When your students are onstage, every dance step matters, of course. But so does every non-dance step. The simple act of being onstage—whether standing still, walking to a position or running from one place to another—requires a constant presence. And as Kitty Carter, of Kitty Carter’s Dance Factory in Dallas, Texas, points out, “walking and running are actually part of the dance. They act as transitions from step to step.” So teaching your students to understand the importance of active stillness and pedestrian choreography is essential, and it will help them see the “big picture” of a performance. But it’s not easy.
“Running and walking and standing still are the hardest things to learn as a dancer,” says Kat Wildish, instructor of classical ballet, pointe and partnering in NYC. While pedestrian movements should be simple—they are, after all, motions everyone learned as a toddler—the difficulty lies in coming across as natural and spontaneous during a performance, rather than looking rehearsed or forced. Here are a few tips to help your students achieve that natural look.
Take a Stand
Wildish notes that in ballet, a dancer’s stillness is often crucial in creating a mood. “In Swan Lake, the job of the corps de ballet members is to stand and decorate the stage,” Wildish says. And to teach that, she helps students discover how standing should feel in their bones. “A lot of standing is discovering proper alignment. I bring in actual bones, like the femur, and I show students the design of it. It’s not just a straight bone. It has a top to it and connects to the knee,” she says. “Then I show them how to make that bone stand as straight as possible on the rest of the leg.”
Proper alignment, she explains, will not only make the dancer’s standing position seem more graceful and natural, but it will also help keep her balanced and centered when she’s required to stand for long periods.
In the Running
Don’t expect your dancers, as graceful and trained as they are, to be great at running right off the bat. “The most incredible dancers sometimes have a lot of trouble running,” says Helen Hayes, co-artistic director of CrossCurrents Dance Company in DC. It is particularly difficult for students to relax their muscles enough to allow natural-looking running after they’ve executed technical dance phrases. To get her dancers to let go of their technique while running, Hayes puts students in pairs, places her hands on their backs in the tailbone area and gives them a gentle push. “The idea is to move through space naturally, with the pelvis taking you somewhere,” she says.
Carter prefers to use visual cues, telling her dancers to think of a vacuum cleaner sucking them in as they run away from it, or to imagine themselves gliding forward through water or bouncing around the room like a pinball. These prompts allow the students to explore what their bodies are capable of, and they help them develop a vocabulary of running styles that will fit in with various types of choreography—whether ballet, jazz or modern.
That doesn’t mean that dance runs should lack polish, particularly in ballet. “I ask students to point their toes, and straighten their knees without locking them as they run,” Wildish says. “We work on rolling through the toes to the heel. The articulation and sensitivity of the feet is very important in ballet.”
Walk the Walk
Like the old saying about walking and chewing gum at the same time, for dancers, coordinating arms and legs often makes onstage walking feel difficult. Carter says, “A lot of kids have an issue with opposition”—that is, swinging the right arm forward when the left leg strides, and vice versa. However, “we’re made to walk in opposition—that’s how we balance. So it’s one of the first things I teach younger kids.” She says focusing on the simple act of walking around the room will help students learn how to walk naturally onstage.
Wildish believes that in class, even something as basic as walking to position in center should be done with elegance and care, as if onstage, which gets students in the habit of maintaining proper carriage at all times. In the Kirov’s Vaganova Academy in St. Petersburg, for example, “boys begin their classes by walking gracefully to their place at the barre, which teaches them to move in a princely fashion and not lumber,” she says.
In addition to working on these techniques in class, have your students do research outside of the studio. “I am a big supporter of online video,” says Wildish. “Just as actors do research for a role, dancers need to research aspects of their technique.” Wildish says she tells her students to watch videos of ballerinas Wendy Whelan, Gillian Murphy and Diana Vishneva in particular, focusing on their pedestrian movements and stillness onstage. (Many useful videos like these are available on dancemedia.com.)
Dance is a language of movement, and walking, running and stillness add variety to the story you’re telling. “You use pedestrian movement to help punctuate your dance sentences,” says Hayes. “And it’s important because it’s the bridge between people who never dance and people who dance at the highest level. It’s the thing that we all have in common.”