Developing Performance, Expression & Communication Skills in Ballet

When preparing for ballet exams dancers often hear the words ‘expression’, ‘communication’ and ‘performance’.

Yet, without a character from which to draw inspiration, how exactly are you supposed to be “more expressive”?

This article explains how to tap into your inner performer and breathe life into your work.

© Richard Calmes | Dancer: Kylie Morton

© Richard Calmes | Dancer: Kylie Morton


The word ‘perform’ is often misinterpreted as meaning ‘big toothy grins and jazz hands’, or ‘adding more personality’, yet the true art of performance is more substantial, a more involved process; something that is gradually mastered over the duration of a dancer’s full career.

In its simplest of breakdowns, I think of performance as incorporating:


• Stage Presence

• Artistic Sensitivity

Together meaning the dancer holds an underlying sense of calm confidence, has a certain irresistible attractiveness, or commands attention, and that they respond sensitively to the material performed.

“Dancing is an art, and as in all arts, quality and technique are inextricable.” – Maria Fay

Charisma & Stage Presence

While two slightly different things, you can learn to develop both simultaneously using similar imagery techniques.  Here are a few to experiment with:

  • Imagine bright warm sunbeams are radiating out of you from your centre, surrounding you with light.
  • You are an authoritative aristocrat – you are expensive, powerful and valuable.  You are wearing fine clothes, have jewels across your chest, and a crown upon your head.
  • You are standing on top of a huge mountain with the sweet-smelling breeze blowing past your neck and ears, looking way out into the distance.
  • Imagine your body is sparkling, like water reflecting sunlight (Eric Franklin).
  • Think back to a time when you felt extremely happy or proud of an achievement.  Try to recall that sensation and surround yourself in it.  Let those positive emotions emanate from you like an aura.

Ultimately you want to embody energy, passion and confidence, but balance that with a sense of calm and self-assuredness.  You want to feel quite powerful, but very generous of spirit.

There needs to be a sense of presence in your movements: to be in your own body and in the moment; your movements conveying thoughtfulness, care and a mindfulness of classical purity, without ever becoming robotic.

You need to project a slight sense of abandonment and spontaneity as if you are dancing a piece for the first time; as if the music is being channeled though you and you are compelled to dance.

You want to have a strong sense of ‘self’ – feeling centered, and with a heightened awareness of the space you occupy, and the patterns you make in space.  You need to feel the subtle articulations through your joints, and the arcs and curves you make in the air.

© Richard Calmes | Dancer: Kylie Shea Lewallen

© Richard Calmes | Dancer: Kylie Shea Lewallen
“Heightened awareness of the space you occupy, and the patterns you make in space.”

To further help illustrate these concepts, have a look at the following two videos:

  Guillaume Côté ‘Lost in Motion’:-  This fantastic piece of choreography and cinematography perfectly encapsulates the concepts of both a heightened awareness of self, and the shapes and patterns you carve through of space.

Lost in Motion

Watch this video on YouTube.

Shoko Nakamura’s Chacott/Freed Photo Shoot:–  Watch how Shoko can strikingly portray mystique, cheekiness, flirtatiousness or the ethereal through the use of her head/eyeline.  Also note the openness across her chest, the air underneath her chin, and how she engages her back muscles to make her arms more expressive.

<FREED OF LONDON & Malakhov by Chacott>2012秋コレクション

Watch this video on YouTube.

“If the artist believes in what he is doing the expression of the face changes instinctively.” – Joan Lawson

Artistic Sensitivity

With syllabus work, it can initially be very difficult to identify with the set exercises and bring them to life.  Four things to consider are:

1. The Rules and Principals Underpinning Classical Ballet

You need to become fluent in the rules of ballet, for there are many detailed conventions for almost every aspect of classical technique; from the placement of the fingertips to the subtle skill of flexing the elbows just the right amount for your arms to ‘breathe’.  While this will be a long process, putting in the detail as you are studying will ultimately free you as a performer.

