How to dance

Post image for How to dance

by Henrik on May 20, 2010

A great master once told me, the audience don’t see the dancer! They see the illusion the dancer creates.

A dancer portraying a swan from swan lake

Have you ever seen one of the really great dancers perform, either live, or maybe on a you-tube video? Take a look at how they enter stage. From the very first moment you see them, they are shining. You sit in your seat, and they’re up on stage, telling you: “this is going to be fantastic”. And you believe it. From there, the road to rioting audiences and 50 curtain calls is  a lot shorter than if the dancer were to enter the stage with an expression like “oh my, I hope this will go well..”.

As a dancer, this is something I try to think about every day. It’s not a question of playing a role or acting like you’re the best in the world – it’s merely about believing in yourself. Believing that what you do is unique and see-worthy. I once was doing a competition, and my master and I was rehearsing the Giselle 2.nd act variation just the day before it. It was my first competition, and I was very nervous – most of my fellow competitors came from completely different backgrounds, with stronger training and with physical attributes I could only dream of at the time. I told my master that I was sure it wouldn’t go well, because the others looked much better than me. He answered: “That’s your greatest advantage. All the others have a clean technique, nice feet and a bunch of experience from other competitions. That’s what the jury will see. But you are the surprise – the one that stands out from the crowd. If you believe in yourself, the jury will as well! After all, if you don’t, who will?”

This is the one and only secret to a good performance. I made it to the final of the competition, succeeding dancers that were technically way out of my league. It’s all psychology: For the audience, it doesn’t really matter how many pirouettes you turn, or which tricks you show them. The human brain is always looking for something sincere, something real. In the variation I mentioned, Albrecht is begging for his life to the queen of the Wilis (don’t understand anything of this sentence? Read the Bedtime Story on Giselle, and you’ll get it!). This was what we practiced the most – not only how to do the turns, the jumps, but how a person would do it if he were to beg for his life. Dance is about communicating with movement. It might sound cliché, but dance your feelings! Tell the audience how you feel, or what you want to tell them, with movements. What does 15 pirouettes communicate?

Until next time

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Terrry May 20, 2010 at 11:10 am

thanks for this!
The mind is indeed capable of far more than we give it credit for.
Many of us have spent so many hours, days and years trying to perfect the technique, which will of course free us in many ways, but we do sometimes forget the psychological aspect.
So true: if we believe in ourselves, then the audience will, too.
It is all a matter of focus and concentration, which is perhaps why small children and animals often steal the show. ;)


Henrik May 20, 2010 at 12:07 pm

exactly! Small children concentrate like no other when performing.
Glad you liked the post!
ofcourse, what i’m saying is not that technique doesn’t matter. It does. But technique in itself is nothing! Thanks for commenting!


hege May 22, 2010 at 10:42 am

I love it when your words are shining from inspiration , like in this text


Henrik May 22, 2010 at 3:19 pm

thank you, what a compliment! :) gla’ i dæ


Catherine May 25, 2010 at 6:07 am

This is something I try to teach my students. Presence is everything–technique without it is robotic and uninteresting. Nice work capturing the “magic” that we all seek to create on stage!


Oda May 25, 2010 at 10:54 am

All the girls in my school need this! I am so tired of seeing dancers who doesn’t mean what they dance.


Henrik May 25, 2010 at 11:17 am

Unfortunately, this is something many dancers forget… Good thing we have Tights and Tiaras to remind us ;)
Tell your school-mates about the blog, and do both them and me a favour ;) Glad you liked the post!


ymdf May 26, 2010 at 1:28 pm

This text must become the first page of your future book for ballet-students, the premium syllabus for them all. Congratulations, Henrik!


Henrik May 26, 2010 at 4:51 pm

thank you, what a compliment :) Not a bad idea, that book… ;)


David August 30, 2010 at 8:19 pm

This is so true!! I once went to a dance schools ‘end of school year’ performances. They had the best costumes and great stage sets. They performed ballet, jazz, tap and modern and they were technically very good.

It should have been the best thing ever. However, a lot of the girls had expressions like robots. Completely without emotion like the life had been drained out of them. Like they were numb. For the first hour, all of the good things were enough to overcome the robot faces. After the intermission, nothing could save them. I was just waiting for the next dance and the next dance, hoping to see some life.

