How to show emotion when you dance (without dying of embarrassment)

 

Would you like to have an expressive face when you perform bellydance?

Are you exuding joy on the inside but showing a blank face on the outside?

Does the thought of baring your soul on stage make you cringe?

Would you like to be able to perform with an uncensored and open heart and feel connected emotionally to your dancing?

These questions hit a nerve with me, perhaps they do with you too.

The fear of looking silly, feeling embarrassed, being vulnerable and feeling uncomfortable is one of the most powerful forces that drives the way we live our entire life, let alone how we approach our dancing.

It pains me to say it, but as a teacher I’m guilty, in the past, of teaching techniques, movement and routines with 95% of the focus on technique and then a quick 5% of time reminding my students to smile and make sure their faces are animated.

I can see now that when I started out dancing (and teaching), I completely neglected the importance of connecting emotionally when we dance. Thankfully this is some years back now and I’ve evolved my teachings to incorporate feeling, expression and emotion.

But learning, myself, to show emotion through whole body expression has been an inordinately hard part of my bellydance journey and is still something I constantly work on.

I still often have to dig deep, be brave and push myself out of my comfort zone when it comes to fully and visibly investing my emotions into performing, teaching, writing and filming.  What if people don’t like it? What if somebody posts a mean comment? Am I really good enough to put my heart and soul into this? How can I look confident when I still feel like I don’t have enough training?

These are thoughts we all have about our dancing and – I’ll be honest – they never go away. So if you’re waiting to feel 100% secure and assured before you grant yourself permission to fully and openly infuse your dancing with feeling, you’re on the wrong track (somebody had to break it to you, sorry).

Now here’s the good news. There are ways of developing your dancing along unabashedly expressive lines (which don’t involve putting yourself through mortifying and cringey experiences). I’m going to give you 6 easy ways to get you started.

First though, realise that you have to change the way that you are currently approaching your dancing. I know this sounds obvious but hang in there with me. When I say you have to change I mean that you actively have to stop doing things in a way that is comfortable and familiar to you and start doing them in new – uncomfortable – ways.

You must be wiling to be uncomfortable while you adjust to a new way of dancing.

When we talk about going out of our “comfort zone” we think of it as metaphorical. It’s not. It’s very physical and you will feel tangibly uncomfortable. The problem here is that, when this happens, our instinct is to return to what feels familiar and comfortable, e.g. looking at the floor when we dance, having a blank face.

But if you hang in there, keep going even when you’re out of your comfort zone, you can start to be more expressive, feel better and change the way you dance.

Feeling uncomfortable means that you are changing (literally, growing pains) and visible results are on the way. Learn to recognise that uncomfortable feeling as a sign that you are doing something meaningful and important and that exciting changes are on the way.

These days I love that slightly queasy, fearful feeling in the pit of my stomach when I go for a new dance goal because it means I’m doing something with real meaning. I know that I have to go through that stage as part of the “adventure”. So don’t give up when you feel unprepared or out of your comfort zone, just go with it.

Being more visibly expressive when you dance is related to confidence and confidence comes from doing (you may want to check out my article “What to do when your confidence takes a dip”) so you’re going to have to get stuck in and take action before you see any results in the way you look and feel when you dance. Don’t worry, we’ll start with small milestones, we’re talking baby steps.

I’m going to give you 6 exercises to implement in your dancing, but I don’t expect you to put them all into practice straight away. Instead, you are going to aim to act on each of the exercises one at a time for 10% of the duration of your dance to start,  then 25%, then 50%, until you’re up to 100%.

The point is to keep nudging yourself forward and out of your comfort zone bit by bit. It’s about steady progress, not perfection. I love using the % technique as it means you can set yourself an achievable milestone without being overwhelmed.

  •  The first thing you’re going to stop doing is looking at the floor. You’ll likely feel some resistance to this but remember, you’re going to aim to keep your eyes off the floor for 10% of the time to start with and go from there.  This might seem like a small thing, but where you place your focus with your eyes and the angle of your head makes a huge difference to the expression and feel of your dance. Lifting your gaze can make you feel exposed and vulnerable, so don’t be surprised if this is harder than it sounds. You may look down because you are concentrating on the moves, but remember: your face is part of the move.

