Zvi Gotheiner and the work was Dance for Seven. I was completely mesmerized by its power and authenticity. I somehow saw myself in the work, and even felt the pull to be on stage. It’s hard to put into words, but after that performance and the way I felt taking the dance classes I was enrolled in, I knew what my calling was and what I had to do.

Looking back, I can fully appreciate what a priceless gift that concert was to me. And the dancers – through performing Mr. Gotheiner’s choreography so honestly – single-handedly set me on a path to where I am today. It was within a few days after the concert that I changed my major.

So you see, it’s not cliche to say that dance can be a powerful, life-changing art form. However, it can be so only when those who are watching it actually feel something as deeply as I did that night during Dance for Seven. It might evoke an important memory of a significant life experience. It could move a person toward action. It might awaken another to new possibilities. Or, it might simply remind us to live life fully, instead of just going through the day-to-day  motions. When an audience feels something during (or after) a performance, they can literally be changed forever when they exit the theatre. 

It’s also important that *you* feel something stirring inside when you’re performing – in fact, you MUST if you’re to connect with the audience. If it only makes YOU feel something, you’ve been selfish. You’ve made the performance self-indulgent and you’ve failed to be generous. As the artist performing the work, you hold the responsibility of delivering the choreography to the audience in a meaningful way. After all, the choreographer created the piece for the audience. You are the instrument to get the audience to where the choreographer intended. I found out later that it’s never really about myself, it’s about who is occupying the seats in the audience.

As a dancer, always remember that the dance you are performing is a sacred art form. Don’t get so caught up in the purity of this ideal that you forget that the work has been created for you to engage the audience, however. They made the time to see you. You owe them something special.  In an important way, a dance performance is no different than a rock concert. At the end of the day an audience wants the same thing out of both: they want to be taken out of their everyday life, and they want to feel emotion. They want to be impacted. They want to be stimulated. And they want to have fun. That’s why an evening out to see the New York City Ballet is no different than a Beyonce concert. The delivery of the material – and the material itself – is quite different, but the objective is the same. Just as some songs are purely entertaining and others intend to call you to action in some way, so is the range of the dances performed around the world every day.

So, what does all of this mean for you as a dancer? It means that you have a responsibility to be generous in sharing your talent and effort. If you’re tired, distracted, sick, nursing sore muscles, or even just having a bad day, the show still goes on. The audience is full of people who have paid to see you, and you owe it to them to make it worth the money. 

It also requires you to be honest, vulnerable, and real. Even when you are scared, ashamed, or hurt, you must show yourself to be human on stage when the moment calls for it. We want to see who you are – all of you. Being a great performer is about selflessness, sacrifice, courage and conviction. You will never embrace your own power on stage without this level of commitment to every single show. 

I’ll give you a personal example: In 2000, I was on tour with the Philadelphia Dance Company (PHILADANCO). The tour included a stop in Incheon, South Korea. I already knew going into the performance that the crowd was going to be huge. What I didn’t know was that the size of the audience would be over 10,000 people, and the performance would be projected onto massive screens so everyone could see clearly regardless of where they were sitting. The company was pretty amped up for this show and the audience was enthusiastic. The weather? Not so forgiving that night – it was really cold and rainy and I had to wear small little booty shorts with no shirt for what seemed like weeks. Inside my head I was thinking this is crazy, but in these situations – and you will face similarly difficult times too as a professional – you have to summon up your grit. You must allow your heart to take over your head and remember who you are as a dancer, and that your job is to perform regardless of the circumstances. The end result was a standing ovation for our Company – the crowd got what they came to see, maybe even more, with typical powerful and physical DANCO style.

“I know something about performing. I know that when it seems like the avalanche is about to roll over you, you face into it and keep both arms swimming as hard as you can. You smile and you sell it.” 
– Jillian Lauren

Possibly feeling a little overwhelmed, you might now be asking yourself, “How do I do all of this? Where do I begin to learn how to be this kind of performer?” Relax. It will take you years of learning and experimenting, and yes, failures. But, there are plenty of ideas you can begin to try. Here are some things to think about. 

