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By Alicia Zuckerman
It would seem that stage presence—the essence of what compels audiences to watch certain dancers, what keeps them riveted—is an ineffable quality. These eight dancers, each of them known for their stage presence, explore what it is, where it comes from, and if it can be taught. As it turns out, sometimes stage presence isn’t so ineffable after all.
Principal dancer, New York City Ballet
I remember doing a tap recital when I was little and feeling so happy onstage. I couldn’t stop smiling because I was having so much fun. And it felt involuntary to me. I don’t feel like it’s anything I consciously do. It’s a response to the situation of being in a performance. The concept of stage presence is to be able to let loose, to be uninhibited. I think sometimes you have to learn to be uninhibited because you are exposing a very emotional, private part of yourself to two thousand people.
This summer in Saratoga I was watching a student performance. The age range was maybe 9 to 17, and in every age group there were one or two girls and boys who were irresistible. They just stood out, and you couldn’t help but watch them and feel elated. That’s what leads me to believe that it is a natural thing, something that you’re born with.
Principal dancer, Pacific Northwest Ballet
It’s a kind of honesty, a true honesty that comes across and connects with the audience. For me it has to do with all the prep work I do beforehand. By the time I get onstage, I like to be so comfortable that I no longer have to think about steps, that I have the freedom to take off in any direction.
I think some people have it naturally—it just oozes out of them—and they make the most of every moment they’re out there. Somebody who has the courage to go that extra step and share themselves fully with the audience—I think that’s stage presence.
I’m not sure if it’s something you can cultivate, but I feel that I have it. I recall being shy as a little kid, but never onstage. I was always “larger than life.” People are always like, “We thought you were much bigger,” because I dance big, I eat up that space.
But there are occasional times when I’ve gotten out there for the 45th Nutcracker of the season, and I can feel in myself that I didn’t have that connection, that pure sharing with the audience. There was a little piece of me thinking, “I’ve still gotta get my Christmas shopping done.” I hate that. I feel like it’s encroached on the honesty.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
I think stage presence goes hand in hand with maturity. I’ve seen dancers that I feel didn’t have strong stage presence, and then I’ve come back years later and they look like totally different artists.
My first year in the company we went on a European tour, and the late Gary deLoach was performing a solo which I perform now—A Song for You—that was choreographed by Mr. Ailey. I was speechless because it did not look like he was dancing, it looked as if a mature male was onstage expressing himself to music. I love it when it is so much a part of you that you don’t have to do at it. You’re not trying to be a dancer, you are a dancer. You’re not trying to be an artist, you are an artist.
I believe everybody has a spirit and whenever you get connected to that spirit, it is part of what we see as stage presence. It’s not just natural, it’s supernatural. One time I did a guest performance of Mr. Ailey’s Pas de Duke in Paris. Afterward, one of the audience members came up to me, and in the little French that I understand, she said that she saw a “light” in my performance, and she put her hand over her heart. That really touched me.
Principal dancer, Miami City Ballet
Stage presence is filling up the entire stage—not just with steps, but it’s an aura. It’s definitely always there. I might have an on night or an off night where technique is concerned, but every time that I step on the stage, I feel like I’m there 100 percent. It goes beyond tricks and beautiful legs. There’s something else that touches you. You can step out onstage and not move, just stand there and be solemn, and still have stage presence.
Principal dancer, San Francisco Ballet
It’s an awareness of the energy that passes between the audience and yourself. I think it’s something I grew into, and I’m sure that somebody yelling, “Smile! You have to smile!” made an impression. I know you don’t always have to smile, but it made me aware of my expression. You’re always working on technique, technique, technique. So it’s like, What? My face? You want my face?
Your eyes are so much a part of the movement. I remember a comment that my father said once: “Wow, that girl’s eyes are just amazing. She just drew me in.” I must have been 10 or 11, and it had never occurred to me. It was one of those comments in my formative years that stuck with me—that somebody who didn’t know a lot about ballet would notice the eyes. You want to have their eyes drawn to you. And the only way I can explain that is energy.
Paul Taylor Dance Company
Even if I’m having a bad show technically—maybe I’m missing a step here or falling out of turn there—I feel like the stage presence is always there. It’s something that turns on the second the curtain goes up, or the second I hear the music. I feel like I can immerse myself in the work so much that stage presence just becomes natural. I can’t say it was always like that. As a kid in dancing school, I remember the teachers forever telling me to look up, to smile. But once I got onstage I was fine.
The joys of life, the sadness of life, every single emotion, can be brought to performance. I think that’s the sign of a mature dancer—the dancer who has lived those things and is able to convey those emotions onstage, even if it’s very subtle. That’s what the audience is coming to see, they want to see things that they can connect with—whether good or bad.
Dancer, Susan Marshall & Company
Right when I go onstage, I get this really warm sense of calm, this huge sense of calm, and my senses are heightened. In that moment my imagination works powerfully. I try to give myself permission to not analyze while performing. While onstage I am having a dialogue with my imagination, the work I am performing, and the environment, which includes the people onstage, audience, space, and sound. I think opening myself up and having this immediate dialogue is a big part of what can engage an audience.
Principal dancer and choreographer, Tulsa Ballet
I think stage presence can be taught. You have to feel like you are showing off. You have to feel like I am the best, and I want to tell people how I understand the dance. People who come to see us buy tickets, and what you can give back is this kind of energy to let them receive it—even in a huge theater—from the back row. They probably cannot see how many pirouettes you do, but they can see this kind of energy. When I set my choreography to dancers in the studio, I always tell them, “I need to see you give me a chill.”
Right before I go onstage, I feel like I’m fully recharged, like OK, it’s time to go. I don’t really think about steps, but I want to make contact, to make people feel you. When you lift your arms, you feel like you can reach the very last row of the theater. It’s like your fingertips touch. So you have them, and they have you.