Saturday, September 25, 2010

Is Your Performance an Appetizer or a Buffet?!  My students know how much I love to use food-based metaphors to help our understanding of the dance, and now you will too!

I think one of the key defining elements between determining whether a dancer really is a "professional"  (seasoned, experienced, confident, etc) or an "amateur" (still developing, maturing, growing into their dance, something to prove), is how they approach and structure their performances.*  I've spent countless hours watching dancers perform, from newbies to old timers all over the world, and I've come to this conclusion: the best performances are presented like appetizers, while others are like a trip to an all-you-can-eat-buffet on the mind, and we're not talking a champagne brunch.

The Buffet: Most often, a less-experienced dancer will look at the time-slot they are given, and try to mastermind how to utilize every single one of those minutes and how many different kinds of things they squeeze into that performance.  Or if there is no time-limit, will present as much and as long as they can get away with.  "OK, it says the time-slot is '5-10 minutes' - so I've got 10 minutes to work with, so I can do at least 3 songs, and I think I'll do sword, veil, wings, fans, and mix that with some Bollywood and some hip-hop too!  It will be awesome!!" 

And I'm sure some folks are going, "So what's wrong with that? Variety is the spice of life! Look at all of the things I can do!  Why shouldn't I show off all that I know!?"  Well, let us consider an all-you-can-eat buffet at your typical American buffet-style restaurant.  There tends to be a wide variety of choices: salad bar, taco bar, dessert bar, meat station, pasta station, pizza station, soup station, etc.  A LOT of food, and particularly a lot of different kinds of food you wouldn't typically find paired together --and because there's so much of it, there's often a couple of really high points, a large amount of mediocre, and some really dismal.  And those really good things tend to get taken down by the experience of the rest, and particularly the tendency to overload.

So what does that mean in terms of a dance performance?  Well, let's say you are a really awesome sword dancer, but your veilwork needs some work, and you really just started learning Bollywood fusion a few weeks ago (and are REALLY excited about it!).  Well, while your sword dance is a like a really nice cut of steak, you're pairing it with limp salad and watery mashed potatoes.  The audience may be wowed by the steak, but the limp salad and potato slush are going to take away from that great impact.  Likewise, performing very different unrelated dances (like Bollywood fusion, Egyptian, and Gothic)  in the same set is like having a Thai course followed by an Italian course followed by Japanese- you could, but should you?

How To Avoid the Buffet:

  • Edit, Edit, Edit! Rather than showing off everything you think you can do, pick one or two things that you know you do REALLY well and focus your attention on presenting those things very well, to the best of your ability  Or if it's an experiment or a new thing for you to perform, then just do that one thing and plan your introduction accordingly. 
  • Less is more! Just because you are given the option to use UP TO a certain amount of time, doesn't mean you need to fill every minute.  You don't need to dance every minute, just use the amount of time you need to present a solid dance.  
  • Think cohesively.  What do your different elements have to do with each other?  If the only thing in common is that they're a prop, a fusion, or that you're involved, that's not good enough.  Also, if you like 6 different songs, use those songs when you can give them the best presentation - don't make a schizo-mix.  Love them individually, not parts of them together unless it makes sense. 
  • Be kind to your audience by not overloading them.  Especially when the event features a lot of performers, less time and more focus makes a more satisfied audience.

The Appetizer - Appetizers give us a taste of delicious food, without making us feel stuffed.  The experienced dancer/performer knows that it's important to give the audience a tasty morsel of them without giving away too much all at once.  Rather than using the maximum time allotted or monopolizing the stage, they carefully select and structure their performances to make the most of their music and the concept they want to get across.  In that projected time-slot of 5-10 minutes, you will find them using the lower end (5-7 minutes), not because they don't have more ideas, props, or the stamina, but because they want to present the very best they can do.  Their musical choices make sense with their costuming, props, and movement vocabulary.  If they do more than one song, it provides contrast to the first piece without being disconnected, and flow without feeling like it's going to be 3 more minutes of the first 5.  The Appetizer performance leaves the audience feeling satisfied without being bombarded or bored.  They leave the audience wanting more.

How To Make An Appetizer:
  • Consider what you want to say with your dance, and what's the most efficient way of saying it.
  • Learn how to edit your music so that it flows while fitting within your time.
  • Make sure your whole presentation is cohesive: costuming, music, make-up, movements.
  • Choose your best talents and make it work.  If you don't feel confident about something, don't do it. 
  • Take your time to practice the piece and trial-run your costuming.  The morning-of is not the time to figure out a new prop or costume.
So when you're planning your next performance, consider what sort of audio-visual meal you are making for your audience.  Consider the hafla or show as a potluck, and everyone should be bringing tapas to the stage!

(*there always exceptions to this....for better or for worse, so really it's not such a clear distinction of "pro" and "non-pro", but really part of what makes a dancer an excellent performer who exercises good judgment consistently....)

(And yes, I probably have been watching too many cooking competition shows...)


  1. Love the food analogy! And yes, I totally agree with what you have said, and have seen what you describe. As a somewhat rookie dancer, in the choreo and reheasal stage I sometimes think I would like to add in all these moves or combinations in a piece, just to show all that I've learned, with big costuming to match. But then the theatrical training part of me takes over, saying 'no, you can't do that, don't give away TOO much of you, save some for the next time'. (OK, to differentiate, when I'm performing that piece, ALL of me is in that moment, giving everything I have for that performance) I think it makes the audience wonder what all you have up your proverbial sleeve as far as ability and staging.

    OK, now off to find something to nosh on... ;-)


  2. I am a sucker for food anaolgies and this one rocked! Loving your blog lady. :)

  3. I'm also a sucker for typos...ANALOGIES! ;)