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Stage Presence: What Is It and How Can I Get It?

By Emily Yewell Volin.

You know it when you see it.  Some call it star power, others say it’s an innate quality of the soul.  Stage Presence.  What is it, how important is it, and can it be trained?

To answer this question Dance Informa spoke with six leading professionals whose careers have spanned performance, choreography and direction in a variety of dance genres.

What is stage presence?

Homer Bryant, Founder & Director of Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center, The School of Homer Hans Bryant
Stage presence is dancing in a relaxed manner from your heart.  You can be dramatic, comedic, whatever.  It’s when you transform yourself and the audience says, ‘wow, that’s amazing’.

Rhee Gold, Publisher Dance Studio Life

I think most people would believe that it is a smile or a personality on a stage, but to me, stage presence is being able to express an emotion that is felt by the audience; it’s more from the gut.  I hear teachers say, ‘give me a smile’.  Even if the students smile, it’s not necessarily stage presence.

Matt Kent, Associate Artistic Director Pilobolus

It’s about displacement; the amount of water you spill out of the bathtub.  There’s not an ‘x’ factor that you can read about in a book and get.

Thomas Lund, Principal Dancer Royal Danish Theatre Ballet

I find from my experience that some people have star quality; they get on stage and people look at them.  But I find that people who do not have that strength can work through the quality of the movement, how to sustain moments, and can actually look more interesting.  I don’t always buy ‘she/he hasn’t got it’.

Susan Quinn (Williams), Associate Professor at University of Arizona School of Dance, Master Teacher & Choreographer

Stage presence to me is when the whole body, head to toe, is at its highest point.  It’s when everything comes together.

Pattie Obey, Master Teacher/Choreographer

It’s the ability to perform to an audience.

Thomas Lund in 'Swan Lake'. Royal Danish Ballet. Photo by David Amzallag

Why is stage presence important?

Matt Kent
It’s what makes people follow you where you are going to lead them.  All the other things you have may be for naught if there’s no presence about.  Dance always starts with imitation but you have to get beyond it.

Thomas Lund
If you don’t have stage presence, people won’t think there’s anything to watch.  There won’t be anything special about your performance.  Whatever you do, you have to make something.

Susan Quinn
You have to tell me a story.  I can’t stand it when a choreographer/dancer dances the movement and then starts to walk.  Why are you walking there?  If you’re walking for no reason, I’m going to get popcorn.  You must tell me a story.  I want you to tell me what you are feeling.

Pattie Obey
It’s important because the audience wants to be entertained.  It’s important because you learn to show why you dance.  Open your heart, spread the love around.  If you can’t live, eat, and drink dance, then don’t do it.  It’s not 100% commitment, it’s a 200% commitment.

Is stage presence just something you are born with or do you develop it?

Homer Bryant
There are some people who are just born with it, it’s part of their DNA.  Many others train.  Dancers get better with time.

Rhee Gold
I think it is a case of overcoming inhibitions and the ability to let it go and not be intimidated to share who and what you are with the audience.  I’ve seen many teen dancers who don’t ‘get it’ but then they pursue dance at the college level of performance and they learn.

Thomas Lund
Some are born with special abilities.  And then, there are people you don’t notice in the studio who then get into the stage lights and there it is…it’s in the face.  It’s not about being photogenic, it’s something to do with performance.

Susan Quinn
Yes; some people have natural stage presence.  I’ll tell you, though, I’ve been teaching over 30 years and maybe ten or so people I know have natural stage presence.  Stage presence must be taught.

Pattie Obey has presence! Photo: Andrea Hausmann

What can you do to improve your stage presence?

Homer Bryant
My school offers musical theater and acting classes/coaching in addition to dance technique classes.  I’ve found that these classes really help develop stage presence.  Another way we are teaching stage presence is by having the students of every age perform for their peers during class time.  They critique each other, without being harsh, and grade each classmate’s performance.  As a teacher I ask the students how they feel about particular movements to help them make human and mental connections to what they are doing.

Rhee Gold
I think it comes with performing.  It’s about explaining to your dancer what the story is about, what they are supposed to portray; really giving them the information they need to express the story.  Sometimes dancers do not know what the choreographer is trying to express.  The dancer needs to be fully aware of the choreographer’s intention.

Matt Kent
I’m a guy with no dance training who is working in the field because I brought something else.  Part of the dancer’s job is to let the magnetism out; to displace the energy in the room into more and more circumstances.  You first have to learn how to bring out what you have and then let that ooze and infect the rest of the world of movement and drama.  And, it’s a practice.  It’s not in your head.  I come from a martial arts background so I see stage presence as an action thing.  Get onto stage more.  And, if you’re a student ‘fake it ‘til you make it’. It’s going to be difficult to develop stage presence if you are afraid to take a risk.  Trust what you’re good at, trust your technique and then go out there, take a risk, and let it all hang out.

Susan Quinn
I think we tend to leave it up to the students and that does not work. Stage presence must be taught right when you teach the first demi plié.  It has to do with épaulement, écarté, looking croisé; the body positions.  You have to teach style and performance quality at the same time you teach technique.  I also bring in commercial choreographers for mock auditions.  They tell the dancers, ‘I don’t care if you can turn 50 times or how high your leg is in the air.  If you are not selling the product I will not watch you’.

Pattie Obey
Watch other dancers – go to see professional productions and see how other people perform.  Why are those dancers in that great company?

Would you rather hire a dancer with tremendous technique and average stage presence or a dancer with tremendous stage presence and average technique?

Homer Bryant
I have seen some beautiful but dry dancers whose performances didn’t cross the footlights.  Dancers must invest in both stage presence and technique.

Rhee Gold
I’d definitely go with a medium level dancer with stage presence rather than a technician.  My responsibility is to entertain and move the audience.  Give me a dancer with energy, life, and passion.  I think stage presence is the key to success as a performer, as a teacher and as a choreographer.  Stage presence is present whether you are on the stage or not.

Matt Kent
Especially with the work I do, I have zero interest in a perfect technician who does not have anything to say or a voice of their own.  I’m not interested in imitation.

Thomas Lund
It certainly depends on the field you are in.  Classical ballet people must look at the instrument, the feet, the lines and turn out.  But then you would also look at how they project and how they take the room.  If I see two dancers and they are equally technically strong but one looks more interesting and more expressive, I’d probably choose that one.  Dancers have a tendency to fall in love with their technique and what can be done with the body, but somebody in the front line must also have a personality.  That’s one very strong part of the history of the Royal Danish Ballet. We’ve had ballerinas and males with great technique and quite a range of personality.

Pattie Obey
I would hire the dancer with tremendous stage presence and work on the technique.  If I am the director of a dance company I need to get butts on the seats.  I have to build an audience and sell tickets to more than just a dance audience.  Leave the arabesque at 90 degrees but perform your heart out.  It’s sometimes easier to improve upon technique than stage presence.  I think as a performer you need to capture the audience.  It’s a relationship you build from the moment you walk on the stage.

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