A few days later, I remember complaining about this to dance teachers in school that I go to so that maybe this would not happen at our end of year performances. I think that they listened to me because our dancers danced with expression.


Henrik August 31, 2010 at 3:00 pm

Great to hear! Expression is what separates us from Rhythmic Gymnast and other “trickers”, and if we were to compete with them on tricks only, the gymnasts win (have you seen some of the stuff they do? Crazy shit!). Expressing something of worth to the audience is what makes dance the beautiful art it is, and should be way more concentrated on from early school teaching, I think! Drama classes, do you have it? I did in the last couple of years of my education, man, am I glad!
Thanks for commenting!


David D September 1, 2010 at 4:27 am

I do love to watching rhythmic gymnastics and figure skating. Yeah, those little contortionists are crazy. I have never had a drama class but I have been told that I am dramatic. I find acting to be very tough. To instantly drop into and out of a character repeatedly for rehearsals and then for the performances. And I haven’t cried in years (maybe I am a robot?) and so I don’t know what I would have to tap into to pretend to cry on stage.


Henrik September 1, 2010 at 9:53 am

I to like watching RG and skating and athletes and such, but it’s more a “shit, how can they do that” sort of fascination than being touched to my soul.
And don’t you know? Boys don’t cry! ;) Although thats a pile of bullshit, it’s rare that boys (except Romeo, which can be kinda whiney) cry on stage…


Johanna March 26, 2011 at 4:43 pm

Henrik, you made me go all emotional.. Another great post and could not agree more. There´s always so much focus on 180 extensions and crazy pirouettes and super arches, that one almost forgets what is really about. Artistry, expressing emotion, dancing with your heart on your sleeve, full-out-confident, not apologizing for anything..

Yesterday we were doing a basic combo of grand plies and stretches (talon a la main in all directions), but after the first two counts our master teacher stopped the music. We were doing nothing wrong per se, but everything was too “school”, too “robotic”. Teacher: “Move, use your arms, upper body, head..(showing us how) I want to see dancers!” I love this teacher, for giving us real work, and for demanding 100% clean technique – but most of all I love her for sharing her artistry so freely, and for teaching us how to dance beautiful inside out!


Henrik March 27, 2011 at 11:31 am

I’m glad you liked it!! Roslyn Sulcas wrote an article in the New York Times on the Youth American Grand Prix competition that I liked a lot for taking up this: read it here. While competitions can be a great way to develop and work as a young dancer, it can also make us forget: Ballet is not ice-skating. While tricks and stuff are cool, there is an essence to it we must not forget.

Great that you have an inspiring teacher – it’s SO important to feel that your teacher is making you dance!!! And I mean Dance, not move!


Mara March 26, 2011 at 10:20 pm

Great post!
As an audience member, I can tell you, that you’re absolutely right. Although of course I appreciate skill and technique, it wouldn’t mean as much – esp in a narrative ballet – without the feeling, the emotion behind the steps.

I recently saw the The Aust Ballet’s Madame Butterfly, and not only was the dancing amazing! But everyone was so in character that I would have known who they were even had they been wearing their rehearsal sweats.

And there was this great moment when a dancer – who was playing a sailor, one of Pinkerton’s friends – dancing with Pinkerton and another sailor made an error, because he covered it so well with his character that he actually made it look part of the narrative without missing a beat.


Henrik March 27, 2011 at 11:40 am

That’s what I’m talking about! When a mistake becomes the best part, when the stuff that wasn’t supposed to happen is the little last thing that makes your role trustworthy and believable – thats what makes dancing so good for telling tales. Glad you enjoyed Madame Butterfly, I have to admit, I have only seen it as an opera.


Mara March 28, 2011 at 4:45 am

If you ever get the chance, you must! It’s unbelievable. I was absolutely in tears at the end

… rather embarrasing ;)


Henrik March 28, 2011 at 9:01 am

will look out for it, thank you for the tip! :)


supersiri March 27, 2011 at 4:51 pm

magic words! love your writing!
gla i dæ!


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