Sunday, 25 October 2015

Dancing for an unresponsive audience.

Performing in public takes serious nerve. And nothing breaks your nerve like an audience who ignores you, doesn't react to your performance or worse, reacts negatively. Today I'd like to explore how this happens, and how not to let it ruin your performance.

Gigs with potentially tough audiences

Some performance venues carry a stronger potential for a tough crowd. It's important to prepare well for these and not rely on the atmosphere to carry the performance. If you are a nervous performer, or struggle not to take the audience reaction too personally, you might want to consider avoiding them.

Promenade performances

A promenade stage is a performance area where the audience is "passing through". It might be a high street, shopping arcade, carnival or fete. Essentially you don't have a captive audience and you may find that the vast majority of people walk past without casting you a second glance.

The unexpected or out of place performance

If people aren't expecting to see dance, they can be a more reluctant audience. It might be a fete, art show, music event or street performance, but if people are there with a purpose other than watching dance, they are liable to be less enthusiastic.

The uncomfortable party

This is a tricky one to predict. Often when a dancer turns up to a party performance, the atmosphere is great, the dancer is welcome and everyone gets in the spirit and has a smashing time. Sometimes it takes a bit more coaxing. Bellydance still suffers a little with the reputation for being a bit risque. There are still times when a dance performance is booked to gently embarrass the guest of honour, and that can be awkward for everyone. On the other hand you might find the guest of honour and organisers really "get" your performance, but other guests are uncomfortable or unpleasant.

Culturally inappropriate

I've heard tales of dancers or groups being booked for "world" or "cultural" events and being poorly received by an audience of authentic Middle Eastern people who don't recognise their own culture in the performance (or do recognise it and don't appreciate how it is represented). This is a matter of communication, preparation and authenticity. If you are dancing a westernised or fusion style then it is important to make that clear, and if you are dancing an authentic Middle Eastern style to an audience who know what they are looking at, it better be rock solid authentic. That means music, costume, movement, the lot. It means no pop music with controversial lyrics, no Turkish in a Greek venue and there's a potential whole other post on all that....

Be prepared for a flat audience

If you are heading off to your local friendly hafla, it doesn't always matter if you are a bit unsure of yourself, because it is a safe space. Most haflas are supportive and fun, and they know what you are facing. You can get away with assuming that the audience will carry you a little. If I am trying out something new, I will always do it in a safe place among other dancers who understand the process, not for the general public.

If you are up for a tougher gig, your set needs to hold up on its own. Think about making it suitable for the occasion. Think about how to catch their eye and hold their attention. Use music that excites you and wear a costume that you feel fabulous, not self-conscious in.

Don't project motives onto your audience

"They didn't like my performance"

"They looked at me disapprovingly"

"They hated me"

I have heard all of these from dancers after a tough performance, but the truth is that you just can't tell what is going on in your audiences' thoughts. On more than one occasion I have had an audience member who sat with their arms folded and apparently scowling, go out of their way to tell me how much they loved my performance.

You don't know how someone's day is going, you can't say that the person who rushed past your stage area glowering wasn't just late for an appointment or hungry, or just had a row with their partner. Let it go.

It is your job to perform and present your art. It is not your job to control how it is received. If you have put the work in to present an appropriate and skilled performance, you have not failed.

Of course some people will react genuinely negatively. You can hear their concerns if you choose, but remember that not all critique is valid or necessary, process it as you will.

Find someone to dance for and focus on them.

In most audiences you will find someone who is into your performance. So dance for them.

Don't make it creepy and actually just dance at them, but know that they are there and they are a reason to keep doing your best.

Sometimes it's a small child who is totally, unabashedly into the music and spectacle. Sometimes it's a couple of tweens who might be put off or embarrassed by more than a fleeting smile in their direction. It might be just that one person who is really enjoying the dance. [It might also be a slightly creepy guy in a grubby mac, ignore him....]

You might have just instigated some major revelation or change in that one person, that makes it worth it. Don't let them down.

Find your intrinsic motivation

Why do you dance? Do you perform solely to gain appreciation and gratitude from your audience? If so, that's OK, but you will need to choose your performance outlets accordingly. What about the other reasons?

Are you trying to share the art and raise awareness of your danceform among the public? Know that not everyone who is inspired or interested by the dance is going to respond with rapture and gushing from the outset. Sometimes you are just planting a seed. Being visible and letting people know that it is possible to dance, to dance with curves, or with age, as a woman, as a man - you are making an impact, even if you can't feel it at the time.

Are you dancing to express yourself? then dance, send out your message to the world. You won't always make waves, but the act of expression remains.

Or perhaps you are dancing because you just love the music, and just love to dance. So keep doing it. Nobody can take that joy away from you, even if you offer it to share, and they choose not to accept.

Just keep dancing.

Or just imagine these guys in place of your actual audience.

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