The Quintessential Performer:
Attitudes for the Stage
by Najia Marlyz
posted May 3, 2009
Almost mysteriously, some overwhelming urge has begun to draw you into starting a scary new career of dancing for audiences in public—the pure adventure of it seems irresistibly daring! The challenge necessitates your putting your ego on the line. Secretly, you hope that it is not a covert death wish or part of a "Lemmings-to-the-Sea" syndrome! Those who love you can only cling to the hope that the “something” that has attracted you to this point is a spirit within yourself that needs to reach out to others. In so doing, this outreach may enrich your own life with artistic expression as well as touching and influencing the lives of individuals who may be part of your future audiences.
During my lengthy career teaching and coaching new public performers, I have come to better understand a few of those private wishes and hopes that motivate new dancers to want to perform before audiences as they struggle to find their individual style in dance. Two of the strongest and most common motivators are: development of the dancer’s self-image (generally, solving problems left over from childhood) and the overcoming of personal feelings of shyness (in relating to others on a personal level in daily life).
However poignant, validating, and universal those reasons may seem to you at your end of the microscope, a performer cannot rightfully expect a gaggle of people to pay to sit respectfully, row upon row of hard folding chairs, simply to soak in your personal longing and need to display:
- Your trim and fit figure,
- Your carefully applied waterproof make-up,
- The new steps that you learned in a recent weeklong workshop,
- Your new and expensive Turkish/Egyptian-made costume,
- Your long, (barely credible) store-bought hair,
- Or your French manicure and pedicure!
Why? Because performance of dance is not actually about you! It is certainly not about your new costume!
Audiences come to see the dance and hear the music, feel emotions, and be transported away from reality—not to see you! Only your relatives have come to see you—if only to witness you making a fool of yourself—or to demonstrate their family support unconditionally.
What can you rightfully expect of an audience of persons who are not, themselves, involved in performing (or related to you)?
My answer to that question is: nothing! Once tickets are purchased and those who purchased them have driven through daunting traffic to be in your august presence, you do not have the right to expect anything gratis. They have paid to sit, far too long, on those uncomfortable chairs (maybe not always in terms of money—but something even more precious to them—their time and effort). They bring you their expectations for a shared experience with music with the vague hope that something you do in this performance will, in some delightful way, enrich and elevate their lives, if only for a moment or two. Therefore it is you who owes them! Their respect, too, you must earn through your personal warmth, humor, and entertainment skills in addition to your skill in dance technique and your understanding of your music.
What is the “mysterious showbiz something” that you owe to an audience?
For an apéritif, you owe them your dedicated fear of performer’s “flop-sweat”. By that, I mean you owe it to them to be prepared in all the various ways that you can possibly anticipate. Flop-sweat comes to those who are talented, yet unprepared, as well as to those who simply lack talent; so, beware!
For your dance entrée, you need to enter that place in your being which is special to you and present it to your audience without reservation. It is a little part of your ability to share with other human beings, who may need a break from reality, what you understand of the natural universe and abstract art. This is a chance for you to touch the emotions of another person (or maybe many) with your spiritual message or understanding.
If you are not certain that you have any worthwhile spiritual message, you are not yet deserving of an audience.
Yes, you owe it to your audience to actually say something that carries meaning through your movements and your projected energy while performing. Performance energy means something quite different from the energy one expends during a physical workout at your local gym! Sometimes, the strongest content may emanate from slow and deliberate, well-timed subtle movements rather than speed and strength of fast, rapid-fire choreography.
Ask yourself: Do I have something worthwhile to share? If not, get off the stage!
Dance worth seeing is an intimate moment of communication between human beings on the wings of music.
I urge you not to waste your audience’s time with recitation of someone else’s creation—create your own dance. Say something unique. Share with your audience your understanding of the music, but considering more deeply; share your understanding of the human condition by using your sense of the dramatic. Make people laugh. Make them cry. Show them some passion. Cause them to remember you! Begin by sending chills up your own spine and learn to send that energy toward your audience. You will quickly learn not only how, but how much, and for how long you must accomplish this feat before moving on—to Performer’s Phase Two!
What is "Performer’s Phase Two"? Phase Two for a performer is learning to listen to an audience’s response to the message you have sent and collecting their answers back in–like herding your horses to the barn at night to be groomed and fed. However, that may be harder to accomplish than it sounds!
A listening performer is a phenomenon like the wave returning to the shore with seashells and other wet gifts after having had all your sand castles swept away.
Collect all the little sounds you can hear. You can only hear them if you are actively listening! Observe the body language of audience members if you are able to see them beyond the bright stage lights, and feel the energy of the room. You must stay focused on the moment and will have no attention to waste on thoughts of counting phrases, your petty annoyances with your costume, or your ”significant other". Your antennae must be completely open and operational. Performing seems magical at times: For those few moments only—you have the unquestioned authority to stamp everybody’s passport with your imprinted visa to an alternate reality—your quantum universe of dance.
Perhaps the only thing we dancers have to fear is finding our own message—yours might not be as clear and pretty as you might wish. However, if you believe in your message—whatever it turns out to be, both that you have one and that it is important to you, then you are ready to dance professionally (either paid or gratis) in front of an audience. Costumed or not—here you come!
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