Begin Again: Acting for Dancers

It’s my personal belief that at the center of every electrifying dance performance is a story. Even the works that are supposedly plotless have something evocative going on behind the eyes—in the way the body floats, jabs, crumples, and reaches. Sure, dancers tell their own tales from time to time, but more often than not, they embody a character onstage (think Giselle or the Sugar Plum Fairy, for example.) Ultimately, dancers are actors. And yet, most have limited (if any) formal acting training. It’s a truth choreographer Marguerite Derricks often lectures young students on. In a recent interview for Dance Magazine, she told me, “You can kick and spin and pas de bourrée, but the magic is how you put it all together in a story. Acting brings greater depth to your dancing.”

I began acting in college while in the depths of my illness. At the time my body was barely functioning well enough to accomplish basic tasks, let alone sustain grand allégro. But my heart yearned for performance and creative expression, so I decided to try my hand at something dance adjacent—acting.

I was terrified on my first day of class. I had no idea what to expect or how to prepare. I wanted to be respectful of the customs of an acting class, and I didn’t want to look silly. (Spoiler alert, there is no way to avoid looking silly, so just lean into it.) I wanted a play-by-play of what to expect, but instead, I had to jump in blind and hope everything went okay. (It did, but I could have done without the added anxiety.)

So for those of you who are looking to improve your dancing through acting, I caught up with my teacher, Andrew Polk, who leads the class I’m taking on on-camera technique at The Freeman Studio. You may recognize him from films like Armageddon Time and television shows like BillionsThe Marvelous Mrs. MaiselHouse of Cards, and more. Here, he shares what to expect, how to prepare, and what he thinks dancers could take away from a class like his.

What to Expect

First, it’s important to know that every acting class is going to be a little bit different. Each teacher will have a unique approach, and the medium (theater or on-camera) will change the experience entirely. For example, Polk wants dancers to know that they are not at a disadvantage in an on-camera class because they don’t have heavy theater training as actors. “Working on camera is like another art form. It’s like you were playing basketball your whole life and then someone asked you to play the violin.”

That said, you can likely plan on a few things regardless of the teacher or medium. First, you will likely perform a scene at the front of the room with your teacher and class watching. Then the teacher will provide feedback for you to apply to your work (just like in a dance class). You will then have the opportunity to watch other class members perform their respective scenes, as well.

How to Prepare

For Polk’s class, scene assignments are sent out a few days before the first day of class and we are expected to have done text analysis and be off-book (memorized) by the time class begins. Each subsequent week follows this same pattern. In other courses I’ve taken in college or at The Freeman Studio, the first day of class has been more of an introduction to the course while the teacher outlines their expectations, and then we’re expected to be off-book by the next class. If your instructor doesn’t send out an email ahead of time to let you know what to prepare, I recommend reaching out and politely asking what their expectations are for your first day.

You can prepare by reading the scene, digging into the given circumstances, and familiarizing yourself with your character (and, of course, your lines). “Preparation is necessary—you need that kind of discipline,” Polk says.” Even more important than that, he wants you to bring your instincts. “A lot of what I teach is to trust your instinctual response to the material,” he says. “Often that is hard. A lot of people want to approach things the right way, but there is no ‘right way.’ Dancers are really in touch with their instincts and their bodies, and I think that would be very helpful.”

Classroom Rules

Each acting teacher will have different expectations for classroom etiquette, but for Polk, he wants students to be prepared, on time, and void of judgment. “Don’t judge your character or other actors,” he says. “In my class you spend a lot of time watching others. We are not there to perform for each other, we are there to work. So when you see other people work, you shouldn’t judge them, you should imagine you are them. It’s a really great way to learn.”

How Polk Believes Dancers Can Benefit From Acting

When students finish a cycle of his class, Polk hopes they know what it feels like to successfully act for the camera. “I want them to have progressed,” he says. For dancers specifically, he would hope that a class like his would expand their performance. “Can you tell a story that is not technical? Can you let go of your technical ability and lean into the story and into the character and be messy? If you are creating life, if you are creating a moment, that is what you are aiming for. That is the main challenge and reward for a dancer who is not used to that.”

Curious about what an acting class actually looks like? Head on over to Dance Magazine’s YouTube channel. There I share a day in my life as I prepare for, and attend, one of Polk’s “On Camera Technique” classes.

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