 

  • Next, you’re going to get specific with the feeling and mood you’re aiming for by using language. Think of words that describe the mood, character and emotion that you want to portray in your dance.  If you don’t know what you want to feel when you dance then it’s time to decide. Listen to the music and think about the stylization of the choreography. For example it could be connected to joy, power, elegance, playfulness, fun. Use any descriptive words that make sense to you, even if they seem a bit bonkers:  sultry, aloof, fun, cute, electric, cold, dry, velvet, spiritual, earthy, wild, sexy, lost, symmetry. Keep going until you start to see a character emerge. This is a starting point, a way in for you to connect emotionally with your dance beyond the choreography, there is no “right” answer – you can’t do it wrong.                                                                                                                                                                         Now you have a specific idea of the characterization that you’re going to portray, set your intention to embody it when you dance, starting with your face. (We’ll look closer at how to do this in the next point.) Remember, we’ll start with 10% and go from there.

 

  • When it comes to putting expression into our face during a performance  we mainly think of smiling which in turn leads us to force the corners of our mouth up. Yep, the “fixed grin syndrome” we’re all terrified of (the result of which is usually cheek ache). I want you to forget about smiling with your mouth per se and instead think about manifesting your emotion with your eyes. This will give a much softer and sincere look and feel to your facial expression. And if you’re getting carried away with the moment of the dance, go with it and let it show! Remember, start with the eyes.

 

  • When it comes to dancing the easiest way to embody emotion is to be genuinely passionate about it. Think about your attitude towards the routine and the music, do you take it for granted that you or the choreographer and the musicians have created this piece of art for you? Some of the most expressive dancers  you’ll ever see are so wrapped up and absorbed in the whole miracle of movement to music that there isn’t any space left for self-doubt or shyness. Get into the music and fall passionately in love with dance every time you perform. Remember, we’re starting with 10% and building from there.

 

  • Imagine that it’s 5 years from now. You have 5 more years worth of bellydance training, experience and performances under your hipbelt. You’re now in the top level class at your school and you’re one of the best dancers in your local area. Other students comment on how good your dancing is and ask you for help and and advice because they aspire to be like you.  You’ve mastered techniques and maybe even done some professional work. How would you dance when you perform?  What would you look like? How would you behave on stage? Start dancing like that now.

 

  •  We talk about “giving” a performance and that’s exactly what it is, a gift. So I want you to be generous, not stingy. The way that you dance is extremely special and is unique only to you, never make light of that fact. When you put yourself forward to perform in front of people you must respect the fact that it’ a two way situation: the audience is there offering you their attention and your job is to communicate your dance as best you can. Make it easy and pleasurable for your audience to take you in. Give them the chance to be fascinated by your dancing by giving as much of yourself as you can.

 

  • One final bonus point on how to feel expressive when you dance:  Be grateful that you have the ability, freedom and choice to be able to learn to dance as well as perform. I hope, as I write this, that you are, as I am, in the extraordinarily lucky situation to be physically and mentally well enough and have the social and political freedom to practice dance.

 

Now I’d love to know: what has helped you to overcome shyness and fear of embarrassment when you’re dancing? I’d love for you to tell us in the comment section below as it might be exactly the advice somebody needs.

Thanks for reading.

Hugs and hipdrops,

Helen xx

Ps. If you’re curious about learning to bellydance with us here in Reading, UK, take a look at our upcomng courses  – we start next week!

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24 thoughts on “How to show emotion when you dance (without dying of embarrassment)

  1. A brilliant article with so many good pointers. I’d say the technique I use the most when giving a BellyDance performance is just that, ‘giving’ it as you rightly say. Especially with cabaret style bellydance you are really there to entertain your audience.

    Also the point you make that you need to be comfortable and emersed in your music is important for me. I need to really love my music and be able to express the feeling I get from it to my audience.

    Also… Give it through the eyes, not just the lips! Very good point!… And for those that know me, the eyebrowsare aalso very important! Haha

    Great article Helen!!! Xxxxxx

    1. Thanks for commenting Natasha! I think it’s definitely the case that the more you feel it on the inside the easier it is to show it on the outside. I love the fact that you express through your eyebrows! It’s a lovely playful and unique thing that you do.

  2. This completely resonates with me!

    Extremely useful article, just in time before a performance in a few weeks so I will be putting these to good use!

    Thank you Helen!

