The dancers in Abby Zbikowski’s Abby Z and the New Utility company travel across the stage with such force, such explosive power, that it feels miraculous when they’re able to stop short and not crash into each other, or an audience member.
Zbikowski’s thrilling, highly athletic style is unique. But the need for dancers to be able to explode across the stage—to “eat up the space,” as some teachers say—is not. Even in dance forms with a focus on elegance or lightness, being able to travel further and thus take up more space can result in more exciting, more dynamic performances.
But helping your dancers learn to eat up space can be as much a psychological challenge as a physical one. Here, Zbikowski shares the tips she employs as a faculty member at The Ohio State University to get her students moving with power and explosiveness.
Change Their Mindset
If you’re often telling students to dance bigger, or have dancers who struggle to keep up with the group during traveling moments, it may be worth interrogating the way they’ve been trained. Traditional dance-studio culture often teaches dancers to take up less space, says Zbikowski, and the world at large teaches women and other marginalized identities to do the same. She says she often encounters students who are afraid to move with power and explosiveness, or have a psychological block around it. “You’re up against this pretty picture of what people think dance is,” she says. “And that sometimes locks people in their bodies.”
Internalizing the idea that, as Zbikowski says, “everybody has the right to take up as much space as they can in a dance studio” will not be as simple as flipping a switch. But as a teacher, you can ensure that your studio is a place where students are free to take up space, and you can model that idea for students in your own dancing. Zbikowski suggests having patience with students for whom moving big feels unnatural, and allowing them their own journeys of discovery.
For many dancers, one challenge lies in being able to tear through space while also maintaining the technique and artistry that the choreography demands. Zbikowski, whose style is more focused on functionality and sensation than making shapes, suggests having dancers tap into their power by (at least temporarily) allowing them to not care about what their movement looks like—and to think like an athlete rather than a dancer.
She helps her students channel athleticism through an “offense/defense” exercise, in which dancers partner up and “defend their space” without touching. “You’re not allowed to let your partner get by you,” she says. “So in order to make those quick breakaways, you need to drop your weight into the floor and leverage it in a specific direction. Putting people in these kinds of scenarios lets the body break out of certain strict regimens and discover things for itself.”