“Master technique and then forget about it and be natural.” – Anna Pavlova

2. The Music

Musicality is not only about responding to tempi (speed), but also mood and dynamics.  What emotion does it convey?  Does it sound like a happy exercise, or is it more somber or reflective?  Is it energetic, or even furious?  Remember: Don’t just count it, translate it.

“Dance is music made visible.” – George Balanchine

3. The Choreography/Setting

Very often there are subtle nuances of timing, or emphasis/accents placed on certain movements.  Making sure you get the timing and the detail right will help give the work life, as it is those small differences that make ‘these’ tendus different to ‘those’ tendus.

4. Individual Interpretation

You want to have ownership of the work.  To know it well enough that it becomes part of you, and you can add your own subtle individual interpretation.  However neatly you might need to blend into your own corps de ballet (or class), your dancing should still always have your unique ‘stamp’ on it.

Considering artistic sensitivity, watch ex-Royal Ballet principal Lesley Collier discussing the importance of “expensive perfume” at 11:14…

Royal Ballet in rehearsal: The Nutcracker

Watch this video on YouTube.


Expression is about conveying thought or feeling to your audience.  Without a character, this is easiest by being inspired by the music: first embodying, and then projecting the mood it evokes.

For example, if the grand battement exercise has a Spanish flair to the music, you want to capture that essence and reflect it in your movements; perhaps adding a slight flourish of the wrist when taking the arms to 5th in a final relevé, or adding a little more épaulement.

Expanding upon the ‘Spanish flair’ example, you could even take things one step further and imagine being Kitri in ‘Don Quixote’ and see how that changes your work.  In this way, you can actually flip the whole equation around and derive character from the music which can further inform your artistic sensitivity and individual interpretation.

Watch how Royal Ballet Principal Zenaida Yanowsky as Prayer in ‘Coppéliabeautifully conveys awe and hope, and contrasting mellow humbleness, using facial expression, eyeline and subtle movement dynamics; all the while responding to the music. 

Royal Ballet – Coppelia pt. 10

Watch this video on YouTube.

Remember, pliés are often calm and reflective, battement tendus are sometimes cheeky, grand battements are often bold, and an adage can be a long walk on the top of a mountain… There is always something to work with.


‘Communication’ can be separated into two main components:

  • Projection
  • Connection

As classical ballet is a theatre art, it is important to learn to how to dance as if you always have a full auditorium of people watching you:

Expand But Don’t Exaggerate:-  You must expand and enlarge your expressions and gestures to accommodate the distance between you and your viewers, but your delivery should never become so exaggerated that it becomes a parody, or ‘ballet pastiche’.  You want to have truth in your movements.

Keep Your Energy Levels High:-  It takes a lot out of a performer to maintain high-enough energy levels to keep projecting out to their audience.  Building emotional and cognitive (intellectual) stamina takes practice – another reason why not to leave it to exam day to think about ‘artistry’!

Don’t Dance From The Waist Down:-  Don’t exclusively focus on ‘learning the legs’ and think you can ‘add the arms later’, or fall into the trap of believing you can ‘layer on’ facial expression at the very last minute.  Get used to dancing as a whole.  The famous ballerina Natalia Makarova was a huge advocate of this practice.

“To dance is to be out of yourself.  Larger, more beautiful, more powerful.” – Agnes De Mille


In order to communicate you need to connect with your audience – whether your spectators are real, imagined, or a single examiner:

Look To ‘The Gods’:-  The highest seats in a theatre auditorium are often called ‘the Gods’.  You want to dance for those guys.  Project out and upwards.

Imagine a Conversation:-  Pretend you are in the presence of a friend, and feel at ease with them.  Imagine you are having a conversation with them; continually responding to the audience’s questions and requests.  Share yourself, and the choreography, with them. [Adapted from Jeanette Stoner / Eric Franklin]

Give The Gift Of Yourself:-  Consider the idea that all of your classes over the years have been preparation for this performance.  Give yourself to your audience.  Don’t hold anything back.

Above all: Communicate with them.  Reach out to them.  Connect with them Keep life in your movements, and light in your eyes. 

