Everyone once and a while, an artist will experience a moment that lights so many matches in the heart that they can become engulfed in flames. As a Gypsy dancer, I experienced such a moment when dancing onstage with Uska Kan Orkestar, a Romani Brass Band from Macedonia. It was the final night of the Woodford Folk Festival, a show named "the last dance".
I was performing with other dancers from the Silk Road Tribal Collective, and when we arrived backstage, the energy was ebullient. We agreed the other two dancers (Fiona and Dee) would take the first song, and I would take the last, but speaking to Demir Kanturovski, a champion trumpeter and centrepiece of the band, he said he had an extra Spanish Gypsy piece he would throw in. The order was loose, kind of spontaneous, and the thrill of this adventure took hold in my body.
The Unusual Suspects were on before us, a 25 piece Balkan band from Australia, and their music soared through the open space. Our stage was the Grande, situated in a natural outdoors amphitheatre. My feet were caked in dirt and dust as I manoeuvred my feet into my dance shoes. "What are you doing?" one of the musicians asked when I was doing my hip opening stretches... He laughed and mimicked me and laughed again, a bit like a hyena.
"Uska Kan! you're on!" shouted the stage manager, and with a flick of a switch this rambling party turned into a slick Balkan music machine. Instruments out. Onstage in a flash and ready to play. My dance sisters launched onto the stage with Uska Kan's opening thunder. I watched those instruments shine and blare under the lights, amongst the stage fog and crisp night air. My dance sisters shone with joy in their beautiful tribal costumes. I noticed that wasn't scared or nervous at all. Just happy in my heart.
A few songs later, I heard a track that I thought was the Spanish piece, so I glided onto stage and announced my arrival with a dramatic twirl. I glanced at Demir who told me with his face that this wasn't the right song, so I shrugged and kept dancing. It turned out to be a beautiful Balkan Gypsy piece. During the trumpet solos shared between Demir and his father Usain, I swirled around to face them and became a vessel for this tremendous collective heart song.
The Spanish song did eventually come, and this time I transformed into a matador, the energy moved up into my being with such ferocity that I could barely contain it. My self was almost obliterated by the surrender to this incredible music. I looked into the eyes of the musicians as I moved about the stage. There was that knowing, that love, that commitment, that dedication to the music. THE MUSIC! that drives through generations, music to which the soul must capitulate. There were moments of synchronised showmanship and triumph. My spirit lived in complete freedom. When the song finished I made it to the top of the backstage stairs before my legs began to wobble. The energy by this point was coursing through me like rapids, and yet there was a beautiful lake, so still and deep welling in my heart. In between songs, I moved up and down backstage, to handle this energy.
Then came our final song, the famous Chaje Shukarije. I asked the other dancers to share this song with me. Demir sung with such heart as well as playing the trumpet. I began to feel overwhelmed emotionally, perhaps a part of me knew that this excursion to mountain tops was about to end.
That night my dance sisters had to shanghai me back to camp because I wanted to dance to that music forever.
Back in the real world now, there are memories from that performance, some I have not written down because they are too precious, that I will carry for my lifetime. A place for my heart song. My heart aches now. A place for my heart song. Perhaps I can dance like this again one day? A place for my heart song. A part of me wishes to never dance again so the memory of this stays rich. A place for my heart song...
I remember attending a workshop with a US-based dancer who said that when we perform, we only achieve 80% of the greatness that we have off-stage. I reflected on this at the time and came to the conclusion that while I am often more relaxed when dancing in the studio, I am definitely more powerful, stronger, and more capable on stage - thanks to adrenaline and being in the zone. But this isn't the case for many dancers who feel more burdened than empowered by nervous energy when performing.
Undirected nervous energy can lead to feelings of flightiness and ungrounded movement - sometimes spilling into a loss of balance, physical disconnection or dis-embodiment (where the origin of movement comes from the periphery rather than the centre of our being) and 'throwing out' of energy, often manifested through unfinished movements and phrasing, and even sudden transitions. A great technique for making performance on stage your supapowa is to incorporate moments of grounding into your pre-dance or dance routine, where you deliberately connect with your para-sympathetic nervous system, breathe & exhale, melt, ooze, cultivate, be. Just be. And in that moment, you will know you have your supapowa at your disposal.
Standing on the earth outside is a great, immediate form of grounding but that's not always available to us before going on stage. But we can replicate that feeling through practice. Yoga is another way. Contemporary dance and contact improvisation have also helped me immensely. It helps not only with our stage presence, but our balance and quality of movement on stage. I also believe that stage fright is often caused by a loss of grounding because the dancer becomes very reliant on the audience's energy, which can stimulate feelings of vulnerability and cause us to shut off.
Make the stage a fertile ground for your supapowa and you will never look back.
How do you connect with your supapowa? What is your experience on stage? I'd love to hear your thoughts.
1. Move always with a connection to your centre and breath, rather than driving your arms and legs. It will turn your body into a storytelling vessel rather than a collection of moving limbs.
2. It's great to include vocabulary that you have learned but most of the time, the music calls for an elaboration of a motif rather than a string of moves.
3. Ground yourself by humbling yourself before performance, remember that we are all students striving to expand and explore our own art. Remember most 'stuff' out there that we laden and torment ourselves with is just a story - a story you can turn off.
