As an artist the stage is the place where you go to do what you know best, which is to entertain through telling a story with your body. So much could go wrong, easily, and so it is natural to continuously think "S**t, I don’t want to mess this up". What you can do is cover all bases to make sure you don’t disappoint the people who paid to watch, as well as those you worked with in putting the show together. Most importantly, you want to avoid making a fool of yourself and embarrass your family and friends who are most likely part of the audience. The good news however, is you actually don’t have to mess anything up, despite the fact that no show is perfect. The things I share herein, I have picked up in the last 13 years that I have made the stage my home.
I remember the first time I went on a professional stage to perform for a paying audience – I remember the bright theatre lights, quality sound and of course, the cameras (I felt like I had arrived). I remember it as if it happened yesterday, although it is over a decade ago, in 2003 – at the age of 11. It was surreal, a dream come true but it also came with great anxiety, especially for an 11 year old. No one had told me to convert the anxiety into positive energy because as I know now, being nervous is a sign of sanity for an African dance performer, and the nerves can be channeled into an amazing performance. It was at this early stage that I gained an appreciation for preparation - knowing that failing to prepare is preparing to fail. I am happy to say that other than the "oops moment" in Belgium 2013 when I stepped on my costume and fell on stage during a performance, I have only ever had spectacular shows.
It is best practice for performers to enjoy a good night’s rest everyday, but more so the night before the show. Another best practice is eating well. A dancer has to watch what they eat (I will highlight nutrition in a later blog post). Leading up to the show, I encourage you to eat light meals with plenty of protein that gives you energy (eggs, peanut butter, cottage cheese). Critically, stay away from alcohol and other intoxicating substances. Pack everything you need the night before so that all you do is grab your bag and go. On the day of the show, always do everything ahead of time to avoid rushing through everything at the last possible minute - guarantee, it will negatively affect your performance.
Keep a few essential items back stage, like your water however, don’t drink a lot of it as it may affect your dancing. Please do not bring anything else that you are not allowed to have backstage, the last thing you want is to upset the director – having worked for strict directors and directing shows myself, trust me on this. Make sure you have your own time to go through the show step-by-step backstage before going on stage. Gather the cast right before you go on stage in a circle and picture yourself on stage. Psyche each other up using chants and slogans – squeeze the hand of the person next to you and let them pass it around until you complete the circle. The cast you are working with should become your family, you have to be a single unit, which helps with easing or limiting tensions within the group. It is important to remember that a performance is teamwork, and healthy relationships between the cast are important because tension typically shows on stage.
A rule of thumb for a performer is to always have a pair of black or brown/black tights & under-shirt, this makes it easier for costume changes during a performance. Better yet, pick out something in your closet that is very close to your costume and then practice at home before the show. Although traditional African dance was not originally performed with entrances and exits, they are vital to performances nowadays, and need to be executed well by professional dancers. Use any mechanism comfortable for you to remember the entrance and exit, perhaps a friend can cue you.
Wear a big, warm smile during curtain curl because this is when the audience are taking loads of photos. I am always looking for the perfect shot because you never know the photo that will end up in the papers, and you always want your best shot publicised. Depending on the piece I would have performed, I always try and stay in character before breaking out into my signature wide smile. The audience come to see me perform and so I have to show gratitude by quickly changing and going directly to meet them, answer any questions regarding my choreography and offer insights. I am always gracious and thank them for coming to support. I introduce my cast to the audience and allow time for plenty of pictures however, we never take them backstage unless if they have express permission. I feel it is a bit unprofessional to show an audience where we keep our props and the costume mess that often occurs backstage during a performance.
It is important to have a team meeting/briefing immediately after, where we chat about the positives, negatives, and areas of improvement especially if it is a show that will be going on for several days. With Tamba Africa Ensemble, our favourite thing to do is braai at paFatso in Glen Norah, where we feast on the famous meatloaf and hunters (types of meat).
My African dance students at the French School of Harare often ask, ‘How do you do it?’ And the answer is very simple, "Excellence is a clear sign of preparedness."
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