How to Dance Outside

May 27, 2020

We’ve all been stubbing our toes and whacking our elbows dancing in less-than-roomy indoor spots lately (hello, 5′ x 8′ patch of bathroom tile). If you’re lucky enough to have access to a backyard or other big green space right now, you’re probably itching to take your grand allegro outside, especially as the weather gets warmer. But how can you dance safely and productively in the great outdoors? We got pro tips from Mike Tyus of Jacob Jonas The Company and Xin Ying of Martha Graham Dance Company, both of whom were dancing outside long before COVID-19 hit.

Make Smart Footwear Choices

What you put on your feet can make or break your outdoor dance experience—and, if you’re not wise, your ankles, too. Your footwear should reflect the style of dance you’re doing and the purpose of the outing. “If I’m just posing, like for a photo shoot, I might take my shoes off for the shot,” Ying says. “But if I’m really dancing, that’s not a good idea. I stick to sneakers that protect my feet.” Tyus looks for a combination of flexibility and support. “I like to wear shoes that I can feel my feet in, yet still have a sole for protection,” he says. “I like canvas shoes, like Converse or Vans.”

Find the Right Location

If you’re dancing in public outdoor spaces, choosing a safe location is crucial, especially in this era of social distancing. “You want to avoid as many people as possible,” Tyus says. “With restaurants and grocery stores closed, many parking lots are completely empty, leaving some great open spaces.” Tyus also likes to dance in empty parking garages. “The smooth concrete floors are ideal for turning,” he says.

Beyond practicality, choose a location that inspires you. “The greatest thing about dancing outdoors is what the location itself adds to your dancing,” Tyus says. Ying likes outside spots with a view. “Go up on your roof or out to the park,” she says. “Use the sensation of the wind through your hair, or the way the birds are singing, to dance in a way you never have before.”

Jacob Jonas The Company’s Mike Tyus (Jacob Jonas, courtesy Jonas)

Manage Unpredictable Surfaces

The natural world doesn’t come equipped with sprung Marley floors, so you’re going to have to troubleshoot for less-than-ideal dance surfaces. “Concrete is nice and smooth for turns, but you don’t want to do huge tricks or jumps on it, because it’s super hard,” Tyus says. “Soft grass, on the other hand, absorbs shock, so it’s great for big jumps and acrobatics. And sand can be really fun because you can fall without hurting yourself, and the resistance of the sand will strengthen your muscles.”

If your outdoor space is problematic, Ying recommends not pushing yourself too hard. “You don’t necessarily have to do turns or jumps,” she says. “You can avoid the things that might injure you by focusing on more lyrical, stretchy movement. Alter your dancing depending on the surface.”

Plan for the Weather

Weather conditions like glare, wind, and rain can throw a wrench in your outdoor dance plans. Establish your own weather-related boundaries. “I don’t like to dance in the rain, so I simply don’t go out on bad weather days,” Ying says. “Some people enjoy it, but I would rather watch the forecast, and go out on a day that’s nicer.”

Tyus, on the other hand, often embraces unexpected weather. “The glare of the sun can look great in a lot of photos, and the wind looks really cool moving through loose clothing. Even rain can produce some really fun stuff,” he says. “You just need to adjust your perspective.” That said, you should never dance outdoors if you hear thunder or see lightning, or if winds are strong or unpredictable.

Ying dancing outside (James Jin, courtesy Ying)

Enjoy It!

“I’ve always danced outdoors,” Ying says. “I’m glad other dancers are using this time to explore the joy that can come from it. Beyond the inherent inspiration, it’s a great way to get over any fears of dancing in public.”

Tyus agrees. “Dance isn’t something that was made to be inside,” he says. “It was made as a reflection of, and connection to, nature itself. Right now we get to go back to where we started. Dancing outdoors has changed the way I see dance, and I hope it changes the way other people see it, too.”