Has it ever happened to you that the dance feelings you wanted to express through your dance didn’t come across the way you wanted? You might have envisioned your performance differently, but then the pull of your private emotions took you down an entirely different path. Or you felt you had to forcefully act out something just to fit in the demands of a genre - like “happiness” in Latin-American competitive dancing (which I think is overrated).
In reality, there is seldom, if ever, a purely happy day in our life. Our emotional compass (1) is very colourful and vital. We consistently pass from one emotion to another and there’s really no point in fighting that. A big majority of our problems actually arises from suppressed negative emotions. If left unacknowledged, they can make us paralyzed with fear, depressed, even sick …
As a performer you have to recognize how dance feelings, moods and atmosphere affect your physical body and your sensing. The challenge is not sustaining a positive emotion at all costs, but your ability to go up from being down and understanding that only darkness can give sense to light. In order to learn how to do that, you need to start mapping out the world of your emotions, feelings and moods from many different angles.
Emotion - feeling - mood
We are emotional beings. To stay attuned to the world around us (and to ourselves on the inside), we need to recognize and own our emotions. A good starting point would be to differentiate between your emotions, feelings and moods. Even though all of these are very tightly intertwined, there are some differences.
An emotion is your response to a specific stimulus or your interpretation of a specific trigger. Every emotion is a physiological experience. For example, you are walking through a beautiful park on a sunny day and suddenly, out of the blue, a huge dog jumps on you and grabs your arm with its strong teeth. How do you react to emotion like fear, which is the expectation or the anticipation of possible harm? Do you scream, freeze, fight or run away? Your inner alchemist is ready to release hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) and glucose into your bloodstream, a power-up to get you fighting or running for your life. Therefore, we can say that emotions are physical states (internal subjective experiences), arising from the body’s responses (physiological reactions) to outside stimuli. The body also responds by recognizable facial expressions – joy, fear, sadness, disgust, anger or other emotions can be easily seen on your face.
Feelings are often fueled by a mix of emotions, and last longer than a single emotion (for example the feeling of pain). A feeling is a mental portrayal of what is going on in your body when you have an emotion. Therefore, your feeling is the by-product of your brain perceiving and assigning meaning to the emotion. Feelings are the next thing that happens after having an emotion. Your feeling is your conscious awareness of the emotion itself. A fundamental difference between feelings and emotions is that feelings are experienced consciously, while emotions manifest either consciously or subconsciously.
And while emotions are short-lived experiences that come from a known cause, moods are free-floating feelings that do not relate directly to a stimulus. Moods are longer lasting than emotions and more generalized. They’re not tied to a specific incident, but arise from a collection of inputs. We would describe moods commonly using words like cheerful, gloomy, humorous, romantic, melancholic.
Tip: don’t get pulled into a stereotype, a generalized mood, or (even worse) an acted out overall feeling of each dance. Cliché attitudes like ‘happy’ Samba, ‘cheeky’ Cha Cha Cha, ‘romantic’ Rumba, ‘aggressive’ Paso Doble and ‘energetic’ Jive take all the creative fun away. Instead, let’s have a look at a full spectrum of possible dance feelings, rather than being stuck with a stereotypical “single colour” approach.
Emotional compass (1)
You can imagine emotions as colours, brighter and darker. A dancer can symbolically embody the colours of emotions through a dance (e)motion, by skillfully using the entire emotional palette, similar to a painter.
Dancing is not only about consistent happiness or staying in one, possibly high emotion at all times. In order to prevent monotony and emptiness, you need to shift from one emotion to another and follow your own desire towards the shift. Follow the path of emotional compass, start from the bottom and then rise, or the opposite, start up and finish down. Your way of moving also needs the moments of darkness and cold conditions, like seeds during the winter time, resting in the cold soil before they blossom in the spring.
So don’t go into the general mood of a dance, try to discover nuances. You can take Claude Monet’s Rouen Cathedral series as an inspiration.
Trust your reaction to an emotion rather than being infected by sameness. Your challenge could be to change moods while dancing. Let’s say you want to express ‘passion’. Why not find a conflict and opposition in the body? Or keep the tension in the body, be strong, imagine a dark red movement colour. Then shift towards ‘excitement’ and change the dynamics of movement, use free energy and lightness, apply an orange movement colour. Master the variety of movement nuances and navigate through a variety of dance feelings with boldness that will enrich your dancing.
How emotions affect you and your movement manner
In order to symbolize an emotion, you have to understand that real emotions are not inside yourself, they are motions towards something that matters to you. When you own and accept your emotions, you can channel them to your advantage. Your emotional intelligence includes self-control, enthusiasm, persistence and ability to be motivated on a regular basis.
Daniel Goleman writes in his Emotional Intelligence: ”Each emotion plays the unique role, which is revealed by their distinctive biological signature and prepares the body for very different kinds of response. With anger blood flows to the hands, heart rate increases and a rush of hormones (adrenaline) generates a pulse of energy, strong enough for various actions. Sadness has the opposite effect, energy and enthusiasm for activities drop. In the state of happiness your readiness and enthusiasm increases for any task."
As an emotion is a motion, it deals, like movement, with oppositions, that’s why you also need to learn to work with all emotional oppositions. Out of all emotions, let’s look at the two which visit you most frequently when you practice or perform. Here is the basic opposition, the one between love and fear.
In love you go towards yourself and others. You steadily promise – love is a ‘yes’. But most of all, love is an action which can be symbolically expressed through different types of dance actions and dynamics, like stretching, turning, caressing the floor, being grounded, slowness, flow and flexibility, timelessness, lightness, softness …
With a feeling of love, you expand your energy, as love and belonging walk along each other, you are ready to give and share. With love you are getting a response of relaxation as well as activating reactions that generate a state of calm and contentment facilitating co-operation.
