For a long time, dancers were taught to be seen and not heard. But building students’ confidence when it comes to their voices can help them to not only become more versatile performers, but also to become better at advocating for themselves both in and out of the studio.
Whether preparing your students to speak and sing onstage, or to transition into commercial work or musical theater, here are some ways you can incorporate voicework into their training.
Promote Awareness of the Breath
Unlike actors or singers, dancers aren’t taught to think much about different ways of breathing. But encouraging your students to pay attention to their breath, and where it’s coming from, can be beneficial whether they’re using their voices onstage or not.
“What you need to do physically when you sing or speak is a different use of the diaphragm than when you dance,” says Kay Cummings, who taught acting and choreography at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. She says it is useful to talk about breath as a continuum originating from the upper to the lower torso and that can be shallow or deep.
Elizabeth DeMent, a longtime member of dance theater company Big Dance Theater who teaches choreographic workshops around the country, says that when it comes to breathing it’s not about right or wrong, but just experimenting. She learned to stop speaking from her throat by spending countless hours lying on the floor, humming to feel vibrations in different parts of her body.
One of her go-to breathing exercises, passed down from Big Dance Theater co-founder Paul Lazar, starts with suspending a “shhh” sound for 10 to 12 seconds. “Go all the way to the bottom of your breath and do that four or five times to expand your lungs,” she says. “Next are little puppy pants, which is shallow breathing while sticking out your tongue. Then try bringing it into a deeper resonance, so you become like an ape.”
Make It Feel Natural
We spend much of our lives talking while moving, from telling a story to a friend while on a walk to explaining a dance step while demonstrating. Yet when asked to speak while dancing, many dancers become shy. “I don’t think there’s anything more vulnerable, especially for a dancer, than using your voice,” says DeMent.
To encourage dancers to overcome their inhibitions, it can help to keep exercises pedestrian at first. Have your students walk around the room, weaving in and out of each other, and greet each other along the way. You can also pair them up, and instruct them each to talk for a full minute about what they’ve done so far that day while moving the whole time; they can either improvise or rely on a familiar combination.
To help dancers let go of the nervousness that often comes up when voicework is introduced, DeMent has them vigorously shake their bodies. “I just want them to shake off all that training and all that preciousness,” she says. “Start shaking with your feet or any part of your body, and let it grow until you can’t be self-conscious anymore.”
DeMent also urges students to lean into silliness and ridiculousness. Her favorite vocal warm-up has dancers standing in a circle and focusing on different resonances. “You make one tone at the highest point, and move from your head to your nasal to your sinus area, passing it through your body,” she says. “Let it move into your throat, then solar plexus, diaphragm, lower belly and even lower.” Next, do the opposite, starting from low to high. She also likes repeating the phrase, “Many mumbling mice are making magic music in the moonlight. Mighty nice,” in different voices. Encourage students to make weird or ugly sounds without judgment.
Focus on the Meaning
To get used to unfamiliar text being thrown their way, Cummings suggests dancers seek out the underlying meaning in the words. “If you can find the connection between the person and what they’re saying, it becomes much easier,” she says.
She recommends having dancers start by writing a short paragraph about something that they care about. “Take the feelings it evokes, and see how that makes your body feel, and what kind of movement comes from those feelings,” says Cummings. “Then, try and put the two together. Try it five different ways.” This skillset can help dancers when they’re handed a script or preparing for a singing audition.
Cummings believes that for dancers, learning to wed their voices and their physical bodies will help them to gain confidence whether or not they’re being asked to speak onstage. “A lot of people go into dance because they don’t want to talk,” she says. “But learning to use your voice is showing strength. It’s a generous act. After all, performing is about sharing yourself with others.”