How to Help Your Dancers Channel the Power of Stillness
June 28, 2022

On the surface, stillness is a simple concept. To be still, you just have to stop moving.

In reality, though, stillness is much more than the absence of motion—it can have a range of qualities and compositional purposes, just as movement can. And to fully tap in to the power of stillness, dancers need to approach it with intention: “There’s a difference between stopping and just holding a shape, versus really engaging with stillness as an act of composition and performance,” says Kendra Portier, an assistant professor at the School of Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies at the University of Maryland.

But stillness can be challenging for dancers inclined towards constant motion, and for dance teachers, devoting class time to it can feel counterintuitive. But just like with movement, dancers can learn to paint with stillness’ many shades with intentional practice. 

Start With Meditation

A simple meditation practice can be an accessible entry point into stillness for dancers, says Vangeline, a teacher, dancer and choreographer who specializes in Japanese butoh. Try opening your class with a breathing meditation exercise, which can not only function to get dancers more comfortable with stillness, but can also help center their bodies and calm their nervous systems.

A meditation after class can also be beneficial: Vangeline finds that it helps dancers absorb and assimilate the information they’ve just learned. Portier also likes to employ a closing practice that she sees as a chance for dancers to “sieve out anything they don’t need to take with them.”

Keep It Slow

Complete stillness—especially for extended periods of time—can feel daunting for dancers. One way to ease dancers into a practice of stillness: Just slow down. “What we think of as normal speed is actually very fast for the nervous system,” she says. “By going slower, we start paying more attention to the sensitivity of the body and the internal experience of dance.” 

A dancer lays on water-covered floor during a performance in a dark room with a dress hanging above her.
Butoh artist Vangeline. Photo by Bryan Kwon, Courtesy Vangeline

Vangeline recommends starting with having dancers walk very slowly around the room. She also likes a Jin Shin Jyutsu (gentle form of acupressure) exercise where you start with the hand in a fist, then take three minutes to open the hand very slowly, and three minutes to close it back up. But even decelerating a typical class exercise can challenge students to explore their relationship to time and to begin accessing the patience that will allow them to be still. 

Explore What Stillness Can Say

Show your dancers the power of stillness by using it as a compositional element yourself, whether in dances you’re rehearsing or just in exercises during class. As you incorporate moments of stillness, talk to your dancers about what that stillness is communicating, and why you’re using it: Are you trying to create the illusion of frozen time? Are you drawing attention to the shape dancers’ bodies are making? Are you using it to juxtapose the movement? This can unlock a conversation about the nuances between different types of stillness, and how dancers might play with them.

Being clear about why you’re using stillness can also ensure that students don’t “deflate like a balloon” once they stop moving, as Vangeline puts it, or see still moments as a break. Just because the movement has stopped doesn’t mean the momentum has, she emphasizes—after all, stillness often acts as a magnet for the audience’s focus. “When someone stops moving, our attention zooms in because we are trained as observers to catch movement,” she says. “It’s a little trick butoh dancers use to shift the perspective of the audience.”

Watch this video tutorial led by Vangeline to help your students channel the power of stillness.

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