A dancer runs across the stage and slides dramatically to the floor to Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah.” She rolls, pikes, starts to stand and—oops—can’t quite get up! She makes it to her feet on the second try, but she’s now off the music, and has lost her momentum. What went wrong? (Besides our fictional lyrical dancer’s choice of the most overused song ever…) Floor work can make or break a lyrical routine. When done well, it makes a dance more dynamic and exciting; changing levels can deliver an emotional punch to the story you’re telling. But if the moves aren’t creative, or if you’re uncomfortable going into and out of the floor, the piece can look sloppy or disjointed. We’ve got tips on mastering this tricky technique, and on finding your own moves when you’re the choreographer.
Have a Reason.“It’s easy for choreographers to get hung up on tricks and difficult floor movement and lose the meaning of the piece,” says Jennifer Sandoval-Eccher, founder of Chicago’s Marquez Dance Project. Above all, you need a reason for what you’re doing. (Actors call this “motivation.”) Talk with your choreographer to understand your role within the dance. Jen Nalette, a lyrical instructor at Studio 82 in North Royalton, OH, always sits down with her dancers beforehand and tells them the story behind the piece and the emotions she wants them to get in touch with. “We’re currently working on a piece about heartbreak, and I told them about a personal experience to give them an idea of the emotions I want them to evoke,” she says. What does the floor work represent in the dance? Sadness? Longing? A memory? Don’t lose that just because the steps are difficult.
Break It Down. Since floor work doesn’t always draw on known “steps,” it can be challenging to pick up. Instead of becoming frustrated and giving up, ask your choreographer to break down the movement. Sandoval-Eccher’s remedy is to take a step back and divide each move into three parts: beginning, middle and end. For example, if you want to break down a pike roll, you might do the following:
1) Begin by lying on your stomach, propped up on your forearms.
2) Contract, push up on your forearms and bring your legs to your chest in an upside-down “V” shape.
3) Tuck your chin to your chest and roll out of the pike, ending in a sitting position.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions if you need something explained in more detail! Better to smooth out any rough edges in the studio than onstage.
Build Confidence. Even if you’re new to floor work, you need to find a way to approach the choreography with confidence. You don’t want your hesitation to show onstage! “A lot of dancers, especially those with a strong ballet background, aren’t comfortable with the floor,” Sandoval-Eccher says. Nalette recommends that ballet-trained dancers try other classes, such as modern, African and even improv, to learn how to let go and become more confident using level changes. (Studying other dance styles will improve your lyrical performance overall—not just with floor work!) The ability to move into and out of the floor smoothly has become essential in just about every dance genre, and it takes practice.
Use Visualization. Imagery from your choreographer can help you figure out the quality of your movement. Are you sliding across the floor like water? Should a push-up actually look like you’re having a hard time getting up? In her piece, Nalette used the idea of a heart shattering—like glass—to describe how she wants a certain jump and fall to the floor to look and feel. “I told them I want the fall to be shocking, a jolt to their systems just like the feeling you get when your heart’s just been broken,” she says. Imagery will also help you smooth out transitions; you don’t want to get so caught up in the steps that the movement looks robotic. Use the lyrics of the song—and the tone or impetus of the singer’s voice—to help you get from one step to the next.
Find Original Moves. So what happens when your choreographer asks you to help out, or you’re ready to try creating your own work? You need to stand out from the rest of the pack, which means avoiding using the same moves—such as shoulder rolls and spirals to the floor—over and over. Sandoval-Eccher and her dancers use improvisation to develop original floor work. “The best floor work comes out of mistakes and improv,” she explains. Put on the song you’ll be working with and experiment. When you hit on something you think might be cool, stop and see if you can recreate it. You might even find a move you didn’t know you could do. (An assisted one-handed handstand that finishes sliding to the floor? Why not?) Meghan Hoke, a lyrical instructor at Bonnie Williams Dance Studio in Cherry Grove, OH, adds her own twist by turning off the lights when her dancers freestyle across the floor. “This helps them not think about others watching, and puts them in a place where they feel safe and there’s no judgment,” Hoke says.
SIDEBAR: Strength and Power
Don’t know where to begin with improv? Try a few prompts to play with different qualities and feelings. Travel across the room getting down to and up from the floor as fast as possible. Return going into and out of the floor slowly, as though you’re moving through molasses. Be sad, happy or angry. Work with a partner to create five different ways to get down and back up again using weight-sharing. It won’t all be choreographic magic, but you’re bound to find some stuff that works!
Katie Dravenstott enjoys teaching dance, especially jazz and lyrical.
This article was first seen in the April 2008 issue of Dance Spirit magazine.