4. In choreographed dance, stay in the precipice between the right and left brains. Stay attuned to the choreography, but trust yourself enough to wear it and not let it wear you. Remaining yourself is the key to expression and presence. This also means you need to know yourself (improvisation practice helps).
5. Embrace absolute stillness on stage.
It is often said that more mature dancers create more enriching performances because they have more life experience, but is this true?
Is it the intensity and depth of one’s emotional experiences that gift a dancer with the potential to carry an audience, even change them a little?
TS Elliot when writing about good poetry, said that authors who treat poetry as a confession booth to channel raw emotions were destined to write bad poetry. He argued ‘it is not the ‘greatness’, the intensity of the emotions, the components, but the intensity of the artistic process, the pressure, so to speak, under which the fusion takes place, that counts.’ He writes that 'the mind of the mature poet differs from that of an immature one not precisely in any validation of ‘personality’, not being necessarily more interesting or having ‘more to say’, but rather by being a more finely perfected medium in which special, or very varied, feelings are at liberty to enter into new combinations’ (Elliot's essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent (1919).
Of course, this is where experience and fluency of a dance form, and an eye and an ear for composition become important. We can advance this ability by dance practice, by choreography practice, by performance practice and by appreciating the arts. But this idea that we do not need to find some fancy feeling, but instead learn how to transmit ordinary ones in ways that demonstrate poetic technique, is interesting. It means age is no barrier. Life experience is no barrier (?).
There is a distinction between choreography and performance of course. While we might try to have some emotional detachment in the choreography process, it is possible to channel raw emotion while performing it - in fact, I would argue this is desirable (depending on the genre). That is perhaps where a sensual life full of ecstatic joy, tragedy and thwarted dreams becomes an advantage.
Some people have asked me how i cultivate a strong stage presence. Here is an example of how i prepare. Of course, every dancer approaches things quite differently. Does this resonate with you and your practice?
1. Create a space where you can dance, and really let loose.
2. Put the music on. Dance. Film it. Do this as many times as you can before physical or creative exhaustion sets in. Stop intermittingly to watch the film and reflect on what moments really ‘soar’ (if any).
3. Lie on the floor in a heap and let the music wash over you. Visualise yourself dancing to parts of it. Visualise a limitless version of yourself dancing to it. Visualise dancers you admire dancing to it. Listen deeply. Hear the moments of stillness, of release.
4. Play the music occasionally in the car and don’t dance to it for days. Let the energy build. Pay attention to the feelings coalescing in your body. What moment/story/feeling/character comes to mind now?
5. Deepen your awareness of visual composition and character development. Read beautiful stories, witness visual art, stunning cinematography (visual detail is accentuated for us in foreign films), listen to epic classical music. Interpret everyday scenes into portraits of the human condition: for eg, sitting on the train observe the detail of other passengers, wonder about their stories, desires and conflicts. Practise feeling what it is like to be them, sit like them, and see the world through their eyes. Imagine a music soundtrack playing to this scene. Notice the beauty in random things and sounds. Craft visual compositions out of everyday scenes like a photographer would. Make your life artful so that eventually you can make your art full of life.
6. Do not avert your eyes from injustice and suffering. If you were bestowed with a difficult childhood or life, take time to feel it and know it is carving out the depths from which you can draw from as an artist. Giving you fuel for more intensity. Know what is like to be bottom of the heap and queen of the mountain. Similarly, look for experiences of joy, delight, innocence. Experience these emotions like a movie that you can start and stop.
7. Start your next dance session bursting with a desire to dance. Film immediately. Breathe. Settle. Practise looking into the eyes of your audience, let them see your soul. Do weird shit. Do virtuous. Do it all.
8. Repeat step above to different music, including other musical genres. See what sequences start to gel.
9. Watch the film of you dancing. Pick motifs in your movement that you want to play with more.
10. Start to approach your work more intellectually. Think about the directions you are facing, levels, more or less use of space, speed, the quality of your movement, the flow of your movement. Are you harnessing or ignoring momentum?
11. Ask yourself are you being true to the music? Are you capturing the moments where energy is building and where it is released?
12. Ask yourself are you building to a climax, do you progress or stay at one level of dynamic the whole way through? Give particular attention to the opening and the end.
13. Ask yourself are you revealing enough about your character? Do you need some non-dance moments? Body language, gestures?
14. Ask yourself are you taking people on a journey? Where they feel a little bit changed by seeing this dance?
15. Ask yourself what you might change to be less predictable?
16. Don’t tie yourself down to a chronological or linear approach. If you rather fill in each scene in random order (as inspiration comes to you) this is more natural.
17. When you are creatively or physically exhausted, stop. Believe in your ability to create the perfect amount for that time. Take time to rest, to nurture yourself.
18. Ask someone you respect to review your work and give feedback (private FB groups are great for this).
19. Practise it in whatever way feels natural and comfortable to you. Leaving it semi improvised is fine. Trust when you have had enough of practising it. Your body is letting you know to conserve energy – to start building energy (duende) for the performance.
20. When you go to perform it, let the choreography go. Trust in your ability to remember and tune into your intuitive, breathing, grounded self. Master your ego to magnify and intensify your feelings when you perform but don’t let your ego master you. Humble yourself. Let go of expectations that might weigh you down. Be open to the moment.
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