Some Top Tips and Advice on Taking Your Dance Performance to a Higher Level

(with shared credit given to a few of my most trusted colleagues – Julie Friedrich, Wilson Mendieta, and Sue Sampson-Dalena)

  • Intention is everything. You must clearly know what you want to say to the audience, what story you’re telling, or what feeling(s) you’re evoking. Then, you must execute that through the choreography and your movement. Your intention begins with focus, from the moment you take the stage until the lights go down at the close. 
  • DANCE BIG. You must remember that your energy can’t be contained within a small space. Projecting your energy to the vacuous space of a theatre takes so much more effort than dancing in your studio. When you think you’re dancing way outside of yourself, you have to go even bigger. 
  • Say ‘NO’ to your ego. Check it at the door before you even step into the theatre. Get your own ambitions, pride, narcissism, and selfishness out of the way and make your time on stage solely about the work and the audience. Ask yourself, “How can I change at least one audience member for the better with my dancing?”
  • Sharpen your laserlike focus. Until you’re seasoned, you’ll probably have a tendency to think about and watch yourself while you’re dancing. That’s a number one no-no. Your focus should be completely outside of yourself and on the audience. It has to be solely on the work and your interpretation of it. This is a good reason why the next point below is super important. 
  • Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. You’ve heard it time and again. And it’s true. “Practice makes perfect.” Well, it won’t make you perfect, but it will set you up for a performance with less fear which results in holding back. You won’t be thinking about the material because it’ll be second nature. By being prepared, you’re ready to make the work your own with confidence. 
  • Hold onto the love. Going out night after night to do the same performance, while keeping it fresh for the audience, isn’t easy. Aside from the repetition, you’ll have nights where things that are going on in your life outside of the theatre leave you emotionally depleted. When you just broke up with your significant other before you have to perform, it’s hard. The only way to be alive on stage every time is to remember how much you love to dance. 
  • Know thyself. Getting to know yourself and learning to love that self is a lifelong process, but each of us can hopefully point to times where we’ve had a breakthrough. We realized our special qualities and we came to believe that what other people think about us doesn’t matter. We will see who you are on stage, so you better be ready to want to show the real you. Playing another will wear you out. We’ll know if you’re faking it. 
  • Your technique must be second nature. Your technical skills should come second nature so you aren’t thinking about how to make each step better. When it becomes second nature, you’ll impress the audience with your details and you’ll be able to focus on telling the story and evoking powerful emotion. While you are developing as a preprofessional, focusing on your training is everything.
  • Watch yourself like a hawk. You imagine what you might look like on stage, or even think you know, but you never really know until you look at yourself from an audience member’s perspective. Videotape yourself. You’ll have a new appreciation (or not haha) for your strengths and  weaknesses.

Are you up for the challenge? I believe you are! What I hope you take from this article is that you begin to see yourself as the kind of dance performer that can leave an audience spellbound, and that you’ve learned a little bit of what you need to do to reach this level. Every dancer who has had great technical training, and has been given the opportunity to develop their own artistic voice, has the ability to become a great performer. It just takes a little more learning than you’ve likely had the time for in your weekly studio training. 

Like anything, it takes practice and soaking up knowledge and wisdom from others with experience. The good news is that there are many generous artists willing to be your mentors. For some, it will come more naturally than others, so if it doesn’t come easy for you, don’t be discouraged. You are in good company. Trust me. (Raising my own hand right here). 

The education and hands-on experience to learn the skills of dance performance are readily available to anyone ready to face the challenge. Myself and the rest of the exceptional teaching artists and choreographers at NEW CENTURY DANCE PROJECT are ready to share our knowledge on August 13-17 in Salt Lake City so that you will develop the skills to have a successful and rewarding career. I hope you’ll consider joining us because a little information can take you a very long way. 

Did you miss the Facebook Live with Francisco talking about how you can become a better performer? You can catch the replay by clicking HERE.