“You may have all the technique in the world, but only the true performer can touch an audience.” – Eric Franklin

Tips & Troubleshooting

• Make sure you know the choreography 100% ASAP and feel confident with it so you can devote your energy and focus to performance and expression.

• Take time out to really listen to the music: immerse yourself in it.  Get a copy and listen to it outside of class (in a quiet room with no distractions is best).  Then, when you’re dancing, you can more easily let your emotions radiate out through your movements and facial expression.  Make it real.

Don’t be afraid to use your imagination.  Don’t be afraid to feel vulnerable.  Don’t be afraid to put emotions into your work.

Above all: Don’t Fake It, Feel It.

Here is a lovely video of Zoia Miller performing as part of the Présentation des eleves de l’opéra (1999), beautifully demonstrating that even barre work can be dancing.

Zoia miller, Présentation des eleves de l'opéra, 1999 ( elle avait 10 ans)

Watch this video on YouTube.


▪ Franklin, E. (1996) Dance Imagery for Technique and Performance. Human Kinetics Publishers.

▪ Fay, M. (1992) Not Training, but Teaching. Dance Gazette, Vol. 210, pp.32-33.

▪ Lawson, J. (1957) Mime: The Theory & Practice of Expressive Gesture. New York: Dance Horizons.

For more performance tips, check out Nichelle’s 7 Secrets of Super Performers.

What are the notes you’ve received most often regarding your performance skills?

Are there any tips you’d add?

“And Remember To Smile!”

Do you remember your teachers calling out “don’t forget to smile” just before you walked into your dance exams?

Do you now remind your own students to smile as they enter their dance examinations?

This article challenges the traditional practice of encouraging dance students to smile en route through the examination door and asks

…what does this actually accomplish?


Young ballet students wait to take their exams

© Colin Hutton

Learning By Example

I am convinced that the majority of teachers [Read more…]

Help! I Sweat A LOT In Dance Class!

A reader writes:

We all know dancers work hard and sweat. Thing is, I sweat excessively! When I dance, it starts from the very first minutes in class and then gets worse and worse!

That brings many undesired results: a) I smell bad, b) I’m sticky and watery so I guess it’s not appealing for my dance partner and I get embarrassed when he touches me, c) my leotard or unitard gets sweaty marks under the armpits, under the breasts, belly, back, waist, groin, buttocks (that means everywhere).

IMAGE Woman wipes sweat from her brow. IMAGEIt’s so embarrassing! Most of my classmates do not sweat as I do. If you have any advice, ideas, solutions, article or anything else on this, I would really appreciate it!

Dear reader, I know this can be an embarrassing situation.
First, understand sweating during physical activity is normal and healthy.

Heavy sweating (unless it’s accompanied by pain, trouble breathing, or underlying health problems) may actually be a sign that you are more physically fit than your non-sweating classmates. At the very least it shows you have an efficient cooling system!

Do put your mind at ease and talk with your doctor to rule out any conditions that may be causing you to sweat excessively.

Second, don’t be [Read more…]

The Stem of Aplomb — Part One: The Cervical Spine

a·plomb /əˈpläm/

A young woman's arms, head, neck and shoulders are shown as she reaches overhead in a fitness class

Photo courtesy lululemon athletica

Noun: Self-confidence or assurance, esp. when in a demanding situation.

The great ballet mistress Agrippina Vaganova said, “the stem of aplomb is the spine”.  In dance, aplomb is also used to describe stability as achieved through correct posture, placement and alignment. None of this can be achieved without involving what I consider to be the “life source” of dance: the spine.

The main function of the spine, in people in general and certainly in dancers, is to support the weight of the head, rib cage, and shoulder girdle. The majority of this weight is transferred to the pelvis, where the center of gravity is located.

We often think of the spine as one “thing” but in reality it is a series of 24 individual bones connected by intervertebral discs (excluding the nine fused bones of the sacrum and coccyx).  I like to think of the spine as a “system”, instead of a thing, because each of its parts is affected by and dependent on the others.

The Cervical Spine (below) is Part I of a three-part series.

