As we say on Tumblr whenever a fandom is emotional: “The feels!!!” What this means is, “This [scene, character, plot development, fandom news] is so moving, I can’t even put it into words.”
When I was younger, I didn’t pay must attention to film or actors. I never wanted to be an actor, so the whole acting thing never captured my full attention. Sometimes I would watch the Academy Awards shows, but I didn’t really understand what made a great actor. Little did I know that acting, honest, true, and visceral acting would impact my life as a dancer as an adult.
Suhaila Salimpour’s belly dance format receives a lot of attention for its physical dance drills and technique, and rightfully so. Glute squeezes, muscular execution of movement, proper alignment, stamina, sweat: all very important elements for any belly dancer’s training. What doesn’t get attention is the equal importance, if not emphasized importance, the format places on acting in Level 3 and beyond. We don’t explore acting deeply until Level 3, because at that level, we’re expected to have such strong muscle memory and physical training that the emotional work can glide along on top of it.
When I say “acting”, I don’t mean “pretending”. Nor do I mean that we only do theater games such as “Machine” (although we do those with outstanding acting coach Sandey Grinn but with an added layer of emotional depth). When I say “acting”, what I really mean is what the great acting instructor Sanford Meisner called “liv[ing] truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” Suhaila and Sandey guide us through sometimes gut-wrenching exercises to get us in touch with our true feelings. These exercises are exhausting, and we go through a lot of Kleenex. It’s a bit like finding your inner 5-year-old. Young children aren’t aware of their emotions, they just feel them.
When you watch a truly great actor, you aren’t seeing him or her pretend to be a character; you see them become the character. There is no barrier between them and the person they are portraying. Sometimes this is referred to as “Method Acting”, although the term refers to several different approaches, including those created and explored by Constantin Stanislavsky, Stella Adler and Lee Strasburg.
I’ve started to pay more attention to actors in the shows and movies that I watch. The actors who really capture my attention are the ones that live in the moment. It’s clear that they haven’t thought about what they’re going to do, or how they’ll say a line. The director yells, “Action!” and the actor is there, in character, just being, not thinking. They have completely stepped out of their own way to be the character.
One actress who has really caught my attention is Jennifer Lawrence. Now, I admit, I was a fan of The Hunger Games book series before the movie was released, but it is Lawrence who really makes the movie. Of course, she is in nearly every shot, as she plays the main character, Katniss Everdeen, who volunteers in place of her younger sister to be in the annual fight-to-the-death in a future, totalitarian North America. Lawrence approaches her character without fear, without forethought. She has researched her character, but she hasn’t said to herself, “OK, first I’m going to make this face, and then I’m going to do this with my hands.” She just does it. Her colleagues say that she would be goofing around on set, being herself, and then be completely in character when filming a scene… and then she would return to being herself right after the director yelled, “Cut!” When her character is about to be sent into the arena, she’s visibly shaking out of fear. Later in the film, when pouring water over a severe burn on her leg, it looks as though she’s actually in pain. Lawrence isn’t playing at being in pain; she is in pain, but the burn on her leg is just prosthetics and makeup. One fan said she’s brilliant because she isn’t afraid of doing the “ugly cry”, and I think that assessment, as simple as it is, is spot on correct.
I’ve also recently discovered BBC’s series Sherlock, a modern update of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. The writing and direction is fantastic, but the acting is impeccable. Martin Freeman’s John Watson is subtle and emotional. You forget that you’re watching an actor; you truly believe his limp, his confusion, and eventually his pain. (No spoilers here.) Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes is equally brilliant, but for completely different reasons. As a Sherlock with probable Asperger’s Syndrome, he is incisive, analytical, and emotionally detached, until someone close to him is either hurt or in danger. His eyes shift from cold to warm, instantly. Cumberbatch himself probably isn’t emotionally detached and analytical; but he lives it in the series. The acting on this show isn’t obvious; real acting must be honest, and sometimes honesty isn’t in your face.
Where am I going with all of this? As dancers, we must be real on stage, and having an understanding of acting helps us in finding that truth under “imaginary circumstances”. We must have an instant emotional reaction to the music to which we are dancing. I know that if I think about the piece I’m about to perform too much, if I try to shoehorn a story into it, the piece falls flat. I’ve thought about it too much, and my head gets in the way. In order to be real, we must get out of our own way and just be. I’ve seen plenty of performances where the dancer has little-to-no emotion on her face; I have also seen the opposite where the emotions were Vaudevillian and over-acted. It’s rare when either of these approaches are emotionally successful. Both can be entertaining in their own way, but emotionally they often fall flat.
A dancer or an actress can train herself to feel and express her emotions when she is performing. It takes a dash of fearlessness, and she must trust herself to “go there”. Some of us fear that once we “go there”, we will never come back. So rarely is this true. Dancer Sera Solstice said in on of her workshops, a long while back, that you must be willing to “give your throat to the wolves”. When we dance without fear of judgement, of negative feedback, of rejection, that is when we are most powerful.
Although it can be scary, we have to trust our instincts, no matter how emotional, livid, sorrowful, or exuberant they might be. And sometimes when we perform so in the moment, our movements might not be pretty. Sometimes we must do the “ugly cry”. When we experience real emotions on stage, our audience will feel them too. Humans are intrinsically connected through feeling. In the end, dance isn’t about tricks or gimmicks; dance is about conveying emotion on top of polished and solid technique. Great art is about connecting with our viewers, audiences, and souls. I’ve started to judge art by how much it makes me cry. If a movie or piece of music or dance performance makes me cry, either out of sadness or joy or even overwhelming emotion that I can’t even identify at the time, then I know it has succeeded. I really want to feel something visceral and real. And what moves me might not move you. What moves you, and what about it grabs your heart?