  3. my favourite person for use of expression is Rachel Bennet, everytime I see her dance she has such a ‘playfull’ and ‘cheeky’ style, also Nadine is very expressive too and lately Marina has developed a lovely style of expression. I love this article Helen, so much to learn and use practically. I have moved on from floor watching but now I just seem to be looking over everyones head in concentration now. At least now I always break out into a big grin when we do hip drops on stage 🙂

    1. LOL – Rachel was the first person who came to my mind, too when I read through this brilliant article 🙂 Rachel knows how to entertain and makes it look so effortless 🙂

      Thanks for sharing Helen, this really sums it up 🙂

  4. Highlights most of my hangups. I’ve recently come into contact with Rachel and her “feelings jar” and found it was a very useful exercise to try and convey a feeling through dance so that others could guess what it was.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Gail. It’s great that you have some tools to “unlock” the feeling you’re aiming to express, the “feelings jar” sounds like a gem of an idea. Rachel is a master at unleashing emotion through dance!

      1. Should also say that the safe environment created in all our classes is also very important for me as it allows us to try things out without feeling silly or uncomfortable

  5. I always try to look into people’s faces. The lights can make it tricky but I look for the people I know. It’s really hard NOT to smile if a member of your troop or your family is looking back at you. If there’s nobody there, imagine them there, or think that you’re going to send them the video. So it’s kind of like a ‘dance dedication’ to an individual or small group of people rather than a whole crowd – but everybody feels the benefit. Sometimes you need to remind yourself throughout the dance but it does help.

    For beginners I’d also say means that this means that it’s important for dancers in the audience to give it some for every performance. Also stay at a gig for as many performances as possible, a half empty room can be a confidence killer. Also give praise to people after their dance even if you don’t know them as this builds confidence long term.

    1. Rhi, I love your point about being a good audience member for the others in the show. I agree, it’s really important to show respect for other performers when you’re all performing at a student event.

  6. Such a privilege and humbling to be mentioned in these blog posts – thank you Trudy, Sandy, Gail and Helen. One of my top tips on conveying emotion is to determine the essence of your feeling and imagine shooting it through your eyes at your audience like emotional laser beams

  7. A great thought provoking article Helen. The last point really struck home, we are so fortunate to be able to dance. You mention having the fitness to perform, we also have the freedom to perform, a lot women don’t have that choice so we should embrace it.

  8. all really good points Helen and most I have been working on for a while. I struggle with the fixed grin as it’s just not me. I much prefer to use my facial expressions and eyes. Being closer to the audience makes this easier. I especially like the point about connecting emotionally to the music, this is something I feel is important. As you say it is work in progress and hopefully I will get there soon.

  9. Fab article and really useful points. I think the point about being passionate about the dance really resonates – I dance because it makes me ridiculously happy and I want to share that happiness with other people! I think in terms of boosting confidence, for me it was “fake it until you make it”. If I pretend I feel confident, I often think of someone who I think oozes confidence and imagine I’m them, eventually it becomes easier and you have to pretend less. I also think the better you know a piece, the less you need to think about steps and can focus more on performing it.

    1. Great point about knowing your steps Cari. I totally agree, being well rehearsed is really important if you want to be able to lose yourself in the music and be more expressive.

  10. I just read that article with a permanent smile on my face as EVERY point resonates with me. Especially the last about being physically able to dance. Every time I dance I count myself very lucky.
    I always think when performing a dance or a character in a play, that I have this one moment in time to make an impact, good or bad, no retakes !!. So I go for it !!!!.
    Thanks Helen yet again for the effort and thought you invest in all of your students, you enable us ladies to be in touch with our creative side. A priceless gift.

    1. It’s my pleasure Heather. I love this approach to dancing that you describe in your comment here, it’s such an awesome way to think especially when you’re performing and audiences definitely pick up on it when we dance sincerely from the soul.

  11. I loved this subject – thank you Helen! So much to think about, as as I am a BD teacher with my troupe working towards a performance in May I will definitely use some of these ideas in trying to get them to be more expressive and emotive.

    On a personal level, when I started dancing/performing I used to lok so serious and ‘blank’ when I watched myself back. As cringey as it is, I now always make a point of watching my performance back and finding areas to improve, and I really try to engage with my audience with my facial expressions, dependant on the music. I try to choose pieces of musci that I feel a connection with now, instead of thinking ‘will my audience be bored by this’ or ‘will this get the crowd going’ ? I now choose music which I can connect with.

    1. Emma, you are spot on about using music that you connect with, that’s a brilliant tip. Watching yourself back sounds like a great idea too, I think that is one of the most difficult things to do and many of us either avoid it or put off looking at performance footage for a long time. Yet giving ourselves honest – but kind – critique can bring the greatest rewards in terms of changing the way we dance and shortening our learning curve, so I would urge dancers to follow your advice here and start looking at their performance footage to see what went well and where they think they can improve. One caveat though: always pick put the GOOD stuff when you critique yourself before you decide what needs improving or developing.

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