Most Irish dancers have a lot of experience in competitive Irish dancing. After 3 or 4 feiseanna you start to get a feel for what a judge wants to see. But I’ve discovered over the years that many Irish dancers have very little experience performing for an audience. With the rare exception of professional shows like Riverdance and a few student companies, Irish dancers primarily focus on competition, as though Irish dance was more of a sport than something for audiences to enjoy.
With so little stage experience, the few times that an audience has the pleasure of watching Irish dancers, they usually end up seeing a handful of unsure girls wander on stage, whispering to each other, pointing and gesturing, trying to quickly find center stage as discreetly as possible. When they find their spots, 1 or 2 girls will try to hold a smile while the rest stare blankly with lazy or bored expressions. Finally the music starts and one of the girls will wander ahead of the others, point her toe and begin dancing. It’s only at that moment that the audience gets a chance to see something worth watching.
I’m shocked every time I see this lazy display. Every single audience who comes to a show hopes to see something spectacular. Wandering lazily on stage is acceptable at a feis only because the judge is often still busy writing their final notes for the previous competitor. When you’re in front of an audience, even if you’re in a group of 20 dancers, the moment you step on stage there will be at least 5 or 6 eyes on you at all times.
If Irish dancers are performing a show, there should be a plan set in place from start to finish. How hard would it be start the music early and skip on as a group in unison, a big smile on every dancers face? If walking on is a must, it should be confident, in unison, and the dancing should start as quickly as possible. At The Shelley School, advanced dancers have the rare opportunity to audition for The Shelley Irish Dance Company. The group does shows for audiences all over Utah. We perform complex choreography and group hard shoe numbers. I’ve danced with the company for over four years now and I’ve learned a lot about performing for an audience in that time. Basically the most important thing to remember when performing on stage is to keep the audience entertained and excited from start to finish.
For those who are unsure how to do this, I’ve come up with 3 important things to remember when Irish dancing for an audience:
1: Have a solid entrance and exit. Sloppily shuffling on and off stage is just lazy. It’s very simple to change the way you present yourself. It’s easy to have a solid entrance if you’re confident, and have a plan in place before you enter. Always be sure of yourself, smile and know where you’re going to plant yourself on stage, BEFORE you start walking on. When you exit, keep dancing until you are fully behind the curtain. If that means you have to dance 3 extra skips that aren’t in the choreography, then so be it. It looks horrible when a dancer finishes before exiting the stage. If the group number ends with a bow, then do it with confidence. Practice bowing and walking off in unison. It may seem silly, but if you don’t rehearse your exit there will always be at least 1 or 2 dancers who bow at the wrong time or someone who trips on the heels of another dancer because they tried to exit to early.
Here’s an example of dancer’s shuffling on stage, unsure of what to do. You can clearly see in this video that a lazy entrance can weaken your performance.
2: If you make a mistake, pretend you did it on purpose. That means no giggling at yourself, stopping mid-step or looking to see if the other dancers noticed. You can laugh or beat yourself up for the mistake when the show is over. If you don’t react at all, most of the audience won’t know it even happened and those who did notice will enjoy the performance even more because of how smoothly you handled it.
3: Acknowledge and involve your audience! Be aware of the audience’s perspective. Dancing on stage is very different than acting on stage. In theatre, actors are taught to imagine there is a fourth wall instead of an audience. The technique for dancing on stage is quite the opposite. It’s a very beginner attitude to stare into nothing, and pretend no one is watching. Even if your steps are very impressive, the audience will probably get bored. The best dancers work hard to entertain those watching, smiling and feeding off the energy of the crowd. Don’t just dance! Make it fun, powerful, sassy and even a little sexy. There’s so much you can do to involve an audience. If you’re having fun, the audience will have fun.
Jean Butler, former star of Riverdance, is a master of showmanship. Her amazing talent to captivate an audience inspired me to start Irish dancing many years ago. I still strive to one day be as graceful and beautiful as she is on stage. This video is a great example of involving the audience.
Are there any other important things to remember when Irish dancing for an audience?