Part II – The Thoracic Spine

Part III – The Lumbar Spine, Sacrum, and Coccyx

On top of it all – The Cervical Spine

The Cervical Spine, seven tiny bones that carry the weight of the world, so to speak.  Though small, these mighty bones are responsible for all movements of the head and neck, and make up the most mobile section of the spine.


IMAGE A diagram of the C1 thru C7 of the cervical spine and where they are located on the whole. IMAGEThe seven bones of the cervical spine are labeled C1-C7.  Together, these bones form the concave top end of the spinal column, and (with the exception of C1 and C2) have common characteristics that they share with all the other vertebrae. Specifically, there is a central body with three extensions, or processes. The two transverse processes extend to the side of the body, and the spinous process is the single middle extension. You can feel (or palpate) the spinous processes of several vertebrae down the length of your spine. C7, or the last of the cervical vertebrae, is very prominent and can be felt easily by tilting your head forward and touching the base of your neck.  The opening between the body of each vertebra and the spinous process is where the spinal cord passes en route to the brain.  So, it’s safe to say, these little bones have a lot going on.

The atlas and the axis (C1 and C2, respectively) are the only vertebrae that break the structural trends of body – transverse processes – spinous process. These exceptional bones are what make it possible to turn your head in any direction, limited only by the tightness of our individual musculature. The atlas is so named after the legendary Greek myth in which Atlas was forced to hold the heavens above his head. In this case, the “heavens” are analogous to your noggin – as the atlas bone supports the entire weight of your head on the spine.

IMAGE Looking up at Rockefeller Center's Atlas statue in New York City. IMAGE

photo by Vibragiel


As I’ve alluded to a couple of times, the cervical spine is the most mobile of all spinal sections, enabling movement of the head in all directions in addition to flexion and extension, lateral flexion and rotation of the neck itself. You can feel the cervical spine in action by putting your hand on C7 (previously discussed as that biggest knob at the base of your neck) and moving your neck around in each direction.  Pretty cool, if you ask me.

How does this information help me in dance?

Good question…

At the top of the article, I quoted the great Agrippina Vaganova, who calls the spine the “stem of aplomb”.  The way that a dancer carries his/her head, the length of the neck, and the position of the chin, are pivotal to the overall appearance of grace and poise so necessary in dance.

Two common errors I see in young dancers are collapsing the neck in cambré derrière, and poking the chin forward.

Cambré derrière dissected:

Though we often state that the top of the head is the starting point for back bends, this movement truly initiates from the cervical spine (read: the head itself has no joints, but provides a good image for lifting up before arching back). Many young and/or novice dancers cannot support the weight of their heads past a certain point, and as a result the head collapses backward. Not only does this break the aesthetic line of the arch, but isn’t good for your neck.  The most common and functional solution is to ask the dancer to turn the head to the side, so that the weight of the head is supported by the strong Sternocleidomastoid muscle (SCM, for short). You can see this muscle working by performing the cambré with your head to the side – it’s that protrusion on the side of your neck that wraps from just beneath your ear to your sternum. This is a perfect example of how dance technique has evolved to not only cater to our aesthetic sensibilities, but also to protect us from injury.

Chin back, shoulders down:

Many dancers have the habit of standing with their chins poking forward. Correcting a chin “poker” can be especially challenging because of the way the spine is structured. Though divided into sections, each part of the spinal column is interdependent on all the others, that is, changing the curve of the cervical spine affects the curvature of the thoracic and lumbar spines as well. I’ll get to more on those sections in later installments…

My point is: a dancer can’t simply pull her chin back without potentially creating other problems. A poking chin is often the result of an attempt to lower the shoulders, and many times accompanied by splayed ribs and a swayed lower back. Putting it back can create the opposite problem, curving the shoulders forward, rounding the middle back, and sometimes tucking the pelvis.

While it IS possible to isolate the movement of each spinal section, it’s extremely difficult for young dancers to accomplish. Instead of allowing dancers to bounce from one extreme to another, it is often helpful to simply encourage them to elongate the spine as a whole. This softens each of its curves, enhances flexibility of each spinal section, and stacks each vertebra on the next. I love the image of the head “floating” on top of the spine, as though it were the top piece on a pyramid of dominos. It must be light and perfectly placed, or the whole structure is affected.

