Even after hours of rehearsals or weeks, having a single unpleasant facial expression could turn a performance on its head. Key learning: take the smile seriously! That shine in your smile will lift the corners of your mouth and eyes, which is important for that shine. Occasionally, this is the difference between an average show and a spectacular one. Your facial expression shows your enthusiasm for dance and allows you to take in your surrounding - brightening a performance in the process. You would be surprised how much taking in your surrounding helps with balance and spotting.
Take in the air through your nose and let it escape through your mouth. Your mouth will be slightly open because your jaw will be relaxed, with your tongue tucked in your mouth (although this may depend on the cultural African dance style you are performing). As a choreographer, I often choreograph facial expressions like lifting eye-brows as if you are having a full on conversation with the audience. I have had to deal with dancers who doubt this and find it intrusive however, I will say what I always tell them, trust me even when it feels a little over-the-top to you. Choreographing a wink here, a surprised look there, and using all these sparingly and appropriately will definitely make the piece sparkle. And a happy audience, is a happy paying audience that keeps returning for shows.
Having been performing since 2003, what experience has taught me is that nothing exceeds passion. I have also got it wrong a few times and thought mastering a routine is enough but later figured out that the outward expression should always be a natural one, and the emotion should come from deep inside you. Cultural African dance involves a lot of rhythmic movements and the drum plays a big part, so let your facial expressions match the music and the movement. Have a look at my earlier post about energy on stage.
Almost every style of cultural African dance requires a unique facial expression that communicates different emotions to the audience. The right facial expression used to convey emotions and expressions to an audience should be guided by the tone, genre of music, the style of cultural African dance as well as the purpose of the dance. The expression for spiritual ritual dance will be different to that of a ceremonial dance. Good examples are the Zimbabwean Mbira Dance; a ritual dance, which enforces the belief system of society. Similarly, the Owu Yoruba of Nigeria perform the Igogo at burial ceremonies. In contrast, dances of love such as the Nmane performed in Ghana at weddings and anniversaries would certainly require different facial expressions than the Mbira Dance or the Igogo would require. What remains consistent in cultural African dance styles is the emotion with which dancers perform the different African dance styles, expressing the region’s philosophy as well as its cultural wealth.
As an 8 year old, I mostly danced with a big, expressive facial expression however, as old as I am now, it appears a little silly if my expressions are over-the-top. I have to regulate each movement, energy of the music and bring it all together to help me tell the story of the piece I will be performing. One of my secret weapons is eye contact, despite the difficulty since the bright lights shine directly into the eyes. I have had to learn to maintain eye contact and it has become easier the more time I spent on stage. Eyes being a window to my soul, I thrive to invite and take my audience on a journey deep within me – which on some level makes me and other dancers actors. The whole idea is to make the audience want more and more to the point of wanting or feeling like they are on stage with me. My eyes tells them I am one with them, and them with me – all of us having fun.
The face is a part of the show just like the movements and energy. Dance from your heart and have fun, and loads of it because after all, that’s what dance is about.
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