We have heard from many of you that teaching your dancers to emote on stage can be quite a challenge. As a professional dancer who has worked with both commercial and artistic productions, I thought I would share some exercises that really helped me to develop a sense of how to display emotion on stage. These are exercises that I have collected from my years of experience; I started training at a small studio in Ohio, then went on to the University of North Carolina School of the Arts for high school specializing in dance and dance composition. After high school I earned my BFA in dance from the SUNY Purchase dance conservatory, leading me to a career with modern companies such as Dance Heginbotham and Riedel dance theater in addition to commercial work such as the High School Musical tour and backup dancing for the former Pussy Cat Doll Kaya Jones. In short, I have had to develop many different ways of portraying different characters and feelings on stage, often without using any words. So here are just a few “acting for dancers” exercises I think will really help your dancers learn to emote successfully.

Before a dance is performed on the stage it is important for the dancers to investigate their character under the direction of the choreographer and develop a strong sense of their purpose on stage. These basic exercises will help your dancers “d’act” (dance act) effectively. First here are two icebreakers that your dancers will surely enjoy. After I will explore exercises that can take your dancers’ performance to the next level.

Ice Breakers

1) Pass the Face
Have your dancers stand in a circle. Pick a confident dancer to start. Call out an expression, which the dancer has to then make. To pass the face, the dancer changes emotion (picks one on their own) and makes the face at a friend while making eye contact (the eye contact is key). The receiver copies the face, then makes one of their own and passes it to another friend. This proceeds on and is sure to endure laughter and confidence in facial expression.

2) Television Host
Have on student be the host of their own television show. Each other student picks a character from one of their favorite television shows to come visit the host’s show. Each character should make up something important they would like to tell the host. Slowly add more and more students in to the scene, having all the characters interact with one another. For added fun, call out a natural disaster which effects the entire show.

Enhancing Exercises

1) Write Out a Character
Take a dance that is already choreographed that requires the dancers to tell a story. Have them write out a character and how the dance transforms the character they create. In any organizational structure they choose, have them write a backstory, what led the character to the dance, what the character thinks, what the character feels, and how this all may or may not change through the dance. After they have written this basic character structure information out, have them explain it. This practice will ensure they understand the character they’ve created.

2) Speak While Dancing
Have the dancers perform a routine while speaking their story. The challenge is to continually dance and speak at the same time. Just as there is no dead “air time” in the dance (you are performing even when you are standing still) there should be no dead air time in the speaking. This is a difficult exercise but the more proficient your dancers become at this exercise the more they will be capable of continuous “d’acting” without breaks in character.

3) Across the Floor
Have all of the dancers partner up. Each pair face one another from opposite sides of the room. One dancer is the actor and one is the viewer. The actor has to go across the floor and portray the emotion to the viewer using both dance and acting expression. Then switch rolls and repeat for as many emotions as you can think of. This exercise is important because it incorporates movement into the acting and emphasis the importance of connecting with the viewer when “d’acting.”

4) Guess That Emotion
Have your dancers all sit as an audience. Choose a student and feel free to utilize music or not. Whisper an emotion to that dancer. The dancer must than continue dancing until the audience calls out what emotion the dancer is portraying (think of this like a game of charades). Another fun approach to this game is to have all of the students write emotions on a piece of paper and fold them up. Then the student who is chosen to dance draws an emotion out of a hat. This way the students are also involved in coming up with different emotions and as a teacher you do not have to wrack your brain for more emotions to have students dance.

5) Life Observation
After using the above exercises to explore a particular dance, have your dancers for homework (I know, what a drag, but we are educators and after all it is a dance class) try to find examples of emotion they must portray in every day life. For example, if a lyrical routine is about loss have the dancers keep a journal of when they see a person expressing loss and what it looks like. Whether real life, like a baby who lost its favorite toy, or on television, maybe Spongebob lost his spatula, have them note how the emotion is portrayed. What is the face like, how does the body move? This exercise is mainly for older dancers, but you will be surprised how well young dancers can also observe the world around them.
These are just a few exercises to get your dancers’ “d’acting” training started! We also recommend attending a course on learning to teach acting and reading this wonderful article about what choreographers want from dancers in terms of their acting!