Deep thoughts

Skyscrapers are built using straight lines.  Regardless of your personal belief system, religion, philosophy or mantra, The Architect of the human body is irrefutably brilliant far beyond our comprehension.

I can’t imagine staring up at the Hancock building in Chicago or the Eiffel Tower in Paris and seeing the heaviest part of the building resting on top of seven thin blocks arranged in a curve.  I don’t know why it works, but I know that it does. Designed in any different way, and we dancers would have no subtle movements of the head, no forward or back bends, no aplomb.

I once had an adult student who had five fused cervical vertebrae, and she found it exceptionally difficult to participate in dance. Almost everything we did was possible for her, but my impression was that she lost interest because she never felt that joyous lift through the top of her spine that we dancers thrive on.

Your turn:

What corrections do you find yourself giving relating to the neck and spine??


How To Act (And React) Like A Professional

What is a professional?

A consummate professional is constructive, positive, is motivated and has the ability to motivate others, displays generosity, and takes the high road. If you want to be seen as a professional in your career and in your life, you must develop strong leadership skills. And leaders are most often defined by their reactions to situations, rather than their actions.

To Err Is Human, To Forgive Divine
Image by Stephen Brace via Flickr

When someone makes a mistake

Do you like to be publicly called out when you’ve made a mistake? Neither does anyone else. Professionals resist the urge to be negative, point out a person’s faults, or undermine the authority of another. When it comes to making improvements, true professionals (and true leaders) use their energy to solve problems, not just identify them. They will approach someone with possible solutions to the issue at hand privately or through appropriate channels first. Though it is appropriate to stand up when injustices are being done, a professional recognizes the difference between what is pressing and what is petty.

When there is a need

Professionals have a strong work ethic. They anticipate the needs of others or what needs to be done. They do it even before someone asks or, where appropriate, asks permission before going forward. Anticipating a need sometimes means that you must humble yourself and do what is best for the group or for someone else. Unless asked for input, instructed to do something which is against core beliefs, or truly wanting to clarify and understand the directions given, professionals adhere to the request and later find a private moment to question if necessary.

Anticipating need also applies to time. “To be early is to be on time, to be on time is to be late.” In other words, starting “on time” means that everyone is ready to go the very moment the gathering is supposed to start. Being early ensures this. Inevitably there is something that needs to be done just before beginning, and arriving at the start time will put oneself and everyone else behind. Professionals get there well ahead of time to do what they know they need to.

It is harder to maintain professionalism when the situation directly affects YOU.

When you have a complaint

Yes, that’s me on the podium.

Early August, even in Pennsylvania where I grew up, is HOT. Members of the marching band faced consequences (usually running laps) for uttering the words “It’s hot” during our summer sessions. Why such a firm stance? Because everyone already knows it is hot. Voicing this complaint only reminds everyone in earshot how miserable they are feeling. As a result, collective energy is spent focusing on the complaint rather than productively pursuing the task(s) at hand. If you are doubting the impact just voicing a complaint has on a group, consider what happens in a dance class when a teacher declares, “Sally, thank you for pointing your toes!” Suddenly pointed feet spread like wildfire throughout the class. This is a positive example of the power of suggestion. Professionals use the power of suggestion to bring a group up rather than down.

When you are corrected

Professionals do not make excuses. As with other requests, if they are offered ways in which they could improve or are reprimanded for inappropriate behavior, a professional accepts the correction (whether they agree or not), tries to consider, apply the suggestion or do better next time, and then moves on. They do not blame unfortunate circumstances or other people for their mistakes. As a result, positive and professional leaders have good things happen to them because they are prepared to take the bad things that happen in stride. They cannot and will not play the victim. They recognize that a negative person creates a negative world around themselves and instead choose to motivate others to join them in their positive outlook.

