One of the most important qualities of any dance performance is the almost unexplainable quality of “stage presence.” You know when it’s there, and you miss it when it isn’t. But what is it? Why is it important? And how do you get better at being “present” onstage?
With recital season coming up, we wanted to unpack everything there is to know about stage presence and performance quality. To do that, we brought these questions to some of the most charismatic professional dancers that we knew!
Meet The Seaweed Sisters
The Seaweed Sisters are known for their ineffable stage presence, charisma, and storytelling. There are three Sisters, and their names are Dana, Megan, and Jillian. You may have heard of them before, as their collective experiences in the dance industry run the whole gamut of dance and creative expression.
According to their website, the Seaweed Sisters “call on humor and imagination to animate a connection to their experiences and their audience. They celebrate the unusual, and the freedom to play.”
Dana Wilson is a dancer, teacher, choreographer, and art maker. You may have seen her dancing with Justin Timberlake, teaching at NYCDA, or living her best life in the opening scene of La La Land. You can listen to her podcast, “Words That Move Me,” to hear her riff on life and dance-related topics with her star-studded list of guests from the dance industry and beyond. Dana will also be at the CLI Summer Intensives with us! @danadaners
Jillian Meyers is also a dancer, teacher, choreographer, and art maker. “Jilly” has assisted and danced for TV shows such as So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing With The Stars, has performed as a lead dancer for Janet Jackson in multiple events, and has taught to dancers and artists all over the world. @jillymeyers
Megan Lawson is a dancer, teacher, choreographer… and you guessed it, she makes great art too. Megan was co-director and lead choreographer of Madonna’s Madame X Theatre tour, and has worked with many musical artists throughout her career, telling stories both onstage and for film. (P.S. If you’ve ever seen the dance crew “Fanny Pak” perform on America’s Best Dance Crew, keep an eye out for Megan!) @meganguwre
What is Stage Presence?
Dana: I had an acting teacher, Gary Imhof, who recently was a guest on my podcast. For an hour and ten minutes, you can listen to this brilliant man dig into concepts including stage presence, among many other super valuable areas of interest for performers, and one of the things that he talks a lot about is presence being the amount of interest you have in what you are doing. If you are very interested in what you are doing, you appear present, engaged, and interested. When I try to encourage stage presence in my students, I just try to encourage them to get into what they are doing! You have to think, “Are you into this?” How interested are you in what you are doing?
I think if I had to break down good stage presence vs… “less good” stage presence… I would say that you can be interested in what you are doing and still seem stressed, but enjoying what you are doing, to me, is good stage presence.
Megan: I’ll piggyback on that. Gary Imhof was an acting instructor, right, and I worked with an actor recently, a lovely lady named Julia Garner and we were talking through dance movements, intention, motivation on camera, but also in a live setting, and she said something like: “If you can hear yourself talk, you’re not in it. You’re not doing it right, you’re not present.” I think the same thing applies here. If you are worried about what you look like and how it’s going, rather than the experience, then you’re not inside of it.
She talked a lot about listening, too. She said you are always reacting to someone or something else, whether it’s the audience or your dance partner. It’s circumstantial. But I like that listening factor. Listening to yourself, to the moment, being aware of your surroundings, rather than aware of yourself. If you’re “hearing” yourself, if you’re thinking about what you look like, you sort of take away that moment of reality.
Fran: Do you think you can listen and be aware of what you look like, or do you think those actions are at odds with each other?
Megan: I guess that is a skill that we’re hoping to arrive at, so that you can feel, be, listen, do all of those things at the same time. Instead of “just” performing choreographed moves, if we’re talking dance, it’s about knowing them, but also feeling them for the first time and adding in that element of surprise, and that discovery. Each time you rehearse or perform, you want to allow it to feel new so that it is not just motions that are memorized.
Jillian: To jump off of that and your question Fran, hopefully, say in a recital, you’ve rehearsed enough so that you’re not still thinking about what you look like. Hopefully that thought isn’t present, which might enable you to be more present.
