How To Make Show-Stopping Moves Both Impressive and Artful

March 6, 2016

It’s the ultimate groan-inducing moment: A dancer’s graceful contemporary piece is going off without a hitch—her technique is flawless, her lines are pristine—but all of a sudden, she’s taking four counts to walk to the upstage corner, narrowing her eyes in preparation. She might as well be yelling, “A TRICK SEQUENCE IS COMING.” And she’s broken the choreography’s magic spell.

Tumbling, impressive turn series, feats of contortion—those “wow” moments can take a routine from average to innovative. But pieces that disjointedly alternate between dance and gymnastics almost never impress judges looking for smooth quality of movement. That said, staying in character can feel nearly impossible when you’re not comfortable with that scorpion or complex fouetté sequence. So what can you do to ensure your tricked-out routine flows seamlessly from start to finish?

Have the Choreo Down Cold

Maintaining your stage presence during a trick isn’t as simple as keeping a steely expression. It’s about projecting total confidence and comfort with a step. “That comes with time,” says Lindsay Sprague, coach of the University of South Carolina Carolina Girls. Make the rehearsal studio your best friend. “The more you drill,” Sprague says, “the less nervous you’ll be, and the smoother the transitions will be.”

Shaye Smith, a second-year member of the Cougarettes dance team at Brigham Young University, remembers learning the troupe’s winning hip-hop routine for the 2015 National Dance Alliance Championships. “There was an insanely hard trick sequence including a kip-up and head spring. When the choreographer, Shandon Perez, first taught us, we all looked terrible,” Smith says. “You have to remember that tricks are typically moves you’ve never asked your body to do before. Be patient—and fearless. You can’t get frustrated if it doesn’t happen the first time.”

But don’t let all that drilling lead to a stale, stiff performance. “You want the tricks to seem natural, like they’re part of your artistic as well as your technical vocabulary,” says Adrenaline faculty member and judge Caroline Lewis-Jones. She recommends practicing the step in a variety of situations, noting that freestyling is often the best way to discover artful nuances in a difficult sequence. Could you perform those fouettés to a piece of music with a different time signature? Could you execute that tumbling pass from the opposite corner? See if you can make the trick work from any direction, on any leg, and with any transition leading into it.

Don’t Forget to Breathe

Lewis-Jones, who teaches workshops and sets choreography for studios across the country, says she’s constantly reminding students to breathe continuously through a trick. “When I was younger, I’d hit all the difficult steps pretty hard,” she says. “But I held so much tension in my body, I had a really hard time with flexibility.” Once she learned to use breath to her advantage, Lewis-Jones says, the harder elements—whether they were aerials or crazy 180-degree tilts—became more attainable. Not only does breathing slowly and deeply help you focus, but a good exhale also relaxes your body, allowing your joints and muscles to reach new extremes.

Breathing can also help you maintain a high level of speed and power through the in-between steps. “That’s especially important for people who come from an acro background and are more comfortable with the gymnastics-based moves,” Lewis-Jones says. For those dancers, the key to a seamless performance is not to belabor or rush the transitions—and consistent breathing can help a piece maintain a consistent level of intensity, without any “I’m about to tumble!” drops in energy.

Hit the Gym

Strength also plays a huge role in your ability to execute tricks confidently and consistently. “Dancers don’t often focus on upper body strength training, but that’s huge when it comes to tumbling skills, in particular,” says Sprague, who notes that in addition to team practices, Carolina Girls work out with a strength coach twice a week. Sprague’s dancers focus on body-weight exercises and do plenty of push-ups and planks; Smith adds handstands to her practice. “I’ll time myself in a handstand for a minute and a half,” Smith says. “It helps my arm and shoulder strength and improves my balance.”

Hailey Apligian, a contemporary teacher at Plumb Performing Arts Center in Scottsdale, AZ, cautions dancers against overstretching. “Even for something that shows off a dancer’s flexibility—like a scorpion, for example—it’s strength building that will ultimately help,” she says. “Dancers instinctively think, ‘I have to stretch more to get really bendy,’ but you need strength to sustain your positions.” Targeting your core will help you balance on one leg, and upper-back exercises can boost the muscles required for back extensions—like those tricky scorpions.

Sprague notes that stamina is also critical for dancers hoping to make tricks look natural. “It’s one thing to transition smoothly into a trick that’s 20 seconds into the piece,” she says. “But, frequently, the most impressive or acrobatic elements come at the end.” Low-intensity aerobic workouts—doing intervals on an elliptical, or swimming laps—will build the stamina you need to be able to think about timing that aerial beautifully with the music, rather than just surviving it

The University of South Carolina’s Carolina Girls showing off their skills (Joshua Aaron Photography, courtesy Lindsay Sprague)