When you have been wronged

Inevitably someone will disappoint you, hurt you, or do something that is unfair or unjust. It happens. And, sometimes the results are catastrophic, the pain is tremendous, and the offender seems to hold a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. Trust me, everyone faces this at some point in their professional career and/or personal lives. A professional acts with dignity in response to these situations. They recognize that fears and insecurities can damage a person’s ability to think positively, act with generosity, and conduct themselves appropriately. When dealing with someone who is behaving unprofessionally, considering this will help you deal with him/her in a more compassionate manner. You can avoid behaving badly in reaction to their behavior without letting them take advantage of you or the situation.

It is tempting to want to lash out or get revenge, but a true professional does not reduce herself to bad behavior because she knows that this is sure to backfire. For example, if a coworker complains and whispers about a peer at every opportunity and spreads rumors and gossip, they will earn a reputation for being untrustworthy. It does not matter if the complaints and rumors are true, I guarantee that even those that go along or participate in this slander do not trust this coworker. A person who goes about tearing down others is only opening themselves up to the same kind of scrutiny and backstabbing they distributed. No matter what has been done to her, a professional will always be the better person. She will take action through appropriate channels instead of dealing out her own form of justice.

When you are the one who has wronged

As I said before, no one is perfect. Even professionals have bad days. They sometimes do, say, or act in a way that is not only unprofessional but unbecoming. Once in rehearsal for a musical, for which I was not only the choreographer but a leading character, I publicly blew my top at a director. Feeling a responsibility to the cast, essentially my professionalism went out the window for a moment as I outwardly expressed a collective frustration that was (for legitimate reasons) reaching boiling level within the room. Although it got results, as a professional I recognized that I did not handle the situation well and that an apology was in order. After giving the director a few moments, I approached him and calmly apologized for my behavior and that it would not happen again. If I had not performed this simple act, the relationship would have been damaged, resentment would have set in, and I would have lost the respect he held for me. Being mature enough to recognize when one is out of line, apologizing, and then taking responsibility for the outcome is essential for someone that wants to continue to be viewed as a professional even when mistakes are made.

Leaders and Professionals Embody Generosity

The ultimate professional is a collaborator and contributor who brings out the best in others because instead of focusing on “I” and “me”, he concentrates on “we” and “us.”

  • He is generous with his gifts, generous with his time, and generous in spirit. He is easy to collaborate with because he communicates with kindness.
  • A professional wants everyone around him to be their best and helps them to do so by being supportive and encouraging.
  • When a colleague is struggling, he does not belittle or put this person down. He is aware enough to look for moments in which help might be offered that will not be embarrassing to the individual or interrupt the rest of the group.
  • He recognizes that help does not always mean showing or telling another how to do something, but rather an encouraging smile or a word or two to lighten the person’s mood and frustration level is most helpful.
  • He does not lie to make another person feel good. A professional offers straight-talk but avoids hurting other people in the process.
  • He responds with humor, sensitivity, and tolerance even under difficult circumstances.


Have a most excellent weekend!

Image by kevindooley via Flickr

In addition to awareness of one’s surroundings and of other people, a professional must also be self-aware. Generosity can be extended to yourself by understanding your strengths, weaknesses, and limitations. No one is perfect, and a confident and self-aware person does not expect perfection of himself or of anyone else, rather he does his very best, recognizes where the strengths of others can fill in the gaps, and allows them to shine as they do their part. It is alright for a professional to ask and expect others to do their best, but he will offer encouragement and lead others through example, to fulfillment of their full potential.

Dr. Tim Lautzenheiser, a leadership coach I encountered during my high school years often expressed that “you are only worth what you give away, and you can only give away what you have.” To be generous in spirit, improve what you have to give by taking responsibility for what YOU know and who YOU are… and then give it away.

Are you too young to be viewed as a professional?

No. I have met both very unprofessional people who have spent years and years in their career and amazingly mature children who act professionally whether they get paid to do so or not.

It is not always easy to conduct oneself as a professional but it leads to more positive and fulfilling experiences overall.

The Ultimate Question:

Would YOU want to work with YOU?

If not, take responsibility for improving your actions and, perhaps more importantly, your reactions to the situations and people in your work. I guarantee your new outlook will influence the actions of the people around you and their reaction to you. You will be regarded as the professional you want to be.