Stage presence I think for me is just being present. I think presence can also correlate to presentation, which might feel completely different— this is completely subjective, but sometimes a “presentation” can be void of presence because it is so practiced and rehearsed and very “This is what I do!”
So, circling that all into a big stew, I think stage presence is still trying to “experience anew” something that you’ve done a million times. The challenge is to be present within that, within the rehearsed moves. I think of actors reciting lines; they’ve probably done that so many times, but then to keep it alive as they do it again and again—especially for people that perform onstage—it’s such a beautiful skill. It is so different when you improvise, there’s a totally alternative skill to just be in the moment and go without a script or any pretense. But, I think for dancers specifically, we are creatures that practice and rehearse. I think that is the challenge, then. To do what we do so much, to then not have to think about it, but then also still be in the moment with it and be present.
Megan: Your presence is the present!
Fran: If you’re interested in what you’re doing, and you’re enjoying yourself, but you’re not “presenting” that to the audience, do you still have good stage presence? Basically, what is your relationship to the audience when you have good stage presence?
Dana: It depends on the piece! And not always is that discussed. In one tour or event from one song to the next, I’ll go from a mindset that there is no one watching except maybe one person looking through a keyhole, or that I am dancing for every young girl in the audience right now, or that I’m dancing for everybody who wants to fall in love right now… but it’s always different. It could be different within the same piece.
Jillian: Yeah, one very real thing about the Seaweed Sisters is that in one dance our focus will be outward, then it’s asking, then it’s just for us, and then we’re completely unaware of you, oh now we’re aware of you, now it’s just joy… I think our work really runs the spectrum.
Megan: We really love immersive, connecting… It used to be physical, like in a park, or on a rooftop, where a lot of the performance would demand us to be present because we don’t know how the audience is going to react. So we like the risk and the chance of “Is this gonna work? Are they gonna say yes? Are they gonna say no, and if so, what’s the plan?” On a screen, where a lot of the audience lives these days, it removes that unknown factor and it’s more “How can you transfer through the lens to get to your audience which is on the other side of a screen?” But I don’t know, are we talking about for stage or for film? Because it’s different.
Fran: That was one of my next questions! How does stage presence differ from an in-person performance to something for film?
Dana: I think a live audience allows for in-person spontaneity, and engagement with the audience or environment. Let’s say we have Player A, we’ll call them performer, and Player B, who is maybe “audience.” Well, a real human audience member can make an offering to Player A. This might be a vocal gesture, or they might hold up a sign that says some words on it—there are many different gestures you can receive from an audience member that maybe you couldn’t have even thought up before you get on stage. And so when you have a live audience, you get live offerings. But when you don’t, you get to use your imagination, and you can imagine being offered things.
When we were doing our intro to our CLI recorded class, I completely forgot to put a person on the other side of the camera. I was wondering why I sounded so much like an NPR host, I was like “Why does my voice sound so weird coming out of my body?” It was because I forgot to talk to a person! That’s helpful when you record a dance, to think about “Who’s going to be watching it?”
Jillian: And being onstage, I’m thinking as a young performer at a recital, the audience is dark! You can’t really see them, but you know they’re out there. So I would circle back to what Dana said, it’s like even if you can’t see them, it’s thinking about “How would you regard this real person that is out there receiving what you hope to share with them?” as opposed to just thinking about what you want to show them.
The idea of sharing as opposed to showing altered me as a performer. It really puts into perspective the exchange part of it, that it’s not one sided, like “I’m just showing and that’s it.” I think each of us is touching on that in a different way right now, that part of the exchange.
Megan: And even if it is a dark void, you can still offer your focus and your eye contact into the abyss. Do I need a pair of eyeballs to be present and look back at me to be present? No, you can imagine it, and you can still just feel as if you know people are looking back at you, and offer that back to them, and to yourself.
Jillian: It’s just playing pretend as you dance!
Dana: Make believe!
Megan: It’s so fun
Dana: Imagination station
Jillian: It’s just playing pretend.
