Sunday, August 7, 2011

Learning to Act the Part: Telling a Story Through Dance

The music starts, and you begin your choreography. The beat ends. You breathe heavily and start talking to your fellow dancers. Sounds good, but you may be missing something. How are you beginning and ending your dance?

Your performance is not just about dancing to the music. It’s about expressing emotions and telling a story. A story has a beginning, a middle and an end. If you start and end your movements abruptly, you are not a good storyteller. The best dancers are good actors. They make us laugh, cry, shout, and more.

Do you make an audience feel an emotion when you dance? If not, it may be because of your thought process. Instead of simply starting your movements right when the music begins, take some time before your performance to think about what you are doing.

Ask yourself a few questions

What is the choreography about?
What story am I telling?
What character am I portraying?
What just happened to my character before I came on stage?
What emotions are involved?
What do I want the audience to do while I’m dancing?

Put yourself in the right mindset. If you are telling a sad story, for example, think about your character and how this character’s sadness relates to something sad in your life.

Think about the audience. Maybe there is someone in the audience who wishes he or she could perform and has a physical limitation? Maybe an audience member had a bad day and is there to forget about his or her problems? Make up a story in your mind about why that person might feel that way.

Think about telling an honest story that turns your choreography into a performance. After all, dancing is much more than moving to a beat. It’s about playing a character, even if that character is just a dancer entertaining others. Then, when the music stops playing, it’s important to stay in character a few moments before relaxing your body, taking a bow or running off stage. This way, your story has a beginning, a middle and an end.

Think about what you are trying to accomplish way before the music begins, and let yourself be honest and show true emotions when you move.

And when this happens, you are no longer simply doing choreography. Instead, you are giving a true performance and sharing your emotions with the audience.

Teaching Students How to Tell a Story Using Swan Lake

Select a part of the ballet video that you can play for students (the whole ballet may be too long, especially for younger students).

Tell students that you are going to "speak" to them without using any words. You will point to one of them and ask them to translate into words what you are doing. For example, pretend to cry, point to student. A student might say "I'm sad" in response. You can do angry, frustrated, happy, excited, etc.

Next, tell them you are going to pretend to "do" something, and again they guess what you are doing. You might sweep the floor; wash your face; drive a car, etc. Again, ask students to tell you what you are doing by pointing to a student to talk. Explain that this is called "pantomime" and that it is one way to communicate without using words. Instead you use your face and body to express the words.

Give the students a turn at pantomime. Have them walk about the room as if they are at the mall. Prompt them to:

Stop and look closely at something in a store window
Try on an article of clothing that they like
Meet and greet a friend
Loose something and try to find it
Complain to a friend or relative that they are taking too long and you want to go home
Initiate a discussion about what they did and how they expressed their feelings in the movements.

Session Two

Especially for younger students, read or have them read a library book (with pictures) about the story of Swan Lake, or give them the handout and have them read it aloud.
After you read the story, tell them that you are going to act out a part of it through pantomime. Can they tell you what part it is? Choose a scene that is expressive but easy for you.
Play the part of the Swan Lake video that you have selected. Look for a section that is a good example of the dancer or dancers expressing their characters. Ask the students what they see happening. Also ask:

How did the dancers' movements help to show you what was happening in the story?
How did the music help with the expression of feeling and movement?
How were the dance movements different from your pantomime in class?
What did you like best about the dancers and the video?

Tell them that it is their turn to recreate a scene. In small groups, select a part of the story and work together to re-create it in pantomime and movement. Students may select roles based on the scene they select.Possible roles: Prince Siegfried, His mother the Queen, the evil Rothbart, Odette the Queen of the Swans, Rothbart's daughter Odile, and the Swan Maidens.

Session Three

In this session, ask students to either write a short story or scene, or find a story or fairy tale scene that they like. Once they have their stories, they can interpret them with pantomime and movement, as inSwan Lake. Students can work alone or in pairs to do this. The first part of the session can be devoted to developing the story or scene; the second part to practicing and performing. In the last part of the class, students perform their stories for other students and the students have to tell them what the story is.

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