With the feeling of fear, the body is preparing you for a challenge, blood goes to the large muscles, such as in the legs, hormones put the body on general alert, ready for action as the consumption of oxygen increases. As a performer you need it. We are all afraid and often we push fear away as something bad, rather than accept it and allow its energy to be there. Prof. Dr. Emmy van Deurzen said: “When you recognize the fear just as an energy, like food and water or fuel for the car, it can be transformed into productive energy and can make you creative.”
When you confront the fear, it is not so powerful anymore. When you dance, find a solution in appropriate action. If you feel that fear pulls you back, do the opposite, push to the front. If you feel that the fear makes you smaller, that you shrink, then open, stretch and expand your body. The solution is always in action, acknowledge the fear, let it be there – but then focus on an action by giving yourself a movement task. As any other emotion, fear doesn’t last long, maybe a few seconds, unless you constantly keep it alive by thinking about it.
Private or dance emotions?
When you dance, your private emotions and your dance feelings merge and interact. Which emotions usually take over and influence your decisions? Which are the ones you want to be in the front and which ones in the background or not there at all?
The body can express more than one message at once. Some expressions are explicit, stated clearly and in detail, leaving no room for interpretation or doubt. Other expressions might be subliminal, below the threshold of consciousness, perceived without us being aware of them. Make a decision about which emotions you want to be explicit and which might be subliminal and you become aware of them. If you use yourself to present the dance, you will give priority to dance feelings, which arise from the way you dance and your reaction to music and your dance partner. If, however, you use the dance to present yourself, private emotions might take over. So we are back to the question from my first article – are you dancing for pleasure or for pleasing others? Dancing to express or to impress?
Speaking about dance feelings, there are those related to the way how you dance (your technique, your chosen dynamics) and others, related to movement and music dialogue and partnering skills. Therefore, we can say that dance feelings are always multilayered.
Sound properties like pitch, dynamics, tone colour, together with all the other elements of music, ‘touch’ the dancer, who creates a dialogue with music. The effect of music on a dancer’s emotions and energy is enormous.
I will share in my upcoming articles how you can explore emotions while relating to music or partner.
The more predictable and monotone your practicing is, the more the focus will shift to your private emotions. While you perceive the emptiness or sameness, you start thinking about how you feel and not how the dance movement could feel. As a competitor you might feel insecure or have high expectations, and your private emotions might again take over.
Here are some strategies that, if applied, can significantly elevate your performance. You can always bypass insecurity with clear movement text, knowing or intending to say something specific with the movement. Having a clear idea of what you want to say with the movement, and especially how and why to say it in a certain way, will invite dance feelings and moods into the game.
Ruud Vermeij said: “When you give priority and attention to the dance, when you suggest, indicate or symbolize the feeling with the movement, you become less important, therefore the dance feelings can be in the foreground. One has to learn to separate private feeling from ‘job’ feeling by being occupied only with what is dance related.”
Your reaction to external situations (partner, music), together with your own movement idea, will create dance feelings. It is not about denying your private emotions, but about understanding the separation and difference between private emotions and dance feelings. Regardless of how you feel privately, you can always focus and occupy yourself with the movement task. You may feel one way as a private person, but act differently as a performer. Being professional means that you understand priorities in certain situations.
As a dance performer you give priority to dance feelings, created by you, through you. You can engage the audience with your involvement in the dance, your sincere attempts to create on the spot, in that moment, merging emotions, feelings and moods from different sources into a multilayered expression.
Real or fake emotions?
I am sure that you’ve been told: ”Fake it until you make it.” Yes, it may help, but it is not always necessary as you could fake a certain mood, but you definitely don’t need to fake your job. Ruud Vermeij said: ”As a performer you have feelings that you don’t show and you show/symbolize the feelings that you might not have. You are real as a person and real in your dance movement. But if you symbolize a particular narrative, that narrative is not real, it is symbolic.”
So how to overcome fake emotions and replace them with real ones? Movement feelings can be created in different ways. You may choose the way you move (movement manner) and by sensing it, you will express that feeling (felt sense of the movement). Or you can imagine a particular emotion/feeling/mood and the vision and idea of it will invite your body into that feeling. Either way works. Like in life, you may cry because you lost your friend or you may cry watching a sad movie.
For example, if you want to create the impression of being ‘alert’ in your dancing, you will be accurate in time, exact in rhythms, using a clear eye focus and you will be present in the space. And the opposite, if you want to express the ‘dreamy’ mood, you will play with weight and flow, you will move lighter or heavier, with the energy kept in the body, your eye focus will be softer. To express ‘stability and confidence’, you will stop in space, be straight, focus straight and feel your body weight.
Play with a big range of dance feelings as nothing sustains. Make changes of energy and other motion factors. You will therefore surprise your partner and audience and at the same time renew your own energy. Every change is a new reaction and an opportunity to respond to what just happened. When dance feelings are genuine, they are lived in a present moment. Then your acting becomes reacting. Take a risk in the given moment, after all, you were not born to pretend, but to stand out with your own emotional expression.
Emotions are like clouds, they come and they go. Your life is the sky.
Sources of inspiration
(1) van Deurzen Emmy, Everyday Mysteries, A Handbook of Existential Psychotherapy. p.144 (Emotional compass)
Goleman, Daniel. Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Books, 1995
Ruud Vermeij - Educational workshops in Amsterdam 2016, 2017
Emmy van Deurzen, Prof. Dr. - Existential philosophy workshops in Amsterdam 2016, 2017