Fran: What are some common obstacles to having “good” stage presence?
Jillian: I don’t know if it’s an ending journey. It’s a destination you’re always traveling towards, and it will probably shift as your tastes start to shift. What I thought was a great performer at 18 is wildly different from what I think is a good performer now. I don’t know if anyone wants to add to that…
Dana: I think a lot of people confuse task-based confidence with self confidence. A lot of people think they have to have been performing for a long time to be good at performing. Or, they think they have to have done five world tours before they can be a seasoned veteran stage performer. When you think of it that way, you’re setting yourself up— you’ll never do anything new if you’re waiting to do it well before you even do it. So I like to put task-based confidence aside, and say “It’s ok if I’ve never ever done this thing before, if I’ve never done my solo onstage before. If tonight is the first night I’m doing my solo, I can still do it with absolute and complete confidence, like 100% confidence, if I believe that confidence is simply a willingness to feel any feeling.”
When I take the stage, I remind myself that I have already felt embarrrased, stupid, humiliated, amateur… in my life I have felt all of those things, and they’re not even as bad as feeling really dizzy. Like those feelings are okay, when they happen. I’ve also felt really good about myself! I’ve felt proud, and sexy, and cool, I have felt all of that and I’m willing to feel all the feelings. And so when I walk onstage willing to feel any feeling, it looks a lot like confidence. It looks a lot like task-based confidence.
I can stand next to this Rockette, who’s done this kickline a thousand times, and If I am just willing to be as good as her, or worse than her, or the same as her, it would look very similar, I think, to confidence. I would encourage people that you don’t have to wait to have done something a thousand times before you can feel confident. I think the idea of having rehearsed enough holds people back. Like “I haven’t done this number enough, I haven’t prepared enough, I’m not good enough…” And when you open yourself up to willingness, like “I’m willing to feel not good enough today, and today is the day I do my solo and that’s where this will rank on my timeline of the history of my life…”
Megan: I love thinking about solos, I did four of them my graduating year.
Jillian: I know, what?!
Megan: I did a jazz, a tap, a ballet… and I remember feeling less confident in my ballet solo performance, because I was less confident in my ballet. I tried not to show that— I felt less confident, but I almost had to make up for my lack of ballet technique, so in not feeling as strong about my technique, I thought, “If I have ‘strong enough’ stage presence in these other styles, why can I not carry that over?” Like just look up here (points to face) to distract… or not “distract,” but I knew my ballet technique wasn’t as strong. Still, I was really happy to try and compensate for that with my performance, and have a willingness to believe in myself. Rather than underplay, I overplayed my performance, like I made it a theme so that I could really have the guts to be onstage doing a ballet solo!
Megan: It was pointe, too.
Megan: With this massive Jabawockeez mask
Dana: What?! I’ve got to see video
Jillian: I want to see that.
Megan: So even now, when I think about different styles and confidence, that idea remains to this day. If I’m doing a job where I’m like “Ooh, this is harder, this is not my bag,” I’m like I can do this. I can sell it. I can sell it to myself, and to anyone else by just really bringing that in. I know that that is a strength and so bringing that in even when I don’t feel as confident about the work is important.
Sometimes you see young dancers that aren’t performing confidently, and maybe it’s because they aren’t comfortable with the moves. You wonder, if they were doing different moves that they had made themselves or had rehearsed more times, or that they thought were cooler, would they then perform it differently?
Jillian: Yeah, and maybe it’s that confidence doesn’t exist within something, or within one style. It only exists within you. So then how can you apply it to everything? When I think of my 18 year old self, dancing in the first kind of show in Los Angeles I did with Ryan Heffington, with everyone being older than me, I remember being so in awe of their presence, like they were just living and doing! And I remember being like “Man, I just want to do it right.” And that felt outside of me at the time… but again it’s just a practice, like “I’m enough, I got this, I’m confident, I want to play, I want to just be here.” But again, it’s an unending journey.
Want to work on your stage presence? Take a class with the Seaweed Sisters online at CLI Studios today!